Yep, that is my predicition.

In 2009, while our economy continues to slug along, those that do a good job of marketing themselves online stand to have a very good year. We’ve all probably heard stories of how a lot of people became rich during the Great Depression – because it is true. Those that keep their eye on the ball when everyone else is distracted will continue to hit home runs – it won’t be as easy as it was before, but it will still happen.

Markets are shifting right now. While mainstream for quite some time now, the internet is now starting to subplant other channels of distribution and marketing. Newspapers are struggling, some either are, or are planning to go to internet-only distribution. Video, which had the exclusivity of TV delivery, is now more popular than ever online (even traditional TV’s might be hooked up to a PC or Apple TV), Google searches are replacing Yellow Page look-ups, users are carrying around internet-enabled cell phones loaded with mobile apps that connect to their online accounts, businesses are advertising online with pay-per-click advertising. While lower than before, the spikes in gas prices over the last few years has more people getting used to the idea of staying at home where they can spend more time surfing the web. A new generation is growing up not knowing of a world prior to high-speed internet. Social networking is redefining public relations for major companies and public figures.

There is a fundamental shift that is taking place – while we thought we have already seen the impact of the internet on our lives, we are now realizing that the last 10 years was just a slightly advanced stage in it’s infancy. A major growth spurt is coming in 2009 and a lot of companies that thought they had a “web presence” are going to get left behind, while a lot of companies that are “plugged in” to the coming changes will reap great rewards.

So, what are the nutshell nuggets of knowledge to pull from all this?

First you can’t be just a “web presence”. You can’t be “static” online. You can’t think of a website as the beginning and end of your online efforts. Sure, it has worked in the past, and in many cases working still. But at some point it no longer will.

Second, change the way you think about the internet – almost consider it a parallel universe. 20 years ago, they called the concept “virtual reality”. It made a lot of buzz but died down as the real world realities of the internet’s limitations at the time softened our vision of this “cyber-space”. Now we are seeing virtual reality slowly coming about. Sure, it’s not a funny headset and Tron-like graphics, but the internet is becoming another place that we exist, or more importantly, where your customer’s exist. They are not just hopping online to do a quick search with a keyword phrase to find your product or service and then signing off, they are living much of their life there. So, you will need to be “plugged in” to where they are, what they’re doing and how to get their attention.

We are already seeing this shift in our business. We are not a website development firm anymore, despite my old-habits-die-hard habit of calling us that. We are actually an interactive agency now. Developing the site for your web presence is no longer the beginning and end of our involvement. Throughout 2009 we will be asked to build the “main” site, setup the blogs, create sub-sites, recommend lead tracking solutions, secure advertising, handle marketing campaigns, develop a social media strategy, manage company brands, oversee public relations, broadcast online call-in radio shows, produce video, write copy, record podcasts, program applications, create training materials, research keywords and provide consultation services.

By being prepared for changes in 2009 as the internet leaves behind it’s infancy, you can be a part of it’s growth spurt.

There is a book in our office that has been required reading for all staff members for the last 3 years.  This book is called “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug.  The book is about usability of website design and how you don’t want to have your site visitors have to think when they visit your website.  There should be a clear purpose to the site that spells out to the site visitor what you want them to do next, whether it is to fill out a contact form, buy a product, pick up the phone and call you, request a quote now, search for a dealer in their area, refer your site to a friend or apply now.

Don't Make Me Think - Book

Don't Make Me Think - Book

The book is deceptively simple and most of the information in it seems so straight forward and obvious, because… well, it is.  It is a clear message that doesn’t require thought and offers examples of how to enact better usability on your website, or websites you produce.

It is easy to get caught up in the message of your site without thinking about how that message is being received by others.  Sure a 5,000 word dissertation on what your product does can be informative, but it can also be overkill, or even boring and not worth the time of a busy internet suffer who is just trying to determine if your product can provide the particular benefit they are looking for.

When you are the provider of a product or service it is easy to be too close to the message – too “in-the-know” to be able to see how the site is coming across to others who are not “in-the-know” on your product or service.  Maybe usability testing is something you should consider.  This is basically a test audience who does not know your company and it’s products or services.  Let them navigate your site and see if they get it as quickly as you think they will.

Usability studies can be as simple as inviting a trusted friend over to try out your site and give feedback to doing a full fledged study with hired testers, video taped sessions, surveys and reporting.  However you do it, do at least something so you have good, third-party feedback on your site.

Most importantly, think of your call-to-action – that clear purpose to the site that spells out to the site visitor what you want them to do next.  Make sure your call to action is ever-present, on every page, reminding your visitors what you expect them to do next.  Sometimes a little redundancy is ok.

Too many business owners get caught in the trap of making a website something that they like as opposed to researching what type of site will best convert visitors into buying customers.  I commonly hear “I want” this or “I want” that without having answers to how a customer might percieve those things.  I’m not saying the site shouldn’t be an online reflection of your business – it should, and it should be appropriately branded – but, site usability, content displayed and specific features added should be geared towards your client’s likes and dislikes.

The site is a sales tool, and like all sales tools and marketing messages it can be refined and tweaked to better convert customers.  The only way to refine your marketing materials is to step back from being emotionally involved and look at your material from a strictly analytical view.

If your site is not a sales tool but provides a service itself, such as an e-commerce site or membership-based site, then you need to be even more aware of your customer’s wants and needs because with websites, you always have stiff competition that will try and woo your client base with features specifically tailored to them.

Regardless of your site, stay in communication with your customers and solicit feedback from them on their impressions of the site.  Ask them want they like, what they don’t like, what they wish the site had and what they would change about it.  Visit your competitor’s websites to stay on top of new features they add.  Keep track of your website traffic stats to monitor changes in traffic as you tweak your online message.

No matter how optimistically it is presented, no matter how often it is mentioned that “everyone’s onboard” and no matter how much you want to believe it will work for the better, design by committee is a process that delays the completion of a website that no one involved will be happy with.

I have seen this situation play out countless times on website development projects throughout the years. When a committee is involved everyone has to compromise to some degree yet no one wants to. Someone has to sign off on design work yet no one is willing to do so until everyone is in agreement. Someone has to direct the design team and provide timely feedback yet no one wants do so independently without a scheduled meeting.

Everyday, sites with a single point of contact move quickly through the system. There is less spreading out of the information that is shared, so consultations have more impact. Impromptu meetings can occur on a moments notice. Feedback is immediate. All involved in the project stay engaged from start to finish.

Don’t let your website development project become a burden and use your committee as an excuse to procrastinate until later – have a single point of contact for your website that is committed to it’s delivery.

I am fortunate to work with a talented team of experts at NetSource Technologies.  One of these experts is Ed Cehi, our search engine consultant.  Ed gave me a few minutes of his valuable time to answer some common questions clients ask me.

Brent: What is the first thing a site owner can do to increase SEO visibility?

Ed: There’s not really one singular thing that a site owner can do to improve their SEO visibility as there is a multitude of different things.  But if there was one thing that I would do I would say to optimize the site for the end user and not the search engines.  Because when you do that it helps the search engines.  When you optimize the site with content, especially relative content towards the keywords you’re trying to target, that helps the search engines get an idea of exactly what it is that you’re trying to provide to the user. […]

Mar 20, 2006

Weekend in Tallahassee

This weekend I was in Tallahassee as a delegate for the Greater Ocala Advertising Federation at the quarterly district conference. As a first time delegate, I found it interesting to sit back, observe and learn about the operations of the advertising federation and my role within it. More interesting was to see how our local Ocala market compared with the larger Orlando, Tampa and Miami markets. I’m happy to say, as expected, that we rate very well indeed.

The nick-name of the convention was the “2006 Schoomapalooza”. Obviously, plenty of opportunities to network with others exsisted, but what I most got from the convention was informative insight from the guest speakers on hand to present. Bud Hanson with Fish-On Marketing gave a great presentation on the often elusive experiential marketing concept. Bud did a great job explaining and offered many good ways to impliment the concept. I’m hoping we can bring him to Ocala to speak at one of our local luncheons.

Saga Shoffner, the Associate US Advertising Director for Nike was also onhand to explain the behind-the-scenes creative sessions that have brought forth many of Nike’s best advertising over the last 15 years. Nike my be an international company with a mega advertising budget, but their practices in advertising serve equally well to businesses of all sizes. Both Bud and Saga showed that it is more about creativity than budget (although budget is always good!).

On February 10, 2006 our local ADDY Award Ceremony was held at the Ocala Hilton. Most of the NetSource gang were on hand to recieve our ADDY Awards for two recent website we created – Ocala EDC and Santos Bike Shop. These two sites mark the 28th and 29th ADDY Awards we have won since we first began participating in the competition in 2001 – an impressive amount in only 6 years!

Although our award count was lower this year than normal, I enjoyed the evening and seeing the enthusiasm in the eyes of our newest employees who had not been to the ADDY’s before. I felt this recharged our creative batteries and gave our new guys a goal to shoot for next year – I can tell they want to win lots of ADDY’s next year!