Dear Builder's Engineer,
I know every small business is supposed to have a website but I have not taken the plunge yet. My business is down like everyone’s in this recession. Do you think a website really matters – is it time I bit the bullet and put one up?
In a word, absolutely.
I’ve said it before and here it is again: In Any Business, Marketing Is Half. Or in the words of a grizzled colleague: “Think of your business as a marketing company that just happens to provide construction services.”
Your customers are doing web searches. It is a well-documented fact that today’s consumer does most of their shopping in front of a computer before setting foot in any store. Particularly for big purchases such as new homes, remodels, appliances and the like. Your competition has a huge leg up if they appear on a Google search and you do not. And even if your company doesn’t show up in the first few listings of a web search, you can bet that potential customers are asking past clients, associates, friends, and foes for your web address so they can check you out directly.
By the time this article is published I’ll have finished my 5th website. I’m not particularly proud that of that, considering my first one went up in 2000 – that’s an average of one new website every 2.4 years. It’s taken me some trial and error to figure out what type of site best suits my needs. That, and technology has changed so much in the first decade of this century that as soon as I had a site up, it was obsolete.
Now, however, it appears that website technology has leveled out somewhat. But more than that, there are companies who provide hosting and amazingly good website templates, cheap. In my case I just went from a custom made, difficult to modify, expensive to maintain site to a fully-templatized number from 3dCart.com (Volusion is another brand.). Even with my limited staff (mostly just me) we can modify and maintain the site ourselves simply and quickly. My site also has a built-in blog and a mass email handling system, both of which are critical features for what I do. Tech support is 24-7 and free. Not many years ago each of these features was a stand-alone service and a separate monthly bill. Now it’s all combined and saves me a bundle.
The main purpose of my site is the sale of construction industry templates - a retail application. I need a robust shopping cart, but you very well may not. Most construction industry folks need simply to display examples of their work, show off a few glowing testimonials, and provide contact information. That’s a duck. Web hosting companies such as Host Gator have many canned non-ecommerce templates free with their hosting service. And they provide free technical support.
I keep using the word, template. If you’re in business to make profit this is a word you need a kung-fu grasp of. Templates are time savers, plain and simple. Their purpose is to provide a framework for repetitive tasks so that the user does very little from job to job. For example, when I was a framer back in the day I sometimes custom made roof trusses. The first step was to nail down a template, a.k.a., a jig, on the floor the exact outline of the truss shape. Then cutting the pieces and connecting them together was simple, not to mention each finished truss was exactly the same.
As another example, most computer users who write letters, memos, or reports have templates which contain the company logo, greeting, closing, date, and any other boilerplate verbiage that gets used time and again. A limited amount of body content is all that’s ever changed.
If you’re a number cruncher you undoubtedly use spreadsheets. Here is another excellent application of templates. A spreadsheet effortlessly stores the math, graphs, help notes, images, etc. so that all the user does is change the input variables. Of all the templates I use and sell, these are the most massive time savers. I’ve written about this before.
Websites have been around long enough that the industry has determined the best, most common types of sites and have created templates of them. They have also simplified the user interface so that regular Joes can create basic sites without any knowledge of HTML, Java, or any other programming language.
What about the cost? In my opinion, website marketing is the biggest bang for your marketing buck. My entire site, hosting, email – everything, costs less than $50/month. There was no initial fee nor have I had to purchase a website consultant’s time. Okay, I’ve been through this drill a few times and sort of know what I’m doing. But even if you don’t you can still do a heck of a lot yourself with nothing more than a little ambition and a desire to learn.
Truth be told, when I decided to redo my site a few months ago, I installed my blinders and went down the same path as the four times previous – I intended to hire a website consultant and spoon feed him my site’s content . But after I found out how simple the templates are, I didn’t do it. And boy am I glad. Here’s why:
* I saved several thousand dollars in consultant’s fees.
* I understand precisely what my site does and how. This is no small item. Most owners of websites have a vague understanding at best of what their site does and does not do. When you create the whole thing you’re forced to deeply understand your own marketing plan and its components.
* My time investment is about the same as if I’d hired a consultant because they only do exactly what you ask them – they’re not mind readers. So you not only have to provide the content – ad copy, photos, testimonials, etc. - you also must proofread and check their work. Then, after they’re done, you notice it could be better if this or that were different so you pay them to tweak and retweak. The meter runs and your teeth grind. I’ve been down that road enough times to assure you that even the best consultants are no better than your time spent with them.
* It forces you to learn something new – always a beautiful thing.
* Upkeep and maintenance will actually get done because I’m the one doing it on my time, on my dime. I hesitate when I have to hire someone to do it for me.
If you’re not a marketing expert, how are you supposed to know what to put on your site and what it should look like? The answer is all around the internet and it’s free: Borrow ideas from other sites. In my case I wanted a simple, clean look with a construction feel. Sites that influenced me include Apple, Mike Holmes, and Bob Vila. And it’s not like I plagiarized; you’d be hard pressed to even guess my influences when you visit my website. Certain things on others’ sites you specifically choose not to emulate.
Certainly you don’t want to put up garbage. Bad marketing can be worse than none at all. If you’re unsure, then by all means spend a few hundred bucks on a consultant. A word of warning, though. Website consultants are not necessarily marketing experts. My first web consultant, for example, thought flashy graphics and hard sell techniques were the way and wanted to bring that motif to my site. Yucch. Make sure your consultant is all about good looking, appropriate content. Check out many examples of their work and talk to past clients.
In summary a website is your window frame to the world. A good one is a must. You can build most, if not all of it yourself. Take advantage of any well-known hosting company’s templates and borrow ideas from sites that you like. Make sure all content is grammatically correct, well written and proofread. And lastly, don’t hesitate to hire a proven professional if you’re unsure of anything.