E-Commerce Considerations for Small Businesses

E-COMMERCE CONSIDERATIONS FOR SMALL BUSINESS

When I was a traveling salesman, knocking on nursing home doors throughout New England, I was forced to eat out a lot. (Tuna sandwiches tend to go bad sitting on your dashboard all morning. This was back in the early nineties and coolers had yet to be invented.) Although I spent many a noontime meal under the golden arches or at a Papa Gino’s, there are times when you need more variety. When choosing a random restaurant the first thing I always noticed was the sign. If the sign was unattractive I wouldn’t go in there unless a good friend recommended the place. Even if the sign coerced me inside, the rest of the restaurant would have to be clean, well-lit, rat-free, etc., before I would eat there. Why is this important? Well, if you’re in Northboro, MA, check out a deli called Pickles. Good sign, good food.

On a completely unrelated topic, there’s been a lot of interest in e-commerce these days. It seems like anyone with (or without) a connection to the Internet, 10 minutes of free time and a product to sell can instantly make a mint on the Internet, go public and sell their company to Amazon.com for a few hundred million dollars.

Don’t believe the hype. Although there are a few of those lucky souls out there, they’re usually just there to make our travails seem trivial. Building a good e-commerce site is a slow, ongoing process of trial and error. However, we can use someone else’s errors many of the times to cut down on our own trial time.

Over the last year I’ve spent time developing different e-commerce solutions for a variety of clients, as well as attending the ICE (Internet Commerce Expo) Show earlier this year in Boston. Each solution I’ve seen has its plusses and minuses, and ultimately you’ll have to decide which one is going to work best for your site. I’ll explore these different options more in my next newsletter; for now I’ll concentrate on some things that hold true for any online store, even if you’re not taking orders over the ‘net.

First Impressions

And you thought that opening paragraph was just a stream-of-consciousness plug for a deli I used to frequent. Let’s face facts: we’re all not Amazon.com, nor have we reserved names like shopping.com or buy.com that people might type in by chance. It’s a good guess that our prospective customer doesn’t know us from a hole in the wall and first impressions count. A home page–for either your store or your site–is like a first date: it should be clean and attractive and not make the other person wait too long. How many commercial Web sites have you clicked away from because of ugly or slow-loading graphics, or just because of a completely unprofessional look? (I mention slow-loading graphics because both Yahoo! Stores and Amazon.com have incredibly quick-loading sites that are clean and attractive.)

Show ’em the Goods

You may think that the gardening hose you want to sell is the same as any other one, so there’s no point of putting up a picture. Studies show that people are 57% more likely to buy a product on the Internet if they can see an image of it. (By the way, I just made up that statistic, but the point is it could be true. Sounds true, doesn’t it?)

If you don’t have a product picture from a brochure, take the picture yourself or hire someone. I know a number of excellent photographers who do product shots. In some cases the manufacturer has images of the product on their Web site and would be happy to share since you’re promoting their product. Even if it’s just a bottle of shampoo that looks like the other 7 bottles of shampoo or conditioner you’re selling, put up another picture. If you’re not showing your customer the product, you’re hiding it.

(Get the latest “Ecommerce Marketing and Advertising Tips“)

Lost in the Supermarket

When your product selection gets to a certain size it may be time to categorize your inventory. A little corner shop may be able to put the plastic combs next to the Pez, but Wal-Mart needs to put the Pez dispensers next to the Pez refills in the Pez aisle which is nowhere near the combs and brushes. You aren’t the proprietor of a used book store featuring rare and out-of-print books where people enjoy browsing all day long while inhaling the musty fumes of decaying bindings. People don’t want to spend too much time looking for what they need; it’s easier to find the exit online than in the real world.

Rotate the Inventory

There was a liquor store near where I used to live that advertised its weekly special: “12 PACK BUSCH – $11.99”. First of all, a 12 pack of Busch for $11.99 is never special. Second of all, it was a weekly special for the five or so years I lived in Boston, and may still be. The bottom line is: feature and promote different products each month, week or day depending on your sales volume.

Take Credit Cards If You Possibly Can

More and more sites accept credit card orders, and so should you. There are added expenses in taking credit card orders but it may be worth it in the long run. If you don’t have a merchant number there are ways to get one. Also, some e-commerce hubs that rent space to small businesses will handle all credit card orders themselves, for a fee. This fee can be high, so it may only be workable for bigger ticket items.

Take Names (or at least emails)

To complete a credit card order over the Internet your customer is going to have to fill out a small form: name, address, credit card number and so on. This is a perfect opportunity to keep in touch with your customer. An email address is almost always a required field in these forms, and for good reason. It is a great, free way of contacting your customer again. With just a little extra work on your Web master’s part, that email address can be added to a growing list of customers who you can contact all at once about new specials and discounts at your store.

Now, as someone who gets copious amounts of spam, or unwanted emails solicitations, I implore you to do this the correct way. You’ll never make any friends or repeat customers by spamming people. My recommendation is to have an opt-in or opt-out option at the bottom of your form. An opt-in would be a button that people can click that signs them up for future mailings; an opt-out would do the opposite. You’ll get better response with an opt-out because people tend to want to get to the submit button as quickly as possible. If someone has already bought products from you I think an opt-out option is best.

Now you have a growing list of people who you know are interested in what you have to sell. Periodic email flyers to these people about new products and sales are a great way to get repeat business and help grow your online business.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media

Using Forms on Your Web site

USING FORMS ON YOUR WEB SITE

Finding out more about one’s customers has been around long before
the Internet. Back in prehistoric times traders would often ask their
customers, “Where did you hear about our pelts? What cave walls have
you read in the last six months?” and “We often sell our smoke
signal list to other traders that you might be interested in bartering
with…if you want to opt-out, grunt twice.”

I swear. It’s documented.

Forms have improved a lot since those days of carrying around
giant stone rolodexes. Forms are a common part of many Web sites,
but often are used for little more than a glorified email that
can be sent to a person behind the Web site.

What Forms Are Made Of:

Forms are visually created on a Web page in basic HTML using
a series of text boxes and fields, radio buttons, check boxes,
pull down menus and submit or reset buttons. Here’s a
breakdown of how they might be used:

Text Boxes – Any short answer: name, address, email,
etc.

Text Fields – Longer, open-ended comments, body of
an email message.

Radio Buttons – Where only one answer is appropriate,
like the buttons on a car radio

Check Boxes – Where one or more answers are appropriate; i.e. what
search engines have you used in the past 6 months.

Pull Down Menus – A way of letting someone choose one option from
a menu; often used navigate a Web site or select a profession in a questionnaire.

Submit and Reset Buttons – to complete the form or start anew.

The Back-End:

However, a form based solely on the elements above
wouldn’t
do much. A person could fill it out, but once they clicked “Submit” at
the bottom, nothing would happen. That’s because a form
itself does nothing; it would be like filling out a magazine
subscription card and not mailing it in. The form you see on
a Web page is just a structure where visitors can put in information.

It’s behind-the-scenes where the real action takes place.
When the submit button is clicked on a working form the information
is most often “passed” or sent to the server, the computer
that sends the Web pages to your browser. (Occasionally forms
are handled right on the page by the use of JavaScript, but that’s
not nearly as common.) Back at the server the information is
sent to a folder with CGI Scripts, (Common Gateway Interface.)
Once the correct script is located the script takes the information
and handles it the way it was programmed.

What You Can Do With Forms:

The CGI scripts can handle the information
in a number of ways. It can create an email addressed from the
submitter to you that will show up in your email box. It can
also send a copy of that email to your Web master if that’s
helpful. When you hit “reply” to that email it will
automatically go back to them, (assuming they gave you a correct
email address.)

Forms can also be helpful if you use a database to manage a
mailing list. The information that is passed can be entered into
a password protected document on the Internet. Every time someone
submits a form their pertinent information gets added to this
document. Every once in a while you can download that file to
your hard drive and then you can import it into your database
program. It will save you from retyping all those people who
want more information on your wares.

Another form option would allow you to get personal information
from a visitor who wants to read an article. Instead of posting
the article on your site, a form is created that when completed
emails the article to the visitor.

Forms can also be combined with a secure server to handle credit
card orders.

Things to Keep In Mind When Designing a Form:

Through personal experience in working with clients, I’ve
discovered that the best way to create a form is let the client
create it on paper and then I turn it into a working online form.
Only the client knows whether they need both daytime and nighttime
phone numbers, whether the person’s position within a company
is relevant, or if a person’s sex is germane to the conversation.

Before my clients write out the information they’re looking
for I remind them to balance all the information they would like
to gather with the amount of time someone is going to be willing
to spend on completing a form. If someone wants to drop you a
quick note that they just read your last book and they loved
it, they don’t want to fill out a ten-page questionnaire
on which books stores, kiosks and flea markets they’ve
visited in the last six months. On the other hand, if they are
looking for more information on a specialty medical device your
company has just patented, you can feel free to ask a few more
questions before answering.

You can also set some questions as mandatory. You may require
people to enter a name and email address, but allow them to skip
their fax number. If they don’t fill out the required fields,
they get a warning message that their form was not processed
and a request to go back to the original page.

Forms are a great way to gather information on the people interested
in your products. It’s not invasive as they are volunteering
this information to you. By collecting these names, addresses
and emails you will also be able to let people know the release
date of your next book, a recent update on your software, or
a great vacation give away for people in their sixties.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

E-Commerce: Do You Need It?

E-COMMERCE: DO YOU NEED IT?

There has been a lot written about ecommerce in the past couple months.
Articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, Inc. magazine and Newsweek, among
others. Generally this type of buzz starts in the computer magazines,
and if it sticks around long enough, the general trades pick it up.

Since I read a number of computer magazines each month, I get
a view of the coming storm when it’s just a butterfly’s wing
flapping. Some times these ideas come to fruition, most times
not. Does anyone remember the hype surrounding Push Technology?
Micro-payments? How banner ads would pay for content on the Web?

All of these things have fallen short of expectations or died
entirely. The only type of Push Technology you see now is email.
Micro-payments didn’t even get their 15 minutes. Banner ad rates
are plummeting as Web surfers are maturing and less likely to
click on every ad they see.

So what to make of ecommerce? Well here’s my .02: it’s here
to stay. What shape it will finally take or even what it will
look like a year from now I don’t pretend to know, but technology
costs money, so businesses need to make money off of it. Two
years ago every consultant worth their salt was saying that companies
needed a Web site to survive. Last year these same consultants
told businesses they needed content to increase repeat visitors.
This year it’s ecommerce.

(Get the latest “Ecommerce Marketing and Advertising Tips“)

Let me tell you something you already know: every business is
different. Every business’s Web site is different. Morton’s
Salt
does not need ecommerce. Apple
Computer
does. Even if you have
something to sell, ecommerce may not be the best option for you.
If your best customers and clients use you because of your “hands
on” approach, maybe ecommerce isn’t where you should be
investing your time and money. If your work is mostly customized
perhaps face-to-face or even over the phone might be your best
close.

However, if you have something to sell that only needs to be
seen or described, ecommerce could be a good option. If you have
a product that can be utilized throughout the country or even
the world, ecommerce could bring you lots of business. If you
have big enough margins, high enough prices or plan on selling
enough product, ecommerce could become a major part of your business
plan.

Ecommerce allows people from all over the world, (or wherever
you’re willing to ship,) to purchase products from you day or
night. It can bring extra sales to your business and not cost
you any more in salaries. If nothing else, it could help bring
down your monthly cost of being online.

Ecommerce is not as inexpensive as setting up a Web site. Your
hosting service must have a secure server so people can feel
confident in putting their credit card information over the Internet.
(Aside: it’s easier to steal someone’s wallet and use their credit
cards at a gas pump or a store than it is to steal their card
number of the Internet, but people are still leery.) In general
this costs extra money for your hosting service, and thus for
you.

You (or your Webmaster) must set up forms using scripts that
will handle your order taking; these scripts are more difficult
to create than simple HTML; even if you can get your hands on
generic scripts, reworking them to your needs can be a nightmare
if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Your business must also have a merchant number; a number you
can get from a bank or credit union that will allow you to accept
credit cards both online or in the real world. Some of these
institutions are uncomfortable dealing with online transactions
and set high premiums and costs as a result.

There are also banks and other companies that put together “store
front” or “shopping cart” packages for you, handling
much of the headaches. These vary in price, but plan on spending
over a thousand dollars to set it up and $500-1000 and up per
month in costs. If you plan on doing a lot of business, these
options can be a good choice. However, they may not be your first
choice.

As always, there are a few companies out there who will do some
of this for free. iCat allows you 10 products to sell over the
Internet for no fee, at least for now. More products than 10
and you have to get an account with them. Also, there is still
a certain amount of work involved and you should be comfortable
with HTML and general Internet knowledge if you don’t have someone
doing it for you.

In the final analysis, (as of today, tomorrow might bring another
answer,) ecommerce can be very beneficial for the right sites.
It allows your doors to stay open 24/7 so you never have to turn
away a customer. It takes orders when you’re sick as a dog, or
on Christmas or your highest of High Holidays. But don’t include
it on your site if it’s not needed. If the goal of your site
is to be brochureware: a place for people to learn more about
your company without pressure, don’t worry about it. Certain
sites will be commerce sites and certain sites will be advertising
and marketing sites. I myself have no plans to add ecommerce
to my site. Anyone who remembers my “Rich Brooks
1998 Beefcake Calendar
” fiasco will know why.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

Affiliate Programs

AFFILIATE PROGRAMS: THEY’RE HOT, THEY’RE HAPPENING, BUT ARE THEY HYPE?

Most Americans with a passing knowledge of the Internet are aware of
Amazon.com, the first major Web-based bookstore. They have relationships
with (i.e. they’ve bought real estate on) such major portals as Excite!,
AOL, Alta Vista and Netscape. Barnes & Noble has also spent a lot
of money launching a Web site and buying up property on HotBot & Lycos
among others. There are also a handful of upstarts such as Books.com and Bookserve. All of these companies have affiliate programs.

What are affiliate programs? I’m glad you asked. (And if you
didn’t ask, let’s show a little enthusiasm here, people.) Affiliate
programs reward you for sending buyers to these companies’ Web
sites. The details vary, but basically you do some work on your
end, create the links and the money just starts rolling in. (Well,
that’s the way they describe it happening.) Sites that have a
certain focus, such as sci-fi, gardening or erotica could point
visitors towards appropriate reading at these online bookstores
and get a commission on books sold.

I figured a good guinea pig…er, test case would be my father.
He currently has books and tapes available through his Web site,
but only for people paying by check or money order, not online,
secure ordering. Also, he has to send out the books and tapes
by hand. I figured I could save him a little work and make it
easier for visitors to buy his book since they wouldn’t have
to get out their checkbook, mail or fax in an order, etc.

I started my research by reading the archived articles in one
of my favorite online listservs, LinkExchange Digest. Website
designers post questions and answers on marketing a Web site,
selling online and “Geek Tips”. You can receive it
via email or go to http://www.le-digest.com/archive.html.

Maybe these people are just big whiners, or maybe they’re on
to something. Many complain of sending several hundred visitors
to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, but get very little or no
compensation. Others counter that this first group didn’t do
enough to get the visitors excited, (i.e. reviews, recommendations,
etc.) to make a purchase once they arrived at an affiliate site.

Another possible downside is the loss of traffic; any time you
send someone to another site, you risk losing that person for
ever. In general, the people who had the best experiences did
indepth reviews of books in a certain category, and consistently
updated the list of books to get people coming back to their
site.

Mark Welch, a frequent contributor to that listserv has a Web
site dedicated to ranking different affiliate programs, and it
can be found at http://www.markwelch.com. He had a number of
affiliate programs ranked above Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble,
but for one reason or another they didn’t meet my criteria. Some
were too specialized, others didn’t offer any tracking, etc.

Despite this general negative view, I proceeded to go forward.
First, I felt the affiliate program would benefit a site like
my father’s: one that wasn’t trying to make wads of money, but
rather was interested in making it easier for the visitors to
purchase the book while online. Second, I really needed a topic
for this issue. I chose Amazon because they carried not only
my dad’s newest book, “The Self-Esteem Teacher”, but
also “So That’s How I Was Born!”, dedicated “To
Richard and Douglas, who taught me the questions children really
ask about the facts of life.” I figured if I was his best
source of material, it was time to turn the tables.

And so began my journey…

I went to Amazon.com, scrolled down the page and found the “Associates” link.
Following it, I read the “Terms and Agreements”; first
time in my life I’ve read a “Terms and Agreements”.
(I did it for you, people.) Besides the general “everything
we do is o.k. and subject to change, everything you do better
be o.k. with us,” I did find a couple of things a little
hard to swallow. Commission is paid on a quarterly basis, 30
days after the quarter is finished. Having come from a background
in sales, I know that a quarter is a looooong time. Also, they
won’t pay you until your commission reaches the magic $100 mark.
Otherwise they hold onto it until the next quarter. Figuring
that my dad’s book currently goes for $12.95, and he would get
15% for directly linking to it, he would only have to sell just
over 51 copies to get a check after the first quarter. Good thing
we’re not in it for the money.

After I clicked “agree” I quickly received an email
from Amazon outlining the three options I had for being an associate:
1. Link to their home page. As far as I can see, no real benefit
except to Amazon. 2. Put one of their Amazon search boxes on
our site. Perhaps it would be a benefit for another site, but
our purpose is solely to make it easier for visitors to purchase
Dr. Brooks’ books while online. 3. Link to individual products.
Ah-ha!

The email spells out how to put the link in, all you need to
do is replace their special page number (which shows a current
best-seller) with the page you are interested in by searching
for the product in question. I also decided to “frame” the
Amazon site so there would always be a visible link back to my
father’s page. To see how this is all laid out please visit http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/books.shtml
and click on either of the Amazon.com logos.

The entire process took me a little over an hour to complete,
not too bad in terms of time. The question still remains if this
will prove to be a benefit for the visitors to his site. I’ll
keep you posted.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

Search Engine Considerations

SEARCH ENGINE CONSIDERATIONS

Note: This article was written back in 1998 and is woefully out of date.
Here’s a newer version which isn’t quite as out of date.

In the past few months I’ve received a number of questions from clients
about why they can’t find their site when they use a search engine.
There are a number of reasons why this might be, including the site is
too new, the topic too broad or their search query is too vague. Sometimes
there’s no good reason, and a resubmission of the site takes care of the
problem. Many search engine gurus suggest resubmitting your site once
a month to avoid disappearing.

In this article I’m going to give you a basic overview of search
engines. There’s more information on search engines that I could
ever put into one article, and if you’re interested in this topic
I suggest you look at http://www.searchenginewatch.com by Danny
Sullivan. It’s just one of the search engine resources you can
find on my resources page at http://www.writeitdown.com/resources.html.
[Defunct.]

While search engines are a very common method that people use
to information on the web, they’re not the only way. The latest
statistics (as reported in the Wall Street Journal) put the number
of web pages at 350 million and growing exponentially, so it’s
going to become harder and harder to get your site into the top
ten most relevant pages in a given search. Especially if your
type of business is well represented on the Web; i.e. graphic
designers, X-Files collectibles, or sadly, web site designers.
In other words, don’t ignore search engine considerations, but
don’t lose sleep over them either. (That’s my job.)

Before we start, some quick definitions. (Don’t worry, this
will be painless.) Search engines are applications that “search” the
web, using programs called spiders or robots to gather information
from web pages and bring it back to a search engine’s database.
When you enter a search query, (i.e. Tibet,) the engine generally
searches against its own index, not the entire web. This is why
some search engines won’t show your pages for up to a couple
of months even if you submit the pages to them. Also, services
like Yahoo! are not search engines, but directories. This means
there is a team of humans–those living, breathing bipeds–who
take submitted URL’s (uniform resource locators or “website
addresses”,) review them and add the page to their directory
if they see fit. There are several major search engines and directories,
and everybody has a favorite. Some of the most popular are Yahoo!
(http://www.yahoo.com), Alta Vista (http://www.digital.alta-vista.com),
HotBot, (http://www.hotbot.com), Excite! (http://www.excite.com),
Lycos, (http://www.lycos.com), Webcrawler, (http://www.webcrawler.com),
and Northern Light (you guessed it, http://www.northernlight.com).

When you enter your query the engine looks through its database
and pulls up documents–web sites in most cases–that it thinks
meets your criteria. The number of documents returned depends
on how broad (Tibet) or narrow (Tibetan rap bands) your query
is, bringing the results to your browser window, generally 10
or so at a time.

Search engine administrators are constantly trying to improve
their products so that they return more targeted and relevant
results while many website creators are constantly trying to
tweak their websites so they come up higher in the ranking. These
two goals often come into conflict as many website owners continually
try to push the limits of acceptable behavior while the search
engines are trying to keep the playing field level. Some tricks
website owners use fall into the category of spamming. Some examples
include over-repetition of keywords, using same color text and
background (so the search engine sees the text but not the viewer)
or using keywords that don’t reflect the site’s topic. For instance,
sites may add a mention of “Monica Lewinsky” because
they know people will perform searches on her, (so to speak).
Search engines have moved to disallow pages using these techniques.

However, what passes for spamming isn’t universal. Also, many
of the engines continually change their own rules to further
frustrate spammers. They believe that if people searching for
information feel the search engine isn’t returning relevant documents,
they’ll stop using that engine for another one, which then brings
down the search engine’s value to advertisers. (Doesn’t it always
come back to money?)

Tips: Although every search engine has its own mechanism for
determining relevance, there are some tips you can use to improve
your ranking. Perhaps the most important aspect of your page
is the title. “Welcome!” or “My
Company’s Home Page
” are not good. Nobody searches for these words. (If
they did, they would receive over a million irrelevant documents.) “Tibet:
The History of a People
” or “New Techniques
for Fighting Halitosis
” are more likely to bring people to your site
who are interested in these topics.

Meta-Tags: These tags aren’t seen by visitors, but many search
engines use them for relevancy ratings. It allows the creator
to give the search engine a brief description of the page, the
keywords, who the author is, and any other information the creator
wants to pass along. Certain search engines ignore meta-tags
since some website designers use inappropriate keywords. For
example, a children’s clothes shop may use “child safety” to
lure parents to their site. Many sites use adult-oriented keywords
to attract visitors even if their site is about real estate.
(Adult topics are still the most popular queries.)

Since some search engines count the number of words on the page
as part of their relevancy testing, a short page that mentions “New
England Patriots” twice might be deemed more relevant than
a longer page that mentions next year’s Super Bowl champs five
times.

Duplicate pages: I’m not sure if this is considered spamming,
but I’ve had some luck creating duplicate versions of the same
page, changing around some keywords or shortening the page, and
submitting both pages. (I generally don’t submit them on the
same day as some search engines consider that to be spamming.)
Sometimes it’s just interesting to see where almost identical
pages match up.

For example, if your media relations company has offices in
Boston and L.A. you could duplicate your home page and put Boston-related
keywords on one page, saving it as boston.html and L.A.-related
keywords on the other, saving it as la.html. Submitting both
pages might get you a higher rating if someone searched under “Boston
media”.

Search Engine specific pages: If a search engine ignores meta-tags
it might be good to duplicate a page, take out the tags and submit
it specifically to that search engine.

There are many other variables that affect relevancy including
JavaScript, use of frames or tables, subject matter, the waxing
and waning of the moon….If you are still hungry for information
please go to http://www.writeitdown.com/search_engines.html [Defunct]
and check out some of the links there.

Remember, search engines aren’t the only methods of bringing
people to your site. Traditional media, banner swap programs,
online malls, and web rings are just a few alternative methods
to alerting people to your offerings.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

10 Questions to Ask Before Setting Up a Web site

10 QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE SETTING UP A WEB SITE

Important: This article was written back in 1997. Here’s
a newer version
.

Most of these questions don’t have one right answer, they’re meant to
get you thinking. However, as always I’ll put my .02 in wherever I get
a chance.

Will my website be for marketing or sales?

The
answer could be both of course. However, it’s important to
outline your goals before throwing money at the internet. If you’ve got
goods or services to sell, by all means do it. If you plan on taking credit
card orders online look into getting a secure line from your ISP (Internet
Service Provider) . Plan on having pictures of your wares (if applicable)
so people can browse your inventory.

However, it may be that you just want to advertise or market your services
online, create awareness of your organization or just disseminate information
to your members. Although you can change your decision later on you should
have a goal when first starting out.

Back to Questions

Are my customers online?

If you love new technology
you may want to put your business or organization on the web
regardless of whether your customers are online. This is a foolish mistake,
and you know what they say about a fool and his money.

A few years ago my first website was for my then employer, a medical
supply company. We sold to nursing homes and home health agencies as well
as some homebound patients. Most of our end users were 65 or above. Although
the demographics on the web have changed, at the time few seniors were
online. We ended up gearing the website towards caregivers and children
of seniors and got better response. However, we were still a little ahead
of the curve on that one.

Look at what you sell: who buys it? Are your customers spending time
online looking for what you have to offer? If the answer is no, your resources
could best be used elsewhere.

Back to Questions

What are the components to getting a website up and running?

1. Designing the site: creating graphics, text, content, etc.

2. Getting someone (most likely an ISP) to host your site.

3. Getting access to the internet (often through a dial-up account).

4. Managing your site: answering email, creating fresh content, redesigning
the site to keep it fresh.

Back to Questions

Do I hire somebody to design my site or do I take
it inhouse?

Do you do your own taxes or hire an accountant? Do you change
your own oil or go to Jiffy Lube?

It all depends. If you don’t have the budget to hire someone, or if you
or an employee feel comfortable in creating a site then you should consider
keeping it inhouse. However, if you do have the budget or you don’t have
a lot of experience creating sites, you should look to hire someone. Like
any other type of marketing your website should look professional or don’t
bother getting one at all.

Like any business decision you have to decide if you’re creating more
value for your company by doing something yourself or sourcing it out.

Back to Questions

How much time each month, each week and each day
can I set aside for my website?

Look at your schedule. Do you tell people
that you can’t meet them for lunch until sometime next month?
Do you have trouble returning all your calls the same day? Are you booked
solid through next April? As simple as HTML is, it still takes time to
learn how to make it work best. Besides the learning curve of HTML or
an HTML editor, it takes a lot more time to learn how to make a website
attractive, how to upload your pages, how to make it rank higher in search
engines, and so on. If you plan on having fresh content that takes time,
too. The women selling rubber sunglasses on the AT&T ad are not real.

Back to Questions

What should I budget? For start up? For monthly
fees?

If someone else is creating a site for you their prices may range
from a few hundred to several thousand dollars depending
on your needs. If you’re planning on creating your own site you may want
to invest in an HTML editor ($150 or so,) and at least one
book on HTML ($30-50.) Mac users can scrimp on the editor by writing the
HTML in SimpleText and Window’s users can do it in Notepad, but editors
make it quicker and simpler. How much is your time worth?

You should already have a good image editor on your computer, Photoshop
if you can afford it. Often a Limited Edition version of Photoshop comes
bundled with a scanner ($400 and up) which you may need to scan in your
brochures, pictures, etc. You can avoid some of these costs by having
literature scanned at a local copy shop and working with it on a friend’s
image editor.

If you choose to get your own domain name (www.yourcompany.com) it will
cost you $100 to register it for 2 years, $50 a year after that. You can
expect $20 or so dollars from your ISP as a one time fee as well.

As far as monthly fees go, you can expect $10-25 for a dial-up account,
and $30-60 and up to an ISP for virtual domain hosting. Getting a secure
line for online transactions will run you more in most cases.

Of course, this is all assuming you already own a decent computer.

Back to Questions

Should I get my own domain name? (www.example.com)

Yes.
Although it isn’t essential, the cost isn’t a lot (compared
to renting space for a storefront, printing a catalog, etc.) and not having
one makes you look unprofessional. Fewer and fewer people will take you
seriously with a ` (tilde) in your URL.

Back to Questions

Where do I advertise my site?

Everywhere you can.
Put your URL on your business card, literature, stationery,
faxes, yellow page ads and so on.

Look into banner exchange programs such as LinkExchange and others. Search
the web looking for sites that may complement what you’re selling. If
you sell travel videos try finding sites that deal with travel or that
advertise bed & breakfasts where your videos were shot and try and
trade links.

Use a small tag line as your signature to your emails. Many mail programs
such as Eudora have a signature file so you don’t have to repeat your
signature for each email. It might go like this:

Sincerely,

Jane

____________________________

Jane Doe Productions

Travel Videos for the Couch Potato

www.travel-potatoes.com

____________________________

Taking the example of travel videos you should check out some newsgroups
that deal with your topic, such as rec.travel. Don’t just post an advertisement
for your site, however, many newsgroups frown on such blatant displays
of capitalism. Lurk for a few days, and if appropriate respond to a question
that someone might pose, and don’t forget to leave your signature.

Back to Questions

How do I attract more traffic to my site?

Advertise.
(See above.)

Also, consider adding fresh content on a regular basis. By content I’m
talking about information that people who are interested in your goods
and services can get from your site. If you are selling gardening supplies,
a weekly tip or article explaining the intricacies of horticulture will
bring back a steady stream of visitors. Try putting a couple of appropriate
hypertext links within the article that link to a specific gardening tool
within your catalog.

Back to Questions

How do I know that my site is successful?

Look
back at your goals. Have you met them? If your plan was have
your website increase sales are you moving more product? If it was to
market your business is it generating more leads for your sales staff?
If it was to disseminate information to your members is your receptionist
having to field less questions about next month’s speaker?

Back to Questions

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

What’s More Important: Content or Presentation?

WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT: CONTENT OR PRESENTATION?

Important: This article was written back in 1997, and a lot of the information
has changed. You’ll get more
out of the updated version here
.

I don’t know, what makes a rectangle bigger: its height or its width?
Although content is king, presentation is essential to a successful site.

Why do people say “Content is King”? Because alliteration is
fun. And because visitors won’t continue to come back to a static website.
This summer I took my five year old cousin to Universal Studios. He had
no problem seeing “E.T. The Adventure” twice and was upset when
I refused to stand in line for a third go round. I’m sure he would have
gone on that ride a dozen times if I had been willing. When I was a kid
at Canobie Lake Park I rode the Turkish Twist ten times in a row. What
does this prove? Kids are easily entertained. (Just look at Barney.) However,
adults need more varied stimuli.

“If you build it, they will come.” However, if you don’t change
it, they won’t be back. Perhaps a couple of years ago all you needed to
do was put up a page with your business’s hours and phone number and you
could count on some local newspaper coverage to get you traffic. Now most
people are savvy enough to search out new information, and they will only
become “regulars” if your site presents fills this need.

You can create fresh content on a regular basis. (You can also buy content
from companies that specialize in that market, but for the time being
we’ll just concentrate on your own work.) Content updates can be handled
in two ways. If you know the basics of HTML and how to upload files you
can do it by yourself. However, if you are unsure on either of these steps,
you should work with your webmaster. You might be able to email, (or even
snail mail,) the fresh content to your webmaster, and they can upload
it for you.

The other side of the equation is presentation. When was the last time
you went to a good restaurant and they served you a steak without at least
a sprig of parsley on the side? I’m sure you didn’t eat the parsley, it
was just there for presentation’s sake to make the steak look more appetizing.
(Vegetarians can substitute a garden burger for steak if they prefer;
but I’m afraid they might eat the parsley, thus ruining my analogy.)

An old Jewish tradition has teachers putting honey on their students’
writing tablets at the beginning of the school year to symbolize that
learning can be sweet. Although I find this practice to be slightly disturbing,
or at least unsanitary, the point is that presentation allows your visitor
to be enticed into your site and will appreciate your content even more.

However, no one will hang around your site if they have to wait for slow-loading
graphics, or if the navigation is confusing or if the colors are garish,
(a common problem at all Grateful Dead fan sites.)

When it comes to presentation, there is no one right approach. Certain
sites try to be attractive by using large graphics, Java applets, Shockwave
by Macromedia, sound effects and so on. However, for most sites this is
unnecessary and perhaps detrimental. All of these techniques take a long
time to download to your visitors computer, and if they are on a slow
connection, they’ll go find one of your competitors. If you are advertising
a new blockbuster movie, or a new Netscape Plug-In, or if you know most
of your prospects are using a cable modem hook-up this might be appropriate.
If not, you should try and find another way.

At some point in the future we will all have lightning quick access to
the internet, and then file size will no longer matter. Until that time
comes, however, there will be a constant battle to reduce the size of
your files, (text documents, pictures, sounds and so on.) Since using
images is the most common way of spicing up a site on the web, here are
some quick tips to shrink downloading time.

Small graphics load up faster than big ones. Well, duh. However, as you
surf the web, you will notice that many designers have forgotten this.

Use GIF’s and JPEGs appropriately. Both of these platforms are used to
compress images over the internet, and both have pluses and minuses. GIF’s
are best used for simple images, such as buttons, small icons, company
logos, etc. They can show up to 256 colors in a single image, but can
be made smaller by reducing the number of colors. They also have the ability
to be interlaced (browsers will show a low resolution version while the
high resolution image is loading,) and they support transparency, allowing
part of the background to show through. JPEG’s on the other hand display
thousands of colors; however, they do not currently support interlacing
or transparency, though both of those attributes may soon be implemented.
Also, JPEG’s use a “lossy” form of compression, meaning that
they throw away information to reduce their size. Saving a JPEG of a JPEG
is like making a copy of a copy at the office. You lose something each
time.

Recycle your images. Most of the wait for an image to appear on a web
page is due to the transfer time of the file to a visitor’s hard drive.
Once it’s on the hard drive it displays fairly quickly. You can cut down
the wait by reusing images. This also sets up a feeling of repetition,
which is important in design. (So I’ve been told.) One good way of implementing
this is by having your company logo appear at the top of every page.

These three tips just scratch the surface and in upcoming articles I’ll
go into more detail on how to best use graphics throughout your site,
and navigation tips to make getting around your website easier.

Remember to balance interesting, changing content with a quality presentation
and you will be well on your way to having a well-travelled website.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media