By Doug Swanson, Ed.D

Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a three-part series exploring how small firms can take advantage of the strengths of the Internet to advance their business goals. Part I will help you understand the Internet and the World Wide Web, and plan the construction or updating of your business website. Part II will help you determine whether to “do it yourself” or hire a professional to design your website. Part III will discuss the most effective strategies for hosting, maintaining and promoting websites for maximum impact in the computer-mediated environment of the 21st century.


Hundreds of thousands of retail and wholesale businesses are using the World Wide Web for advertising, sales and promotion—to reach consumers with specific information about products and services that improve people’s lives. If your business isn’t using the World Wide Web (also known as the Web or WWW) to reach customers and potential customers about the water treatment products and services you offer, you’re missing an incredible opportunity to build your business image, make sales and promote better overall consumer understanding of water-related issues.

Through the display of information in graphics and text, a website can help your business establish a professional business image, a key element of product and service marketing. A website display will allow you to target specific information to specific consumers. An online presence will also allow your water treatment business to maintain an ongoing dialogue with customers and potential customers—to illustrate to them in a dynamic way that your business is ideally equipped to solve their water problems.

If you don’t yet have a business website, you need one. If you do have a website, you need to continually refine it to make it better. You also need to have an active promotional plan to direct consumers to your site—and keep them coming back. This series of articles will help you get started.

The information highway
The Internet, or as it’s sometimes referred to—”the information highway”—is the place most consumers typically think of first these days when they need to gather information about a subject of interest to them. Of course, the Internet really isn’t a “place” at all.

The Internet is a worldwide, informal network of linked computers that allows people to send and receive person-to-person messages. The system was developed in the early 1960s by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of a military strategy to enable communication networks to survive a nuclear attack. The system jumped from the government to the private sector in the late 1980s, spurred on by improving hardware and software technology—including development of the modem, a device that allows computers to share information and transfer files via telephone lines.

A growing consumer market driven in part by falling prices on desktop computer systems began bringing the Internet into homes and offices on a large scale in the early 1990s. By 1997, a third of American homes were equipped with a computer and many were using the Internet.

The World Wide Web is the most popular graphically driven network dimension of the Internet. Its existence was made possible through software advances in the late 1980s. The Web is a vivid, colorful environment that uses illustration, motion and sound to catch and hold users’ attention. It’s an environment where people don’t just view information—they participate in it. In 1995, the number of active websites totaled around 19,000. Today, there are more than a million.

Competitive advantage
It’s easy to see why a presence on the WWW would benefit any business. A website allows any business a competitive advantage in a marketplace with no barriers to entry, aside from technological concerns. Through its website, a company can target specific product and service information to specific customer markets. The company also can change and update information easily and inexpensively. Most importantly, the business can increase the speed at which consumers gather information about products, and the level at which they may access it. A retail presence online evens out competitive disadvantages between companies, large and small.

The Web isn’t a panacea for sagging sales. If you don’t offer a broad range of products backed up by effective local service, it isn’t going to shore up your business. But on the other hand, it does provide a critical communications link with today’s technologically savvy consumer. So if your business isn’t on the Web, you’re losing business.

The World Wide Web is a social medium. It supports and encourages human action through use of computer-mediated technology and symbols. In order for your business to gain the most benefit from a WWW site, the site needs to be developed and used in the most positive way.

Most importantly, you need to think of the Website as a social place, where customers and potential customers can interact with you to learn about how your business will solve their water problems. In order to make the most of this interaction, your WWW site should be structured to operate in accordance with customers’ visual, operational and informational expectations.

Visual
The most important aspect of your site–at least initially–is the visual. Your website needs to be attractive to the eye and simple enough so it will load up and appear in similar color tones on anyone’s monitor. Avoid garish colors, funky-looking text or odd symbols. Resist the urge to be “cute” or “clever.” Instead, strive for a design that’s crisp, clear, and intellectually and artistically understandable to any user, regardless of the user’s level of expertise and social or cultural background.

It’s always a good idea to have color photos representing your products, services and overall business image. But keep use of photos and other graphic elements to a minimum. Excessive graphic content will result in slow loading or rendering times on users’ computers. “You have 20 seconds to make an impression with your website,” warns journalist and web designer Carole Rich. “That’s all the time you’ll get before visitors to your site decide to stay or leave.” Since it’s so easy for customers to “click away” from your site—restrict the total graphic content of your WWW site (for the technologically oriented, this means 20 kilobytes or less of total size).

Operational
Even the most visually informative and “valuable” website is of no value if it cannot be accessed by users. So, experts agree that site technical elements must be compatible with the highest possible number of potential users—and that users should be able to clearly “work” your site once they access it. Practically speaking, this means your site needs to have a simple directory or table of contents, easy-to-understand navigational symbols within the site, and clearly defined links to all posted information sources.

If you include hyperlinks make sure they all work! One recent survey found 30 percent of business websites had non-working hyperlinks—the ‘90s equivalent of having your business telephone number “disconnected.” You should also include information on “date of last revision” (the date when you last updated your site). The Web is an ever-changing, active medium. Web users demand current information on sites, and they flee from sites that are “old.” And yet it’s surprising how many website hosts all but ignore site updates and changes. (More than 22 percent of the promotional websites I analyzed for my doctoral dissertation had no date of last revision noted. Among those that did list a date, the typical site had not been revised in more than nine months. One site was 3½ years old.)

A key operational element of your site should be an email address. Email allows the online customer to make immediate contact with you regarding products and services. So, make sure your email link is easy to use, and that you answer all email requests promptly. A 1999 survey by a California software developer found 85 percent of Fortune 100 firms failed to respond to a simple email inquiry within three hours. A total of 36 percent of the firms either couldn’t be contacted at all via email from corporate websites or never responded to email inquiries. What do these findings suggest about these firms’ concerns for customer service?

Informational
Text-based information should be presented on your website in a clear, easy to use way, and in its full and accurate business, historical and cultural context. This information should be organized the way customers and potential customers would be expected to want it. Recognize that not all users have the same thinking patterns or computer skills. Keep things simple.

What’s the most important information you want customers and potential customers to have about your business, your products, services, people and technical expertise? Include this information on your site. Avoid listing any information that’s irrelevant to people with whom you want to do business. Remember, too, that the information you post will be available worldwide. So take a close look at everything you’re going to post to the WWW with a very critical eye. Make sure everything you claim is legally correct, ethically sound, and socially appropriate.

The information needs to be more focused on quality than quantity. As a social, interactive medium, the Web isn’t a medium for “reading” per se. WWW users do not like to have to scroll endlessly through paragraph after paragraph, searching for the information they want. Keep things simple. Remember, too, technical, graphic, symbolic and text-based elements of a website all support and are supported by the business image you want to project.

Surf the web
Aside from these general suggestions, probably the best way to plan for creation of your own website is to surf the Web and see what other companies are doing. Your point is not to copy what others do; rather, you want to come up with general creative ideas that will work for your business. Look at existing sites inside and outside the water purification field. Decide what general creative ideas you like—and dislike. While you’re at it, take a look at some existing design guidelines for websites. These guidelines will help you ask the questions of yourself that will result in a more creative WWW design, which is more applicable to your business and your customers.

Conclusion
If you haven’t yet launched a website for your water conditioning business, I hope this information has helped you see that you need to do so. If you’ve already posted a website, the information should give you some ideas for making it better.

Although starting an online presence on the World Wide Web can be a complicated endeavor, it can also be very rewarding—because it gives you yet another avenue through which to market your business and promote your professional image in the community. In our next segment we’ll examine the pros and cons of website design: Should you do it yourself—or hire a professional?

References

  1. Ellsworth, J. H., and M.V. Ellsworth, Marketing on the Internet, (2nd Ed.), John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997.
  2. Forsythe, C., E. Grose and J. Ratner (Eds.), Human factors and Web development, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, N.J., 1998.
  3. Helmstetter, G., Increasing hits and selling more on your Website, John Wiley & Son, New York, 1997.
  4. Rich, C., Creating online media, McGraw-Hill, Boston, 1999.
  5. Siskind, G. H., and T.J. Moses, The lawyer’s guide to marketing on the Internet, American Bar Association Section of Law Practice Management, Chicago, 1996.
  6. Wyatt, J. C., “Measuring quality and impact of the World Wide Web,” BMJ Publishing Group Homepage, June 28, 1997: http://www.bmj.com/archive/7098ip2.htm

About the author
Doug Swanson, Ed.D., has more than 18 years experience in media, marketing and public relations work. A former journalist and broadcaster, Swanson holds the endowed professorship in journalism at Oklahoma Baptist University and does extensive public relations and Internet consultation. He formerly worked as a general manager for Rayne Corp. water conditioning dealerships in North Hollywood and Glendale, Calif.

Using the web to untangle yourself
Here are just three of the dozens of website design guidelines available through online searches:

Web Page Evaluation Worksheet
Dr. Nancy Everhart, Duke University:
www.duke.edu/~de1/evaluate.html

The “Seven Cs” of Web Service Design
The Georgia Web Group, University of Georgia
www.uga.edu/design/

Checklist for Evaluating Websites
Canisius College, Buffalo, NY
www.canisius.edu/canhp/canlib/webcrit.htm

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