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Taking the Offline Business Online

Carrie Hill
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For a lot of business owners, the decision to expand online is an easy one. On occasion, though, just analyzing the pros and cons can keep you up all night. The process doesn’t have to be that hard. Because I live in a virtual world (I would grocery shop online if I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere), I think it's important for every business to have an online presence.

The reasons for building a Web site can range from generating sales to providing simple information. Let's look at a few questions you should ask yourself as you decide what direction you should go with your Web site.

Optimization? Yes. Yellow Landing Pages? No.

Can you handle an increase in sales? Do you have the staff necessary to fill orders and ensure your customer service is up to par? If you're living in a hyper, fast-paced world, then maybe selling online shouldn’t be your goal. Instead, strive to provide information to your existing customer base: store hours, maps, specials and an e-newsletter subscription form. If you make this information available online, you can even save some time answering phone calls from people asking the questions your Web site answers. You need an easily updatable and small Web site to accomplish this.

Don’t forget the search engine optimization tasks necessary to ensure your clients can find you online. If you're just working to provide information to existing customers, you should be able to be found for queries for your brand or business name. So what's the best way to be found? You've probably been approached by your Yellow Pages provider to build some sort of landing page through them. I generally advise against this -- you can do much better with a simply built site done by someone who understands usability and search engine optimization and rankings.

Some people, including Bill Gates, predict Yellow Pages searches will die off in five years or so. I don’t know if it will be that extreme; what I do know is the ideal domain you should have will probably not be available, or will be very expensive in five years. Do it now -- save some headaches down the road and get in the game early rather than late.

Search Engine Friendly Merchandising

If you want sales from your Web site, make sure your products can be listed in a search engine in user-friendly manner. Navigation should be simple, each product should have its own page, and the checkout process should be smooth and require as little input from you as possible. Ideally, you'll get an email or notice that says, "Mail X to Y and you're done." This type of site will require a bit more of an investment, but in the long run, adding and removing products will be easier, and it will therefore be simpler to keep your product offerings up to date.

Not every Web site is going to convert right from the go-live date. It can happen, but it takes careful preparation and some really good marketing plans to achieve those results. If you plan to use your Web site casually with the purpose of offering phone numbers, product overviews, and a map to your location -- then the return will be realized much more slowly.

Invest Time, Not Just Money

If you need the Web site to convert from the beginning, then you must consider more time investment. Prepare a budget and run some regionally targeted pay-per-click ads or an aggressive email marketing campaign to let everyone know your Web site is live. If you're a dry cleaner in downtown Denver, you want your site structured, optimized, and marketed in a way to ensure you're going to come up in multiple search platforms for "Lodo dry cleaner" or "downtown Denver dry cleaner." Neighborhoods have colloquial names that you must consider. Red Hook in Brooklyn or Union Square in San Francisco would be examples.

Some ideas I really like for local businesses using Web sites would be to promote "Online order & delivery" or "online order & pickup." Supermarkets in bigger cities have a great program wherein you order your groceries online, the staff assembles and packages the product, and it's delivered or you pick it up. Providing convenience to your customers should be your utmost goal, whether you're looking for sales or just looking to answer some questions.

Don't Spoil Your Site. Content Has An Expiration Date.

Honestly -- and I've told hundreds of people this -- if you can't commit the resources and time required to keep your Web site updated and looking fresh, it's not worth the money to get one in the first place. I can drive a million visitors to your site, but if your specials are outdated by six months and you no longer sell 50 percent of the products listed, it's not going to convert into sales, and you're going to spend a lot of time answering phone calls and smoothing ruffled feathers. Your ultimate goal should be a site that you can use, and not pay someone to update it every month.

There can be immense benefits to brining your business online -- there can also be pitfalls. Being prepared for your step into the virtual marketplace can make the transition less painful and more profitable. Ask yourself these questions before you begin the process and have fun with it. If it's a chore, it won't provide the results you're looking for.


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