Websites become indispensable to small business

A new phenomenon has hit my digital services business, albeit belatedly.

All of a sudden, the websites my business creates for our smaller business clients have been accompanied by a factor that’s commonplace in larger business.

A deadline.

Yes, smaller businesses are now insisting that their websites and associated online communications are created by a specific date.

What’s so new about a deadline, you ask. Surely they are common in professional marketing and IT projects?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, pretty much every digital project commissioned by larger business comes with strict scopes, budgets and deadlines – for fairly obvious reasons.

Time is money

Large businesses realise both the cost of a project being overdue as well as the opportunity cost that not operating with the ensuing technology creates.

If you live in Victoria, the word ‘Myki’ – the state’s expensive and long overdue transport ticketing system – will illustrate only too well what the phrases overdue and over budget can mean. 

But in smaller business, no, deadlines are rarely set or met for what is usually their first ‘technology’ undertaking, a website.

Not only are most smaller businesses venturing into the unknown, but such a project is so far outside their normal business procedures, that the business operators or managers that commission them are often concerned that it will eat into their already bloated work schedules and disrupt other aspects of the business.

Soon as we can

To that end, projects like websites are often done as almost an ‘extracurricular’ project – something that will be progressed when its commissioner has time to attend to it rather than being interwoven into day to day schedules.

Anyone who has ever waited for smaller business clients to provide base content or other information from which to work will be very familiar with what I mean.

So the recent introduction and working to a set deadline represents a significant development from the

fairly lackadaisical approach taken in the past.

Because no longer are websites either a ‘nice to have’ or even a ‘keep up with the Joneses’, but a legitimate and critical component of a business’ operations.

Website as launching pad

Take one of the websites we are building at the moment, which is for a new entertainment venue, for example.

As the venue’s launch date edges nearer, the notion of opening without an accompanying website is unthinkable to the operator.

Websites are simply the front line in not only announcing the arrival of the venue, but will be a critical intermediary step between awareness of and actually visiting the venue.

In other words, if patrons either can’t find or don’t like the website, there’s a fair chance their attendance will be delayed or worse still, abandoned altogether.

And that can be suicide for the fortunes of the venue.

Compliance and regulation

Another client is an insurance broker. 

For them, not only are timely eNewsletters and website articles an important component of their promotional and ‘re-marketing’ armoury, various regulatory requirements are communicated by both email and website, ensuring that the business remains compliant with industry and government regulations.

Both these examples suggest a graduation of business websites through three key phases.

From electronic brochure to virtual shopfront

The first phase is what I’d call ‘enablement’, where the emphasis is simply on having a website as a kind of ‘proof of credibility’ to initial online visitors and often purely because a competitor has one. This phase is generally seen as an ‘IT’ project because the website is seen as ‘new technology’ and as mentioned above, usually the first technology project the business has undertaken.

Once the business has become accustomed to the notion of simply having a website – usually no more than an ‘electronic brochure’, attention turns to the Marketing benefits the website can leverage.

Just being online gives way to becoming prominent on search engines, commencing relationships with website visitors via eNews and social networking signups and even selling online.

Once these benefits are experienced and measured – usually in a fairly experimental fashion, business operators realise that the website is not just a casual marketing aid, it’s a legitimate asset to the business that provides real and measurable results.

It’s at this point that the website moves into ‘Operations’ mode – it is now a fundamental infrastructure requirement of the business – one that is as core to its day to day operations as the plant and equipment required to keep the doors open.

For many new online businesses of course, the business simply couldn’t operate at all without a website. Google, Amazon, iTunes, eBay and Facebook are great international examples of this, while locally, carsales.com.au, Grays Online and, yes, Smart Company use the web as their predominant operational channel.

Many business operators will be quite familiar with this evolution as their websites have moved from almost grudge purchase, to pleasant marketing surprise to business necessity.

How far along this path has your website evolved?

In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond. 

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