No matter what you do, every business needs a website. An attractive and functional website can accelerate your business, helping you to reach more customers and win more business.
It's crucial that you have a clear strategy for your website. You need to have a clear idea of what you want your website to do and develop a plan to build it, manage it and maintain it.
1. The business benefits
A website will enable you to reach new customers and improve engagement with existing customers.
You can promote your product or service, sell direct to customers, share information and insights and provide details on the individuals behind your business.
Improve marketing to existing customers
- Keep customers informed about new products and special offers.
- Provide a forum for customer feedback.
- Publishing costs are low, so provide as much detail as you want.
- Organise information logically, so customers can find what they need.
- Regularly add new content to keep visitors coming back.
- Use a blog section to promote thought leadership, share product or service innovations, and demonstrate that you're an expert within your field.
Address new markets, national and global
- You can reach potential buyers anywhere in the world.
- If you're targeting international customers, you may wish to translate your website into other languages or register domain names for other countries.
- Be aware of complications of law, delivery and payment when trading internationally.
- If you operate in a niche, potential customers from further afield will find you through search engines.
Cut costs by providing technical information and after-sales support online
- Compile lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs) so that your customers themselves can find answers to many of their queries.
- List contact details for distributors or stockists.
- Give extra information to help customers order the right items first time.
- Allow customers to send you messages online, rather than calling you.
Protect existing revenue streams and generate new ones
- Set up an online shop to sell your products or information services online (see Making money).
- Carry advertisements which generate revenue when people click them.
- Consider offering returning customers discounts.
Recruit people with specialised skills, knowledge and experience
- Advertise job opportunities on your site.
- Encourage potential employees to engage with your business online.
2. Exploiting your website
A website can improve the way you engage with customers. You can add additional products and services, which can increase revenue.
Publish an online catalogue of goods and services
- Visitors can learn about your products and services, buying from you whenever they want to.
- Online catalogues can be updated instantly, with no need to print and distribute them. This makes it easier to run promotions or change product lines. This is especially useful for seasonal businesses.
Create a shopping site, so visitors can buy from you 24 hours a day
- An off-the-shelf e-commerce package will let you build a basic shopping website easily.
- Online payment providers make it simple and safe to accept credit and debit card payments from customers.
- Running an online shop can have a significant impact on your stock systems, IT and logistics.
Provide product updates and service information for your existing customers
- You can easily update information at regular intervals, or even in real-time.
Encourage your customers to get involved with your website
- Use a blog to show the personalities behind your business and invite customer comments.
- Share professional insights that are relevant to your industry.
- Provide space for customers to submit reviews of your products or services. Ensure that you can vet each review before it's posted (or have the ability to remove negative reviews if they are inaccurate or unfair).
To create a website, you need to establish a location, build it, and organise the content. You can create the website yourself, use an off-the-shelf website builder programme, or commission a professional web designer to create one for you.
For this, you'll need a web-hosting provider
- You rent space for your website on the servers they run.
- Your web-hosting company can also register a domain name you choose - the unique address identifying your site, like www.yourcompany.com.
- The cost of hosting will depend on the features you need, and how many visitors you expect.
- If your website grows beyond the capacity of your hosting, you may be charged. Choose a package which you can upgrade easily as your site grows.
- Some hosting companies also provide their own web-design software and templates. If you're not confident at managing the technical aspects of your website, this might be a suitable option.
Before purchasing a web hosting package, check how they deal with downtime
- Look for a service level agreement (SLA). This will guarantee availability of your website and commits the web host to restoring service within a certain amount of time if your site goes down.
- Make sure the hosting service includes backups. This will keep your company's data safe.
- Check out online reviews to see other customers' experiences.
For maximum impact, employ professional designers to develop your page content
- A good designer will know how to create an attractive website that incorporates the functionality you require.
- Recommendations are the best way to find a good designer.
- Always ask for references and look closely at their previous work.
- If you want your website to include specific functions, such as an online shop, then ensure the designer is experienced in this form of work.
3. How much will it cost?
The total cost of your website will be determined by its size and its sophistication.
For a comparatively small, simple site, the costs will be modest
- Registering your domain name for two years will cost around £10.
- A web-hosting plan will make your site accessible on the internet. Good hosting starts from £10 a month.
- You can create a basic site with a website builder. These use templates and hide the website code. Some hosting companies will sell a site builder with hosting and a domain name at a discount.
- Popular website building programmes include SquareSpace and Wix. You can create a professional looking website within a few hours.
- If your business lacks the necessary in-house technical knowledge, it may be wise to hire a designer.
Costs will be higher for a more complex site, but the impact will be greater
- Consider employing a website manager and a web designer, especially if you want a sophisticated site with advanced functionality, such as the ability to process card payments.
- Assess whether commissioning an established design agency is an option. This can seem expensive at first but may prove value for money. You will end up with a bespoke website which is easier to update.
- You will probably need a developer to add extra features to your site - such as search tools, or a 'shopping-cart' system for online sales.
- If you open an e-commerce site, additional costs may include commission on sales to a shopping software supplier and bank fees for processing credit cards.
4. Making money
Even if your site is mainly designed to improve communication with your customers, there could be additional revenue-raising opportunities.
You can sell products and services direct from your site
- A website is a cheap and efficient way to sell to your customers. Even simple sites can prove effective at promoting your products and services.
- Margins are usually higher when selling directly to the public, because there is no wholesaler or retailer involved.
- The best-selling products online are commodity goods such as books that can be sold at reduced prices, reflecting low overheads.
- Service industries can also sell online. Travel agents, hotels, plumbers and dentists all take bookings on the web.
- Whatever your sector or specialism, a website enables you to provide potential customers with information on you, your business and your approach. This can build trust and encourage them to contact you.
Payment is the critical factor when selling online
- You can purchase an e-commerce package or online payment system that will enable you to safely accept card payments.
- You should never request credit card details by email, as this is not secure.
Advertising on your website may provide an additional revenue stream
- You will need a large audience to generate a significant income.
- Pay-per-click adverts are most common. These small blocks of text are inserted into your site by search engines. You receive a small payment each time an advert is clicked.
- You can also sell banner adverts. These graphic adverts link to an advertiser's site.
- Advertising rates vary widely, depending on the nature and performance of the adverts.
- You can sign up to the major search engines' pay-per-click advertising programmes online. Contact a specialist online ad agency if you think you have an audience for banner adverts.
You may be able to charge for access to your site
- Your website needs to offer content which is not available elsewhere.
- People are very reluctant to pay for information online, so this model is only viable for websites in specialist areas.
5. Making a site successful
Use a news section to add impact
- Grab people's attention by displaying news and offers on the first page of your site.
- Up-to-date news keeps your website fresh and rewards repeat visitors.
- Customers are less likely to trust a website that hasn't been updated recently.
Make visitors feel involved by asking their opinions and respecting their interests
- Include links to other interesting sites. Contact businesses offering products which complement your own and set up reciprocal links.
- Ensure that any links can open in a new window, so that people who follow them do not actually leave your site.
Make the site relevant to global audiences
- Set up localised pages for key overseas markets, with details of dealers and prices.
Stick to a simple, clear design that delivers what your customers are hoping to find
- Ensure your site is simple to navigate, attractive and free from design glitches and spelling errors.
- Make sure it works flawlessly on all devices. Check it displays and functions on desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones.
- Keep it simple. Users are searching for a solution and will get frustrated if your design is tricky to navigate, slow to load or doesn't render properly.
- Check that every link works. There are free online services that will check your site's links regularly.
- Test your site with all the major browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Safari and Google Chrome (and their mobile counterparts).
Ensure your website complies with disability discrimination legislation
- Be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to enable, or make it easier for, disabled people to use the site.
- People with visual impairment use screen-readers, so check that you structure pages correctly and use appropriate image tags throughout.
Security is of paramount importance for any website.
All reputable web-hosting companies will take security precautions
- Check that your hosting company uses firewalls and updates their systems on a regular basis.
- Physical security is important too. Your web host should be able to explain where their servers are located and how they are protected from theft, fire and flooding.
Handle payments securely
- For online payments, set up a secure link to the online bank or credit card authorisation service you use.
- Many web-hosting services provide online payment solutions. It can be easier to pay extra for this than building your own system.
- You can take offline payments, over the phone. This is safe and also economical, but the extra hassle may put customers off.
- Never ask customers to send payment details through email. This is not secure, and many customers will refuse to do so.
6. Attracting visitors
Optimise your site for search engines
- Unless they know your business' web address, users will use a search engine to find you.
- Search engine optimisation (SEO) involves shaping the content, navigation and performance of your site to improve its ranking in popular search engines, such as Google.
- You can improve the SEO of your website by using keywords relevant to your business, obtaining links to your site and ensuring it works on all platforms and browsers.
- There are SEO agencies and freelancers that can help you to improve the performance of your site. Ask around for recommendations ad check references before employing anyone.
Use social media to reach potential customers for free
- Twitter enables you to post brief messages which can be read instantly by your followers.
- Facebook and LinkedIn enable you to create your own page, which can be 'liked' by 'fans' who are then more likely to see any messages you publish.
Consider using pay-per-click advertising on search engines to attract visitors.
- Pay-per-click advertising is a highly targeted way to reach new customers.
- You need to identify the keywords that are relevant to your business, and then create adverts.
- Every time someone clicks on your advert they are taken to your website and you are charged. The amount you pay depends on how much you are willing to bid.
- For competitive search terms, the cost-per-click can be high, in some cases over £10.
- You can set up pay-per-click advertising yourself, but it can be more effective to work with a professional. Look for those with a Google Ads certification.
Use your email to let a targeted list of potential customers know about your site
- You must obtain your recipients' prior consent before sending them any marketing emails.
- You can rent an email list from a broker. Check that list members opt-in to be included.
- Keep your emails to customers short and simple. Test it carefully and make sure major email services do not flag it up as spam.
- Never add email addresses to a list without explicit permission being given by the owner.
- Consider using an online newsletter programme such as Mailchimp to create professional looking emails that include images, text and video.
Issue a press release when the site launches
- PR websites will pick this up and link to your site and other relevant sites and industry magazines may mention your site.
Negotiate to exchange links with relevant but non-competing organisations
- If your trade or industry body has a website, ask for a link to your site.
- Contact anyone you know who might be able to spread the word.
- Plug your site in all company literature, including letterheads and business cards, as well as flyers and advertisements.
7. Getting help
If you're looking for help creating a website, then get word-of-mouth recommendations and advice from business friends and mentors.
Ask your suppliers, local chamber of commerce and trade associations
- They may be able to put you in touch with specialist designers and agencies that they have used and would recommend.
Choose a consultant who has been recommended by someone you trust, or who worked on a website that you like
- Internet and business magazines often run features about web design agencies.
- Make sure you check a designer's portfolio and references.
- Ensure that designers have created similar sites in the past. Ask for links and check out the sites yourself.
- Find out about accessible web design to make it easier for people with disabilities to use your website from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
- Check website links using the W3C link validator.
- Test your web pages on different browsers at browsershots.
- Find out about earning money from advertising with Google AdSense
- Read about creating a Twitter business profile or a company Facebook page.
"It's important to track the source of visitors to your site and, if applicable, sales. This data will allow you to allocate your online advertising budget more effectively. There are several software tools (including free entry level products) which will tell you which sources of site traffic are most effective for your business." - Alastair Boyle, Steak
"Make sure your web strategy also embraces new social networking trends. Many businesses connect with their customers on sites like Facebook and Twitter." - Richard Dale, Crafty Devil Web Design
"Your website is a great place to test new marketing messages. The cost of changing messages online is relatively low, and you can test the effectiveness of various new messages before investing in new offline marketing materials." - Alastair Boyle, Steak