Given the ubiquity of business websites on the Internet, it would seem that most small business owners count their websites among their key sales and marketing tools — a crucial part of doing business.
Yet even in 2014, having a web presence is not as common as most people would think. According to New York City-based marketing research firm Yodle, only about half of small businesses actually have a website.
While it’s an understatement to say that owners of small and medium sized businesses are a busy bunch, experts say they’re missing out by not putting the necessary time into creating well-designed, professional websites.
“People make snap decisions when they come to your homepage,” said Heather Isch, vice president of Kalamazoo-based LKF Marketing Inc. “You have less than five seconds to get their attention, so if your content is not clear or relevant, you’ve lost that customer.”
Companies that ignore the web do so at their peril, given the explosion of m-commerce — the buying of products and services through a mobile device — and the general prevalence of online purchasing.
Experts say it’s best to hire a web development firm to get the most out of a company’s web presence.
“It was typical [for a firm] to say, ‘Well, let’s fill out a creative brief, find out what colors you like, what sites do you like,’” said Pete Brand, CEO of Mindscape, referring to the web development processes of the past. That process usually resulted in a website that the senior management was proud of, but that didn’t really address their customers’ issues.
But web development works a bit differently today. And take heart, Luddites: There’s no need for you to learn programming or even fully understand your website’s objectives at the beginning of the process. You just need to simply ask the right questions of a handful of promising web development firms, sources said.
Here are some considerations sources said will help small business owners get started on the process of developing a website.
Discuss the strategy behind the site
“The first thing we do with our clients is what we call a ‘discovery session,’” Isch said. “That’s where we’re establishing their objectives, target audience, actions that we want users to take when they come to the site. What’s going to define success for that client? It’s different for everybody.”
Companies can get a jumpstart on developing this strategy, saving both time and money, if they get as much of this done as possible before they even start talking to web firms.
Chances are that an outsourced web development team will likely have little to no experience in a company’s market, which puts the onus on the executives to educate them on what’s important.
Companies should compile a list of key competitors and similar businesses so the web development team can get up to speed quickly, sources said. Also, it helps if companies approach their website strategy from the perspective of their customers.
“When people say they want a website or they want to improve their website, really what they’re looking for is the results that are going to be produced as a result of [the website],” said Mindscape’s Brand. “It’s really important to look at the relationship opportunity. What is it specifically that [customers] need? What type of questions are they turning to the Internet to solve or answer? Then make sure you create the content in such a way that it satisfies that need.”
Take responsibility for your role
Besides doing some of the strategy legwork ahead of time, business owners will likely have to provide their web development team with logos, content, product photos and video.
The more prepared an executive is going into the process, the less time and money will be wasted.
“Try to figure out how your customer wants to talk to you,” said Isch, noting the answer likely depends heavily on the age of the audience. “You have heavy social media users, you have people who are more comfortable still picking up a phone or emailing you. You have to be able to provide your customer with the best method of communication for them, and let them choose.”
Ask about timeframes
The creative process can take a long time, especially if executives are going in blind. Start by asking potential web development companies about the steps involved in their process, from the planning stage all the way through your website’s “go-live” moment.
Companies will also want to know how the firm’s approval processes work and anything else that might hamper the process along the way.
“Most of our sites in the B2B realm are on a more complicated platform and probably it’s going to be anywhere from three months to eight months, just depending on what they’re trying to build,” Isch said.
Find out what’s included
There’s a difference between an all-inclusive web development team (which can include everything from marketing strategy to app/software development) and a firm that specializes just in graphic design. Ask about which services are included, such as social media integration, search engine optimization (SEO), content management systems (like WordPress), hosting and more.
“There’s a thousand different ways with every business that you can leverage technology,” said Brian Anderson, business development manager of Open Systems Technologies Inc. (OST) in Grand Rapids. “And that’s really where a company like OST gets involved. A lot of people come to us with ideas — ‘Hey we want to automate the process, or we want to interact with our customers in a much better way because it’s very manual and we’re dealing with it on the phone right now or (through) faxes or email.’”
Create a budget
The costs can vary wildly depending on the scope of a company’s website. A business owner likely won’t know all the elements going into the quoting process, but he or she can expect the price to change based on whether or not the site needs e-commerce, how many pages the site will have, and special features like contact forms, newsletter services, RSS feeds and more.
Some small businesses just need a “brochure” website with minimal functionality that can start at around $2,500.
Also expect significant price increases if you get an experienced web designer and add lots of features.
“A lot of small businesses sometimes shy away from making an investment in something that’s going to really serve them long term,” Isch said. “They go for a solution that may be less expensive, but it may not have a strategy. Within two to three years, they’re very disappointed because they’re not getting the results that they were looking for.”
Anderson says OST has a stage in its process — after the initial discovery — where business owners can fine-tune what they want to pay for.
“We print a very detailed a la carte menu for an estimate that we help our customers weave through all the different scopes, and how they can tie in what they want to build for their first release, and get the project to the point they can deal with,” Anderson said.
Ask about training
Many a small business has let its website languish because the company didn’t understand how to update it.
Ask if the web development team will provide this training in person or through online videos — or both.
“Once you get past the point of a brochure website, then you’re typically going to get into something that’s called a Content Management System” or CMS, Anderson said. “And a CMS is going to enable you to add pages and change content on the site without having to go back to the design firm.”
Address what happens in the worst-case scenario
Unfortunately, one of the costs of doing business online is getting hacked, or simply just having the website go down or break for mysterious reasons.
A company’s website is its 24/7 sales tool, and any downtime could cost the business in missed sales. Ask about what kind of support is available after the site goes live.
Make sure it’s mobile-friendly
According to New York-based Econsultancy, 62 percent of companies that designed a website specifically for mobile applications had increased sales. While almost all websites these days are designed with mobile in mind, it doesn’t hurt to ask potential vendors about their mobile vision.
Also ask about search engine optimization and how that will be baked into the website’s design.
“What we’ve seen is that most of our business to business clients are probably getting anywhere from 18 to 40 percent of the traffic coming to their site on a mobile platform,” said Isch. “It’s just going to continue to grow, and if you don’t have a site that’s accessible on a mobile device, you frustrate the user and they leave, and you lose business.”
How easy will it be to change developers?
A polite way to ask that is to pose the question of “what would happen if the developer gets hit by a bus?” This will also save you a lot of headaches if you end up frustrated with the firm or its process months down the line.
Using these considerations as a guideline, experts and insiders say a small business owner can jump into the web developer search process with both feet, saving time and money. Any web developer worth his or her salt should be able to easily answer these questions. Once the business and the web development firm reach a mutual understanding, they can start developing what could be a very powerful sales tool.
Editor’s note: This article has been changed from its original form to correct the name for Open Systems Technology Inc. (OST).