OK, I've been busy. With the holidays, projects at work, and studying for my CF 7 Certification Exam, I am a little behind on my postings. So, I thought to do a little cross work posting here. This is the full, un-edited article which I wrote for the December edition of 'Dealer Marketing Monthly', a publication targeted to the automotive dealership industry (for which my employer develops and hosts websites). Editors, lovely people that they are, cut the article content in half and changed the tone entirely, prior to publication, so I give it to you here in it's totally un-edited splendor. May you gain some small nut of insight/knowledge/humor from reading my ramblings.

Why does everyone place so much importance on the internet? It's just a fad, right? Like video games, or cell phones, or karaoke. It'll never catch on.

Ok, we all know better. Internet popularity blossomed somewhere around 1994, and it's only exploded since then. But what does it really mean to the average business today? How do you justify paying for hosting, development and maintenance, in relation to the bottom line? What value does it really serve to your organization? Why does this guy keep asking me questions?

In the height of the dot com boom of the mid-nineties everyone was trying to make money "on the net." Trying to find a way to sell goods and services directly on the web. This led to the dot com bust, where most companies discovered that consumers still liked to kick the tires. Sure, e-commerce has grown significantly over the last decade, but nowhere near what was originally being forecasted. A major shift in thinking about the internet was in order. Here was this wonderful piece of technology, becoming more and more accessible by the day to people around the world, but very few could figure out how to make a buck.

After many years of working in the internet industry, in many different vertical markets, I've seen several things that stand out with successful business sites:

  1. The Internet Is A Medium Of Information

A business site does not always mean e-commerce. Most successful business sites provide a bridge between themselves and their consumers, giving them detailed information on all of their products and services. A successful business site gives enough brief overview of it's products and services to answer quick questions without the user having to wade through too much information, but also gives them the option to 'drill down' easily through details they might be searching for. This gives your users enough information to begin making some informed decisions on what they want, and decreases the amount of time they need to spend on the phone, or in your place of business, asking questions and tying up your sales peoples' time. They walk in, test drive the gold Lotus in the showroom, and write you a check, because they already know the safety ratings, miles per gallon, and what colors they can order it in. A website is a really advanced marketing tool for your business, which can translate into a huge return on investment when utilized well.

  1. Websites Should Always Change...And, They Shouldn't

If the content of a business site never changes then the user has no real reason to return, they saw it all the first time. However, basic layout of the look and feel of a site (headers, footers, navigation) should be decided upon early, finalized, and remain consistent throughout a site. Just like your company logo or that catchy jingle you can't get out of your head, a website is an extension of your business' image, and that branding is just as important. That doesn't mean never change the look, adjustments in color and content can go a long way to keeping some interest, but 'branding' should always be your key. Return visitors want to find things the way they always have, so any changes to usability should be thought out well and assist your users with that in mind. No, changes that keep them coming back are content changes, specials that always change, featured items, updating calendars, advertisements, and company or community information. Changes in inventory do count, but not so much if they already know your product line.

  1. Good Sites Take Feedback

Let's look at a case study real quick. Amazon sells books. We all know what books feel like (I hope), and you can't really judge a book by it's cover, so why does Amazon work? Well, it gives you a basic idea about the book, price, cover art, basic contents, maybe a synopsis from the publisher. Amazon also allows other users to write reviews of books, rate the books, go on about the books. Simple forms gather the info from users and redisplay it for everyone. What does this do for them? It gives them a mailing list of people interested in books (good marketing tool if not abused), it provides fresh content for their site, and it tells their users that they are important enough to ask their opinion.

  1. Successful Businesses Don't Abuse Their Clients

If you receive seven million spam e-mails from a company, are you likely to use their goods or services anymore? Especially if they don't offer you a way out? Every business wants leads, people that they know might be interested in their goods and services. Offering them specials, or informing them about new products can easily be viewed as a service to both them and your company, as long as you don't beat it to death. Establishing a solid practice of contact and follow-up, without being viewed as pushy, be it via e-mail, snail mail, or over the phone, can make or break a future sale. And giving those users a way to stop 'subscriptions' is more than just a courtesy, it's a necessity.

  1. You Know Your Business Better Than Anybody

It's great to use companies who know your industry to create a great website for you. Hopefully they give you tools to keep things fresh, rather than giving you something static. Just remember, it's still your site. If you don't update the calendar, or specials, or advertisements, then the site doesn't change and users don't come back. Your site developers might provide services for updating inventory on the site, but inventory is expected to be updated, and product lines don't change that often. Staying on top of the little things keep you 'in front' of your users, and that level of control is something that typically can't be automated. You know your business, your area, your products, and your clients better than any site builder/provider possibly can, so it's up to you to use the tools you're given to make a site work for your business.

When scouting out people to build a web presence for your business make sure that they give you the tools you need to make it successful for you. Good looking sites will attract users. Good information that's consistently easy to find will keep them there for a while. Respecting your users will keep them loyal. Continuous change will give them reasons to come back for more.