The Internet has truly revolutionized the way businesses market today. In less than a dozen years the Internet has grown from a handful of websites with thousands of users to millions of websites with millions of users.

A website can not only help you brand your business but can also be a content-rich information portal, providing interactive media, dynamic content, streaming audio and video, news, information and entertainment to visitors worldwide. It can also provide a sense of “community” by offering support and interactive features for current customers.

How are websites beneficial to businesses?

Today, businesses are taking advantage of the powerful information distribution and interactive capabilities of the Internet. Increasingly, businesses are using websites as a primary marketing medium. For example, businesses are now using streaming audio and video to broadcast “webinars” or website seminars, conferences and special events 24-hours a day. Podcasts have also become another way for businesses to distribute marketing messages and useful information in both business to business and business to consumer markets. Blogs which invite readers to comment have become very popular and can be effective interactive tools.

Websites are cost-effective. Documents that were once printed and mailed can be posted to the website for visitors to download, thereby avoiding the expense of commercial printing and postage. Because the Internet is virtual, updating documents and information takes a minimal effort and cost. Also, the added convenience of archiving past issues of support articles, newsletters and product information can serve as a tremendous resource for future needs of your customers.

E-commerce capabilities allow websites to also serve as a virtual store front to sell products and services. When you factor in the savings in labor hours and overhead costs needed to operate a 24-hour brick and mortar store, e-commerce websites are very cost-effective and are available at your customers’ convenience.

Moreover, the ability of companies to communicate with customers (and potential customers) is also greatly enhanced by using the Internet. Message boards have become very popular, and many businesses offer informal customer service areas to discuss product or service issues and to offer customer support.

Many websites now offer an “online operator” service, allowing website visitors to “chat” with customer service and sales representatives before purchasing products and services.

Website Marketing Strategies and Goals

A website marketing plan is a roadmap that tells how you plan to achieve your marketing goals, based on your marketing strategy. Your website can assist with achieving many portions of your marketing goals and should be a vital component in your overall marketing strategy.

For example, one of your marketing goals might be to sponsor a fund raiser for a local non-profit organization (and getting some exposure through the local paper or television station). Your website can work together with other media to provide local publicity for the event. Website visitors can find information, directions and have the ability to sign up online prior to the event. Your website can also serve to “archive” the event by providing photographs and comments from participants.

A marketing strategy for getting younger consumers involved with your product or service might include having a message board just for teens with topics of interest suited for them. Message boards and chat rooms are very popular and provide high levels of interaction between participants.

Form follows function

Before designing your website there are several important factors to consider. First, you must have a clear sense of your businesses’ product or service offering, target audience and your marketing goals. Think beyond a general marketing goal such as “increasing sales,” and consider more specific goals. By clearly defining your goals and objectives before creating a website or expanding an existing website, you can design specific features that would take the guess-work out of marketing and better meet the needs of the people you wish to reach and turn into loyal customers.

Who is your target market? While it’s easy to say that everyone is your target market, you need to be more specific. Because people have different needs, are different ages, live in different states, have different educational cultural backgrounds and have different life experiences, designing your website to appeal to your target audience takes some careful analysis. By listing your business strengths, who currently buys from you (and why), what age groups are your customers and who you are currently serving, you can create a profile of your target market.

Once you have defined your target audience, it will be easy to identify what needs to be emphasized within your website and how to best approach those who stand to gain the most from your product or service offering. For example, if your target market is primarily single moms, your website should have photographs of other single moms at events, picking their children up from daycare or school and have information and resources which are important for their lives–things this group can relate to or have in common.

Websites can become disorganized and overwhelming without a clear message and good organization. To create a clear marketing message, start by making a list of what you would like your website to communicate and to what audience.

Next, prioritize your list. If you have more than ten items listed, see if some items can be grouped together. Think of your website as an opportunity not only to tell about your business, but what is it about your business that makes it different from others and why potential customers should consider you instead of your competition.

Designing Your Website for Success

A website is not an information dump. Effective websites use creative designs and common-sense navigation to guide visitors to various pages and make the online experience enjoyable. For example, your choice of color, typeface, font size, columns, images, and white space can affect whether your website will be effective or not. Navigational bars, search mechanisms and the overall usability of your site may also affect if visitors will return.

While it can be tempting to turn a website “makeover” into a major website project, it is best to take a “phase” approach. By having written marketing goals and objectives, you can create a list of website offerings, which support your business marketing goals.

By identifying one or two primary goals for the near-term, it will make implementing new website content and features a lot easier. As your website needs grow, features such as message boards, e-mail list managers, article management, search capability and streaming video can be added. By grouping the features you would like to add to your website in order of priority, you will be able to “phase in” additional features a few at a time.

After you identified one or two major features or capabilities you wish to add to your website, you will need to discuss your goals and objectives with your website designer.

Avoid “Do-it-yourself” Website Design

Working with a professional website designer will make it easier to plan your website and create an effective online presence. A web designer will have creative, practical ideas and can offer a perspective based on experience. A seasoned website designer can also assist you with technical and aesthetic challenges as you move forward, and advise you how best to achieve your website goals and target audience.

Before hiring someone, be sure to look at samples of a designer’s work and ask for references. Ask for a formal proposal with either a firm price or an estimate before you start the project. Also, be sure to find out who will own all files or applications installed on your website. In the event you part company with your web designer you do not want to be subjected to any sudden licensing fees or surcharges. Ideally, you should be able to use all files and applications for the foreseeable future.

Ten Practical Website Tips

1) Appearance – Make sure your website design is fresh and appealing. Your website is an extension of your business and it is best to create a positive, friendly atmosphere.

2) B>Arrangement – Everything in your website is considered important; so make sure the information is organized in columns or group patterns that will allow for easy reading. Cluttered websites are unappealing.

3) Navigation – Make your website is simple to navigate so visitors don’t have to spend any time figuring out where to go or how to retrieve certain information.

4) Be Interactive – Offer an e-mail newsletter that visitors can sign up for. This is an inexpensive way to communicate, but allow subscribers to “opt-out” easily and avoid the temptation to overuse e-mail.

5) Updating – Be sure to update your website and offer new content so visitors will keep coming back.

6) Website Statistics – If you have access to your website server logs, find out how your website is being used–what pages are the most popular, where visitors are coming from and how they are finding out about your website.

7) Feedback – Make it easy for visitors to send you feedback about your website. Visitor and regular users can offer invaluable suggestions for improving your website.

8) Build in Phases – Don’t attempt to take on too large of a website redesign. While the web designer will do most of the work, you may be responsible for copy writing, testing and reviewing, which will take time. Dividing the website redesign into manageable phases can also be cost effective.

9) Download Time – Not everyone has a high-speed connection. Make sure your website design is fast even with a dialup connection. Use thumbnail images where possible.

10) Less is More – Most website visitors will only spend a few seconds to a few minutes at your site. If you don’t get their attention and communicate your message right away, visitors will simply click away to another website.

Creating a new website or redesigning an existing website for your business is an exciting process that is vital to your business plan and overall marketing goals. Besides making decisions about how the website should look and what information it should offer, there are technical, labor and budget requirements to consider. By planning and setting goals based on your target audience and purpose, you can achieve a professional, effective website which supports your marketing needs and inspires your website visitors to become loyal customers.