Your Digital Business Plan

2005-02-05by Alex Lekas

Test Drive Your Web Site

Millions of people spent billions of dollars online during the holidays. Why does that matter to you, and why does it matter now? It matters because businesses and individuals will buy things independent of the calendar, and it matters because sales trends show consumers are increasingly comfortable going online to find what they want.

So, in finalizing your strategy for 2005, consider too, the value of your Internet presence. A web site should be the digital reflection of your written business plan. It is an extension of your company's mission, its product line, and its credibility. Sites that poorly explain what your company does or make information difficult to get chase visitors away, and those people are not likely to come back. That means you have lost business before there was a chance to earn it. I'm telling you this to get back to the central point of re-examining the goals of your company's site. This is how most potential customers will first find you, and this is how vendors and partners will learn more about you. Google and Yahoo are the new Yellow Pages, only with a global audience. Even local consumers will do a web search before turning to the phone book. You're already aware of the money that is spent online, but the Internet is also a major influence behind offline buying.

There is no easier way to research products and comparison shop than through a PC. For small businesses, in particular, the web is a tremendous equalizer, affording exposure to millions of people who would otherwise be unreachable. Think about that for a second. BusinessWeek reports that 25 years ago, a marketer could reach 80% of the country by advertising on the three major networks. Today, that same market saturation would require advertising on about 100 channels. That same formula applies to local communities. Add to that the more than 6,000 titles on the magazine stands. There is a publication, often several of them, for almost every niche but how do you choose the right one? Internet search is ideally suited to the niche consumer and it offers product information without regard to geography. That means the oyster farmer in Virginia can make regular sales to consumers in the Midwest, and the motorcycle accessories business in Colorado has built a national clientele. Those opportunities simply would not be available without the Internet. The success of a web site is cannot be measured by online sales alone.

A service or professional business, for instance, is not going to makes a lot of sales that way. However, a web site provides a forum through which visitors can ask questions and it gets you get contact information (read: sales leads). Consumers can also check you out anytime, even after hours, without feeling pressured and they don't tie up your staff on the phone. I realize businesses welcome phone inquiries, but consider this: 10 - 15 possible prospects call every day, each one taking up at least 10 minutes of someone's time for a sale that may or may not happen. The questions these callers have are the same questions that a good web site will answer, and your staff can then follow up with the contacts genuinely interested in what you offer. Consider, too, that a lot of people aren't comfortable making telephone inquiries because of the perception that the employee on the other end just wants to close a sale. Now is also a good time for analyzing who visits your site, how long they stay, how many pages they view, which pages are most often viewed, and which are the most frequent exit points. Your web site traffic is full of information that can help you make decisions that improve your business.

What keywords do people use in finding your site? Which products or services do they spend the most/least time looking at? What questions do they ask, either on the phone or through online forms? There are several statistical tools available and many of them are free. Chances are that your hosting provider includes one in your service plan. Your web site is a reflection of both your business and you personally.

Be sure that each page represents what you stand for and how consumers benefit from doing business with you. Your digital store demands the same care and consideration that you devote to the physical storefront. But, first be clear on what defines success on the web; chances are, it won't differ much from what defines success on paper.

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