A surprising number of small businesses have been slow to go online. Here's why you need to be online now, whether you've got something to sell or not.
Nate White started selling fine custom coffee blends from the website of his company, West Coast Roasting Company, because he didn't have a physical store and didn't have any other way of easily reaching customers and letting them reach him.
"I started selling roasted coffee before our business was set up," says White, who is based in the Los Angeles area. "Once the business was set up, it quickly became obvious that the website was necessary to streamline things. It was taking five to eight e-mails back and forth to sell a pound of coffee to someone, and it was very difficult to keep track."
A website today is as essential as the name of your business, your phone number, or the façade of your retail store. Every business -- from a restaurant to a biotech research firm to an industrial laundry -- needs one. Yet research has indicated that about only 50 percent of small businesses in the U.S. actually have websites, with those numbers lower in less tech-savvy markets, according to a report by Internet consultant Peter Krasilovsky, of Krasilovsky Consulting, in Carlsbad, Calif. The Yankee Group puts that number close to 43 percent.
Here are some compelling reasons why you need a website:
Reason #1 – To set up a store front
Many a small business has found that even if they can't afford rent on Main Street, or in the Mall, they still can exist in cyber space and sell their goods and services. "The Internet has changed the way people shop. It's no longer about getting in the car and driving down to the store, or even looking in the phone book," says Mike Walton, of Mobius Designs, a Web design firm that focuses on Flash animation and scripting and has helped numerous small businesses create a Web presence. Walton also teaches website design at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Having an address on the Internet gives you a place to describe your goods and customers a place to find you.
Reason #2 –As a cheap way to advertise
Creating your online presence needn't be expensive. A very basic Web presence can be had for as little as $1,500, a standard website for $3,000-$5,000, and a full Flash site for $8,000 and up, Walton says. Compared to other forms of advertising, websites offer very good value to money spent, he adds.
Reason #3 – Customer service
A website is essential to establish your businesses' credibility and to provide support for customers so that they can find easy answers to their questions about your business – such as where you are located, what products or services you sell, and how to contact you. This self-serve information for customers can help you, as a business owner, save time by leaving you free to focus on business.
Reason #3 – Remain open 24/7
Few businesses keep their doors open around-the-clock. But a Web presence can make it seem as if your business does. Through click-on e-mail, customers, clients, or partners can contact you when it's convenient for them. Potential customers can find out information about what you sell and how you sell it at all hours -- on weekends, in the middle of the night, or in different time zones.
Reason #4 – Think globally
Having your signpost on the Web allows your business to do business all over the world. It lets potential customers in, say, Buenos Aires know what products you sell in Hoboken, N.J. A trick to expanding your business internationally is to offer translations of information on your website into the languages spoken in the countries you want to target (although this can get very expensive).
Reason #5 – Launch promotions easily
On the Web, it's much simpler to change your product or service offerings, or your prices, than in a print catalog. You can also launch new promotions with a few keystrokes. Walton suggests adding fresh content and incentives to bring customers back for more. "If the website remains static, there's no reason to return," he says. "Weekly updates with web-only deals and coupons is a great way to keep your customers checking back if you don't have any actual content to add. For a small company, a regularly-updated news page is often enough to keep you in the loop."