Building an online presence

Tips on how small and midsize enterprises can build and maintain corporate sites that are cost effective, and avoid some common pitfalls.

Before the Internet emerged, only big players had the financial muscle to advertise and place their companies in the public eye. Today, thanks to the Web, small players can reach the public directly and cheaply by virtue of having an online presence.

"Easily, 80 percent of our orders come via the Web site," said Novie Tan, operations manager of Eatz Catering Services. "The rest are either via fax, or just the clients calling in to order--after checking our menus online." The Singapore-based food caterer was established in 2003.

However, not all small and midsize businesses (SMBs) that have a corporate Web site can boast the same success enjoyed by Eatz.

Jeffrey Tsang, principal consultant with PR company Asher Communications, which also designs corporate Web sites for its clients, noted some common pitfalls among SMBs that have corporate sites. These include static sites that show nothing more than electronic corporate brochures, contain sloppy content which put off online visitors, and waste valuable resources on glitzy features which slow down access.

Consider the user experience
How can a small business build an effective online presence that does not cost the earth?

First, when SMBs start conceptualizing their corporate site, they should bear in mind that the Web site is not a one-way street and they must always consider how users interact with the Internet.

People do not generally browse for fun. They surf the Web with a specific question in mind, and they want the answers fast. So it is imperative that corporate sites are well thought out.

Second, the site must be able to meet the SMB's business needs. What that mean is: the site is interactive, provides avenues for users to give feedback, addresses the target market and offers the information customers want. Poor English, broken links, badly-taken photos and typos are a turn-off.

Third, the site should be updated regularly. A site, which contains information that its visitors are unsure whether the data is still relevant, is as good as redundant. The front page has to be refreshed regularly, so that it looks new each time visitors enter the site.

Eatz pays about S$1,800 (US$1,321) per year to have a service provider keep their site updated, and does so based on events rather than a fixed time frame.

"For Christmas season, we will have [orders for] our turkeys; and likewise, before Chinese New Year, a new festive menu is posted on the site," Tan told ZDNet Asia.

SMBs can also have their IT service provider implement a system that will allow them to update their site directly.

Another consideration common among smaller companies is cost.

According to Tsang, while it is possible to pay only S$500 (US$367) to put up a site, chances are, this is not enough to satisfy the requirements of a good corporate site. He estimated that SMBs can set up a reasonable online presence for between S$4,000 (US$2,936) and S$7,000 (US$5,139). Eatz paid about S$5,000 (US$3,671) to establish its site.

Keeping cost down
Some of the ways to keeps costs down include avoiding Adobe Flash, which is expensive to develop and which time-conscious visitors will probably skip anyway. Likewise, providing the facilities to support online payment can be an expensive proposition, as SMBs will need to implement secure socket layer (SSL) and transactional engines, which can be pricey.

In addition, linking up with credit card companies such as Visa, requires money, as well as a minimum volume of transactions.

Eatz gets around this payment issue by taking orders online but collecting payment offline. This, Tan said, saves on manpower. "On average, we receive about 20 orders online each day when we power up our computers in the mornings," she said.

Eatz also tracks the number of visitors to its Web site. "We even track where we get our leads," Tan noted. "If it's Google, we can even find out what search words they [used to] find us."

"I actually spend quite a lot of time dissecting where my sales leads come from, and I get daily reports from my Web site developer. I make sure that whatever eggs we put in whichever basket, comes back with a favorable ROI (returns on investment)," she said.

Susan Tsang is a freelance IT writer based in Singapore.