The Beginner’s Guide to Building an Online Presence Part 1: Creating a Website
In today’s digital age, establishing an online presence is a necessity for any small business. The truth is, if you’re not online, for many people you simply don’t exist. Consumers are expecting companies to be searchable on the Web. This holds true whether you are a local restaurant with 5 years of operation under your belt or a new startup that plans to create high-tech kitchen supplies. Being online means being accessible 24/7 and providing your audience with the information they want and need to do business with you. Beyond that, being online offers the opportunity for small businesses to expand their brand awareness, establish credibility in their industries, easily secure customer feedback, and generate new sales leads at very little expense.
Of course the task of setting up a website, social media account, or online store can seem daunting when you don’t know where to start. And even when you feel ready to take the plunge, it’s easy to get stuck trying to dissect all the jargon. Like, what the heck are alt tags? In this Beginner’s Guide to Building an Online Presence, we’ll demystify what it takes to:
- Launch a website that actualizes your story and achieves your goals
- Get started with search engine optimization (SEO)
- Set up e-commerce for selling online
- Build a smart social media strategy
- Make an impression with email marketing
- Use Google Analytics to measure your success
For the first installment of the series, let’s explore the steps you should take to launch a website.
1. Identify Sources of Inspiration:
Get started by spending some time exploring other websites to figure out what kinds of things you like and dislike. Besides looking at general layouts, pay attention to how you navigate through these sites and their ease-of-use. Make a note what kinds of images you see, how text is used, and the way these elements tie into an overall branding strategy.
Don’t be afraid to use your competitor’s websites as inspiration. After all, they are working to attract a similar audience. But while scanning their pages for keywords, blog posts, and links to social media accounts, make sure to think about ways that you can make your own website stand out. What can you offer to consumers that will encourage them to click on your page first?
2. Make A Plan:
What goals do you hope to achieve with a website? What kind of audience are you creating it for? What role will it play in your company’s operations?
These are all important questions to consider because their answers will guide how you choose to design your website. Like with anything else, if you are clear about your goals, it’s easier to create a plan. For example, if you’re planning on selling your handcrafted jewelry online, you may opt for a highly-visual website layout with a shopping cart plugin. But processing online orders requires a very different set of design needs than generating leads does. If your small business simply requires a way to identify potential customers, then credit-card processing capabilities wouldn’t fit the bill. As they say, form follows function. Before getting bogged down in aesthetics, assess what functionality requirements your website will need to do what you want it to do.
By designing with your goals in mind, you also get a sense of what actions you’d like your audience to take once they get to your website. Make a list of these actions and prioritize them according to your goals. Use these insights to outline how information will be organized and structured on your website. For instance, if the primary purpose of your site is to establish the authority of your brand, and you plan to do this by encouraging your audience to read blog posts, then your website’s main page might include a feature that scrolls through your latest blog posts. See how this works?
Speaking of audience, make sure you are 100% clear about who your customers are before you take the time to outline the content of your site. Mapping out the demographic and psychographic qualities that define who these people are will allow you to design an online experience that best satisfies their expectations. Use market research and/or assess your current customer base (through interviews, etc.) to identify traits like:
- Education level
- Marital or family status
- Income level
- Ethnic background
- Personality type
- Interests and hobbies
- Lifestyles habits
- World view
Once you’ve identified these traits, it can be useful to create what are called buyer personas, or general, fictionalized representations of your ideal customers. Buyer personas reflect key customer traits in the form of characters with specific needs, behaviors, and concerns. Instead of referring to statistics about a group of people, it’s much easier to design for a single character like Briana, an eco-conscious young mother who is willing to pay more to purchase baby products that are organic. Buyer personas put a human face on your customers, allowing you to better relate to them and determine what kinds of content, messaging, and user experiences they will react most positively to.
Design & Content:
With your ideal customers in mind, think about what impression you want them get from your website. How will it make them “feel”? At first glance, feelings are shaped by design elements like colors, fonts, and images. These, along with the style of writing you choose, will create the tone of your website. It may help to list some adjectives (i.e. “playful” or “stylish”) that describe your brand. These words paint a picture of who you are to your customers.
Now it’s time to brainstorm what pages of content you want to offer on your site. As you map out these pages, include only what information you know your clients will be looking for. Keep your messages simple and focused. A typical website consists of a home page, an ‘about’ or bio/team page, a ‘portfolio’ or ‘products and services’ page, a ‘contact’ page, an ‘FAQ’ page, and a ‘blog’ page. Depending on your type of business, you may require additional or alternative pages. All of these pages are tied to a menu bar which controls the way people flow through your website, so think carefully about what things will be featured as main menu selections versus submenu selections. Organize your website in a way that offers flexibility and allows you to plan for future improvements, like the addition of a blog.
As you start work on the text (aka “web copy”) for your website, consider pulling from content you already have available. This will prevent you from duplicating your efforts and save you time. Brochures, catalogs, info sheets, and presentations all represent great sources of information that you can re-appropriate. Make sure you clearly state what you’re offering and why people should choose to buy from you. Avoid fancy language and elaborate descriptions. Instead, focus on how you can pair imagery (stock art graphics, images of your products, headshots of your team, etc.) and short amounts of text to quickly communicate your mission, vision, values, and services. If done correctly, your brand’s story—its purpose and the value it provides—will be woven throughout your website’s pages and will inspire action from your audience.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. The first step is just to build something. You can always refine the appearance and content of your website over time—in fact, many businesses do this on a regular basis!
3. Start Creating:
Choose Web Content Management Software (CMS):
A content management system is a user-friendly platform for building a website and managing content that makes these processes accessible to everyone. What this means is that you don’t have to be a coder who is fluent in HTML to use one. Wordpress is the most popular example of a CMS. More than half the websites on the Internet are running this platform! In fact, big names like CNN, eBay, and NASA even use Wordpress! While there are other CMS options like Joomla, and Drupal, we recommend Wordpress because it’s the best-suited platform for beginners. In addition to being beginner-friendly, Wordpress:
- Is totally free, with many choices of layouts and themes
- Offers the largest selection of free and low-cost “plugins” for adding features like contact forms, image galleries, etc. You can browse WordPress plugins at their Plugin Directory or do a Google search for the functions you want.
- Uses “responsive” design, meaning the website you build will instantly adapt to look great on mobile phones and tablets
- Has the lots of free resources and the biggest community of users (developers, plugin creators, etc.) available to help
The reason it’s essential to select a CMS before you buy a domain name and Web host (see below), is because you don’t want to end up with a Web host that doesn’t support your CMS of choice.
Select a Domain Name & Host:
To get your website online you’re going to have to first purchase a domain name, which will be the web address for your business (i.e. yoursitename.com). As a rule, it’s best to avoid hyphenated domain names (ex. best-beauty-parlor.com) and alternative domain names (.biz .name .info) as these can be considered spammy.
You’ll then need to choose a Web host which will connect your site to the Internet. To make things easy, you can usually find these two services offered together by the same company at a cost of around $3-5 a month. And in most situations, you can use the same host for more than one website. Your choice of website host should depend on a few factors besides cost, such as: 1) speed, 2) the number of visits (aka amount of traffic) you expect to receive, 3) if it is able to support the content management software you have chosen, 4) if it can provide automatic installation of your chosen software, and 5) the level of customer service support it offers.
If you are interested in using Wordpress as your CMS, we recommend going through GoDaddy to purchase a domain name and web hosting. Though GoDaddy offers its own Website Builder software, where it really stands apart is with its Managed Wordpress offerings. That’s because few hosting companies offer support for content management software. Not only does GoDaddy allow for Wordpress to be configured at the click of a button, but it also offers customer support through this process, along with a wide range of plans that handle everything from basic ongoing website management to boosting visitor traffic. And for subscribing to an annual plan, customers also receive a free domain name! It’s a pretty sweet deal.
It’s Template Time:
Once you’ve chosen your software and decided on a host, it’s time to decide on what website template and plugins will best suit your business’s needs and give you the look and feel you’re going for. You can search through thousands of free templates on Wordpress. If you need help narrowing your search, look for templates that have the kinds of built-in features you want or are themed to a particular type of product or service. As you scan through these designs, remember to think about the purpose your website will serve, what audience you are building it for, and what tone you’d like it to convey.
The next step is to identify any plugins you’ll require in addition to those already built into the template you’ve selected. Whether you want to add a shopping cart feature, provide social networking share buttons, or set up polls, you can find a plugin for just about anything. Like templates, many plugins are available for free. With that said, don’t be afraid to pay a little something if you find plugins and templates that cost money but offer better functionality.
Populating Your Page:
Get ready, get set, go! Use the built-in WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) webpage editor provided by your content management software to cut and paste text from Word documents and upload images from your computer to your site. No web programming knowledge is required for you to have full control over text size, color, font, and image placement. The best part is that you can review changes before you make them viewable to website visitors.
Congratulations, you now have the power to stake your place on the Internet! But just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will automatically come. Next up: how to make your business known in the noisy world of the Web using search engine optimization (SEO). We’ll teach you the tools and tricks for optimizing your online presence in Part 2 of this guide.
In the meantime, let us know how your website-building experience goes by sharing your story with us on Twitter @FreedomVoice.