How To Use A Web Site To Catch Customers, Without Ensnaring Yourself

"Your home page should be colorful, attractively designed and easy to use."

By David P. Kowal

If you’re planning a new Web site, keep the following aphorism in mind: Don't make vast plans if you're going to do a half-vast job executing them.

Virtually every business needs a Web site today. But many, in their rush to get a new site up, will fail to carry out the planning necessary to develop a successful Web site. The following steps are necessary to establish a Web site that will capture new customers without yourself becoming ensnared in the sticky complexities of the World Wide Web:

1. Hire a firm or consultant that understands marketing. Many firms that are developing Web sites are technically proficient, but are clueless about marketing. Hiring a techie to build a Web site is like hiring a mechanic to drive in the Indianapolis 500. Technical skills are vital, but marketing skills will determine whether your Web site succeeds.

2. Develop a plan. Don't just establish a Web site for the sake of having a Web site. Your company will need to determine why you need a Web site and how you will use it. The firm you hire to set up your site should be able to carry out the research necessary to develop a plan. Your plan should include short-term and long-term objectives, and a flowchart showing how the information on your site will be hyperlinked.

Carefully consider what information you want on your site. Do you want to register visitors and develop a database? Do you want to process transactions online? What kind of content do you expect to provide? Will you have a newsroom and, if so, what will you include in it? These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered.

3. Do it right. Even the best plan is useless if it is improperly executed. Users of the Internet are visually oriented. The Internet existed for decades, but never became a business tool until the Web provided an opportunity for establishing a visual presence. Your home page should be colorful, attractively designed and easy to use. Hyperlinks should have a logical flow. Any information that is added to the site should serve a useful purpose. Remember that if your Web site doesn't catch a user's interest in three clicks, the user will be gone -- never to return.

Don't go online until you're ready. Having an address on the Web with a lousy Web site is like putting vanity plates on a Yugo. An ill-conceived Web site can provide negative advertising for your company.

4. Update information regularly. Your Web site is a living document. It provides an opportunity for real time, 24-hour-a-day communication with potential and existing customers. If you don't regularly pay attention to your Web site, neither will anyone else.

To ensure that your site is kept up to date, keep your vendor on a monthly retainer. Make certain new features are added regularly and that existing features are updated. Respond quickly to comments and requests from site users.

5 Promote the Web site. Develop a search engine optimization strategy. Consider advertising online. Develop an e-letter and press releases with links to your site. Print your on-line address on business cards, letterhead, ads, brochures, direct mail and other communications. Potential customers won't visit your site unless they know about it.

Most users may be outside of your target market. Promote your site proactively within your local market if you need to.

Also keep in mind that your site is only one tool in your communications toolbox. It should be integrated into an overall communications plan. It should complement other communications, not replace them.

Following these steps will ensure that your Web site, instead of being half vast, will be vastly superior to the sites established by your competitors.

David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.