The three stages of a Web site's evolution
One way to look at your Internet presence is by analyzing your potential in terms of three progressive stages of growth. And the nice thing is that you can start off with the easiest and simplest phase, then grow into the more complicated and costly implementations.
A business card on the Internet
At the most basic level, any company should at least make themselves visible on the Internet. They should set up (or have set up for them) a simple Web site that essentially is an on-line business card.
At the very minimum, you can show logos, slogans, phone and fax numbers, and a general email address. Now your simple page is the foundation for any future Internet marketing, such as ecommerce, which we'll discuss later.
You'll also want to put the name, phone number and email address of a sales contact. You never know. Someone might visit your site and decide they want to buy something. Don't make it hard for them to get in contact with you via telephone.
You must literally think of this stage as an easy way of distributing your business card, and KEEPING IT IN YOUR CUSTOMERS' VIRTUAL ROLODEXES.
Imagine that the local sheriff's deputy has just delivered a legal-looking packet of information to my door. I'm in a seminar and unreachable, but my quick-thinking secretary's first inclination is to call our lawyer. But we don't have a lawyer...there's no one in my Rolodex. She remembers meeting a nice guy at the last Chamber of Commerce mixer. She searches the Web for lawyers in Batavia, and sees a list of 10 firms. She easily spots the firm she talked to, hits their Web site, finds the phone number, and places the call. The problem isn't solved, of course, but at least I've got an expensive professional on the case.
Or I might be on the road when I decide I need to talk to my pals at Dewey, Cheatum and Howe. I don't have my Rolodex with me, but there's a Kinko's up ahead. I duck in, rent a computer for a few minutes, search for DC&H's site, and shoot an email message to them on the spot.
I'm more able to find this firm because they've made themselves available on the Web. It may not result in a big pay off, but the cost is VERY low. Not including the design (which is peanuts for such a simple page) you can figure about $40 per month or lower, depending on whether you want email and Internet Access.
I've talked to many business owners who haven't "gotten around to setting up our site." In some cases, they've asked a friend or relative to help in their spare time, or they think it will be too time consuming or expensive. Maybe they believe that they first have to put a complete marketing plan in place. Then again, they might just be stalling. The reality is that they can get set up very quickly, with little effort, and they can use their new site as a platform for future efforts.
On-line Yellow Pages ad
Adding a little more to your site costs you much less than a Yellow-Pages ad, but it can be more colorful, powerful, interactive, flexible, and current.
Let's say someone wants to know about widget makers. By getting yourself set up in Internet search engines, your company can pop up when clients are looking for your type of products or services. And when they click on your listing, they'll be taken right to your web page...designed by you and updated frequently by you. At the minimum, you put the kind of thing on your page that you'd put in the Yellow Pages:
phone numbers and addresses
But with a Web page, you can add even more. You can make the site more colorful and larger. You're not restricted to black and white or expensive color printing. You can offer detailed product information, technical specifications, price lists, customer service policies and procedures, etc. You can provide as much information as your staff can create. And you can keep it all current and up-to-date.
You can make the site interactive. You can offer forms for visitors to fill out. They can email you directly from your site. They can subscribe to your company email newsletter. And you can even link to Web-based map sites to help people find your locations.
An advertisement Web page costs less than almost all other forms of advertising, depending on how fancy you want to get. And most of the costs will be in the design, not in the media.
The final leap in the typical Web site evolution is ecommerce. There are lots of definitions of what this means, but I'll try to keep it simple. Ecommerce means that your customers can accomplish much of the routine elements of their business relationship with you over the Web.
They can research products, query stocking statuses, make purchases, arrange delivery options, follow up on orders, resolve minor delivery problems, arrange returns, and even pay via the Web. In a business-to-business environment, the Internet can also serve as the foundation for serious electronic data interchange (EDI).
This last major step in your Web site development is a big one. The costs really start to pile on. In addition to more complicated design issues, you must find ecommerce software or a vendor to host your ecommerce activities. More importantly, you'll have to reorganize your business to deal with the special challenges of marketing, customer service and fulfillment.
Look very carefully before you take this plunge. There are lots of risks, but ecommerce CAN open your business up to a vast new market, not only of Web users, but also of potential customers all over the world.
If you're waiting for the right time, it's now. If your competition isn't doing anything, this is an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage. Or, if they are ahead of you, you'd better catch up - fast. Remember what George Patton said: "A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow." You can get a solid, basic presence on the Web in a few days. And it will be the foundation for your future Internet marketing. Who knows? Maybe that dream customer will find you next week on the Web.
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