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Yes, Virginia, You Need a Website

To web, or not to web, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in business to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous consultant costs or to take arms against a sea of technological doubts, and by opposing, end them.

Since recently becoming active in the LinkedIn question and answer section, I’ve seen no fewer than four questions in the span of one week asking “Do small companies need a website?” and various derivatives thereof. Most of them were asked by incredulous marketing consultants who obviously run into prospects and clients who do not have one and/or don’t feel they are necessary. My $0.02 = they are as necessary as business cards, only cheaper!

I see lots of advice from professional designers and marketing consultants about leveraging technology, search engine optimization, brand identification, consistency of message, etc… Which is true enough in many circumstances, but I feel that advice like this partially responsible for discouraging small businesses from commissioning a web site. The other (and likely far more common) reason is ignorance of just how quick, easy, and inexpensive it is these days.

Why!? Why!?
Before a discussion of exactly how quick, easy, and inexpensive it is to get a web site up and running, I can hear the “professionals” tearing clothing and ripping hair from their skulls as they scream, “Noooooo! But what about x, y, and z?!?!” Where x, y, and z represent any web design or marketing catch phrase you care to insert. I even saw one designer advise a small business owner to make sure that any designer they select does not use tables for web page layout, or they would be sorry! While there is sound theory behind this advice, it is precisely the sort of technological hyperbole and cart-before-the-horse advice that paralyzes small business owners. My short answer is, “All in due course.” But let’s get this beast domesticated right now with a little more detailed answer…
I don’t mean to make light of the legitimate points made by professional web designers and marketing consultants. They are, by and large, valid concepts that are important in the proper context. However, I think that people too frequently equate “minimally done” with “poorly done” and I submit that they are very different. With that in mind, I’ll suggest three stages of web presence that can all be done either well or poorly, but the amount of money spent will not be a factor.
Stage 1: The Online Business Card
That sounds pretty simple, right? In this stage you expect no more from your website than you would from a business card; your company’s contact information and logo along with a quick blurb about what you do and/or what your mission is. The key thing about a business card is the “leave behind” aspect; that you can give it to someone for them to reference later on. Browser bookmarks are the Internet equivalent in this case. If I want to remember your company for some reason, I’ll slap a bookmark to your website in the appropriate category.
Obviously, an online business card can be done well or poorly just like an ordinary business card (I’ve seen some pretty hideous ones). The key here is to keep it simple and visually appealing. For many companies who believe they don’t need a web site at all, this is likely about all they need. And as for that argument, I can tell you two things about my personal approach to finding something I need. First and foremost, if I can’t find it on the web then I probably won’t find it. If your product or service is not on the web, then your competitor’s probably is and you lose. Keep in mind here, I’m not talking about looking for a “high volume widget supplier” or world-class patent and trademark litigator. I’m talking about finding a plumber, dog sitter, yoga instructor, or wedding photographer. Second, if you don’t care enough about your business to have a web site, then I don’t feel like it’s a “legitimate” business. That’s just a personal bias I have, but I think it is becoming more and more common.
This stage is absolutely a “do it yourself” candidate. As an example, GoDaddy.com has a service called “Website Tonight” that gets you a hosted web site with web templates and authoring tools plus a list of features too long to list here for $4.99 per month. All of the web hosting companies offer similar products that allow you to get a web site created literally in minutes.

Stage 2: The Online Advertisement
This is the stage where a small business owner who is not a) technically savvy and (emphasis on the word “and”) b) knowledgeable in marketing will need to get some help. This is not to say that it necessarily needs to be fully outsourced and professionally designed, but it will be important to make sure that certain basic principles of web design and marketing are followed. The goal of a Stage 2 web site is to actually advertise your product(s) and/or service(s) and convince the visitor to take some follow up action.
This may or may not be a “do it yourself” situation, depending upon several factors, none the least of which are the company’s expertise as just discussed. Other factors include the complexity of the product and/or service, the volume of traffic, and technology required (if any) to deliver the message (e.g. streaming video, flash animations).

Stage 3: Launch
This final stage transitions the web site from an information server to an active lead generation and business development tool. Its goal is not just “to be” or even simply to provide a compelling call to action online. Rather, the goal is to generate an online presence that includes a web site. I’m not going to say very much about this stage for a couple of reasons. First, the whole point of this blog was that most small businesses don’t realize they only need stage one or two. Second, it’s a subject that can take up an entire (virtual) library. Third, there are many bloggers out there with much more expert advice on the matter than I could give.
Conclusion
In summary, I don’t accept that a simple, template-based web site is worse than no web site at all. However, that’s not to say that a poor web site is better than no web site, because I don’t believe that is true. It’s important to follow the Hippocratic Oath here; first, do no harm. Aside from the obvious advice of not making glaring mistakes (i.e. spelling, factual, copyright violations), it’s important not to bite off more than you can chew. For example, don’t put a news section on your site if you aren’t going to update it frequently. And don’t ever, under any circumstances, use the words “under construction

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  • The other John DiPietro

    If you are in business today, WITHOUT A WEBSITE, then you are NOT in business.

  • Pat

    Jon – good stuff – my brothers and i are thinking of launcing a business and one of the first things we discussed is web prescence – a good idea since our “sales efforts” will evolve around driving prospects to the web to purchase third party contracted widgets. OK, I’ll ask and then duck cause i think i know what is coming – how much do we need to budget for this – there are a lot of widgets – entire hardware lines – we will be repping for. Thanks, Pat

  • Jon DiPietro

    Pat,
    First of all, good luck with your new business. As you know from reading this article I do believe that having a web presence is a prerequisite for any business. I’m going to guess that you need less of a budget than you might anticipate, which was the main reason I wrote this article in the first place. You have a couple of options…

    The first option is to open an online hosting account and use their “A La Cart” products to build your web site. Since I’m most familiar with GoDaddy I will use them as an example. They have a “WebSite Tonight” product for about $100 that will walk you through building your own templated website in an hour or two. Then, you can add one of their e-commerce packages on top of that for about $160. It looks like you’ll need their deluxe e-commerce hosting option which is $50 per month. So for a few hundred bucks you can be up and running in a matter of hours.

    The second option would be more costly up front and take more time. However, it would give you more control and reduce the ongoing costs in the future. This would involve using one of the off-the-shelf, open source web frameworks to build your site. One that I’m familiar with is DotNetNuke. It’s possible to do this yourself as it doesn’t require any actual programming or web development knowledge to construct, but it is a bit technical and it would be helpful to hire someone with experience in implementing these solutions in the past. These frameworks (another to consider is Drupal) contain both free and paid “modules” that you can plug in to your site to provide specific features like a shopping cart, online forum, FAQ, etc…

    If you are at all uncomfortable with this latter approach I would suggest that you have little to lose by going with the former to get yourself started. It’s very low risk and you can always look to updgrade your site later once the money is rolling in.

  • Pat

    Thanks, Jon – I appreciate the valuable info – following winds your way! – Pat

  • Eoin Ó Riain

    Yes I agree a web presence is essential for all companies if only to give their contact details postal address, telephone number e-mail addressesa and contact names.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many companies some with quite spectacular websites, all singing and dancing omit simple things like those mentioned. I often have to check things like addresses (I post a print magazine which people still read!) and even today I had to check one or two addresses for companies that had “gone away!” according to the post office. They hadn’t but they hadn’t bothered to change their address on their website though the phone number and email address remained the same. I wasted their time and mine by calling them to see what their address was….

    Also I have a thing about the little cold robotic boxes that you are supposed to fill in if you want to contact them. Please give a name or two and an email address.

    I could go on,……

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