7 Essential Keys to Profitable Small Business Websites

Stephen King once said that a talented writer is a writer who actually gets paid to write. I’d say that a creative website is a website that puts money in your pocket. Period. The purpose of your website isn’t to explore your artistic side, impress your friends or boost your self esteem. The purpose of your website is to make money.

At our digital media agency, we’ve seen countless small business owners who spent a fortune on flashy, complicated websites only to scrap them within a year or two because they neglected the basics of effective web design. Let me take that back . . . What they neglected wasn’t so much the “design” as it was the strategic plan behind the design. In place of a clear plan, they handed over their digital marketing strategy to a web designer whose single, overriding concern was visual creativity. And that creativity trumped every other concern – even selling products and services.

Creativity is a necessary tool, but it’s not the goal.

In contrast, I’ve seen other businesses invest a modest sum of money for a straightforward, but well-planned website that has paid dividends. These business owners may not win creative awards, but they can easily console themselves with the money they’re making online.

As with most enterprises, the key to a successful website is to start with a clear plan. It doesn’t even have to be the best plan. A plan that is modest — but clear and carefully considered — will do just fine. In fact, it will put you ahead of most of your competitors. Many small businesses still view the Internet as an afterthought. They throw a few hundred or a few thousand dollars at a web designer, spend a few bucks boosting posts on Facebook, then hope for the best.

While successful websites are as diverse as the individuals and businesses behind them, they have all of the following elements in common.

Key 1: Put Your Customers First

“Who will be coming to this website, and why are they coming?” When prospective web clients hear this question, they often draw a blank. But we persist, because this question is the foundation for everything you do online. Eventually we hear something along these lines . . . “Well, if someone’s searching for a [plumber, lawyer, RV dealer] I want to be first in the search results.”

Wrong! Or at least it’s the wrong place to start.

The Internet is a user-driven medium, which means the user is in control. Sure, a print reader can turn the page or put down the newspaper. Yes, a driver can tune out a billboard or turn off the radio. And a TV viewer can turn the channel or fast forward through commercials. But the Internet gives users vastly increased control over the experience. It is the user who originates, defines and directs the experience. It starts from the moment someone turns on a computer or touches an icon on their smart phone.

Their goal may be entertainment, information or a relationship. It may be shopping or just researching. The destination may be clear and precise (“I need a phone number”) or it may be vague (“I’m bored. I wonder what boats are for sale in my area.”)   Either way, the user determines how that journey will unfold, where it will lead, what detours it will take, and exactly when it will end.

So who will be using your website and what will they use it for? Here is what your answer might look like:

CASE #1 – The Local Insurance Agency:

This website will be visited by existing customers of my local insurance agency, and by people who are in the market for our insurance products. Our average customer is a retired homeowner living in an adult community. They’re concerned about estate planning, and while they’re always concerned about the cost of insurance, they’re more concerned about working with someone they can trust. They typically need a lot of hand holding. Our new customers are often retirees who move to this area from the Midwest. They’re usually loyal to the national brand, but they need to find a local agent who puts them at ease. They’re looking for a relationship, someone who will listen to their needs and take the time to understand them.

 CASE #2 – The Paintball Field

We own and operate a paintball field, one of only two in our region, and this website will be used by existing players to check the latest rates, hours of operation, rules, events, etc. Our most active players are teenagers and young adult males, but we also host a lot of birthday parties and social outings. Our players are highly engaged Internet users. They’re connected almost every waking hour. They’re addicted to social media sites, and they’re looking for ways to connect with other paintball players. They want advice on techniques, equipment and game strategies. We host state-wide and national events, so this website will also be used by players in other areas to register for events.

CASE #3 – The Local Real Estate Agent

 I’m a local real estate agent, one of several hundred agents in my community. I represent exclusive homes in upscale neighborhoods and the people using my site will be affluent professionals with little time to waste. My clients demand up-to-the-minute listing information, expert knowledge of the market, as well as the assurance that I’m working night and day to provide them with superior service. Prospective clients will be interested in my professional experience, and they’re looking for specific examples of similar properties I have represented successfully in the past.

Key 2: Rank Your Objectives

Now that you’ve created a profile of your website users, it’s time to list your site objectives and rank them in order of importance. Following is a list of things you might want your website to accomplish. Draw a thick border around your top priority. Then draw a circle around no more than two other objectives:

  • Provide basic business info (contact information, hours, etc.) This may be one of the most common reasons people are looking for you online, and it is reason enough to have a basic web presence.
  • Provide background information about your business (“About Us,” “Company History,” etc.). This information is seldom of primary interest to your visitors. But including this information contributes to a climate of trust.
  • Drive online transactions (buy a product, register for an event, etc.). You’ll notice I didn’t say “offer online transactions.” If e-commerce is one of your objectives, it won’t be enough merely to offer online transactions – you must deliberately steer people to the “add to cart” button.
  • Generate business leads, such as requests for information or newsletter subscriptions. Again, if this is your objective you can’t be passive – you’ve got to plan your site to deliberately move prospects into your sales funnel.
  • Offer up-to-date product information (latest listings, services, etc.) If you’re in an industry that’s changing rapidly, customers will expect to find your website updated regularly.
  • Provide news or events of interest to existing and potential customers. Your website gives you the power that once belonged to the printing press. If news about your business (or even your opinion) is likely to matter to your customers – you can use your website to get the word out. If you have a regular event calendar, it needs to be easily accessible online.
  • Position your organization as a leader in the industry. Most small businesses forget that their competitors are just a click away. Why should anyone do business with you rather than your competitor? Your site needs to answer that question.
  • Provide access to customer support information. Tired of answering the same question again and again? Your website can save time for you and your customers by providing online customer support or FAQ content.
  • Provide product reviews. Next to personal recommendations from a friend, web shoppers are most strongly influenced by online reviews.
  • Integrate Your Company with Social Media. You may Twitter your days away and have thousands of Facebook fans – but your website should still be the center of your online activities because it’s the one domain you

Once you’ve completed your list of objectives, it’s time to rank them in order of importance. A site that tries to accomplish everything at the same time does nothing effectively.

An effective website has a clear hierarchy of content, even if it is crammed full of information. Take the New York Times website as an example. When you visit NYTtimes.com you’re presented with one of the busiest websites on earth. You’re faced with a vast array of choices about where to click next. In fact, I just counted 327 links on their homepage. That’s 327 decisions I have to make about where I want to go next — not counting closing the page and visiting The Wall Street Journal instead.

But not everything on the homepage of the New York Times is equally important.  Visit the site and ask yourself, what content is most essential? What’s most visually prominent? This site’s top priority is to sell advertising space, and it makes its space valuable by giving readers the most important news of the day, quickly and easily. Less significant news and non-advertising content is always subordinated. The architects of this site have turned chaos into clarity – and it’s a small miracle. But it only works because they ranked their objectives.

What content is most essential? That content should be most prominent.

Is your number one priority to sell homes? Terrific! Those homes should be the first and most important thing I see on your homepage. If not all of them, at least a sampling of the best listings. If I’m your prospective client, don’t make me work to find the homes that catch my interest. Every additional click . . . every additional form I have to complete . . . is one more reason to leave your website. Especially if I know that every agent in town publishes exactly the same MLS information.

And once I find a home I like, make sure I can contact you easily. Does every listing contain a prominent e-mail link and phone number? When I print a listing, will it be conveniently formatted with your contact information?

Is your top priority to encourage me to fill out an information request form to learn more about your professional services? Then why should I have to hunt for the form, or click to a second or third page to find it? (Hint: I won’t do it.) Demonstrate the benefit right on your home page and put the form right in front of me so that my only click is the big, green “submit” button.

A Website Is an Advertisement

For a moment, stop thinking about what makes a good website. Instead, think about what makes a good advertisement. Use the acronym AIDA:

  1. Grab ATTENTION.
  2. Create INTEREST.
  3. Provoke a DECISION.
  4. Invite ACTION.

Make it immediately clear why you have something worth my consideration, and lead me to the specific action you want me to take.

HINT: Remember that one of the most common reasons people will visit your website is simply to get your phone number or address. Make sure that information is immediately available on your home page and every page of your website. For a local website never, ever, ever make someone click simply to find your address or phone number.

Key 3: Remember, Content is King

Reality check: Your website floats in a vast, boundless ocean of websites. Your site is just a speck among billions and billions of web pages. The truth is the best place to start, and the truth is humbling. So here’s the question you have to ask:

What do you have to offer that the other billions of web pages do not? 

One easy answer is yourself. You’re different from everyone else – and so is your business. The challenge is to translate what’s unique about you into a unique benefit for your customer.

Imagine you work in a mid-size city with a thousand competitors who all offer pretty much the same service you do. If you’re a real estate agent in most cities, this situation ought to sound familiar.

Now imagine you have the opportunity to tell the world what makes you different from all your competitors. Do you offer “Friendly, Professional Service?” Good. So do thousands of others (one would hope). Do you “specialize” in residential, commercial and equine real estate? Then your “specialty” is merely having a license, which is not that special after all.

Every potential customer asks the question, “What makes you so special? How can you help me in a way that your competitor cannot?” In order to answer that question, you need to craft a brief statement that explains what you sell and why it’s unique. Marketing folks call it a “unique selling proposition” or an “elevator speech.” Whatever you call it, here’s how it works:

A.) Make an inventory of what makes you and your company unique. Take half an hour and brainstorm a list of your unique qualities.

Did you love to fish, golf or fly airplanes? That may translate into a real benefit for me if I’m shopping for a waterfront property, a country club home or an aviation community. Your experience may save me time and frustration.

“Most consumers view small businesses like commodities. The feeling is that one accountant is like another or that one attorney can get the same result as another. The problem is that most marketers do nothing to expel that perception. “Buy from us because we’ve been in business for 20 years,” or “we’re dependable,” go the slogans of many small businesses. Of course the fact that you are dependable, carry a full line of products, offer fair pricing, or are honest are expectations…they are not points of differentiation. An effective USP communicates your firm’s unique ability to fill an obvious void in the marketplace. The USP shows your target market how your firm is uniquely qualified to solve their pain or increase their gain. A USP can be your firm’s single most powerful marketing weapon.” — Duct Tape Marketing

Is yours the only factory in the Southeast that can produce vinyl railing to the specifications demanded by coastal builders? If I build coastal condos, what makes you unique has just become a benefit to me. Now I can deal with a local supplier rather than someone from across the country.

B.) Translate your unique strengths into clear benefits.

It’s worth repeating: Customers don’t care about you! They care about themselves and the benefit you bring them!

Perhaps I prefer to speak Spanish. If you’re bilingual, that’s a real benefit to me in negotiating a sale. Maybe you’ve represented hundreds of cases just like mine. That might pay off in a faster and better settlement. Or perhaps you’re well-known for the quality of your craftsmanship. If I want the job done right, you’re the person to contact.

Customers don’t care about you. They care about themselves and the benefit you bring them.

To offer a clear benefit, you have to narrow your audience of prospective customers to those you can benefit the most. You can’t serve everyone equally well. You can’t be all things to all people, but you do have something to offer that your competitors do not — even if it’s only saving someone 15 minutes of driving time.

In advertising circles we talk about “features” versus “benefits.” Features may or may not be of any interest to customers. Features are one step removed from a benefit. But a benefit is a feature that crosses over into real value for your customer. Whether you’re selling a pre-owned vehicle or your own professional services, it’s your job to translate mere features into tangible benefits. Here are some examples:

Feature: Benefit:
25 years in business. Avoid the pitfalls
of inexperience.
3 office locations.
Free delivery.
Save time and gas.
Complete line of products. We have the part
you need.
Winner of 9 industry
Your job will be done right, and on time!
Member of the Better Business Bureau You can trust me.

Key 4: Keep It Simple!

Sitting in a doctor’s office a while back I noticed a framed article on his wall. It was obviously a mark of distinction and it appeared in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. But the title didn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “Bevacizumab plus Irinotecan, Fluorouracil, and Leucovorin for Metastatic Colorectal Cancer.” I’m sure that made sense to a handful of researchers who read that journal. To the rest of us, it’s a bunch of gobblygook.

My point is this. If you’re planning a website that will be used primarily by network engineers, go ahead and talk about “the hardware-centric layer below the level of the TCP/IP logical interfaces.” But if your website is designed for the general public, don’t assume they know what you’re talking about. Keep it simple. If you don’t, your one-time visitor will become someone else’s long-term customer.

It applies to the layout of your website as well as the language you use. Don’t assume your readers know what to do once they’ve landed on your home page. Give your website the Grandma Test. Find an Internet novice and plop her down in front of your website. If your Grandma is totally wired, then try your brother-in-law who gets confused by a TV remote control.

Take notes. Ask questions, such as “At a glance, what do you think is the benefit of this website?” and “After visiting this homepage, what do you plan to do next?” and “How would you use this website?” Listen and learn.

Your website may be highly detailed and jam-packed with information and resources. But always look for ways to simplify it. Consider the decisions faced by your visitors, and make those decisions as easy as possible.

Remember that your design serves the message, not the other way around. If you want people to actually read what you have to say, don’t push the limits of typographical creativity. Avoid reverse-print and low-contrast type. There’s a reason why books and newspapers use black type on a white background – it’s because it is more readable than any other combination. The Kindle is the most advanced reading device on the planet – and the geniuses at Amazon understand that black on white is still the most readable presentation. The cutting-edge designers at Apple are the best in the world . . . and they know that the best color scheme for reading a book on the iPad is black on white.

Key 5: Consistency Counts

I recently reviewed the web strategy of a small radio station. Their primary website wouldn’t knock your socks off visually, but they had good content and the layout was orderly and easy to navigate. They outsourced their podcasting to a different web portal. So now they had two websites with two completely different looks, and two completely different navigation structures. Now to make things even more complicated, they found a free service that provides really beautiful web templates, so they started using those as well. One radio station, three completely different websites – all competing with each other. In other words, a complete mess.

Is your navigation structure consistent? No matter how large your website, be sure you always give people a way back to your home page. Use universal navigation or “breadcrumbs” so that visitors don’t lose their way. When people are finding your site through a search engine, they’ll often arrive on an interior page instead of your home page. If every page has consistent navigation, they’ll be able to orient themselves quickly to the structure of your site.

You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

Most small businesses have no idea how their website is being used. Maybe their webmaster told them they had 500 visitors last month. Beyond that, they haven’t a clue.

Because they don’t know how their site is being used, they have no idea how to make it more effective. But with knowledge comes power.

How would you like to have an executive summary of your web usage sent to you every week by e-mail? It would contain not just visitor counts, but where those visitors came from, what search terms brought them, and what content they visited. And if you wanted more information, it would be readily available.

Google Analytics is free, easy, and incredibly useful. If you aren’t using this tool (or something very much like it) you’re running blind.

In addition, third-party analytics sites such as Quantcast.com and Compete.com allow you to compare yourself against your competitors. Since it’s sampled data you’ll want to take it with a grain of salt – but in our experience it’s accurate enough to be helpful.

Check your website analytics to uncover the places people tend to leave your website. If they’re leaving in odd places, you may have a problem with your approach. If you can pinpoint the problem, there’s a good chance you can correct it.

Is your color and design scheme consistent? One mark of an amateur website is that it lacks a consistent style throughout: the typographic conventions and colors change from page to page. If you maintain your own site using a tool such as Microsoft FrontPage, I have just two words for you – Stop It!  Hire an experienced web designer and have them set up a Content Management System for you, or purchase a web hosting platform that includes such a system. It will enable you to change the content of your website without altering the design and style elements. Trust me, this will save you from yourself.  A good Content Management System is a much easier and more convenient way to keep your site updated.

Key 6: Prove You Can be Trusted

When someone visits your website, one of the first decisions they’ll make is whether or not your business is trustworthy. That first visit is like a blind date, and they’ll be judging you harshly on your first impression. You’ll likely never get a second chance.

Are you neat and clean? Are you open and honest? Do you appear to be reliable, or do you seem just a little bit disreputable? The decisions you make when you plan your website will either build or destroy your credibility. Fortunately, it’s easy to make the right choices so that your first impression creates an atmosphere of trust.

As on a first date, you need to tell your visitors who you are, where you live, who your friends are, and share a little something about your background. You also want to dress nicely and make sure you don’t have anything stuck between your teeth.

Tell me who you are. I should stop being amazed at how many business websites have little or no information about who operates them. I’m not talking about off-shore gambling sites or fake Rolex dealers — I expect their owners to be anonymous. How can I trust you if I don’t know who you are or how I can find you in real life? That means you need to include a street address and phone number. If I can’t find out who you are and how to contact you, I wonder what you’re hiding.

But what if you’re a graphic designer who’s moonlighting and you don’t want people contacting you during the day? No problem. Just say so. You won’t lose business – you’ll win trust.

Provide a few testimonials from your best customers.

Tell me who your friends are. Are you part of the community? Let me know. One of the easiest ways you can demonstrate your circle of trust is to provide a link to your LinkedIn profile or Facebook fan page. Provide a testimonials from your customers.

Dress nicely, and pay attention to details. If you’re the owner-operator of a small lawn care service, no one will expect your website to look like it was designed by an agency from Madison Avenue. But you should still look neat and presentable. Spelling errors, broken links or components, and pages that say “coming soon” all suggest something about the kind of service you’re likely to provide.

Key 7: Finally, Get Creative

When someone visits your website, the reaction you want is not this: “Wow, what a creative website!” What you want to hear is: “This is exactly what I need! I’m going to call or place my order right now.”

That’s why creativity comes last. The purpose of creativity in website design is to serve your business goals. Every good website needs to employ creativity in the service of its aims. Creativity plays a supporting role, not the primary role.

But what is creativity, anyway? What are the elements of creative web design?

Creativity might be defined simply as the ability to create, but that says nothing about the quality, beauty or utility of what has been created. Creativity is often the label used to define visual imagery that is unconstrained by petty conventionality. This kind of creativity is liberated from the need to communicate clearly or (heaven forbid!) sell a product. If that’s creativity, you don’t want it.

Genuine creativity is the opposite of eccentricity, which thinks outside the box merely because it dislikes boxes.

For our purposes it’s better to think of creativity as innovation that serves a goal greater than itself. Since our goal is to create an effective business website, creativity has to serve the end of communicating our marketing message with clarity, efficiency and originality. Creativity thinks outside the box only when the box no longer works. Genuine creativity is the opposite of eccentricity, which thinks outside the box merely because it dislikes boxes.

Here are a few guidelines for putting creativity to work wisely:

Creativity grows when it’s fed. Someone who hates music isn’t going to be a good composer. A good novelist is always an avid reader. The more you study, the more you practice your art, the more creative you’ll become. One suggestion: whether you’re a designer or a business owner, you’ll benefit from keeping a notebook of good ideas.

The great creative geniuses in any field didn’t merely possess native intelligence. They were immersed in their subject matter. Ask your designer where they get their inspiration, what websites they admire and why.

Creativity breaks the rules – but understands the rules its breaking. Every fine artist knows that before you can break the rules, you have to know what the rules are. Take the “rule of thirds,” as an example. A dynamic composition doesn’t divide a canvas into halves, it divides it into thirds. And when viewing a page, the eye typically moves from the top left to the bottom right. So go ahead and let your designer create a layout that works against these tried and true conventions – but only if it makes your message more clear and powerful.

When you observe billboards driving down the highway, some will stand out because they literally break out of the box. I’ll never forget the giant horns of a longhorn bull punching through a billboard advertising a local steakhouse called, appropriately, Longhorns. The people who designed that billboard broke out of the box because it added impact to the message, not because they forgot that billboards are shaped like rectangles.

Navigating through the web is easy when websites conform to established conventions, when each website “works” the way we expect: The logo goes at the top. Navigation links are neatly organized on the top or the left side of the page. Text links are underlined. The page footer contains contact information, copyright, privacy statements and the like.

These are conventions that make our life easier. Conventions aren’t laws, and there’s nothing to prevent you from doing something different. But why would you? If you have a good reason, go for it. But remember that your job is to make your visitor feel welcome. You want to make their life easier, not more difficult.

Creativity communicates personality. Truly creative websites convey the personality of the business behind them at a single glace. The New York Times might not be a site that stands out for its personality — it’s mostly black, white and gray. In fact, it’s rather dull. The only color here is reserved for photos and advertisers. But it does communicate personality, after all. The nickname of the New York Times is the “Gray Lady,” a nickname that suggests sobriety, thoughtfulness and credibility.

The festive colors and playful logo of eBay, on the other hand, communicate a personality that is entirely different. At a glance, you understand what this site is trying to communicate – that shopping here won’t be a chore, it will be almost like a game.

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Now that you’ve created an amazing website that is designed to succeed, you can check it off your list . . . right? Not so fast. Here’s one last key to successful websites. Remember this, and you’ll stand head and shoulders above your competitors.

Successful websites are never the completed work of a web designer – they’re always an expression of the ongoing commitment of the business owner.

Looking for help getting your website working for your business?

That’s what we do at Brick City. Call us today at (352) 351-1131 or visit us at BrickCity.com