Keeping up with the Changes

August 28, 2013 - 10:31am -- John Locke

There's a few problems with setting up shop on the web. All of your competitors are right next door. You're in the worst neighborhood, with crooks inventing new tools to break in every day. That parking lot you just built now has to accommodate scooters and semi trucks. Your customers now expect perfect service, or they will just go next door. And there's a guy standing with a bullhorn next to you drowning out everything you say announcing prescription drugs for sale and windfalls from African dictators and widows. Sometimes they even come into your shop and try to sell your customers college essays and insurance.

How are you supposed to run a successful business in this environment?

Feed your web site good content, and it will feed you customers.

First, let me quote John F. Kennedy:

Don't ask what your web site can do for you; ask what you can do for your web site!

Or something like that.

The crucial thing is you can't forget about it. If you leave your website alone, untouched, abandoned, it will do as much for your business as you do for it. Nothing. Too many people seem to think the cost of getting a web site up and running is the expensive part -- it's not. The cost is ongoing, in making it a place your customers want to come, over and over again. You have to give them a reason to come back. Or else they'll forget about you.

That means, add stuff to it. New videos, new pictures, new blog posts, whatever you do that people find worthwhile, worth coming back to see what's new.

I spend many hours each month blogging, writing, and coming up with new things to try on this web site. In the past year and a half, over 20% of our customers have come from our web site, but that has amounted to nearly 40% of our business. What would you spend on a sales person that's responsible for 40% of your business?

Stay on top of updates.

There's an arms race going on between people trying to break into your web site, and people trying to stop break-ins. If you're using a content management system like Drupal (and if you're spending any time writing content you should be), you need to keep relatively up-to-date on updates, and probably more importantly, use a host that limits the ways you can get vandalized.

We're particularly seeing a bunch of attacks on web server software that renders sites inaccessible. We find that a bunch of customers start having attacks that greatly slow down their sites. Then 3 or 4 days later, there's an update for Apache to block a "denial of service" vulnerability -- we apply that and suddenly no more problems. For a few weeks.

If you're doing e-commerce on your site, you've got a much bigger obligation to keep your site safe. Not to your customers, but to your business. Because if you get hacked and an attacker gets a bunch of your customer's card numbers, it's you, the merchant, who will pay the price.

If you don't have somebody keeping your site and server packages up to date, I know of a shop that might be willing to help. (Hint: follow the red "Get Started!" button up and to the right!)

Be responsive to new customer habits

Smart phones. Tablets. Giant monitors. How are you supposed to have a decent looking site for all of your visitors? The current answer is "with a responsive theme." HTML5 has introduced a capability that allows designers to change the layout of a site based on how wide the screen is, and this functionality is called "responsive" or "adaptive" theming.

15% of our traffic is now from tablets or smart phones, and we're a very work-oriented site. (We are working on a good small-screen view! Stay tuned...)

Adding a responsive theme is often the main justification for an upgrade to Drupal 7. There are far more (and better) responsive themes available for Drupal 7 than we had in earlier versions, and re-doing a custom theme is often the single biggest cost item in an upgrade project.

But the larger point is, your customers aren't just driving the same old Ford Model T we used to design for as recently as 5 years ago, the 1024x768 monitor. What are they going to be driving tomorrow? Are you prepared to give them a good experience?

Look for ways to engage your customers

Any business trying to grow really has only 3 ways of doing that: get new customers, get existing customers to buy more, or charge more for the products/services you already provide. Are there things you can do to help with any of those tactics?

For new customers, you want to make your value proposition clear, and make it as easy as possible for them to buy from you. Establish credibility, establish trust, explain why their lives will improve by working with you. By working with us, we're going to find ways to help your business grow, by finding and removing bottlenecks in your current processes and building web applications to support those processes.

You might consider adding live chat for sales or support (on our wishlist). You might implement a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to help remind you to follow up on sales leads. You might spend time removing friction from your sales process.

For existing customers, how can you delight them? Generally improved communication is a good start. Finding out where their challenges are, what their longer term plans are, how you might be able to help them achieve their goals. To do this on a broader scale, you'll need systems that make this easy to keep track of, so you can tailor your service to each customer.

Some of the things we're working on include an internal directory of clients and partners we can refer business to, so when a customer comes with a need we're not equipped to handle, we can help solve their problem by putting them in touch with someone who can. We're also starting to track interests, so when we come across a noteworthy story, we have a list of our customers or prospects to share it with a personal note.

Skip the sleaze, invest in long term marketing

Here's another battleground: spam. You know where the worst spam on the web comes from? Search Engine Optimization (SEO). A huge number of "SEO" specialists are trying to game Google to benefit their customers by engaging in large scale spamming. If you run a site that allows any kind of form submissions, if you try to engage the public in any kind of dialog, you've surely been hit by these spammers.

We've seen them go so far as to hack sites and servers to embed links that are only visible to Google, all in an attempt to make their clients' sites rise to the top of the search engine results.

Don't feed these bottom-dwellers.

If you read anything about SEO, you'll see lots of discussion about how businesses have risen and fallen with each major update Google does to its search algorithms. In most cases, these are stories about businesses who have knowingly or unknowingly engaged in some crappy tactic to rise to the top, and then were punished when Google figured out their content wasn't what people wanted.

That is what Google constantly strives to do -- deliver the best results for any search. SEO is all about getting your crappy content to appear above somebody else's good content. So don't do that -- make your content good! Then you don't have to play those games. There are good SEO firms out there, and once you have great content on your site, a boost from some appropriate SEO can help it rise to the top. Just make sure you ask exactly how they will improve your search rankings, and if they guarantee a top placement, run away fast.

Pay for great content. Pay for features that are worthwhile, or for easter eggs to delight your customers. Pay for advertising to get traffic quickly. Don't pay a sleazeball SEO firm to piss all over the Internet.

Make a plan

We're big fans of Agile development, which has a key mantra: Release early and often. We think on top of that it's worth doing some more planning up front, and at least have a pretty solid direction before heading out.

What is going to make your business a success? People. Your customers. Your employees. Your partners. What value are you offering to your customers that will delight them, ease their pain, make it a no-brainer to work with you? Plan something out. Create it. Test it. Change it. Repeat until you hit success! And then keep doing it to stay out in front.

I'm a customer of a business that is a one-man operation, who has probably spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on his web site and building out a specific program. The result? A business generating $12M in annual revenue. And he outsources everything. That's a pretty nice return, even if he's spent the better part of $1M on development.

While building a sophisticated system to support your process might prove expensive, think about the revenue it could help generate if successful, and create a plan and a workable budget to get there. Stop looking at your web site as simply a cost, and focus instead on how it can help you capitalize on an opportunity and take your business to a new level.

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  1. Freelock has a deep bench in all things Drupal, but beyond the technical skills they also offer the much-appreciated ability to ask the right questions, articulate issues, and offer strong solutions. They were a true partner that went the extra mile amidst shifting priorities and deadlines. I look forward to a continued working relationship with the team at Freelock.

    Deborah Gassner
    UW Center for Reinventing Public Education

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