Many of the small and medium sized traditional brick and mortar businesses we work with find it difficult to come up with an online strategy. They are used to doing business out there in the real world and the Internet is this big confusing place that doesn’t behave at all like reality.
Or does it?
As we discussed last week, behind every computer is a real live person. These people, your potential customers, have the same needs and desires as the people you encounter every day. Because of this, many of the strategies you have employed to achieve business success in the real world make a lot of sense in the online world.
Below is a non-exhaustive, but hopefully helpful list to help you see how some of the things you’ve already proven good at can translate into the seeds for a great online strategy.
1) Your Web Site As A Knowledgeable Staff Member
It often makes sense to have employees who really know your industry and can help your customers make a choice. Whether it is the sales person at the hardware store that can help find the right tool for the job they’re trying to do, or whether it’s the florist who can suggest the perfect arrangement for that romantic dinner – having a knowledgeable staff to assist and inform customers is important. No matter what field or industry you’re in, this concept shouldn’t be foreign to you.
Your web site has the ability to serve this same function. Unfortunately, you can’t go out and hire a web site that is already an expert in your field, but then again, it can often be difficult to find employees who are, too. You need to train them and teach them the ropes. You need to constantly keep them updated on the new products and features that you’re offering. For success here, it’s an ongoing process.
When you build your web site – in-house or with a development team – you need to teach your web site these things, too. You do this by creating content which answers the questions your customers will have and directs them to be able to take their new understanding and make an educated decision to buy your product or service. You have to keep on it, just like you do with your employees – constantly training (i.e. updating and adding new content) and expanding the knowledge so that the most people can be served.
One advantage a web site has over your face-to-face employees is that you can say it once and everyone who walks in can hear it. That blog post you wrote (or had written) which explains the ways to choose the right kind of paint for a kitchen can inform hundreds, thousands, or even millions of customers over time. Alas, if you don’t teach your web site employee to be able to explain this, then it will not be able to do so.
Staff training is important – and treating your web site as a staff member can give you an idea of many things you can train it to do.
2) Your Web Site as Branding & Merchandising Space
If you have a retail store, you know the importance of merchandising. Even if your business is in another sector, you usually have something set up which has your logo, product information, and other elements in place to send a particular message to your customers or clients. Either way, you don’t just place things out at random. You create a specific environment to illicit an emotion, trust in you as a business, and to generate interest in a specific product or service. That message you send is something customers attach to your brand.
In many cases it is important to change things up from time to time, as well. The end-caps in your store don’t always have the same products. The flower bed outside the front door needs to be weeded and often replaced seasonally. At different times you need to send a different message.
Your web site can help send the same message – only it can send it to people without them needing to come in. Unfortunately, if you don’t change things up, adapt the message to what you need to say right now, feature the things you need people to know about, all that is lost.
The idea of setting it and forgetting it may be great for a RonCo cooking appliance, but it’s not a good recipe for a web site.
3) Incorporating the Plan
Whether you started your business yourself or whether you are running a business where a plan was always in place, you know the importance of your business plan. It didn’t just magically appear and it constantly needs to be looked at and evaluated over time.
I sometimes drive my clients a little crazy with the questions I ask them. I’m constantly trying to learn how they do business in the real world so that I can help build a web site that sends the same kind of message, but also one that fits in as a part of their plan – not some offshoot or separate entity that someone needs to stop what they’re doing to deal with.
When you first start to work with me, this can be frustrating, I think. You’re thinking, “I just want a damned web site – I thought you knew how to make them!” But really, this generally equates to, “I just want want a business, I thought you knew how to start one.” Your business is your plan and no one knows that plan better than you do. When your web development and marketing team sits down to strategize with you, they need to build something that incorporates seamlessly into your existing strategies. You don’t want to run two separate businesses, you need one business with standardized operating procedures, a vision of where you are going, and a good strategy on how to get there.
Sure, you don’t know the web so you have a team to help you figure out how to execute the things you need for your plan – but it is your plan that we need to integrate. Our plan is useless without your plan to carry it through.
Creating your online business strategy is not only similar to creating your original business plan and keeping it up over the years, but it is actually an integral part of that plan. At least, that’s true if you hope to succeed over the long run.
4) Give the Experts Goals, Not Solutions
Your online business has the same goals and objectives as your real-world business, but quite often it’s achieved in a different way. When you set up merchandising for your store, you physically move items to the end caps and place things on a shelf at a certain height so it’s seen by the right people in the right situation. Online we don’t physically move things. And, when we want to make sure things are visible to the right people at the right time, we have different techniques in achieving that.
This is why it’s important to differentiate between telling your team how to accomplish goals and telling your team what your goals are. Let’s say I own a grocery store and you’re a merchandiser. I tell you I want the sugary breakfast cereals placed on the top shelf so people can see it. As an expert merchandiser, you have better ideas. My “goal” is to get people to see the cereal – and my instincts have told me that this is an important goal for my business. You, as a professional merchandiser, know that if I want to achieve my goal of getting people to see the cereal (and especially of getting the right people to see it) it’s better to put it on the lower shelves. After all, it’s those short kids that love the sugary cereal.
Ultimately, the reason you hired a merchandiser is because they know how to execute things that will help accomplish your goals. It’s your job to provide the goal, and the expert’s job to provide the solution. When this is done well in all aspects of your business, that’s where you really thrive.
The difficulty here, I think, often comes from your unfamiliarity with how things work online. In our retailer/merchandiser scenario above, you as the owner have a fundamental understanding of merchandising. Because of that you can just keep half an eye on what the merchandiser is doing and trust that the outcome will be positive. Online, you don’t have as strong a fundamental understanding so it’s harder to know if the decisions are good. You want to ensure this, so you naturally try to solve the problem.
You need to be able to trust the people you hire to do these things. Even more so when you know less about how it all works. In the section above I talked about sometimes driving my clients crazy by asking too many questions. This is your perfect opportunity to pay me back.
Ask about the strategy and solution that the team comes up with. How does it work? Why does it work? You don’t need to learn everything about it, but a fundamental understanding of the concepts gives you a framework to be able to trust that the decision will work (or not). If you were a grocer and didn’t know merchandising, you’d ask the same questions – Why is that cereal on the bottom shelf?
Summary – Equestics.com As An Example
These concepts are actually some of the main reasons I started Equestics. Let’s say a client wants success for their web site. They’ve heard that the path to success is through ranking #1 on Google. So they tell the SEO team that they want to rank in that top spot. At this point, I can use my web site to act as a knowledgeable employee to explain that the top spot is a sign that you may be working toward a good goal, but that it’s not a good goal by itself. I can show them how to know what they want their web site to do. I can use this site to merchandise and brand myself and my team by talking about the things we do and the methods we use to meet your goals. I can give tips on how to incorporate your online and real world business plans and avoid costly mistakes in the process. And I can give you pointers on avoiding scams and slick jargon so that you end up with a team that can come up with the right solutions for your goals.
I want this site to make you feel like you’re getting to know me. I am, after all, both my brand and my merchandise. All of the things I do here are extensions of the same types of things I would do if I were wanting to do business with you in real life. This site is a part of the plan for our team to have a successful business of our own. The only real difference between us and you as a small business owner is that our success depends upon your success.