These are the notes from my Kaya FM interview on the business of being online:
1) What are some of the main things small businesses need to consider when looking at setting up a website?
I really think the most important aspect of setting up a web site, is planning. Think how a house is built – you don’t jump straight in and start building – No. You first think about the ideal house that you want, and then develop the plans for that house, based on your specific needs and your financial situation. It’s exactly the same with building a website.
Start by asking yourself: What do I want to achieve with my website. It might be as simple as just wanting customers to find contact details online, or, you might want to sell products online. If you don’t know your goals, you can’t build the appropriate website to meet these goals. And while it’s not as much effort to tear down and rebuild a website as it is to tear down and rebuild a house, there is still a significant waste of time and money involved.
For a good article on what planning a website involves, go to http://www.sitepoint.com/article/site-planner/
2) What is a Content Management System and why is it important?
A content management system (which you’ll often hear called a CMS), is a website which puts you in control of many aspects of your site, particularly the content. So instead of getting a web design or development company in every time you want to change the news story on your home page, or your product prices, you can do it yourself, from anywhere in the world, as long as you have an internet connection and a web browser.
To me this is the most powerful, and empowering aspect of the web today: that anyone, without any knowledge of programming or web design, can actually maintain their own website.
In essence, CMS’s let you concentrate on and control the important part of your website, the content, without having to worry about the technical side of how it works.
3) How can the Website and the internet be used to stay in touch with customers?
The first way you can stay in touch is by LISTENING. You don’t even need to have your own website to listen. You can use listen on existing blogs, forums, and social networks like facebook and YouTube to find out what customers or people in your industry are interested in and what they care about.
Now there are also many tools which you can use to make this discovery automatic and less time consuming. You could subscribe to a Google blog search result, which means that whenever there’s a new blog post that matches your search terms, you will know about it. Google alerts are similar, except they are sent to your email address.
At this point, you are able to hear what people are saying about you and your industry. The next step would be to start PARTICIPATING. This means finding ways to act on the information you have received when listening. For instance: when someone has a complaint about your business/service, respond directly to them to resolve it. When someone compliments you, thank them. If there’s a discussion going on that you could add value to, participate and share you knowledge.
Starting a blog or setting up your own website would be the next logical step you can take to keep in touch with customers and potential customers, and to allow them to get in touch with you. Your blog can become your or your company’s platform with which to engage the world. Use it to communicate, start discussions, get feedback, for damage control and to share useful information. If you are engaging, honest and open, you’ll gain customer loyalty and respect, and develop relationships. The beauty of blogs is that they are easy to use, and allow you quick, efficient communication.
You can use email newsletters to give your customers relevant, timely information directly to their inbox, for example, new developments in your industry or notification of special offers or new products. As long as you are adding value to your customers through these newsletters, they will continue subscribing.
Businesses do need to remember that while the technology is there to enable you to reach many people with little or even no cost outlay, it will always take some investment of time and effort.
http://www.quirk.biz and their free book on web marketing: http://www.quirk.biz/resources/emarketingone
4) We hear a lot these days about Web 2.0. What is this and what does it mean for businesses?
Web 2.0 is a term used to describe the current state of the internet and all the cool things we are now able to do. Essentially, it means that we’re now starting to realize the potential of the web, and are building sites and applications that take advantage of this.
Social networking sites, blogs, wiki’s, twitter, Gmail and Google maps are all examples of web 2.0.
Businesses can use these same tools to communicate more efficiently and effectively with existing and potential customers, to establish new relationships, to cultivate existing relationships and be a part of the conversation.
Many of these tools can also be used within a business to good effect, for example the sharing of information between different departments or employees. You could also even reduce costs by using online web services like Gmail or Google docs.
Check out Google apps for business (http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/business/index.html).
5) Social networking is all the rage with sites such as Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and so on. How can businesses take advantage of this?
Yes, social networking has become extremely popular - Facebook has over 110 Million active users, so a lot of people are spending a lot of time on these networks. Social networks are also specifically designed to make it easy to find people, and provide tools easily communicate with people in any number of exciting and engaging ways, like using video, photos, importing links and blog posts, creating discussions and applications. So if you combine the numbers, with the tools and the network effect, you’ve got a lot of factors here that make it compelling place businesses, as long as they can figure out the right way to use them.
Some networks may be more appropriate and useful, depending on your goals and resources, and each network may need to be used in a different way. This is all very new and unchartered terrirory to businesses, so they’re still trying to figure out how best to leverage this, although the networks themselves are trying to make it easier.
Facebook for example, has its own unique tools for business - you can create a page for your business, build custom applications using the facebook platform or just purchase advertising.
Try and find out what other businesses are doing, and see if you can judge how successful their approach is, and if it would be appropriate for your business.
For a good example, check out the Dell Social Media page on facebook. Dell as everyone knows is a computer manufacturer. And while they do have a number of other groups and pages, on the surface this particular page does not have a lot to do with Dell computers - It's all about social media and small businesses. They allow you to download some guides on how to use social media for your business and show some interesting videos and links. The content is extremely high value if you're a small business wanting to figure out how to use social media. In-between the social media stuff, they also have special offers and information about their computers, so while the content is not directly related to their computers, they know that everyone interested in social media and small businesses would most likely have a computer, so there’s a good chance that these same people would be interested in their special offers.
Once again we need to remember that to develop and maintain your social network presence takes time and effort - you need to listen, plan, and then participate in a real, useful way. If what you're doing does not add value, people are not going to waste their time.
6) Google is all important -- how can you ensure your site comes up on search engines -- and more importantly, comes as high up on a search list as possible?
Firstly, the search engine needs to know you exist, and the quickest way to let them find you, is to get a site that is already on Google to link to your site. Alternatively, you can submit your site to Google, although this takes longer.
Once you are known to Google, the key to coming up higher in the search results, is to regularly add content to your site which is: unique, valuable to your customers, and importantly, is relevant to the products or services you supply.
If you regularly add relevant content which contains the words which people are searching for, your site’s search result, placement will improve.
There are of course other factors, like having good quality, relevant sites linking to yours, and making sure your pages have good titles, but this won't matter much if the content is not there first.
7) What are some of the dangers and pitfalls? (For example - security, identity theft, fraud -- and how do you avoid them?)
I think that the web is a far safer place than the real offline world. You’ll find that more fraud and identity theft takes place offline, than online, but, there are still things you can do if you are worried it:
In terms of security – anything stored online is a risk, and the more sensitive the data, the greater the risk. If it’s sensitive, and you don’t need to store it online, don’t. If you do need to, then implement standard web security measures, or consult with a web security expert, or outsource the storing of this data to a company who has the security measures already in place.
If you are providing transactions on your website, there are things you can do to mitigate this risk. For example, don’t store credit card numbers online. Even better use an established ecommerce provider to process your transactions, so that the risk does not lie with you. They should be set up to take the required security precautions so that the transaction is safe.
Identity theft specifically, is “fraud that involves stealing money or getting other benefits by pretending to be someone else”. The more personal information someone knows about you, the easier identity theft becomes.
While most identity theft takes place off the internet, information from the internet could be used, so where not appropriate: avoid placing important personal information online, like bank details, phone numbers, ID numbers, email addresses, and physical or postal addresses.
Generally speaking, on your computers, make sure you have a firewall and antivirus and anti-spyware software. If possible, don’t open emails from people you don’t know, and don’t respond to emails asking you to update your banking details (phishing).
8) Is it worthwhile advertising on the Internet? (E.g. on news and other sites) Is this area taking off in SA? What are some of the options (e.g. Google ads)?
Advertising revenue continues to grow globally and locally, which means that advertisers believe it to be a worthwhile investment. Of course, they could be wrong, but when you think about it, compared to traditional advertising, advertising on the internet appears more measurable, less costly, and can be better targeted, making for a more effective and efficient solution.
There are many online advertising options available - search engine results pages, banner ads, Rich Media Ads, Social network advertising, online classified advertising and advertising networks - and the option you choose will depend on whether it’s more about your brand (branding) or whether you want to directly sell something (direct sales).
Within each option, you may be able to choose how you pay for the advertising, so you may want to pay whenever your ad is displayed a certain number of times(normally 1000), or rather choose to only pay if someone clicks on your ad. A benefit of pay per click advertising, is that if someone does click on your ad, you can track this, and you can also track whether or not this leads to a sale, or whatever goal you are aiming for. In that way you can measure your advertising effectiveness.
Compare this to TV and Radio – you don’t know how many people are actually watching or listening to your ad and although it’s possible, is not as easy to figure out what real world effect the ad has.
For businesses wanting to take their first step into online advertising, I’d say the best place to start would be to get ads onto search engine results pages because you know for sure, that people viewing search result pages, are looking for something, so would be more willing to click on an ad than if it was placed on a blog, news, video or social networking site.
For a quick start, look up the Google adwords service - they've got great tutorials and advice on how to set it up.
9) Does getting a presence on the Internet cost a lot of money? How can you ensure the best bang for your buck?
It doesn’t have to cost a lot, depending on what your requirements are. There are many options available which allow you to get online for free. We’ve already mentioned social networks which are free to use, but you can have your own website or blog up and running in minutes, at no cost, using services like Blogger.com, http://wordpress.com/, http://sites.google.com/ and (Google sites). There are also South African sites which allow you to set up a free blog, like 24.com. Although often limited in terms of how they look and the control you have, what they do provide is an instant, hassle-free web presence.
If you want more control over your site, but still want to keep costs down, you should look at open source offerings like Drupal which is an open source CMS, and Wordpress, which is an open source blogging platform. The setting up and configuration of these may require you to hire someone to do it, depending on your technical skills. But, in both cases you don’t pay for the ‘software’ itself, which will save you a lot of money, when compared to commercial website software.
Design can often be costly, so I’d advise that you keep design simple, for example going with a conventional design into which you can place your logo and colours.
Prioritise content over flashy design. For me, it’s far more important to have a genuinely useful and informative website, than one that looks fantastic but doesn’t tell me what I need to know.
If you are setting up your own site, you’ll need it to be hosted by a hosting company. Shop around and investigate the different options - this is an area which the general public doesn’t really understand, and you can be ripped off if you’re not careful. In many cases, there’s no need for your web design company to arrange hosting for you - you can actually set up the hosting yourself, and most likely at a big savings to yourself. You need to remember that hosting is a recurring monthly fee, so try and only go for the package you need, not what you might need.
10) How about Internet based shopping -- can small businesses take advantage of this?
What’s great about the internet is that you are not limited to selling to people in your geographic location, be that your city or your country - you could potentially sell to any one of the estimated 1.4 billion internet users, a mind-blowing thought!
In SA specifically, online spending on retail goods has grown more than 30% from 2006 to 2008, so more and more people are becoming comfortable with buying online, so there definitely is a market out there.
To take advantage of this, you first need to decide whether your product is suitable for selling on the web, and whether it’s not easier for someone to actually purchase it offline, through normal retail channels.
Currently, certain items, like computer related products and books are among the top online sellers. Niche products are also are good options – you know, stuff that’s not easy to come by. People will be willing to pay a premium for these items. What’s great, is that you don’t have to have a warehouse full of stock – you can order or source items when the demand arises, thus reducing costs.
Remember though, that if you do decide to sell online, you need to provide quality support and customer service, to ensure that the customer feels comfortable and safe doing business online.
Technically, E-commerce in SA can be difficult to get your head around because don’t have an easy to use online payment system like PayPal. But there are options out there which allow you to take credit card payments, which normally require you to choose a payment gateway which will process the payments for you. Costs involved are normally a once off setup fee, a monthly fee, and then a cost per transaction, which varies depending on the service. Sometimes, you also need to set up a merchant account with a bank. This can be fairly costly option, so, do your research, and, before you venture into online retailing, make sure you have a business plan that supports it.
To avoid this, you could always offer direct deposit payments, which means you don't need to be set up to take credit card payments, and many people will be happy to pay via direct deposit.
11) What are some of the new trends that are developing, and that businesses should be aware of?
The attention economy
An obvious trend is that we’re now living in a world of information and communication overload, and it's just going to get worse - this means that people have less and less time, and with internet and with email, more and more things are competing for their limited time. This trend will obviously affect entertainment and media sectors, but may have an impact in other sectors too.
Social software and social networking
We’ve already mentioned that Social software and social networking are big – they have huge traction, and are not going away anytime soon, so businesses would do well to keep up. Apart from what we’ve already mentioned, one tool to watch is Twitter, a micro-blogging service, which allows you to post bite size updates to your network, kind of like your facebook status updates, but limited to 140 characters. For businesses, it’s a great tool for leveraging the crowd and listening in to the conversation.
Cell phones are getting more common and more powerful, with extensive penetration worldwide (some reports say there will be 4 Billion subscribers by the end of the year (61%)), with Africa having the highest annual growth rate in subscribers. In a lot of places, more people have cellphones than desktop computers. So businesses should be thinking about how they can leverage this technology in terms of their products, services and marketing.
Another cool trend linked to cell phones, is that phones are becoming GPS enabled (for example the iPhone), and this allows applications to provide you information based on where you are, and your proximity to other gps enabled devices.
Video, RSS, Open source, podcasts, mashups and cloud computing. These are all things to keep an eye on, now and in the future.
12) Final advice?
The internet is full of information that will guide you in taking your business online – all it takes is some searching and reading, and you’ll be on your way.