Is your Web site working for or against bottom line?

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Each year, BtoB, a monthly magazine for marketing strategists, publishes the “NetMarketing 100,” a list of the editors’ choices for best Web sites. This year’s top-three, among 800 Web sites evaluated in 14 industry categories, are Hewlitt-Packard Co., 3Com.Corp. and American Express. The sites, according to BtoB, offered easy-to-find information, various design tools to communicate their brand and additional user resources, such as e-mail newsletters and in-depth customer testimonials.

Whether a Fortune 500 or a small business, a company’s presence on the Web is assumed in today’s world.

Rob Weekes, co-owner of CreatiVeracity, a full-service advertising agency based in Monument, Colo., said he believes a Web site adds credibility to any business – small or large. “A Web site now has equal importance to the print ad, billboards and television and radio commercials,” Weekes said.

Businesses build and maintain a Web presence for many reasons, Weekes said. From online brochures and forms to brand-name recognition to e-commerce capability, business owners are finding the Internet is as important a marketing tool as a listing in the Yellow Pages.

“We live in a world where the household penetration of the Internet has surpassed the cable network,” Weekes said. “AOL reported more than $4 billion in Internet sales throughout the 2003 holiday season.

“Considering all of this, I think the Internet is so integral to all of our lives that it would be business suicide not to have an Internet presence.”

Weekes’ CreatiVeracity partner, Tim Davis, agrees.

Davis said a Web site is only as good as the way in which it defines the business and meets the customers’ needs. “A Web site must demonstrate effective design and user ability,” Davis said. “Anyone can get a copy of a software program and muddle through the creation of a Web site, but the best way to ensure its functionality is to hire a professional.”

Professional Web designers encourage their clients to re-evaluate a Web site’s functionality on a regular basis. Business owners should seek certain attributes when choosing a Web designer, Davis said, whether they are constructing a first-time Web site or reconstructing a current one.

A Web site developer needs to understand codes and back-end functionality, and must be aware of color theory, design and symmetry and know messaging, copywriting, and marketing, said Davis. The designing agency or individual must understand how the Web site falls into a business plan and how it supports the business model.

Dan Vanwijk is the president of the Colorado Association of Internet Professionals and the owner of DV Web Solutions. He concurs with Davis.

A Web designer should have both technical expertise and strong marketing experience, Vanwijk said. “Business owners and managers should ask potential designers about their backgrounds and the companies they worked for,” he said. “You don’t want someone who takes the cookie-cutter approach and generates a Web site from a template, without considering the customer.”

Vanwijk said that even though the Internet is not the “Holy Grail,” Internet-savvy consumers are increasing in numbers and expecting to meet their needs via the Web. However, Vanwijk cautions that a Web site should be only one aspect of a marketing plan. Networking, the Yellow Pages, print and other media advertising continue to be equally important to a company’s success.

Vanwijk said business owners who promote their wares through e-commerce need to recognize the sophistication level of consumers while understanding the demographics and buying habits of their particular end customers. For example, he said, are customers willing to input their credit card numbers via the Internet?

Vanwijk said certain customers, such as seniors, are uncomfortable with Internet buying because they do not trust putting their credit card into cyberspace. Knowing the audience is imperative to a Web site’s effectiveness.

“What kind of Internet connection is the end customer using?” is a question that warrants priority when one is designing a Web site, Vanwijk said.

If the customer is a young professional living in a high-tech community, his Internet connection is probably DSL, cable or wireless, Vanwijk said. If the end customer is a senior or a rural dweller, his or her Internet connection is most likely dial-up. Web sites, he said, especially ones loaded with information, are downloaded at a much slower pace when the connection is dial-up. People have a short attention span, Vanwijk said, and they may leave the site prior to the download if the process is too time consuming.

Piggy backing off highly visible and well-utilized Web sites is a way to add to a Web presence, Vanwijk said. Any Web site gains credibility and usage if it is linked to a larger, reputable site, and there is a benefit when users are able to access Web regulars, like Amazon.com, through smaller Web sites.

Amazon.com pioneered what the industry refers to as the associates program, Vanwijk said. If Amazon.com has a link on another business Web site, the book giant pays the associate Web site a commission based on purchases resulting from that link. “It’s a great marketing strategy,” he said.

There are numerous Internet hosting companies, Vanwijk said, but buyers should beware of “cheap” rates.

“If the company is giving it (the hosting) away, you may not be able to contact someone if a problem occurs,” he said. “Look for a hosting company that is available 24/7 and find out how many Web sites are hosted on one Web server.

“Does the hosting company have one or multiple connections to the Internet?” Vanwijk asked. If a company is reliant on a round-the-clock Internet presence, it is best to pay more for a hosting company that has several backup solutions.

The Colorado Association of Internet Professionals used to be a chapter of a national nonprofit Internet professionals’ organization that did not survive the “dot.com bomb,” Vanwijk said. After the organization’s demise, the Springs’ chapter maintained a local presence.

Education is a big part of our organization, Vanwijk said, and many small-business owners attend the meetings to mingle with Internet professionals and expand their knowledge about Web sites. “Anyone can become a member, and non-members are welcome at our monthly educational meetings,” he said. “When you are not aware, it’s easy to be led down the wrong path.”

Being aware also means knowing if the Web site is working for or against the bottom line.

There are tools to assess a Web site’s user ability and functionality, said Tim Davis. “You can track how the users get to the Web site and how long they stay,” Davis said. “Feedback forms can be made available to the customer through the Web site, and I think it’s a good idea to use focus groups to critique the Web site. The Web site’s message must be on track and aimed at the right audience.”

Davis said the measurement to a Web site’s success is the user. He said it is important that a Web site evolves with new technology and with the ever-evolving user.

Visit www.csaip.org for information on the Colorado Association of Internet Professionals.

- Editorial@csbj.com