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The Small Business MBA: Effective and Creative Use of the Internet (for anyone)

Virtually everyone has a “web presence” these days, and for good reason. The Internet is an effective, low-cost, flexible tool to attract new customers and serve existing customers, no matter what size your business.

However, the web has been misused and abused by the majority of people seeking to gain competitive advantage. Just as no one gets in their car for the purpose of driving down the road to read billboards, no one surfs the web with the intent of reading about how good someone thinks their own products and services are.

People want to know this: What’s in if for me?

An outstanding web site must create two dynamics:

  1. Repeat visits by the same people, until such time that they are ready to make a purchase.
  2. Referrals to other people whom the original visitors believe would appreciate your site.

How do you create these dynamics? Simple. By providing value, not advertising, and maintaining an orientation toward the customer, not yourself.

Here are the “best of the best” techniques that I’ve collected for creating, maintaining, and perpetuating a dynamic Internet presence:

  • Test the site for its downloading ability for the average computer user. Downloading should be relatively fast and painless, as visitors travel among the pages. Don’t forget that most Internet users still utilize fairly slow modems, so just because something downloads rapidly on your web designer’s modern equipment doesn’t mean that it will for customers.
  • Allow the web designer to provide the correct graphics, connections, and layout, but never the content or wording. You have to represent your own customers.
  • Provide value. Include articles, techniques, other web sites, book reviews, and anything else relevant for your products and services that help the customer. The site should be a place of value which compels people to visit, not an advertising mart which people avoid.
  • Provide testimonials from happy customers. There are few marketing approaches as effective as having delighted customers sing your praises. It’s usually a good idea to spread these around your pages, rather than isolate them in one spot.
  • Change the content frequently to compel repeat visits. The best way to do this is by posting an “article of the month” or “weekly techniques.” These can be cooking tips, car care pointers, floral arrangement photos, catering ideas, etc. that pertain to your products and services.
  • Make the site easily navigable. Ensure that a visitor can readily travel from one page to anther without going back to the opening page each time, and that no one is “trapped” in your descriptive pages.
  • Have an obvious and easy way to send email to you.
  • Provide a secure server, so that credit cards can be comfortably used for immediate purchase. But also allow for the order form to be printed easily, in case the visitor would prefer to fax or mail it.
  • Create a “current customers only” page which is a benefit to existing customers and on which there are special deals or unique tips. You can do this with a simple password system.
  • Create effective index words that can be used with the major search engines so that people can find you quickly. Use both your name and your content. In other words, “Alan Weiss,” “Summit Consulting Group, Inc.,” and “management consulting” should all be used as search terms, because you can never be sure about how people will attempt to find you.
  • Establish reciprocity with other sites that don’t compete. If you’re in the catering business you might have a link to a bridal gown shop; if you’re in the stationery business the link might be with a secretarial service.

The web provides the ability to market locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. You have the option to determine how narrowly or widely you want to cast your net. But the important consideration is to keep the visitor’s needs in mind, and to create a site that provides value, endorsements, and the obvious potential to improve the customer’s condition.

One final technique: Surf the web yourself. Visit competitors, your vendors, people you buy things from, and random others. Ask yourself what you like and don’t like about their sites, and what the impact would be on your own customer base. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Just improve it.