Small Business Homepage Construction

By: Jim Degerstrom

Custom design of the home page for a small business client is not much different than making a contract to construct a new brick and mortar home for their private residence. When complete each should be functional according to the owner's specifications, and each demands interaction between the client and contractor to meet expectations before it's time to move into that lovely new home.

Let's have some fun and compare a new house and a website in a way that may help put this relationship into perspective.

To succeed most new homeowners know that their (online) home is necessary to compete. Customers are less likely to buy from you if you lack the sophistication of another vendor if their (online) home is up and running while you are homeless.

Having designed custom websites for more than 10 years, and interacted with other web developers in online communities where we share advice to help newcomers to website design, I have discovered some common problems.

The most difficult part of designing a new home is the obligation for interaction between the two parties. As the homeowner, only that owner knows their expectations for the performance of the new house, and that information must be communicated effectively to the contractor. Most designers will ask the right questions to determine the size, number of rooms, and functionality of the appliances in the new home. The complexity of the project will be fairly clear before the actual contractual agreement takes place.

At this point many homeowners only imagine the finished product and overlook their obligation to stay involved during the development and construction of the new home. It would be different if they decided on do-it-yourself, but with someone else taking the lead many drop out and simply look forward to moving day. It's not that simple, and herein lays the biggest problem.

The contractor is not a mind reader, and it is highly unlikely they are an expert in your niche. The information you internalize and take for granted must be extracted and communicated to your new home designer to ensure the success of your project. Take the time to do this and be prepared to discuss your needs in detail before you commit to a contract.

Analyze 5 key elements to define and document your expectations as follows:

1. layout
2. benefits
3. performance
4. promotion
5. growth

The project cost will depend on your needs. If you specify and pay for a cottage and later you request features for a mansion, expect a price increase from the original contract. This may seem silly, but it happens more often than some people realize. The complexity of your project will affect cost. A simple design takes less effort than a highly interactive design which requires more technology and time to complete.

Unless you specify what you want initially, how it will perform, and the future plans for growth, your finished project may result in disappointment. Any contract to perform is worthless if in the end either party resents the deal.

Let's drop the website and house analogy now, and focus on a real website for a small business owner. The client should prepare a plan in advance and below are suggestions using the previous 5 item list. For a small business website, each element should be analyzed to make sure you communicate your needs to the website designer.

Layout
A familiar look to match printed materials is important for your website. If your business is brand new, establishing your corporate identity should be done and approved in a logical order with the logo, then a business card, other printed materials, and finally the website. Branding your company requires a consistent look in print and online. You may also want to search and view websites that belong to your competition, and give the web addresses to the designer to better communicate what you like.

Benefits
Your business is unique even if 1000 other companies within 100 miles do exactly what you do. When all things seem equal, the personality and character of you and your staff makes you unique. Prepare a list of the benefits people enjoy doing business with you. Stay focused on positive aspects including quality, price, delivery, and service, and then list these as bullets in a word processor that you can copy and paste into an email to send to your designer. Write 10-20 benefit statements in short phases or sentences to communicate and share what's stored between your ears.

Performance
Your website allows you to present more information online than can possibly fit on a business card. One page may be fine if your business is local and all you want is the sophistication of a www domain name on your business card. Multiple page static sites are more likely to draw search engine traffic, so be prepared with a larger budget for this information only website. If you require an interactive site with contact forms, client login with passwords, full eCommerce including a shopping cart, or similar advanced features, the price increase will be substantial. Know what you want and tell the designer.

Promotion
If the internet were compared to a forest then your website is just 1 tree among 6 billion pages online. If you want to be noticed, some form of off site promotion will be necessary. Make sure your www domain name is on all printed marketing materials. Add it to your email signature. If your business involves ground travel, have the www domain on your vehicles. For larger or interactive sites that depend on search engine driven traffic, you cannot simply launch a website and expect visitors automatically. Advanced promotion takes time and effort, and although your website designer should be able to make suggestions, be prepared with an ongoing annual budget for promotion.

Growth
As your business grows you may want the website to expand as well. Some small business website owners want a highly interactive website including the ability to add, remove, or change content without the assistance of the original designer. Some will negotiate a rate up front and delegate this service. Regardless, looking ahead in anticipation of future needs for your online presence should be reviewed up front and on a regular basis. If you decide you want to take over managing your website, there are no easy solutions because the learning curve may be steep. The added cost bears consideration, so be prepared to make a decision about what you need versus what you want.

Based on experience, here is some advice to assist small business website owners maximizing the relationship with their designer. Plan ahead using the points already given before you even contact the designer. Being prepared to discuss your expectations is more likely to result in a finished project where neither party resents the deal. If in the course of the project development you decide more features are required, expect to pay accordingly.

Understand what you need. Aside from the website design you need a www domain name registration priced per year, and monthly hosting for storing your site online. As simple as that seems, it is surprising how much can go wrong if these two basic needs are handled poorly. The options are too numerous to detail here, yet if purchasing a domain and hosting is new to you, seek the advice of your designer. Mistakes my clients have made have delayed projects by weeks or months.

For a static site that will not change, the annual cost for the domain and hosting should be less than $100 USD. For an interactive site the design fee may be more, but the annual cost to remain online should still be less than $100 USD. Sites requiring advanced promotion or ongoing maintenance to add, revise, or delete content could add several 1000 dollars to your cost.

Finally, acknowledge emailed progress updates or requests for information from your designer. From experience, clients have ignored or overlooked multiple emailed requests to clarify content needed to continue with the design, and then weeks later questioned why a given page was not done. One example was a simple application form which was not part of the original proposal, required a list of fields for the form, and incurred an additional design fee for the add-on. Failing to respond with timely communications only delays the launch or your website.

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