I recently received a rather intriguing lunch invitation. I was to go visit a high-end San Francisco health clinic (I'm being vague on purpose here) and discuss my company Kosmix's viewpoint on where the Web is going, as expressed through one of our products. It was a great discussion and while the situational specifics are unimportant, the larger points are hopefully useful to many small and mid-sized businesses.

This clinical practice has a leadership that understands, in broad strokes, the need to have a very strong online presence. They recognize the competitive advantage of being an information hub for this niche area of science and medicine. What's more, they've even taken several solid steps in this direction by creating an actively updated blog, a newswire-style website, and a more "static" site that hosts long-form articles written by medical experts. Compared to the broader brick-and-mortar world, this is a trailblazing organization.

We talked a lot about what it takes for a brick-and-mortar business to create a standalone site that's more than a boring PR mouthpiece. That was this company's primary goal and I'd like to share a few of our many discussion points with you (your mileage will vary based upon your specific goals).
Operate like a Web company

This one is so obvious it is most often overlooked. I've seen a lot of small companies focus on detail-level issues like the number of pages indexed by Google while ignoring the bigger picture philosophical commitment. Operating your Web "group" like a Web company requires a mindset that's endemic to the nature of the Web as a medium. Here's what you need to do:

  • Move fast. I frequently ask site owners how often they release new code to refresh their site. Anything less than once a day is far too slow in my world. This doesn't mean that you stop paying attention to customers at the cash register. This is actually an issue of attitude towards product development. The Web was built for speed and frequent change, and if your organization isn't deeply attuned to that mental framework you're likely moving far slower than a pure-play Web company. My company releases most of its software stack at least once a day and there are people within the company who'd like to release more frequently.
  • Be willing to iterate and fail quickly. This follows directly from the point above. The ability to move fast and make frequent changes means that you don't have to spend six months conceptualizing an idea. Have an idea you'd like to try on the site? Try it! Aim to put it on the site in days, not weeks or months. I'm well aware that this advice is generally peddled as a black-or-white conflict between high quality features and mindless tweaks that add no value. So it is important to add a disclaimer to ensure that an experiment always passes your human "sniff test." If two or more sub-features are jointed at the hip and can't be released in a couple of days of work, take the time to do it right. But once you've got a baseline product up, always look for an iterative approach to get from A to B.
  • Measure obsessively. Again, this follows from the above points. Your iterative experiments need to be tied to detailed outcome measurement so you can decide a course of follow-up action. For example, if you decide to change your site's color palette, do you know if the new color palette increased average time on site per visitor? If you don't know the exact before/after difference, why even bother making the change? The Web provides better real-time measurement and tracking capabilities than any previous medium so it is criminally inefficient to not take advantage of them. A basic understanding of web analytics is rather easy to acquire nowadays and a combination of Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer can get you quite far for the low, low price of free. As before, exercise human "sniff test" judgment. If the data is telling you to make a decision you'd oppose as a user of your site, consider going back to the drawing board.
  • If you have a blog, be authentic. Joel Spolsky is a renowned programmer and author and writes the "Joel on Software" blog. Spolsky recently wrote a piece for this magazine that passionately argues for true authenticity for your corporate blog instead of "utterly boring press releases rewritten to sound a little bit less stuffy". He also writes, "Blogging as a medium seems so personal...when you're using a blog to promote a business, that blog can't be about you…has to be about your readers...about making them awesome." It's well worth your time to read the article.
  • Give ONE person ownership over social media. If you're building a Web property, you're likely going to need all the distribution help you can get from social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Once again, auto-spamming all your Twitter followers every time you update the corporate blog isn't going to work. Social media is conversational and smart Web companies generally have a unique role for a "community manager" to manage and foster conversation. Pandora Radio, for example, is a certifiable darling of the Internet set and relies on their community manager to maintain an active Twitter account: http://twitter.com/pandora_radio. I recently found a relatively unknown San Francisco fitness company that has 12,000 fans on their Facebook Page. People Magazine, one of the most recognizable media brands in the world, has less than 19,000. Why? I can't speak for People, but being aggressive, being committed, identifying ONE owner and seeing a conversational medium as more than just a "channel" has made all the difference for this fitness company.

In summary, turning your Web content into a standalone, vibrant Web property that's not just a cost center or a marketing sideshow requires hard work and deep leadership commitment. More personally, I'm hopeful that my friends over at the health clinic will commit and dive into the wonderful Web, and so too, will you.

Saumil Mehta is a product fanatic at Kosmix and an all-around Internet business geek. He tweets with nary a hint of self-promotion at @saumil and blogs about technology and personal rants at http://bitbubble.wordpress.com