By now, most companies have a website. But most companies probably aren't making the most of it. Indeed, according to a survey of Inc. readers, most companies--some 29 percent--update their sites very infrequently, on a quarterly basis if at all.
If your company is typical, then, you probably see your website as a nice profit center--a tributary of additional sales that requires relatively low upkeep. Reid Carr would view that as a failure. Carr, founder of Red Door Interactive, a San Diego firm that advises companies, including Intuit and Buck Knives, on their online initiatives, says his clients are frequently hamstrung by low (or no) expectations. "Companies don't see the Web as a true aspect of their business," he says. "They aren't benchmarking. They don't try to drive more revenue."
So how do you make sure your site is more than merely adequate? That can be tricky. Different website strategies are right for different kinds of companies, and a lot of buzzed-about applications are of dubious value. The good news is that you don't have to be a technologist to make smart decisions. But you do have to ask the right questions, including:
Plenty of clues can be found in a standard Web analytics report, if you know where to look. Broadly, analytics is a category of software that allows companies to keep track of where customers come from and what they do on a site. The data should help you decide how to organize your site and can help you identify search-term ads that are likely to lead to sales. "Web analytics is like accounting for the Internet," Carr says. "Initially, it should be 100 percent of your online marketing budget."
The most sophisticated programs, offered by Omniture (NASDAQ:OMTR) and WebTrends, can cost thousands of dollars a month, but prices have been dropping, and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) even offers a good free tool.
Pay careful attention to your site's "bounce rate"--the percentage of visitors who leave your site without clicking even one page deeper into it. This measure varies by company, but a high or rising bounce rate is a sure sign that your homepage is boring or off-putting.
"Geotargeting" information can also be useful. It shows you where in the world (or in a given state) your customers are coming from. You can also use analytics to discover how many people bail out during the sales process at each stage (after reading a product description, as soon as you ask them for credit card information, etc.).
The first step is to visit competitors' websites and see what they're doing differently from you. Then you'll want to know how many visitors they get a month and who those visitors are. Compete.com, Quantcast.com, and Alexa.com offer free data on hundreds of thousands of websites, including the number of visitors, the amount of time they spend on a site, and basic demographic information. These data are derived from a sample of Web users who agree to be tracked, so they are far from perfect. But they do give you a sense of basic trends: Is your rival's traffic trending up or down? Did it improve when that site added a video section? And how does that compare to the traffic bump you got from your past few blog postings?
"A lot of companies pawn off their Web presence on the youngest marketing guy in the room," says Carr. That's a bad idea: Your Web chief should be the CEO or someone else very senior, he says. This doesn't mean it's time to rush off and master HTML programming or start hanging out on MySpace--although neither could hurt--but it does mean that you need to take an active role in your site's development. Carr recommends creating a freestanding Internet division whose head reports directly to you.
In a perfect world, you would know exactly who was visiting your site, obtain those visitors' contact information, and have a salesperson follow up. That's not yet possible today, but there are a number of new services designed to help a small company customize its pitch. For example, Pardot, an Atlanta-based company, collects data about website visitors from a form they complete and from their click habits. It then cross-references visitors' IP addresses against the American Registry for Internet Numbers and listings from outfits like Dun & Bradstreet and assigns a letter grade to each visitor. An employee of an established company who clicks on things like pricing information or views information about your management team will get a higher grade than the average site visitor. Salespeople can then pursue the customers who appear to be the most likely to buy, either because of who they are or where they clicked on your site. The service starts at $150 a month.
The beauty of the Web is that it's easy to experiment and collect feedback. Try making small adjustments to your prices, copy, and layout, and use your analytics software to see what pays off. If prospective customers seem to balk when you ask for their credit card number, you could try a popular new service designed to encourage impulse buying. Bill Me Later, a company based in Timonium, Maryland, offers instant financing to customers. Bill Me Later typically collects 15 cents and a 1.5 percent transaction fee on every sale and, as you might guess, bills the customer later. Finance charges range from 9.9 percent to 19.9 percent. The company claims that customers who use the service spend 75 percent more per transaction than a website's typical buyer.
Search engine rankings are important, but they're not the be-all and end-all of online marketing. That's because search engine users are often more interested in browsing than buying. Companies may find that a well-placed ad converts more sales than a high ranking on Google. Nevertheless, there are boatloads of search engine optimization consultants, or SEOs, who promise to boost your rankings. Caveat emptor: For every specialist who can help you reorganize your site, there's a firm that employs questionable practices that could actually cause Google to demote you, while others perform only basic Web design services that you could probably do yourself.
Setting up a forum for your customers on your site is a great way to cultivate customer loyalty. TopCoder, a Glastonbury, Connecticut, company that organizes software coding competitions, started a forum on the day it opened for business, in 2001. The site's forum pages now draw tens of millions of page views a year. TopCoder treats the forum as both a customer service channel and a never-ending focus group. Every announcement, product, or contest the company offers has its own forum page, and TopCoder's employees often respond to forum posts, some of which are blistering. To set up a forum on your site, look at popular free software packages like YaBB, Vanilla, and phpBB. Forum-Software.org provides a technical rundown of these products.
Make sure your website is easy to figure out and loads fast, says Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, which remains one of the world's most popular websites despite a lack of splashy graphics and video. "Someone at the Los Angeles Times once said that Craigslist has 'the visual appeal of a pipe wrench," says Newmark. "I took that as a compliment. To me, simple and functional is beautiful."
To Dan Heath, clear and vivid language is beautiful. Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, says many sites serve up lame mission statements with hollow words like vision and solution. "People try to sound profound, but they end up sounding unremarkable,"he says.