Do you need to make some improvements to your business website, or is it good enough as it is?
The answer to that question probably says a lot about the current and future state of your Internet marketing campaigns. That’s because complacency can be a dangerous handicap when it comes to promoting your company through the single most important communications channel in the history of mankind.
Everyone has a good website now. Even guys with food trucks have sleek, responsive online storefronts they use to pump out information and social media awareness. A good website is the minimum expected standard you have to meet, but it doesn’t give you any advantage.
Good websites don’t stand out. Good websites can’t help customers differentiate your business from all the others in the same market or industry. Good websites don’t help you find customers, turn a profit or add anything to your bottom line.
You probably realize this intuitively, if only because you visit and interact with so many websites on a daily basis yourself. At the same time, most businesspeople don’t know how to break out of the ordinary. They want better websites, and better results, but aren’t sure how to get them.
In this article, we’re going to give you a template any small business owner can use to get above and beyond the ordinary and leave the competition behind…
DO SOME COMPARISON SHOPPING
A valuable first step toward building a breakout website is understanding what you’re up against. That is, to do a bit of comparison-shopping and see what your competitors are working with.
This is something you’ve probably done at least once or twice in the past anyway, but we would advise you to expand your search. Don’t just look at the websites that your direct competitors are using. Examine others in the industry (if possible) around the country and even overseas. Consider reviewing some award-winning Web designs from other fields, searching closely for innovations and concepts you could tweak to fit your own needs.
As you look at various websites, consider everything you find from a customer’s point of view. What kinds of features and content stand out? Which websites do you enjoy interacting with, and which ones seem to come up short? Give it some thought, make a few notes, and see if you can figure out why.
The answers you arrive at won’t just speak to Web design, layouts and visual features. They’ll get to a bigger concept that we call usability within the Internet marketing industry. That’s shorthand for the way a website “feels,” and how easy it is to navigate the pages and find what you’re looking for. Once you develop an eye for it, it becomes easier to visualize a Web presence that will feel comfortable and intuitive to your own customers.
COVER THE BASICS
If you were to think of your website as a brick-and-mortar building, then it would be easy to conceptualize the kind of solid foundation you need to establish before you can add any finishing touches. In the same way that homes and office buildings rely on poured concrete and beams, a business website needs the right domain name, hosting package and content to work around.
Because these are areas of Web development that most business owners consider to be mundane, we won’t spend a great deal of time with them in this article. However, like a structural foundation in the real world, they do have an outsized importance that’s easy to spot when things go wrong. So, allow us to share a few quick points we’d like you to consider…
• Your website’s domain name is its online address. If it’s hard to spell, remember or understand, your Web traffic (and eventually, your business) is going to suffer as a result.
• Hosting servers make your website load quickly and stay online at all times. Plus, they offer security features and automatic backups. This is not an area where you want to skimp out on the “extras” to save a few dollars.
• The coding in a website is crucially important, but rarely ever seen or noticed by businesspeople. If you’re using a content management system (like WordPress), ensure it stays up to date. Otherwise, you could run into conflicts with plugins and browsers, or worse, leave your website open to hackers especially if you’re relying on third-party plugins to optimize your site.
Experienced marketers will already know the basics of domains and hosting, and a good Web design team will ensure you don’t miss them. Even so, having the right foundation is critical to building an exceptional small business website, so it pays to double check the details.
UNDERSTAND MESSAGING BASICS
Your website should have at least two big jobs. The first is to inform the public about who you are and what you do; the second involves driving leads or sales (more on this in a moment).
Those two tasks have to come in that specific order, though. You can’t create sales opportunities from your website if customers don’t understand what business you’re in, or why they would work with you instead of another company. For that reason, it’s crucial that you know and employ the basics of Web messaging. Specifically, you need visual and written content that is straightforward and purposeful.
Images and headlines are the first things potential customers notice when they visit your website. If these don’t convey what you do in a quick, clear, and compelling way, then your Internet marketing efforts will never get off the ground. Far too many businesses have writing on their websites that’s meant to be clever instead of informative.
It’s not just about your wording, either. Messaging isn’t just about what you say, but how you say it. Content needs to be organized into short, scannable blocks with key ideas highlighted and recapped in bullet points. Try to stick to one idea per page, and use subheadings, numbered lists, and/or internal links to help people who are looking for answers to move from one idea or resource to another.
Creativity and focus set individual websites and marketers apart from the crowd. But, without crystal-clear messaging in place, it’s impossible to make a lasting impression.
YOUR CREATIVE EDGE
It may seem odd that we’ve spent quite a few paragraphs reiterating the basics of good Web hosting, usability and content in a piece about building exceptional business websites. In our experience, though, these are details so many get wrong that to skip over them would be negligent.
With that being said, taking steps we’ve outlined so far would lead you to a website that’s good, or maybe above average. And obviously, that’s not what we’re aiming for. Instead, we want you to set the bar in your market or industry.
To do that, you have to give customers something they haven’t seen before. That means thinking outside the box and offering them an experience they can’t get anywhere else. It could be a unique layout, better images or stronger content. Perhaps you can use custom Web development to come up with online tools that no one else has (like calculators). It might be some combination of these and more.
Typically, the real inspiration for a breakthrough website comes from one of two things: either “borrowing” an idea from another field or taking some time to brainstorm and figure out what your customers would ask you for if they knew anything was possible. In each case, the answer could lead you to a game-changing idea.
There is a word of caution that needs to be given here, however. Going outside the box for inspiration is one thing, but going too far can be a problem. That’s because there are limits to the types of unconventional thinking you can get away with, even on the Web. The further your website gets from established norms, the more frustrating it becomes to use and understand. So, recognize that there is always going to be a balance between the desire to be different and the need to use layout structures and navigational tools that are familiar.
The solution, and the best way to hone your inspiration into something actionable, is to remember exactly whom your website is going to be built for.
AN AUDIENCE OF ONE
We want to let you in on a little secret: There isn’t really such a thing as an exceptional website, at least not in a broad sense. That’s because what is useful, informative, or even life-changing for one person could be uninteresting or useless to another.
Imagine for a moment that you have three detailed, fully featured and continually updated websites. The first has do-it-yourself wedding cake recipes. The second features soccer scores for a local semi-professional league. The third is all about custom auto parts. Each one could be the best in its field, but none of them is likely to draw a huge audience. But they could all be wildly popular within their own specific niche markets.
These are fairly obvious points, of course, but they are easy to overlook when you are thinking about your business and want every person on Earth to buy from you. It’s somewhat ironic, but in most cases thinking smaller is actually going to yield larger results. The Web is just too segmented to make it by trying to be all things to all people.
Imagine a very specific type of buyer. This person represents your best possible customer – someone who is not only likely to take an immediate interest in your website, but will return again and again, buy your products or services, and spread the word about your company to their own friends and colleagues. What would this person look like? Would they be male or female, and how old? Where would they live? How would they find you online?
There are a couple of angles that need to be pursued here. The first is purely demographic. The more you know about the type of person you are trying to reach, the easier it’s going to be to market to them. The second angle is more personal. Even going beyond statistics and measurable traits, ask yourself what this buyer really wants, needs and craves. Think about the problems that keep them up at night, and the dreams they aspire to. The answers hint at powerful and emotional decision triggers. When you can hit those hot buttons, you can make a connection with customers and get your website to stand out.
While you undoubtedly want tens of thousands of customers to come to your website, you really have an audience of one. Figure out who your most important buyer is and why they should work with you. Then use that knowledge to influence every design and marketing decision you make.
KNOW THE MEANS AND THE END
As a businessperson, the thing that makes a website exceptional to you is the results that are generated. While you undoubtedly care about things like design and messaging, that’s probably because you want to see more leads, sales, or inquiries being generated from your Web presence. Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter whether your website were average or outstanding in the first place.
It’s only fair to acknowledge that even the best designed and written website isn’t going to generate its own traffic. Before you can create sales opportunities, you have to have qualified buyers arriving at your site. And, you have to have a series of steps that moves them from their initial interest to some measurable goal.
What we are referring to is a sales funnel. It’s the key to transforming your website from an online brochure to an e-commerce portal or lead-generation machine. Although the details are going to depend a bit on your business and industry, there are a few steps that always have to be followed:
1. First, you need a way to attract the right potential customers to your website. This might be done through search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, social media marketing or even email newsletters. What matters here is that these efforts are highly targeted, so you’re directing a very specific message toward your well-defined audience of one.
2. Once someone responds to your messaging and visits your website, they need to find informative content that’s directed at the problems, questions or challenges they are facing. They need to find answers, but also information that speaks to their interests and knowledge level.
3. At the end of each piece of information you provide, there has to be a call to action that leads the visitor to a next step. For example, a landing page could lead to an online article, which could in turn end with an offer for a downloadable e-book. At every step, the visitor has to make a commitment. First they click from one page to another, then they may (for instance) give their email to receive the e-book, and so on.
4. Successive informational guides help researchers to understand whether or not they are a good fit for the products or services you have to offer. Eventually, they reach a point where the logical next step is to make a purchase or contact you to further the relationship. At this point, the sales funnel pays dividends.
Something that commonly gets overlooked in this process is that a strong sales funnel isn’t just a benefit to the marketer, but also to customers. While it’s certainly true that businesses get leads and revenue from this type of system, it’s also true that potential customers get detailed information that’s designed specifically for them.
So long as you keep providing value, buyers will continue to move from one step in your sales funnel to another. Eventually, they’ll either stop moving forward (because they aren’t a good fit for your business and don’t want to waste their time or yours) or they’ll reach a point where they are ready and willing to do business with your company.
KEEP ONE EYE ON THE SPEEDOMETER
Despite our technical backgrounds, creative instincts and many decades of combined experience, we have yet to produce a perfect website. And even if you follow the steps we’ve outlined so far with your creative team, you won’t either.
This is partly because no one understands their market or their competition as well as they would like. There are always surprises to be found. It’s also because the world of business is continually changing, especially in the digital age. What worked before might not be as effective now, and the best practices for tomorrow may not have even been invented or conceived of yet.
There are two tools we can use to fight this onslaught of change. The first is a willingness to stay flexible and always re-assess the approach we’re taking to the challenge of building websites and finding customers online. The second is a thorough and continual review of our Web metrics.
Using popular and widely available tools like Google Analytics, you can get a wealth of information from your website itself. The data provided can give you insights you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, such as:
• How many prospects are coming to your website
• Demographics about your Web visitors, including location, language and much more
• Where those men and women are arriving from, and what they searched or clicked to find you
• How much time they are spending on your website, and which pages or topics are most popular
• Which parts of your website are popular exit points, and whether or not your conversion goals are being met
When you have these details, you can begin to reshape your website, tailor your content and further refine everything you do for that all-important audience of one. It allows you to keep growing and prioritizing in the right direction, rather than moving forward aimlessly and simply hoping you’ll accomplish your goals.
ORDINARY ISN’T ENOUGH
There are lots of good websites out there. Millions of them, in fact. But good isn’t enough when you’re trying to compete online and turn your business into something special. We want you to remember that as we move into the new year and you consider the future of your Web presence. It takes something special to get ahead of the competition, but the results are well worth the effort and investment.
KEY REMINDERS FROM THIS ARTICLE
• Take the time to really evaluate the market like a customer would, and then see how your website stacks up against the competition.
• Don’t overlook the importance of domain names, Web hosting, and keeping your Web software up to date.
• Make clarity in your content a priority before you attempt to add creativity and marketing flair to your website; let customers know who you are and what you’re about.
• Look for ways to give buyers something they haven’t seen before. Think outside the box, but don’t make your website difficult to use or understand.
• Know who your website and internet marketing campaigns are built for. Think about buyer demographics and motivations.
• Create a sales funnel that generates leads or revenue while also serving as a helpful resource to online prospects.
• Keep a close eye on your Web analytics so you can figure out what is and isn’t working on your website and make adjustments accordingly.