Untangling the web

A website can be more than a description of what you do and how to find your office on a map. Indeed, many owner-managers are realising the technology is now available to integrate your website with different parts of your company, such as marketing and sales, to help generate new business...

A website can be more than a description of what you do and how to find your office on a map. Indeed, many owner-managers are realising the technology is now available to integrate your website with different parts of your company, such as marketing and sales, to help generate new business…

The development of the internet and websites can be likened to an ill-disciplined religion with a plethora of self-proclaimed gurus eager to advise on the one true way to success. In short, it’s easy to be led astray and squander a lot of money quickly.

Given this confusing environment, it is perhaps not too surprising that a growing number of entrepreneurs are leaning toward a more ascetic, pared down philosophy. Gone are flashy intros and whiz-bang gimmickry. Simplicity is everything, and it’s cheaper too.

Nicholas Miller is chief executive of marketing and communications company Kyp Systems. The company has been active for a year and only launched its website three-months ago. Miller says it was important to get the site functioning as both a shop window and information platform.

‘You have to be very clinical about how you choose what information you have on there,’ he says. ‘The important thing is to always update your site. Let people know that you do value it as another communication you’re having with them. Touch is important. If you can’t touch them physically, touch them with your message but make sure that it is something relevant.’

Miller observes that, when devising the website, all of the staff were involved in deciding what was relevant: ‘We got all of those responses and prioritised and acted on them and we constantly review those as well. It’s not just based on what our clients say to us but what we see ourselves.’ In addition, Miller commissioned two professors to write articles or ‘white papers’ about the company and its approach to marketing. ‘Not a week goes by when there isn’t something quite major changing on the site,’ says Miller.

Overall, the approach taken by Miller and his team follows what experts advise companies to do when launching and maintaining a website. Gavin Sinden, a director at online marketing agency EM2 Digital, suggests both small and large businesses
are jointly realising the importance of an effective website: ‘During 2000 everybody built their websites and around 2002 and 2003 everybody realised they had to drive loads of traffic to their website. That is when Google got rich.’

‘We are now entering a phase where most people have a website and quite a lot of people understand the basics of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Google Adware and that kind of stuff. Now they need to actually make money out of their websites, so we’re at that third phase.’

It means that businesses now want to know where the traffic on a site is going and how it can be channeled. Sinden says: ‘You have your website, but what do you do next? How do you actually turn that into value?’

Firstly, you need to avoid common pitfalls. Chris Barling, chief executive officer of software company Actinic, notes a lack of responsibility is the main mistake made by businesses. ‘There is a difference between working with experts because you don’t have the full expertise and abdicating your responsibility to make it work because you don’t have the expertise,’ he states.

Once a site is up and running, Sinden observes that companies are often content to let it be little more than a brochure: ‘The classic SME website or slightly larger business in a B2B market will have a smiling picture of the CEO on the investors page. They’ll have their brand all over it, and then you’ll be able to click through ‘what we do’; ‘about us’; ‘contact us here’; and that’s about it.’

Two-pronged approach
If you want your website to be an integral part of your business, there are a number of techniques deemed to be effective. Barling recommends splitting how you look at your site into two, so there is a marketing process of getting people to your site, followed by the sales process once people have actually arrived.

Apart from common-sense points like relevant content and easy navigation, increasingly businesses are, like Kyp Systems, commissioning a piece of research or white paper to put on their site about what they do. Sinden warns that it cannot be ‘just sales fluff, but genuine hardcore statistics that adds value to a business in the market. Stick that on your website and get [a site user] to sign-up for it by entering their email address and ticking a few boxes.’

For Sinden, getting contact details is important but it’s the next step, whereby you relay this information to marketing and sales, which is crucial. He says: ‘Link [an address] through to some kind of email so that you are keeping in touch with people and, most importantly of all, track what happens to their emails.

‘As the tracking is coming through, this needs to be passed onto a sales force so they are aware that a Mr Jack Jones has opened an email on the product. Give him a ring the day after tomorrow. Don’t do it straight away or he’ll think you’re stalking him.’ Andrew Robinson, managing director of email technology specialist Lyris UK, says it may seem obvious to have a sign-up page for news or alerts, allowing you to build a relationship with a person using your site, but it’s surprising the number of businesses that fail to do this very simple thing. ‘You need to be talking to people in a timely, relevant and valuable way,’ he says.

The software to enable a business to track users and create a direct marketing campaign is reasonably cheap (under a £1,000) and easy to install. According to Sinden, it can quickly make a site more active and engaged in what a business is about: ‘You are suddenly turning a fairly pointless website and browser into a really useful sales lead for a sales person to follow up.’

Time to get technical
In order to keep track of the traffic on your site, you will need to be involved in the burgeoning area of web analytics. Once analytical software has been installed or downloaded, it shows who visits the site, what is being viewed, the general volume of traffic, where that traffic is coming from, and an array of other data which allows you to gauge what is and isn’t working.

If you know exactly what your site is doing, then you should be able to devise a strategy to achieve a higher ranking on the listing pages of Google, MSN or Yahoo, whether it’s as the main service provider in a sector or a niche area.

Matt Goode, head of sales and marketing at Immediacy, which provides content management software, comments that only a couple of years ago a lot of companies were set up to advise on the best SEO techniques to make a company top the listing pages. ‘They’ve all disappeared,’ he comments. ‘It has all been replaced by simple solutions and training.’

Barling makes a similar point: ‘Pay-per-click has its place but search engine optimisation is the best thing if you do it right, but it takes time and effort. There are a lot of shysters out there who take your money and deliver nothing.’ The point to remember is that SEO is not an exact science because information providers like Google and Yahoo won’t reveal the algorithms they use to conduct searches. Nevertheless, after some highly educated guesswork, it has been found that certain keywords for ‘long-tail’ searches are effective in getting your company up that listing page. Essentially, long-tail means you need to highlight and link information to alert search engines which are looking for pages on a site deeper and more context-relevant than a homepage.

‘It’s not something that is very well understood,’ says Goode. ‘It’s one of those grey areas in that you don’t have to put loads of money behind it and non-technical people with limited training can use tools to de
liver what’s needed.’

Clarity of purpose
A common complaint with web analytics is that, as you analyse what’s happening on your site, track users, tailor marketing campaigns, keep everything fresh and lively, you can easily be swamped by the information available. To cut through the distractions,
be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Planning is fundamental to the success or failure of a website.

James Tuke is a director at website management and business consultancy, Intendance, which publishes an annual review of the top 50 websites of law firms. Tuke notes that establishing the objective of a site is essential and this means answering questions, such as:

• What is the business case behind the website? Is a return on investment sought? If so, is it direct or indirect?
• What are the intended audiences? Have their needs been researched?
• Is the compatibility of in-house IT systems and associated web interfaces likely to be an issue?
• What is the intended budget and timescale?

Tuke believes that, when it comes to a website, a company needs to see it almost as another employee. ‘You have to think about what you’re doing. Is it there to drive business or is it there to enhance credibility?’ he remarks. What you must not do, says Tuke, is ignore a website. He refers to a senior figure at a law firm who told him: ‘Why should we change our website? No one has complained about it.’ This, adds Tuke with genuine disdain, is not the approach to take.

Websites of the future
As for moving forward and taking your site to the next level, it’s worth looking at cyberspace phenomenons like Flickr, MySpace and YouTube. Their success relates to what is known as social computing or Web 2.0, and is based on fostering interaction and comm-unity and live, organic debate. (see page 45). Up to now, this has been in the arena for personal use – notably by adolescents – but, accord-ing to Goode, there is a sense of inevitability about businesses getting involved. At its most basic level, there is a commercial reason for looking into this field as it increases the visibility of a site on the web. However, there is a deeper, underlying reason: a growing number of people are desensitised to formulaic marketing and sales pitches.

Naturally, opening your business to chat-rooms and forums can leave you susceptible to criticism and attack from, well, anyone. Goode believes businesses are going to have to be brave and enter the live arena of social computing. ‘People are a lot more cynical about what they see on TV and what they see in advertising,’ he says. The trick will be for a business to fuse commercial goals while presenting a softer, communal front. Get it right and, as can be seen with Google’s recent $1.6 billion (£842.6 million) purchase of YouTube in September, a business only founded at the beginning of 2005, word-of-mouth on the web can lead to jaw-dropping results. ‘There’s a generation of people who are much more aware of their peers and trust their views a lot more than traditional marketing techniques,’ adds Goode. ‘In time, we will see that traditional marketing just doesn’t work anymore. To some extent, businesses will have their hands forced by it.’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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