Nearly every business will benefit from having an internet presence. However, before rushing to throw any old content onto the web, take time to create an internet strategy that dovetails into and helps drive your larger marketing and business plans.
Reaching customers—and potential customers—using online marketing is more a matter of commitment and strategy than it is a financial expenditure. It does not need to be expensive to reach online customers effectively. Using a market-led approach to Internet marketing, you can build an effective website and attract customers through various Internet-based marketing tactics.
Internet marketing involves the use of digital media to inform the market of your business and to entice people to purchase your products and services. The internet (and, by extension, mobile) is merely a vehicle to provide greater reach for your advertising, promotional, and public relations efforts. Internet marketing must be part of your integrated marketing approach. Internet marketing strategies should be included within your company's overall marketing plan.
Businesses that want to boost the results of traditional advertising need to dovetail their advertising strategies with Internet strategies rather than viewing them as independent channels. A good Internet site, for example, improves the effectiveness of other advertising because many customers who see your company's advertising will evaluate your company's products and services online. Integrating Internet marketing tactics with other advertising ensures that your company provides a consistent brand experience.
You need to consider the following topics when you develop your overall Internet marketing strategy:
- your company's website
- search engine marketing
- search engine optimization
- online advertising
- mail marketing
Your website should serve as the centerpiece of internet strategy
The centerpiece of your internet marketing efforts is likely to be your company's website. Although many experts are pointing to the upsurge in social media as a central touchpoint between businesses and customers (and potential customers) every business must have an effective website. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, at the close of 2010, 77 percent of Americans now use the Internet on a regular basis. Of these internet users, 78 percent report looking for information online about a product or service that they were thinking of buying; 66 percent stated that had bought a product online.
Tip: The number of individuals who are accessing the internet via their smartphones is skyrocketing. As of May 2011, 35 percent of Americans report using their smartphones to access the internet. This means you need to consider:
- how your website looks on a smartphone
- how you can leverage general social media (Facebook, Twitter) and location-based social networking (Groupon, Foursquare) to reach customers when they are actively seeking information regarding goods or services.
While it is important to understand and monitor Internet usage patterns, it is also necessary to identify the online activities of your target markets. You can use the demographic and behavioral trends you've gathered through primary research and secondary research to identify the categories of use among your target markets. For example, prior to implementing an e-commerce solution, you must identify the online shopping patterns and preferences of your target markets. By identifying the expectations and needs of your target markets before you begin marketing on the Internet, you can build the foundation of an effective, market-led website.
Websites serve many purposes
Your website will serve as a natural consumer destination. Customers who visit your website are looking for meaningful information to distinguish your company's products and services from your competitors. Use the website to highlight distinct features offered by your company. Provide side-by-side comparisons of products. Customers spend less time thinking about your products, services and industry than you do. Provide them with the information they need to know about your industry, your products and your services in order to make an informed buying decision. Your website is an outstanding way to educate customers online—even when you are selling to them offline.
Build your website to attract and engage visitors
Step back and take a "macro" view of your customers and the Internet experience as you develop your website. The most effective websites combine the benefits of mass marketing with those of customer relationship marketing (CRM) to provide each visitor to your site with a personal brand experience.
Mass marketing's goal is to constantly acquire new customers by differentiating your company, and its products, from competitors. This results in strong brand identity, but it does not always adapt well to Internet marketing because visitors to your site are often seeking targeted information, rather than more general mass market messages. The goal of CRM, by contrast, is to continually increase the volume of business with existing customers by offering a range of personalized services and products. While this can result in good customer service, but does not adequately differentiate your organization from its competitors among potential customers. Luckily, a well-designed website can blend these approaches together.
Website content needs to guide target markets from discovery, through exploration and interaction, toward action. The first 10 seconds your target markets spend on your company's website are among the most crucial. Site visitors determine whether they will become site users. They perceive the value of your site. They form first impressions about your company and predict the likelihood of finding useful information on your website. Many visitors will leave your website immediately because the site seems unrelated to their search. Others will explore your site.
The chart below illustrates how consumers interact with the Internet. The first challenge is to get consumers to discover your website. Once they're on the site, they need a reason to explore. Typically only 60 percent of visitors will stay on your site long enough to skim or read some of the content. Approximately 15 percent of your visitors will interact with the tools to help them make a purchase decision, and 2 percent will act on that decision.
Consumer interaction with the internet
All visitors to your website are seeking information. During the exploration phase, each page of content has less than a minute to communicate with a site visitor. The amount of time visitors spend exploring your website, and their perception of value of the time being spent, varies based on their ability to progress toward the desired buying decision.
Site visitors interact anonymously with your website. Through these various interactions, they form lasting impressions about your company, its products, and its level of service. This includes comparing the information that you provide with the information they have received from other sources. Getting customers involved through interactive elements, such as a self-assessment, can be an effective method for cultivating strong customer relationships and gathering additional customer insights.
Successful websites typically include the ability for customers to act online—to call, purchase a product, find a local distributor or retail location, or request a proposal. All websites should include the ability to follow-up offline, by telephone, since some customers prefer speaking with someone to submitting an order or other information online. Be sure to include these elements when planning your company website.
Steps in Developing a Website for Your Business
The development plan for your company's website can be broken into multiple phases:
- Define the scope of the project.
- Identify your objectives and strategies.
- Create a content plan.
- Determine who will design and implement the plan.
- Design. Design look-and-feel (user interface) of the site defining the features, functionality, and content to be implemented on the website. Deliverables during this phase include design concepts and a proposed site map. Each concept must include a summary of any related budget/timeline considerations.
- Implementation. Create the website, on time and on budget. You must manage the scope of the project and identify the timeline/budget implications of any changes requested by others. Stakeholders in your company may need an opportunity to review all site content once or twice during implementation.
- Testing. Ensure error-free implementation of the site.
- Distribution. Publish the new site and register it with search engines, as appropriate.
- Monitor, evaluate, and update. There is no such a "final" website. You must be prepared to refresh the website's functionality and user interface on at least an annual basis.
What are your objectives for your website?
What do you want to accomplish via your website? What do you want customers to learn about your business? How do you want them to perceive your business? What actions to you want them to take on your website, or as a result of your website? The answers to these questions will help you identify how to use the Internet to support or achieve some of the specific communication goals and marketing efforts.
Your objectives for your website should be based on your overall communication, marketing, and sales goals. And, it is critical that these objectives are measurable. Equally important is the ability to effectively measure whether objectives are met. Such objectives might include:
- Subscribe to your e-newsletter. You want visitors to subscribe to your e-newsletter or to your mailing list. To measure success, you should tally the number/percentage of site visitors that subscribe.
- Request additional information. Ideally, your website will contain a significant amount of readily-accessible content. However, customers may have specific questions or need additional information. Tracking the number/percentage of site visitors that request additional information is one way to determine if the website is meeting this objective.
- Online customer service. The use of the internet for real-time resolution of customer service issues is increasing constantly. If one of your objectives is to provide online service, then you will want to track the number of customers who successfully resolve customer service needs online. In addition, you will also want to keep records of the turn-around time for the answers. You should be aware of customer service benchmarks in your industry and evaluate your results against these.
- E-commerce. If you want to allow customers to purchase directly from your website, then you will want to track the volume of products and services sold online—both in units and in revenue received. You'll also want to track the number of transactions originating from Internet visits. This metric should be periodically evaluated for success in relation to other sales channels.
- Visitors to your site. At a bare minimum, you will want to track the number of new monthly visitors and repeat monthly visitors to your website. Ideally, you should capture how they got to your site.
Capturing site visitor information is essential for success
As noted above, having a robust and steady stream of visitors to your website should be one of your internet marketing objectives. Capturing as much information as you can about each visitor is extremely important. Each time visitors access your site, information about their visits can be saved. This information can be used to generate "web statistics" that characterize your site's overall use.
Tip: In most cases, you will use a web hosting service that will provide you with both an internet domain name and server space. Most of these services will provide some level of website analytics for a very small additional fee. You can compare various hosting companies by going to Hosting Review or Top 10 Best Website Hosting.com.
It is worth your time and effort to evaluate a number of companies to find the best match for your business. There are a number of technical information that can be collected about each visitor to your website. This information falls into several major categories:
- Who are the visitors? (Is this their first time on the site? Are they using a computer or a mobile device?)
- How did they get to your site? (Did they use a search engine and, if so, what search terms? Did they link from another website?)
- What did they do while on your site? (What pages did they visit? What links did they follow? What information did they view? Did they buy anything? Did they subscribe to anything? What page were they viewing when they left the site?
The information can also be aggregated to give you an overall picture of how your site is used (e.g., how many visitors/day, peak usage times, what pages are most popular, what path do most people take through your site.) Many hosting services provide some measure of analytics. In addition, there are numerous companies that offer low-cost or free analytics services.
Web statistics are a useful tool for measuring site usage. For example, using web statistics, you can calculate a number of useful marketing-relevant indicators:
- Penetration = [unique visitors to home page] / [unique visitors]. Penetration reflects the percentage of site visitors that go beyond your organization's home page.
- Conversion = [unique visitors taking desired action] / [unique visitors]. Conversion reflects the percentage of site visitors that take the desired action. You can measure the conversion for several actions simultaneously. For example, the percentage of site visitors that purchase online and the percentage of site visitors that subscribe to your organization's electronic newsletter. Connection = [referral click-thrus] / [desired page views]. Connection refers to the number of site visitors to your site from an external location, such as another website or online advertisement, that view desired content. Online promotions with a high connection rate are more effective.
- Migration = [visits to content area] / [site exits from the content area]. Migration refers to the number of site visitors that leave your site from a specific content area. Content areas with the highest migration are typically less effective than areas with lower migration.
- Clicks to action = [average number of clicks from the home page to the desired action]. CTA reflects the number of clicks it takes from the home page to reach the desired action. For example, reducing the CTA to complete an order should result in a measurable increase in customer conversion for online orders.
- Intro skip factor = [number of visitors to Intro page] / [visitors that bypass intro]. This indicator reflects the number of visitors that view your site's intro page, if applicable. If a large percentage of site visitors bypass the intro, it can indicate an ineffective intro, or a high percentage of return visitors.
By establishing objectives prior to setting website strategies, it may also be possible to integrate objective-specific reporting features. In the same way site visits collect information for web statistics, information can be collected for measuring objectives.
Establish your website strategy before designing your website
Before you begin to design the actual website, you need to develop a strategy that is likely to achieve the objectives that you hope to achieve with your website. As with all marketing strategies, this requires an examination of your target market, available technology, and the rationale for the proposed strategy as it relates to alternatives, cost, and support requirements.
Make sure your target market uses the internet regularly
For any strategy to be effective, your target market segments must contain a sufficient number of Internet users. The most effective Internet strategies will fail if the intended target markets are not online. Granted, with seventy-seven percent of Americans online, this is not likely to be an issue for most market segments. However, not all market segments are equally represented. For example, internet usage is closely correlated with income and education—the higher the income and education, the higher the percentage of individuals using the internet. In addition, non-English speaking individuals are considerably less likely to use the internet than English-speakers. (Note that demographic differences are markedly less for teenagers than for adults: regardless of education, income, or language, teens use the internet.)
In addition to simply using the internet, you want your target market to be using the internet in a way that aligns with your business objectives for your website. For example, 80 percent of those in Gen X (33-44 years old) make online purchases. In contrast, in 2011, only 56 percent of 64 to 72-year-olds use e-commerce. Thus, if you are marketing products or services aimed at older customers, you may not need an e-commerce solution on your website; rather, you may need to invest in a toll-free number with extended customer service hours.
Be aware of technology and infrastructure costs
Potentially effective Internet strategies are often delayed or quickly become cost-prohibitive because the technology and infrastructure required to implement the strategy are not present within the organization. For example, it may be desirable for a company to sell its products/services online. However, doing so requires the ability to update product information and process incoming orders. In addition, once implemented, Internet strategies may require ongoing support or third-party maintenance that needs to be considered.
Explore non-internet options to achieve your objectives
Examine the objectives that you came up with when you were considering why you want to engage in online/internet marketing. Bump them up to a more generic statement. What do you really want to achieve? Increased sales? Increased brand awareness? Increased customer loyalty? Now, consider all the alternative methods of achieving the desired objectives: this includes non-Internet strategies that could achieve the same objective.
Example: If your objective is to increase the number of subscribers for a newsletter, you may consider several strategies. You might promote the newsletter through free distribution in stores or libraries. Or you might change the content of the newsletter or its method/frequency of distribution so that it has a wider appeal to your target market. Although many strategies may address the desired objective, your business will need to distinguish the best strategy for a given set of circumstances.
After identifying the considerations for each proposed strategy, summarize the benefits of this strategy in comparison with others. Why is the proposed Internet strategy the best strategy for addressing the desired objective? How will it achieve the desired goal? What are the cost, technology, and infrastructure advantages of this strategy as compared to alternatives?
Devising your website content plan
A content plan is a blueprint for your website that translates your objectives and strategies into concrete plans that can be implemented. A content plan collects the decisions you made within your marketing plan that will influence the design, structure, and information included on your website. It provides individuals working on the website (who may not have been involved in creating your marketing plan) with the information they need to define the scope of the project.
Content plans typically include the following:
- Purpose. A description of website goals and strategies. The purpose statement is provided within the context of overall communication, marketing, and sales goals developed as part of the marketing plan.
- Audience. An overview of customers and how the needs of customers then will be addressed by the website. Content summary. A detailed list of content that will be added to the site, where existing content can be found, and what content needs to be created from scratch.
- Sitemap. The sitemap is a description of how content will be grouped, organized, and linked. Sometimes this is done graphically with boxes representing web pages and lines indicating hyperlinks that exist between pages.
- Feature list. A list of things your website will do. For example, the information you want to collect, if possible, from site visitors. Basically, anything that requires programming.
When creating a content plan, make sure to include what information you will need from the website and what information you will need to update. For example, if you anticipate adding weekly news, then the functional inventory should include a means of easily adding/modifying/deleting news from the site without requiring ongoing assistance from a web programmer or vendor.
The content plan provides the basis for creating an implementation plan if you're building the website yourself—or the basis for drafting a Request For Proposal if you'll be selecting a vendor to create the website.
Be thorough when creating the website implementation plan
The website implementation plan takes your content plan to the next step and provides detailed specifications regarding scope, timeline, and budget. The blueprint and construction specifications analogies are excellent ones to keep in mind. If you are building a house, you need to decide in advance if the house will have a basement or be on a slab, how many bedrooms and bathrooms there will be, and what type of exterior facade you want. If you change any of these key decisions once the house is nearly complete, the entire project will be derailed. You may need be able to get the changes you want, but, even if you can, the costs and delays will be prohibitive. The same applies to website design. If you don't take the time to get the requirements exactly right, you will face significant cost overruns and delays.
Your implementation should contain the following sections—specified in exacting detail:
- Overview. This includes the purpose and audience information from the content plan. It also provides a condensed description of the project and its general scope.
- Scope. This will be the longest and most detailed section of the plan. In the Scope section, you provide a complete description of your project. This includes the tasks to be completed, the proposed technical approach for dynamic elements, and any limitation/process parameters inherent to the project. The content summary and feature list from the content plan should be integrated into the scope of the document.
- Timeline. The timelines for rolling out websites vary depending on the size of the site and the scope of the project. A typical timeline includes planning, design, production, and testing milestones. Timelines often need to be adjusted to reflect the workload of staff, the selected vendor, and related project dependencies.
- Budget. While creating the implementation plan, staff will provide estimates for time, outside suppliers, and required resources for completing the project. These costs are then combined to create an overall budget to implement the project.
The production time needed for building your company website only reflects a portion of the overall cost, typically half of the budget. Costs associated with planning, design, and testing also need to be included for an accurate budget.
Determining who will build your website
Before you can develop the budget for your project, you will need to conduct research on the feasibility of different website construction options. The choices run the gamut from a complete "do-it-yourself" project to contracting for the complete installation.
The DIY option is more feasible if you (or your employees) are familiar and comfortable with technology and your functionality and customization requirements are relatively basic. Most hosting services have a wide selection of semi-customized templates that you can use to build and launch a website in a matter of hours without having to know any web programming languages.
The downside of the do-it-yourself approach is not so much in the actual building of a basic website as it is in understanding what makes an effective website. While internet usability is not the proverbial "rocket science," there are rules and best practices that you may not want to devote time to learning. If you want to make sure that your website pays for itself in increased sales and revenue, then you may want to consider having some level of professional assistance. This could range from design consultation through the complete build of the website.
Tip: Make sure that you investigate whether your industry or professional group provides discounts or specialized website services. For example, web.com partners with the National Federation of Independent Businesses to provide free design services to members and TherapySites offers specialized websites for those in the mental health professions.
More complex projects may require a request for proposal
If you have many specialized requirements (for example, international transactions or live 24/7 customer service) then you should consider going through the Request for Proposal process with several different vendors. A Request for Proposal (RFP) provides the basis for selecting the website developer who will implement your company's website. An RFP is a version of an implementation plan that includes information requested from vendors to aid in selection.
Selecting a vendor is a three-stage process.
- The first stage is to conduct some preliminary research on vendors and develop a shortlist of companies for consideration. These are companies that will be asked to respond with proposals to your RFP.
- The second stage is to prepare an RFP for those selected vendors. Based on the RFP, vendors will provide proposals for implementing your project.
- The final stage is to select a vendor. This requires a face-to-face meeting with final candidates to resolve questions about the RFP, vendor proposals, and final project implementation.
Your RFP should request the following information from each company on your shortlist.
Company background. This includes corporate information including financial details. How long has the company been in business? How many employees does the company have? Of its employees, how many are dedicated to implementing Internet media?
- Capabilities. In addition to capabilities associated with the RFP, what other services does the vendor provide? Can the vendor provide representative samples of related work?
- Company qualifications. How experienced/qualified is the company for the project? Have they completed similar projects? Can they provide a list of previous clients with contact information and relevant URLs?
- Staffing. What is the proposed team that will be working on the project? What are their individual qualifications? Can a resume be provided for key members of the proposed team?
- Process. What is the development process used by the vendor? What are the project stages and milestones? What are their processes for quality assurance and testing? How will the completed project be delivered or implemented? What documents are included as deliverables in the processes used by the vendor?
- Proposed solution. How does the vendor recommend implementing the project? What is their proposed technical approach? What changes to the project scope would they recommend? Is their proposed solution scalable? Will it work in cross-platform environments?
- Timeline. What is their proposed schedule for completing the project? What dependencies are included in the timeline that may influence the anticipated delivery date?
- Budget. What is the anticipated cost for the project? What variables exist in the budget and what is their process for identifying changes in cost? How do they accept payment? What portion of the payment will be paid to outside suppliers? How are tasks completed by outside suppliers billed? What ongoing maintenance costs does the vendor anticipate after the project is completed?