The greatest crime any IT business can commit is having a static website that serves merely as an electronic representation of the company's product brochure. When I did my marketing and public relations degree many moons ago, I was always told that any promotional tool must have a call to action, even if it is just a tear-off coupon offering more information or an incentive to order.
I was also taught that content is king, which has caused a lot of problems. Many IT websites have vast amounts of unstructured content such as product lists sorted only by major group headings - so much so that it overwhelms the visitor. I wrote an article on "Webonomics" - the science of making a website user friendly and useful (www.arnnet.com.au/index.php?id=147645161) that you should all go back and read. The moral of the story here is that consumers want websites that will filter requests for information and offer them a tight list of options. Most websites make it too hard to do business online.
The second greatest crime is not to have an e-commerce fulfilment system in place. You need to offer online ordering at lower costs than ordering from an employee. About a year ago, a retailer I know set up a simple shopping basket site. He was worried that it would cannibalise his more profitable walk-in retail sales so he sat back and waited for orders. None came.
Another retailer set up a very hip site, promoted the hell out of it, listed it on Google advertisements, promoted it to existing customers, set up user forums, offered monthly giveaways, provided great help content and introduced a monthly newsletter. That site now turns over many tens of thousands of dollars each month and is getting great repeat business. Interestingly, it did not take away from his retail business because the online audience was after bargain prices that he could not offer in a more expensive showroom environment.
The third greatest crime is not to have some form of business-to-business and business-to-consumer backend to allow clients to interact with you over the Net. I am not just talking about Web sales here but things like being kept up to date on order status, being able to reprint invoices or view transaction history, organise online return authorities, track repairs, request more information on specific items, sign up for latest news and receive weekly price lists. The more you can drive customers to Web-based interaction the more you can automate the process and cut down on expensive labour. Furthermore users appreciate being able to get information whenever they want it.
How can a small-to-medium retailer harness these tools to make Web marketing more effective? The first step is to make a commitment to funding a better data-based Web presence. A small retailer will need to look at managed and packaged solutions, many of which are available from the larger Web hosting operations like WebCentral. Some providers will offer you all the expertise you need and package this into a reasonable monthly fee although you will need to pay for Web design upfront. I really think there is a business opportunity for a clever provider to offer small IT businesses a totally managed store solution over terminal services - drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org if you already exist.
Larger retailers might look at getting an Internet link and then host their own websites. With this option you can build full .net custom solutions but the costs (and benefits) will be significantly greater.
Then there are the likes of veteran online stores like Harris Technology. I would hate to see what it spends but the site is very functional and has become a staple part of its relationship with customers. Smaller shops can compete on much lower budgets if they are committed to gaining a Web presence - just have a look at www.qldit.com.au, www.umart.com.au or www.eyo.com.au to see examples of online stores that work.
But a word of warning - don't let programmers design the site. You need to commit as much time as they do into systems engineering, developing a list of what you need and how you want it to look. And you will have to make product selections, ensure orders are quickly shipped and queries are promptly managed.
Next month: Direct mail marketing.