Thursday, July 1, 2010; 12:00 AM
By Monte Enbysk
So you want your website to make you look big. More power to you.
But the business experts I talked to recently say small is cool with customers, too. Small businesses, they say, have a personality, flavor and sensibility that big businesses can't match. And when it comes to what you put on your website, they urge: Don't be afraid to tout your smallness.
"Small businesses can have more fun with their sites, more so than large corporations," says Alice Bredin, president of Bredin Business Information, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company that helps large business-to-business companies market themselves to small businesses. "A small-business site needs to include something that reflects the creativity and personality of its owner."
Maybe you're a couple working side-by-side in a spare bedroom or a fourth-generation entrepreneur working to someday hand it over to a son or daughter. Maybe you're putting yourself through grad school. Or you operate from a remote site in the hinterlands and you use only recycled materials. Presented well on a home page and/or an "About Us" section, all of these may have unique selling points to customers.
"People want character; it has meaning," adds Kelly Cutler, chief executive of Marcel Media, a Chicago-based Web advisory firm. "How folksy you get depends on your industry." An attorney may not want to project an image of him or her working on a leather sofa with a dog curled up nearby. But that may work well for an artist or craftsperson, even an architect, Cutler and others say.
Whatever your industry, "Tell your story online," Cutler says. Customers want to know who you are and, if you lead a team, who is on it and what they do. "You must talk about the team," Bredin seconds. "When there is nothing [on your site] about who you are or who's on your team, people wonder about whether you are a good company to buy from."
Here are the 10 most important things these experts say customers want to know:
How your business is uniqueAnswer the question "Who are you?" as interestingly and compellingly (and honestly) as possible. This includes writing management bios that mention your expertise, years of experience and any unique attributes or details that may set you apart from others.You need to answer, Bredin says, "What is unique about your business? Why should I buy from you?" This is missing from many business sites because the owners haven't done the strategic thinking necessary to figure that out, she says.Be concise, too, Cutler adds. "You don't need to write a novel."A clear sense of what your company offers"It's incredible how many sites you visit and you're not sure what the company offers," Bredin says. Make it a priority on your home page to provide at least general information about your products and/or services, with links to specifics on a Products page.Many service-oriented companies, Cutler says, are concerned about divulging too much information about their offerings, for competitive reasons. Some also feel that consumers will have no reason to contact them by phone if they get all they need from the website. "There's a balance that needs to be reached" in giving the potential customer enough info to make a buying decision, she says. More often than not, consumers will not contact a company for the missing product information--they'll just move on to a competitor.Contact information, including a phone number and physical locationThis may seem like a no-brainer, but many companies are purposely vague about their location. Some prefer to do all of their business online and see no need to publish an address or phone number. Others are home-based or they worry that giving a street address or hometown will somehow hinder them."This is a must, and it's one small way of building credibility and trust" with the consumer, says Wayne Porter, co-founder of ReveNews, an online marketing publication, and former senior director of research at FaceTime, a business security solutions provider. "A phone number, a street address and even pictures go a long way toward building credibility."Showing a physical location, even one that no one will ever visit, comforts a customer that your business is real and legitimate, Bredin says. Provide a phone number that maps to that location, rather than just an 800 number, she advises.Third-party validationThis means customer testimonials, client lists, case studies, awards and recognition you've received, positive news clippings and the like. Potential customers indeed want to know who you do business with, and what current customers have to say about their experiences. Such items "forge the underpinnings of trust," Porter says.Client lists are especially important if your customers are businesses. "If you've got some big-name customers, people like to see that," Cutler says. But make sure you get approval from those you list as clients, she adds.Porter adds that having a presence on social networking sites and blogs, especially those serving your industry, is an increasingly popular form of validation among customers. "Social networking now has strong validation," he says.Secure Socket Layer (SSL)SSL is an encryption system that helps protect the privacy of data exchanged between a customer and a website. If you have an e-commerce site that takes credit card information, customers want to know that their sensitive data is encrypted. Get SSL if you don't have it. If you do, let customers know that and about any other safeguards you proactively take.Ease of use and navigationIf people can't find it, they can't buy it. Porter advises keeping sites "crisp, clean, and easy to navigate," but also for site owners to study traffic and usage patterns to adjust their sites based on what visitors are coming for. "The ability to search a site is very important," he says. "Businesses should study their search data to see if there are trends and what to make front and center."Clear guidance on your processesLet customers know, step-by-step, important things such as how to order--and where to go and what to do should something happen out of the ordinary. Customers also want to know your shipping costs and procedures and how they can get status reports. (Don't list your shipping costs and procedures after people enter their credit card information, Cutler urges.) Last but not least, customers want to know how you handle complaints and problems, return procedures and whether you have a money-back guarantee.Your processes can be described in a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page or separate "how to order," shipping and/or confirmation pages. Include a way customers can contact your business or fulfillment agency for more information.An ability to give feedbackEncourage feedback about your products and services, your ordering process and your site in general, by providing a feedback mechanism--either feedback forms or e-mail links. Not every small business prefers to offer this, in some cases because of resource constraints. "You definitely want to look at how and what feedback to gather, and you should consider offering an incentive or perk [to the customer]," Porter says. "You might get some good stories to feature on your site or in your blog."Clear calls to actionCustomers want signs or buttons in order to act, be it "Buy now" or "Sign up for our newsletter" or "Click here for more information." But many small-business sites don't provide calls to action or they don't present them clearly enough, Cutler says. "This is one of the biggest things that nags me," she says. "If you have a captive audience, this is the time to grab them!"Special offers and personalizationBy personalizing a sale with a special offer, incentive or coupon, small businesses can gain an edge on their bigger counterparts, Porter says. "This can be as simple as a hand-written thank-you note, free gift wrap services or a special offer for repeat business."Having a personalized touch," he says, "is something small businesses can do that many big businesses can't."
Monte Enbysk, a senior editor at Microsoft Office Live, writes about web-related issues for small businesses. He previously was a columnist and managing editor of the Microsoft Small Business Center and prior to that was a writer and editor at MSN Money, Washington CEO magazine and daily newspapers in Washington and Oregon.