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Setting Your Sights On A Website For Your Business

You've read all about the dot-com fever in the last five years. You've heard about highs: Internet companies listing on the stock exchange, and employees making huge amounts of money. But increasingly, you've also been hearing about the lows: how some Internet companies have simply run out of funding and crashed. Yet despite the bleak news about dot-coms, you know full-well that the Internet is part of everyone's future-and your business should be in the position to capitalize on that future.

Every entrepreneur in this day and age wants to get his business on the World Wide Web. And with more than good reason. These days, an Internet presence has become an integral part of running a thriving business in the new millennium. This holds true whether you are selling goods or providing a service. In fact, every business man knows that harnessing the Internet effectively can be critical to the success of his business.

But before you set sail onto the Internet ocean, some issues to bear in mind.

The Path To Profit

Taking your business-whether it's a product or a service-onto the Internet can be quicker, easier, and less expensive than setting up an office for it. But remember, success on the Internet is about building a name, which your target market recognizes and responds to. Your Web site should respond to your customers' needs, provide them with the information they want and need, and persuade them of the value of your product or service.

It is also important to harness the interactivity of the Internet. Through your Web site, you can gather valuable information about the consumers you wish to reach. You can get useful feedback about your product or service and thus identify areas of your business that you can improve, change or refine.

In short, your Web site can be your marketing tool as well as a communications medium. The key is using it effectively.

The Purpose Of Your Web Site

Why set up a Web site at all? Many race blindly toward the Net without a clear objective, merely because of the fear that they will be left behind. But this is not the case of last one to get on the net loses out. It's not about being first. It's about being focused.

What is it that you want your Web site to achieve? This will, of course, depend on the kind of business you're running, the goods or products you're selling, the service you seek to provide to your customers. And the answer can be one or any number of things. Are you a B2B (Business-to-Business), a B2C (Business-to-Consumer), or a B2P (Business-to-Professional) or a little bit of all three combined?

A Web site can sell products directly to your target market. A Web site can be an integral marketing medium to let people know about your business. A Web site can be used to develop a qualified list of prospects or a database of potential members of your target market. A Web site can help you achieve many things, but it is imperative that you decide what that will be.

What Your Web Site Will Contain

Having a Web site means having content to put on it, which means further that some strategy has to be involved. Profit from the experience of others who have discovered that a well-designed Web site is integral to any online marketing effort. They have also come to learn that online content is what brings customers to a particular site-as the adage goes, content is king. Current research already demonstrates that the successful sites are those that have relevant content that responds to the needs of your particular target market.

Put yourself in the mind of your ideal consumer. What is it that he or she wants to know about your business. Moreover, what is it that your ideal consumer wants to know-that can somehow be related to your product or service, to your name and brand. If you run a food catering service, your Web site does not have to be limited to your menus and fees, but you can also provide your users with tips on entertaining guests or planning a successful shindig. If your product is targeted to parents with small children, your Web site need not be limited to photos and price lists, but it could have additional information about activities for weekends. If this additional and related information is presented well, tied to your brand name and business-it will help bring in more potential customers who may eventually buy your product or avail of your service.

Apart from content, bear in mind that a good Web site is not limited to product information, product shots, and your business' branding. A Web site provides businesses with the opportunity to build a database of information on your customers. Information is currency. And that's a two way street: You don't just give out information, you can collect it too. Your site should have an avenue where users can give you information about themselves as well as their feedback on your business. The database will enable your business to capture everything from demographic information to qualitative information about your product or service. Furthermore, it is essential to have a visible privacy policy, which should clearly state what you plan to do with this information.

Finally and perhaps most important, your Web site must have a clear and easy way to contact you. This can't be emphasized more. Whatever your business is, the opportunity for contact is critical. Give your users a way to reach you by telephone, fax, and email. This contact gives them the opportunity to actually buy your goods or avail of your service. Ultimately, that is the best thing any Web site can achieve-and your site should be no exception.

Keep Them Coming Back

It's time to see how your content holds up against the list of things that get the users returning to Web sites that are already up and running.

In surveys according to the latest Forrester research, 12 elements keep users coming back. Seven of these involve what is on your site, namely: High quality content (this refers to the writing, the style, what kind of information you provide); Coupons and incentives (the promotional vehicles that your site offers, whether that's free products or coupons), Favorite Brands, Games, Custom Content (how much content can be personalized and tailored to an individual user), Purchasing Ability (a vehicle that allows customers to actually buy items online) and Chat (whether there is a vehicle for building a community on your Web site).

The other five factors that keep the users coming back, relate to how well your Web site is constructed. These are: Ease of use, Quick download (how quickly your site can be downloaded), Frequent updates (you should have a facility for updating the information on your site on a fairly regular basis), Cutting edge technology, and others. Keep these things in mind as you start making decisions on how your Web site will be built.

Who Will Create Your Web Site

You've plotted out your potential path to profit. You've determined your purpose, and you've outlined your intended content. It's more than clear at this point that your business will benefit from a Web site. Now it's time to make a tough decision. Who will create your Web site?

While doing it yourself may be the least expensive option in terms of cash outlay, it may actually be the most unrealistic. Unless, of course, you just happen to be a computer programming major and HTML is a hobby. The truth is, building your own Web site can be time consuming-and even if you succeed, you can't be sure that your site will look professional. In short, serious graphics, nifty images, a visually arresting and easy-to-navigate lay-out is the barest minimum you will need. Professional sites are worth what you pay for them if you're serious about wanting your Web site to attract business.

Smaller businesses and organizations hire Web designers to do this job, and that is a very realistic option. The best way to test out a Web designer is to have a look at work he's already done. If you like his work, there's a good chance you'll like what he can do for you.

Apart from building and designing your site, he should also train members of your staff to operate, update and maintain files. After all, your Web site is constantly changing, thus it should be changeable and updateable. If your web designer can train your staff sufficiently, you may only need to call on him for major site upheavals. Another possibility is keeping him on a retainer to maintain your site, every month or every week, as needed.

Above all, the beauty of your Web site is that it is not static. In fact, the magic of the Internet lies in this dynamism. Harness that dynamism, and your Web site can be the cornerstone of your successful business.

(This article was contributed by Christopher Lai, Director-Head of Business Development, CSG, American Express International Inc.)

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