Thinking Through Your Web Presence: It’s Not Just a Question of Money
The Inevitable Internet
Barely twenty years ago, business cards were still the mainstay of business. Not anymore: in today’s business environment you have to have a Web presence. An on-line storefront is no longer optional. It is the latest and best business card, the go-to place for individuals, non-profit organisations, SMEs and large corporations. Nowadays, communications and contacts are established through Web pages, service portals, networking sites, and the like. Just think of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or LinkedIn; they are today’s marketplace. Everyone either wants to be connected or is connected. Screen-and-keyboard is the new word-of-mouth.
With all the buzz, one question remains: which tool will provide you with the best visibility on the Internet? How can you best achieve that visibility? And who should you trust to achieve it? It’s like finding a trustworthy mechanic. We’ve all heard the horror stories of outrageously expensive Internet projects gone wrong, with stultified, hyper-complex management systems rendered obsolete and useless right out of the gate. You’re promised a souped-up sports car and you end up with a lemon.
This article provides an overview of the problem. But to get to the answers, you must ask the right questions.
Who Are You? What Are You?
Too often, people lose sight of the basic reason for their Web presence. What is your main goal? Is it sales? Service? Communicating with your clients, or the public at large? This overarching goal will determine the scope of the job.
If you’re not sure of your needs, think about hiring a communications firm. Being on the Web means communicating.
Are You Ready to Invest the Money, and Your Time? Who Will Manage Your Presence? Are You (or They) Able and Willing to do it?
Magical thinking seems to be the byword in today’s Internet industry. You express a wish to be on the Web, some genie-in-a-bottle promises you a Web presence in fifteen minutes flat, and pouf!, behold your visibility. Reality is not quite that rosy. In fact, it can be downright sobering.
Nothing in life is free. Of course, there are ways of doing things on the cheap, and several companies do provide off-the-shelf solutions to build a perfectly serviceable Web site without any great expertise. But this kind of service has its limits, since in order to keep its promise, it forces you into a one-size-fits-all mould. It all depends on what you’re looking for.
Scenario: You own a gourmet chocolate shop; your product offering does not change much; you want to be able to manage your Web site content yourself; you don’t offer on-line purchasing; your priority is to be easy to find on the Internet.
Solution: A Facebook presence could suffice, or at most a simple Web site with a small number of pages. An off-the-shelf solution can help you build your Web site in a reasonably short time. But don’t be fooled, it will indeed take some of your time, and some knowledge of basic Web design languages won’t hurt either. You may have all the tools to build your Internet storefront at your disposal, but it still takes some basic knowledge and, to put it bluntly, some talent.
Another scenario: You sell ceramics; your stock is evolving constantly, you get new products daily, while others sell out just as quickly; your dedicated inventory team will be responsible for keeping your stock levels up-to-date on your Web site.
Solution: A dedicated site built by professionals will lighten the load for your staff. Your Web presence becomes a full-fledged task in the life of your business or your personal life.
There is a gulf of technical issues between these two extremes. Properly defining every aspect of your project will allow you to better grasp the short- and long-term financial implications of your project, as well as the on-going maintenance work it will require.
Who Will Manage Content? What About Visuals?
Your content will have to be refreshed constantly. An Internet presence is a social activity. Whatever you choose to say or present on your Web site will require a communication strategy. Though a message may appear simple, more often than not, it is much more complex than meets the eye. It is the result of a commercial strategy and of careful Web positioning. The Internet has its own language and set of rules. Either you decode it yourself, or you rely on experts to do it for you.
Let’s Take it Slowly, and Get to Know Each Other.
The more complex the website, the better it is to go by stages. Only time and use will tell the true value of each part of your site, so draw a list of priorities. It’s a little like that present you gave your kid (or your cat): it turns out that the box it came in was the real hit.
Going it by stages will allow you to adapt to changing circumstances. It will also keep you from wasting time and money on aspects of your site that won’t get much use. For example, avoid putting a blog on your site if your company is in no position to update it regularly.
Who Can You Trust?
Now that you’re ready to go, you’ve given due thought to your project, you know what you want and you’ve established a budget, how do you know who to turn to?
Do Your Homework.
You don’t have to take a programming course, but you should know the basics of the World Wide Web: hosting, servers, Web pages, HTML language. Eminently readable books such as "XYZ for Dummies " are your first line of defence against smooth talkers.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about any and all answers to your call for bids. If your budget allows, call on the expertise of a recognized company.
Establish a dialogue with your shortlist of professionals. Assess their ability to successfully complete your project, ask them for examples of their work and obtain references. After you’ve met with three or four potential suppliers, you’ll have a better idea of which ones are hot and which ones are not. The best proposal isn’t necessarily the cheapest, or the most expensive, for that matter. Grill the cheapest bidder, and demand a detailed specification list from the most expensive. Actually, you should be doing this for all bidders.
Beware of Those Who Promise You the Moon
Beware of the supplier who says yes to everything. That’s just too good to be true.
Go for a Price Range
When you get right down to it, a Web site is an IT project. Programmers start building and coding, they show you the work as it stands, and that’s when you realize what you hadn’t thought of, or that after all, you need something different. This is normal.
Let me be clear: no matter how long and hard you’ve thought out your project, the final result will be much different from what you had in mind at the outset. And that’s a good thing. A project that evolves as it grows will be much more robust than one that is shoehorned into a rigid mould.
This is where flexibility comes into play (what is also known as “agility”). A company that tells you that your project will cost anywhere from x amount to y amount is much more realistic than a company, or a person, who promises the whole package for exactly so much (and governments still don’t get it).
That said, even if you do accept the idea of a price range, nothing forbids you from standing firm on your budgeted maximum. Should you realize, after dialoguing with your supplier, that the final project is likely to go over budget, just remember why you went for a staged approach, and end it there.
Any website dumped on the information superhighway without further ado is bound to end up as road kill. Not to mention drive-by hackers... Hence the importance of budgeting for after-sales service and support, which will come in surprisingly handy.
Once the contract is signed and the project is underway, be available. Be there for your supplier, just as he should be there for you. The project will probably progress very quickly and your supplier will need your attention (or that of your representative). In fact, now is not a good time to move or renovate your offices. I know, you were hoping to launch your new Web site at the same time as your new storefront. But it would be wiser to postpone the move.
So take your time. Speeding comes at a price.
In the next instalment: an overview of the main types of solutions available to companies to establish their Web presence.