By Steven Delgado, WC&P Associate Editor
I suppose it could be said that much of this column’s space is very critical of websites, with no apparent favorites. Websites reviewed in the last year have included topics ranging from non-profit, fringe organizations to the trade association of our primary readership, the point-of-use/point-of-entry residential water treatment dealers. The reviews had a tendency to pick on slow, not updated or technically prehistoric websites, so I thought readers would like to hear some do’s and don’ts from someone besides myself.
Stephanie Gallagher has been reviewing business websites since the Internet race really took off in the early 1990s and is currently in the process of starting a print newsletter called What’s Working Online, which—as the title suggests—will cover what businesses are doing on Internet. This would include which strategies are working and which are not.
Most common mistakes
The two biggest mistakes companies make when investing in an online presence center on who’s in charge of the website and what exactly is being done.
When small or medium companies get into the web, Gallagher says, they often turn over the website’s management and vision to one of their technology people—either one of the company’s in-house computer gurus or an outside firm—instead of appointing a senior level executive to manage it. “You wouldn’t put your advertising campaign in the hands of the printer; you would put it in the hands of a marketer. Just because a printer is executing or facilitating making it happen, doesn’t mean they should be involved in strategic decision making,” she says.
A second common mistake is bogging the website down with new technology. Just because a website option is new or the money is there to invest doesn’t necessarily mean you should invest it in new technology, or that it’s even “field tested.” Gallagher says many large companies are “just not getting it” when it comes to making these web decisions.
One example she uses is General Foods’ Cheerios website (www.cheerios.com). “Now here’s a company smart enough to know that kids are its first audience and its first market is the parents of kids, not 10- or 15-year-old computer whizzes,” she said. “Yet here’s a website that’s unbelievably difficult to load. They’ve poured a ton of money into frames; but, if your browser isn’t set at the right dimensions to view it, the website actually asks you to leave and change the dimensions of your browser, which not only calls for logging off the Internet but shutting off your computer and restarting it. As a consumer, how interested in Cheerios do I have to be to go to that kind of trouble?” Particularly, if you’re 12.
But in a practical sense, Gallagher says the Cheerios decision-makers were smart enough to feature experts that advise on potty training and other practical information for the consumer within the website. Another web lesson: a good website can be beneficial content-wise, but with technical complications comes limited access—resulting in fewer multiple-page hits and lost revenue. “It should’ve been a marketing person, senior executive or product manager who set the goals for that website,” she said.
“Business-to-business companies are typically much further ahead and seem to know what they’re doing. They seem to understand that the Internet is a business facilitation medium just like FedEx, a fax or a computer. They don’t seem to fall into the same mistakes as the consumer sites do,” Gallagher said.
However, she said one of the main problems with small- and medium-size companies is they don’t think about what specifically they want from the website. Strategies begin with thinking things like “My competitor is online,” “Everybody’s doing it,” and “Let’s contact some firm and get a website.”
“That’s not a good way to go about doing it,” Gallagher says. “Goals for the site need to be laid out in specifics.” Questions such as “What are you doing this for?” should be addressed immediately. Is it to keep up with your competition? Or will your website simply be an Internet presence? “That’s fine. Having just a presence is a good reason. But you’ve just described a website that’ll list the history of the company, or a site that will list water purification and how it works, but not an e-commerce site that says ‘Buy your filters here,’ or ‘Sign up for this service here.’”
Keep in mind, designing websites can be time-consuming and costly, if it’s more than just a homepage with a few informational link pages to drive emails or phone calls for traditional sales channels. When all is said and done, a fully operational website should pay for itself and then some. After all, without making a profit, a business venture will not last long.
If service is an established goal for the site, for instance, then it needs to go beyond a “Company History” page. Exactly what type of service to be offered online needs to be proposed, then executed. Gallagher suggests to online dealerships one service option, to allow customers to set up automatic service email reminders. This could be presented on the same page that covers the disadvantages of not changing your filters when required, or progressive solutions for keeping up with this service, besides marking a wall calendar.
Customer service has quickly evolved in tandem with website technology. “Many operations are able to make customer service a low priority: They don’t spend a lot of money on it by hiring lower level people, and they actually ignore things like customer letters for weeks,” Gallagher said.
“Email is entirely different. If customers don’t get a response almost immediately after they email you, they will be ticked off. Even 24 hours is a long time in the email world,” she added. Online customer service expectations are very high and companies just arriving on the Internet should be aware of this.
One sidenote on this service trend is that customers now have a number of instantaneous electronic options for communicating bad service; it takes almost no effort to not only complain to their friends but to take their complaints to interested authorities. Gallagher points out that attorney generals in almost every state currently have websites, and that’s not mentioning the Federal Trade Commission or the Food and Drug Administration. “Today’s consumers can quickly say they didn’t like your style and boom, you’ve got trouble,” she said.
Customer service order forms or email reminder services are examples of specific web service goals that can be outlined. “This would represent a well thought-out plan for doing business online—to bring your customers more value than is available by traditional means.” Gallagher said. “But if your reasons for being online are entirely different, why would you employ a secure server or get involved in technologies you don’t need? You really need to think out the goals.”
Another website challenge with many companies is to make an initial investment, then abruptly drop the project. So not only are some companies not updating their sites frequently enough, they’re not accepting the fact that the technology, as well as the marketing techniques, are continually changing. “They way companies have gone about doing business in the past has to change. Changes here are not monthly, not weekly, not annually but sometimes two or three times a week and sometimes two or three times a day,” she says.
The new media directors are the ones to keep track of this, the people assigned to managing the website. “What they tell me is so frustrating about this position is that once they get a handle on it, it changes. And they can’t get in to see the higher ups in the organization of the company to implement the changes fast enough.” Often these directors have to move on something now, Gallagher says. They can’t wait, and that’s usually another problem.
What many companies end up doing is investing in a site as if they were arranging the interior decoration of a room, where you buy the designer, pay them, buy the furniture, then leave. This is a hard thing for companies to accept—that Internet and website technology and products are constantly changing, and some of the normal channels they have in place will have to be removed in order to expedite changes.
Depending upon how a site’s navigation is structured with interlocking coding for different pages, an entire website may need to be redesigned to be fully upgraded, which makes the initial designing of your site using some flexibility for expansion or modifications extremely important.
Another unique challenge with the Internet is the difficulty in identifying your competition. The days of knowing exactly who your competitors are, what they’re doing and how they do business are over. Now, your biggest competitor could be a company that didn’t even exist six months ago.
Gallagher sites supermarkets as a good example of this. PeaPod, Webvan and Streamline are all entering major markets and taking business from local grocers. Another good example is in the bridal market.
“Brides Magazine was the 800-pound gorilla of the industry,” Gallagher said. “The first thing a new bride does when she gets engaged is run out and buy a the magazine. But she doesn’t buy for bridal advice or to find the proper way to word an invitation; she buys it to look at dresses.
“Now you can go to a website at www.theknot.com and you can type in such specifics as A-lining, no sleeves and ivory color, and select your pricing: between $1,000 and $2,000. Boom. In seconds you’ll get every designer that makes dresses for those parameters. There are hundreds.”
Gallagher notes that the bridal industry is one of the most sophisticated industries online—one with a unique, highly-energized audience. Meanwhile, Brides Magazine publisher Conde Nast was absolutely sure it had a lock on the market. But last January The Knot generated 900,000 “unique” hits a month—not just hits, which can be the same viewers returning again and again and getting counted each time but “new” visitors. “Measuring just hits is now the worse thing to measure,” Gallagher says.
The number of “unique” hits recorded by The Knot is impressive because it’s close to the circulation number of Brides Magazine. “Now, if your viewing the site from both work and home, that number could conceivably be halved, as it could be the same person but with two different Internet servers,” she said.
Companies can do much smarter things with their websites than they’re doing now, according to Gallagher. They can start Internet projects very small, with much smaller ambitions. Once this is done well, they can then build from there if they feel additional services or goals are important to specific marketing strategies.
Website standards are also changing fast and drastically. With such eluding characteristics, it’s no wonder that some companies can barely see informal Internet guidelines, let alone catch them and comply.
This column has always touted benefits to the users or viewers of websites as strong assets for a site, but an addendum to this philosophy is needed: The benefits of the website should meet the demands of both the viewers and the host business.
For more information on What’s Working Online, an eight-page, biweekly newsletter covering strategic website decision making, you can call Georgetown Publishing—producers of The Executive Advantage and The Organized Executive—at (800) 915-0012.
Business-to-business: Moving at the speed of light
In the United States, e-commerce is taking control of the business world; many companies have already made adjustments to an e-commerce focus on information and sales. Many more are in the planning stages and almost ready to make e-commerce the main goal and focus. Presented here are examples of web-only, business-to-business vertical online communities with a history of rapid development, introduction and accelerated marketshare.
Access Business Online is a complicated web community of approximately 3,000 businesses seeking communication with one another. Find the “BizWiz Search” function and type in “drinking water” to review virtual competition. My search found 50 companies.
e-Steel: The Global Marketplace for Steel is the steel industry’s virtual exchange that guarantees buyers and sellers confident, efficient transactions. The most comprehensive e-commerce website reviewed here. Industry divisions offered right on the homepage.
industry.net is an engineering-related, technical information community enabling one-to-one marketing of industrial products and services. Over 600,000 registered members from the engineering information and manufacturing communities.
The granddaddy of virtual trade communities, the first company to focus exclusively on the industrial audience including engineers, scientists and manufacturers. Communities are individually branded by industry sector—including water at www.wateronline.com (although its target is big industrial/municipal water).
PetroChem.net is a “professional center for petroleum and petrochemical professionals,” a website example with a format more palatable to small or medium sized businesses. Information-based rather than direct-commerce based.
This e-commerce treasure trope by Wilson Internet dispenses with the fancy packaging and delivers the largest collection of materials on selling products directly over the Internet. Contains research rooms, newsletters, articles, discussion rooms and more.