You've decided to build a website for your business. It's a smart move: All companies, big and small, benefit from an Internet presence, but a significant number of small businesses across Canada either lack a website, or they have no strategy for their online properties. In this four-part, weekly series we'll take you through the initial planning and setup phase, to launch and maintenance.
Part One: Planning
You probably have some design and content ideas for your website, and you're eager to get started, but you shouldn't jump in with both feet. Think of it as a construction project: you need to draw up plans before you start building. It will help you avoid mistakes later, and it will save you time and money.
The planning process begins with two important questions, and the answers will give you a blueprint to follow during the site's design and construction.
Why are you building a website?
The purpose of your site might be to sell your product or service online, or to simply increase awareness of your business. You could try to gain or retain customers, to provide customer service and support, or to automate the process of receiving and shipping orders.
Whatever your situation, it's important to have a goal before you move to the design and build phase. It will make it easier to decide on the features you need and the ones you can do without.
If your main purpose is marketing, for example, you can build a relatively inexpensive " brochure" site that rarely needs updating. If your goal is to create a relationship with your customers, more frequent updates will be required. Knowing the purpose of your website also helps you to set your budget.
Your site might be an annual expense - a line item in your marketing budget. On the other hand, if the site produces a new source of revenue or replaces a more costly process, it might add to your bottom line. Of course, a website can have more than one purpose. The important thing is to consider your goals first, before you start building.
What is the target audience for your website?
If you don't know the answer to that, you're bound to miss the target. If the purpose is to attract new business, your target audience is potential customers, not existing customers.
All your content, including product information, should be geared toward people who know nothing about your business, product or service. Explain everything and assume nothing.
Potential customers who have never heard of you will get their first impression from your website. If the purpose is to help existing customers, everything about the site should welcome and reassure them that they'll continue to get the same service they've come to expect. Minimize the sales pitch and provide great service and support options, including up-to-date contact information.
An audience can influence your website content in other ways. If you plan a worldwide reach, you may need to consider more than one language and accept more than one type of currency. The important takeaway is to know your target audience and try to anticipate what it will need and it will want from your website.
A few other considerations:
Most websites are basically words and pictures, and they have to come from somewhere. As you plan your site, start a file of images, logos, documents and any other content you want to publish. If you have electronic copies, that will make things easier. If you need new content, plan to hire a writer or designer.
Buy or build?
If you just want a simple site, many companies provide basic site setup and hosting for a small monthly fee. If you're planning to be more ambitious, find out whether anyone on your staff has the skills and resources required. You may need to hire someone to help plan, build and launch the site.
Make a list
Do you want to sell products on your site? Do you want visitors to be able to contact you by e-mail or check the status of an order? Do you want your site to be updated frequently? As you plan, make a wish list of the features you consider to be "must have" and "nice to have."
Check out the competition
During the planning stage, make a note of existing websites that might provide inspiration for your site. Make a list of the site addresses and the features or design elements you like, and add them to your wish list.
Don't be overwhelmed
In many ways, the planning stage is the hardest part. Remember that business websites come in many different shapes and sizes. It's easy and inexpensive to get a small site, made up of one to five pages, that provides basic background about your business, plus contact information to help customers reach you. You can launch a small site in the near future then begin to plan for version two.
Special to The Globe and Mail