The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide II

May 1, 2009

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

AxisPortals quotes Shakespeare this morning for two reasons.  First,  she loves the Bard of Avon, and does hate to miss an opportunity to work in some of those classic lines.  Second and more importantly, though, it occurs to AxisPortals that all the world’s a multimedia, interactive social network, and that the wise small business will therefore provide its web visitors with plenty of opportunities–plenty of entrances, if you will–to interact with both the site and with the business itself.

So, how to go about making your website not only a static web presence, but an active staging area for forging interactions, relationships, and connections? Here are few quick and simple approaches:

  1. Icons and Badges and Buttons, Oh My!  The major social and business networking platforms all make it very easy to create attractive, clickable connections to your profiles so that visitors can quickly connect to you and interact with you.   FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Plurk, for instance, all provide easy, built-in badge or widget creation tools.  Some of these simply provide links to your social networking profile.  Others actually display your status updates and activities.  Simply customize your page to suit your purposes and the style of your destination page, then copy the code and insert it into your website or blog.  Then, your web visitors can rapidly scan your online network, and can easily connect with you. If you are working with a web designer, ask him or her to work with you to ensure that your website and/or blog include badges that represent your main public social and business networking profiles.
  2. It’s Alive, It’s Alive:  Every website does need some core information that is relatively static (though religiously kept fresh and up to date) and always easy to find.  For instance, you will want to ensure that your contact information and product and service descriptions are stable and easy to access.  However, today’s web is multimedia driven.  That means that your small business website would do well to incorporate not only polished prose but also arresting graphics and absorbing audio and video elements that not only inform and create interest, but also make it easy for users to share your key content with others.    Note, for instance, how effectively the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services have leveraged podcasts and videos to disseminate authoritative information about the Influenza A H1N1 virus. Multimedia elements bring your website to life, often quite literally giving it a voice.
  3. Feed Me!  Websites are a lot like teenagers:  they require nearly constant feeding.  Fortunately, the web itself provides abundant sustenance for your business site in the form of newsfeeds.  Select appropriate newsfeeds based on the nature and focus of your business. What kinds of information can you feed to your site that will most interest and best serve your visitors, whether they are current or prospective clients?  Once you identify the relevant feeds, configure RSS widgets to match the style of your site, and embed the feeds in your pages.  Embedded news feed widgets ensure that there are areas of continuously refreshed content on your site.  Embedded podcast widgets are also a good idea, for they not only offer all of the advantages of a feed, but also add another multimedia element to your site.
  4. We Really Have to Talk:  You might also consider adding real-time discussion tools to your site.  If real-time web-based discussion plays a major role in your business plan and you can devote personnel to monitoring your online chat tools, then investigate paid services such as Bold Chat, Volusion’s LiveChat,  or WebsiteAlive.  If you are just beginning to explore the possibilities of real-time web-based discussion, then it might be worthwhile to experiment some of the free or less expensive tools, such as those offered by Meebo and CoffeeCup. Embedding your Skype badge also introduces an element of real-time communication to your site.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Make your website an active staging area for forging interactions, relationships,  connections, involvement.

 

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The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide

April 21, 2009

As we have seen, small businesses too often miss opportunities to make good use of websites and other aspects of online presence. Robert Scoble notes that this is an area in which the leading tech bloggers have failed to offer much leadership, and AxisPortals agrees.  There are many blogs devoted to things such as  

But often this advice is aimed at early adopters and current enthusiasts of technology, not at those who are just beginning to explore these spheres.

Only 44% of small businesses have a website.

Where to begin?  With the very basics.  Here are some initial suggestions for small business owners who want to begin bridging the digital divide:

  1. Secure a Domain Name:  If you haven’t already purchased a domain name to match your company, do so immediately.  Because the internet is now a quite a crowded space, your first choice will not always be available.  Use a tool such as Register.com  to search for available names and variations. Choose something relatively brief, descriptive, and easy to remember.  Then, make sure that you fully own and control the name.  This may seem obvious, but AxisPortals has too often worked with business and organizations whose domains were owned and controlled by a former employee or a long-since disappeared web designer. Owning and controlling your own domain name is key.  Keep your ownership current, and your user name and password secure.  Do not pass this responsibility off to an employee or a web designer without ensuring that he or she is putting everything in the company’s name, and without insisting that you can access the account.  
  2. Launch Your Initial Website in a Timely Fashion:  It does take some time to design a good website, but it does not and should not take months and months.  Select a competent designer; provide the designer with key content about your products, services, location, personnel, vision, and goals; review and revise an initial draft or two, and then publish.  For the vast majority of small local businesses, this is not a process that should take months and months of painstaking review and effort.  Review a list of some of the basic qualities of a good website, get those items checked off in a timely manner, and then put your website where it belongs:  online where clients and colleagues can access it, not on the drawing board, where it serves no one.
  3. Continuously Revise and Update Your Site:  Keep in mind that print publication and web publication are entirely different creatures. Once the process of revising a print publication is over, it heads to press, and then distribution can begin.  Not so with a website or any online presence.  Online, texts evolve, and content is constantly refreshed and regenerated.  Move online quickly, then, and make updating and maintenance priorities.  Unless you a) have an internal employee who is very talented in this arena and b) can afford to allow this person to devote a good portion of his or her time to working with your online presence, consider outsourcing this funtion.  It will be most cost-effective for you in the long-run if your web design company also provides ongoing maintenance services, as well.  That way, the integrity of your design will not be compromised by necessary updates.
  4. Track and Analyze User Statistics:     Make sure that your designand maintenace company also provides feedback about your users: How many people are visiting your site?  How often?  Which sections do they most frequently visit?  Which portions of various pages do they click through on?  How loyal are your visitors?  Where are they located?  How do they find your site?  Gather and evaluate this information on a regular basis, and revise your site accordingly to optimize the user experience.
  5. Don’t Mistake the Chassis for What’s Under the Hood: A website is a lot like a car.  We all drive cars.  We know how to get from point A to point B inthem. We know how to keep them fueled, and we know we need to service them regularly to keep them in tip-top running condition.  Most of us, though, aren’t experts on what’s beneath the hood.  Just so with a website.  A very nice lookingcar-red, sporty, and fast looking–might be a perfect lemon beneath the surface,  and this can also be true of a website.  Keep in mind, then, that while looks are important, they aren’t everything. Your website should both look good and fulfill it’s basic purpose, which is to allow users to locate you, learn something about you, and contact you.   Just as you test drive a car, you should test drive your website, approaching it as a user would.  Once the site is up, head to Google and put yourself in the role of a customer or colleague who is looking for you. Then, test the site itself.  How easy is it to navigate?  Do all the features load?  Do all forms and interactive elements work flawlessly? Does the site not only look good but also function well in a variety of browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome)?  Ask a few trusted colleagues to test drive the site on their computers as well, and to offer you feedback.  Then, bring your questions and concerns to your design and maintenance team, and make sure that they are quickly addressed.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Now is always the best time for a small business to begin bridging the digital divide.

Next Time:  Adding interactive features and social networking elements to your site.