Do I Really Need a Website?

Or, Okay, I Really Do Need a Website, Don’t I?

Just so it’s right out in front from the very beginning, let’s be clear: if you do business, you need a website. That’s what everybody says. You hear it from your friends, colleagues, and relatives. You read it in the papers, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal—Cosmopolitan even. The guy on TV said it. You need a website. Okay, so your business is actually a thriving door-to-door window washing concern, with more clients already than you can deal with, but still, you need a website. You just do.

Does it make any sense at this point to ask Why?

It makes sense if you actually want your company’s website to make a difference to your bottom line. In fact, it makes sense to ask yourself “Why” a whole bunch of times. Because unless you know the answer to that question from the very beginning, you will never be satisfied with your Internet presence. Do you want your website to generate sales contacts? Or should it be an informational kiosk for your clients use? How about a direct revenue generator? A cheap, readily editable billboard? A back office full-featured extranet solution? Maybe all you want is a www.address to put on your business cards? Maybe you don’t really need one at all. These things are going to matter, you know. And they are going to matter right up front.

First things first. What exactly do you want a website to do for your business? Most of the business websites out there are not doing much of anything. They are up mostly because some company executive decided they should have one, with no clear purpose in mind. You could always think of it as an electronic billboard advertisement, but there is one little problem with that. No one browses the Internet looking for cool advertisements, and you can’t make them. Instead, they cruise the web looking for information, education, entertainment, and shopping.

If you actually want to sell stuff over the web, that’s different. Then, the problem becomes one familiar to every business that ever existed. Competition, marketing, and reputation. You will still need to give people a reason to come to your site, of course, but your product or service will be the key to them leaving you with some of their money.

How about a tool for operating your existing business at peak efficiency? A well designed and executed extranet can do amazing things for you.

The fact is, there are almost as many reasons for putting up a website as there are businesses who want them, but the one thing they all have in common is: you want a website that improves your business in a way at least equal to the investment in time and money it took to put it up. The best way to make sure this happens is to have well thought out goals, a solid plan, and the right development team.

Let’s start with clearly defined goals.

Before you can develop your business’s web presence in an intelligent, effective manner, you must understand your goals. There are a few basic types of Internet presence to consider, although remember that many sites are combinations.

Each of these types has a completely different purpose.

Vanity. A vanity site is just so you can tell your friends “I’m on the web.” You can probably do one of these yourself. Get one of the popular web development packages like “Front Office” and start playing. When you get a page or two you like, contact an Internet Services Provider, and arrange for them to host it. You can post photos of your kids, your dog, whatever. Just don’t expect it to make you any money.

Informational. Informational sites are places where people might go to learn something they need to know. If you are a window washer, this could be as little as your name, phone number, and price sheet. Or as much as the complete history of glass. The important thing to remember about this type of site is that the idea is to bring people in so that you can hit them with your sales pitch. The pages won’t actually do anything but present ideas, so this type of site shouldn’t cost very much. It might also be hard to assess its actual value to you. Anyone that requests a bid through your web page contact button will be obvious, but you will need to survey all your customers to see if they came to you through your site before you will know if the site is earning its keep. Still, this sort of site can be very useful to small businesses. You might be able to do it yourself, but if you have any doubts about your computer skills, hire somebody. Your new website will be the world’s introduction to you and your business. You want to look good, don’t you?

Ecommerce. An Ecommerce site is where the Internet gets interesting. This is the type of site where people go to actually buy something. They will find your site, decide on your product or service, and give you money right through the credit card system on the page. Developing an Ecommerce site can be a pretty expensive prospect. You will absolutely need to have it professionally done by an experienced and reputable developer, though, for two reasons: one, you are competing with all the other Ecommerce sites with similar offerings, and two, you and your customers will have to be able to trust that the credit card features work securely. Otherwise, you could be in Big Trouble. Do it right and you may have found the Golden-egged Goose. is just a little-old Ecommerce site, you know.

Extranet. The next type is an extranet. This is the one of the most exciting sorts of thing that the Internet makes possible. With an extranet, you can take your business into the realm of the no-borders-international, truly-virtual-mega-presence, without building a single office block. Really, all an extranet is is the extension of the LAN (Local Area Network) concept into cyberspace. Thinking small, you could have seven employees logged in from separate continents and all using the same HP printer in Hoboken. Thinking big, you could have all of your accounts, your staff, your management team, and consultants all linked together, with individual access to only the specific parts of your system that they need, and the ability to seamlessly meld their efforts in complex ways without so much as a single long-distance phone call. This type of site will also require professional development, mostly due to the inherent complexity of this sort of system, but also to make certain you’ve covered all of the security angles.

Portal. Last is the portal site. A portal site is an Internet business that makes its money purely by its presence on the web. It is a content provider with the mission of distilling large sections of the web into more easily managed pieces, creating original material of interest to the public (such as entertainment, information, education), and typically selling advertising space, or, in some instances, subscriptions. Most of the successful portal sites are monsters. Does Yahoo ring any bells? If your portal site idea works out, you will probably end up hiring a full-time Internet Services staff before long, but in the early stages, get help. Some of the important issues you will have to deal with are: being attractive and useful enough to draw thousands of hits; staying current always; cutting deals with other content providers and services; and marketing marketing marketing.

So, do you know what you want your website to do? One of the above? A combination? Or something else entirely? Once you decide that, the next steps will seem a lot more obvious.

Proper planning prevents poor performance

Next is the planning phase. And you are really going to want to do it the best you possibly can. Why? Because if you don’t, you have no chance at all of getting the sort of website that you had in mind. In order to get the best possible plan, you might need help. Consider engaging a professional development team at the conceptual stage if:

If you are starting a new business, the traditional business plan is a very good way to organize the planning stage (and besides, you will need one eventually anyway). The idea here is to develop a detailed roadmap of your business that includes the Internet side of it from the beginning. The planning of the actual website will be a lot easier if you have already clearly delineated its purpose, its ultimate goals, and its functionality.

If you are just adding a website to your existing business, you still have to plan it out. You might try sketching a flowchart. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it’s just to help you see the site visually, and to help you determine what components will be needed. Again, a good development team will spend some time with you to make sure you don’t miss anything, and to make sure that everything you want to do can be done.

The right development team

Okay, I know I’ve been harping on the development team idea. There are two reasons for this.

1. It is really, really important that your company’s website look professional and attractive, be useful and functional, and get noticed by potential customers
2. See #1.

As far as choosing the right development team, well, that is a topic for a whole article. But in brief, you should ask the following questions.

Does that answer your question?

Okay, you’ve done the front work and you’ve decided you want your business to go virtual. You know what you want your website to do. You have planned the whole operation, and even hired a development team. Good for you! You’ve just joined the new economy. For our next lesson, we’ll discuss the pressing question “Now that I have a website, can I go public and retire to Bermuda?”