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.


Back to Basics: Logical Site Navigation

March 31, 2009

Crafting a logical navigational structure is one of the most effective ways of making your web site inviting, user friendly, and useful. 

Navigational cues like this? Not helpful!

The following approaches help ensure that visitors can readily find pertinent information on your site:

  1. Make your navigational categories clear, consistent, and descriptive.  Sounds obvious, but AxisPortals too often sees sites that include “Contact Us” links that offer very little in the way of contact information, “About Us” links that shed precious little light on the purpose or philosophy of the organization, and “Our Products” links that offer practically every sort of advice and reflection under the sun, but do not lead to a helpful list of actual products.  Clarity matters.  Think of your navigational links or buttons as road signs, and proceed accordingly.  If a road sign says “Our Team,” then it should lead to pictures and descriptions of your team members.  If it says “Our Products,” then product pictures and descriptions should surely be in the offing.  Navigation is all about predictability.  “Main Street” should include the Post Office, the Barber Shop, a Drug Store, and maybe the Hardware Store.  “Industrial Way” should include foundries, factories, and heavier industries than those found on Main Street.  Just so with navigation.  When it comes to finding our way around in new places, we’re all traditionalists.  Stick with the clear and predictable when devising the road signs for your site.
  2. Ensure that visual devices such as rollover and flash effects are used sparingly and complemented with  accessible textual cues and pointers.  Sometimes, we create flashy effects because we can, because they’re new and attention getting, and because bells and whistles so neatly demonstrate our technical skill.  AxisPortals has, historically, been quite as guilty of this as anyone.   Ultimately, though, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as a visually appealing site that’s nigh on impossible to navigate successfully.  Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that fussy splash pages and flash features tend to annoy web readers, driving them away in droves.  So, it’s best to keep things simple.  Non-fussy CSS text rollovers with color changes help readers keep tabs on where they are and where they’re going, look sharp, and don’t detract from the clarity of text markers.  When we do choose to employ somewhat fancier effects, we should work to ensure that their basic navigational function is never diluted.   Usability and accessibility trump bling.
  3. Include a site index, map, or table of contents:  As a student, AxisPortals was always extraordinarily fond of books that included detailed TOC’s and indices.  These remarkable tools meant that AxisPortals could very quickly find precisely the information she needed to complete a project or a paper, and wouldn’t have to page laboriously through an entire tome to find them.  Any content container of significant length that actually helps you find your way through it is a thing to treasure.  Indeed, the very best of these references rapidly become indespensible.  When they are books, we keep them always at hand, growing fonder and fonder of them as they grow ever more dilapidated from lovingly regular use.  When they are websites, we bookmark them, turn to them often, and pass them along to others.    Whether your site is about movies or pizza, social networking or healthcare managment, baseball or vintage records, the users who visit it are looking for something specific.  Provide them with the tools that make sorting through your content and locating their desired information as simple as possible, and your site could easily become a much loved, often returned to favorite.
  4. Consider embedding a site specific search tool.  Many free, easily embeddable search tools (e.g. Google Site Search) are readily available.  A site search feature is particularly appealing on large sites, but can enhance a small to medium sized site, as well.  Why not make it easy for your web visitors to locate the particular person, product, or phrase they are after? 
  5. Check your site statistics periodically to determine how users are actually navigating your site, and make ongoing changes accordingly.  Once you’ve cleaned and polished your navigational structure and tools, be sure to routinely reconsider and update them as your site evolves.  The nested menus and deep structures that wouldn’t make sense or be at all user friendly for relatively small sites might make perfect sense as your site grows to encompass upwards of a hundred pages.  The keyword that visitors often search for on your site might deserve a page of its own, and a prominent place in the navigation scheme.  Keep in mind that just as a web site is never really done, a website’s navigation is never entirely final.  Your site will best support your business, your team, and your clients when it is organized in logical, easily navigable fashion that evolves along with the site.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  The easier you make it for site visitors to find exactly what they’re looking for, the more likely they are to hang around and explore the rest.

Well, thanks--that narrows it down!

Well, thanks--that narrows it down!

 

 

 

 

 


Technology in 2009: Other People’s Resolutions

December 29, 2008

 

Remember when New Year’s resolutions always had to do with dropping a few pounds, jogging, or blowing the dust of the exercise bike?  

No more.

Technology plays such a large role in our personal and corporate identities now that the “tech resolution” is widespread. 

Here are few worth pondering, borrowing, or recognizing with a wry grin.

  1. Law Technology News:  A great collection of lawyers’ personal and professional technology goals.  Favorite excerpt:  “To work hard to use technology to maximize the quality of my life.”  Amen. 
  2. CIO Resolutions:   Practical advice for decision makers.  Best of the bunch:  “Manage people as well as tech.” 
  3. DataMotion’s Resolutions for CIO’s:  More practical advice. “Get ahead of the curve and implement efficient technologies that empower your employees to work remotely and securely” gets AxisPortals “that’s my favorite” vote .  Yes.  It’s far past time for all of us to embrace the ROWE!
  4. Spark Readers’ Resolutions:  Off-the-cuff contributions from blog readers.  Spending less time with technology is a common theme, here.  AxisPortals can relate, but thinks “spending technology time more wisely” is a better approach.  Still, if you aren’t sure what that big orange thing in the sky might be, or you find yourself texting your family members while you’re all in the same house, it might be time to holster the cell phone, drop the mouse, and back slowly away from your laptop.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  You should be able to access your tech at the pool or at the beach, but sometimes often it’s healthier to unplug and dive into the pool or walk barefoot along the shore, savoring the moment.

 


Technology in 2009: Resolution Number 4

December 29, 2008

 

Sometimes, we all lean just a little too hard on our computers, relying on them to function flawlessly no matter how hard we use them.  Usually, this works out just fine, but every now and then, things do fall spectacularly apart.  This year, make it a priority to back up your crucial documents.  There’s nothing worse than losing that one precious, irreplaceable picture, or trying to rewrite a long and complicated report from scratch.   With a solid backup to turn to in emergencies, you’ll always have peace of mind. 

Carbonite, Symantec, and others offer inexpensive online backup packages that are worth exploring for personal documents.  For SMB corporate documents, consider exploring online office and document portal solutions that include automatic backup programs.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Lean on Backups


Technology in 2009: Resolution Number 3

December 29, 2008

Take advantage of free online opportunities to learn, and to share what you’ve learned with others.  CommonCraft’s series of “In Plain English” videos are a particularly terrific example of granular, just-in-time learning in action.  The videos are clear, clever, and brief.  They make learning  both accessible and fun.  Here’s one example.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Click and learn

Lifelong learning is literally at your fingertips! 


Technology in 2009: Resolution Number Two

December 28, 2008

 

Time to Learn

In 2009, resolve to learn something new about technology, or to experiment with something that isn’t exactly new, but is new to you.

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Participate in a professional network such as LinkedIn or Spoke.  If you already belong to such a network, try upping your level of participation:  ask and answer questions, join special interest groups, make new connections, expand your network. 
  2. Read a key text about the role of technology in business and culture.  Interesting  places to begin include
    1. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky
    2. The Wealth of Networks:  How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler
    3. Wikinomics:  How Mass Collaboration Change Everything, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
    4. The Long Tail:  Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson.
  3. Master one small but essential technological task that you usually rely on others to do.  For instance, learn to make a .pdf of a document, learn to download or upload a video,  learn to edit a photograph, learn to run your email to you cell phone, or learn to scan an image and embed it in a document.  An amazing  number of business leaders who make key purchasing decisions about technology routinely rely on others to complete such simple tasks for them.  Knowledge is power.  If you build your familiarity with technology, and gradually add to your mastery of it, your decisions will flow from experience and understanding, and will be the better for it.
  4. Launch or participate in building a blog or a wiki.  Of course, there are already countless blogs and wikis in the world, and a good case could be made for being reluctant to add to the cacophony.  However, if you don’t have some hands on experience with “Web 2.0” technologies, you severely limit your understanding of how to employ these technologies to enrich your personal and professional life.  Intimidated?  Start small!  Try visiting  the Wikipedia entry about an area in which you are knowledgeable.   If you see errors or omissions there, correct them.  Even something that simple will give you insight that most who read about these things from a distance lack.
  5. Create and upload a YouTube video.  If you have a computer with an attached video camera, then you are a potential video producer.  Whether you create a serious instructional video or just record your thoughts on a given issue, the act of creating and uploading a video will sharpen your insight into the phenomenon of user created content. 
  6. Build your social proprioception.  All around you, people are texting, twittering, and plurking.  Collectively, these folks–many of them young, educated, and generally in key consumer demographics–are changing the face of branding and marketing.  If you don’t at least experiment with these “always on” communication tools, you’ll never have a truly firm grasp of their possibilities.  There’s no time like 2009 for diving in.

Learning in the realm of technology is all about hands-on exploration and play.  Do read, but don’t let your reading take place in a vacuum.  When you build your experience, you put yourself in a good position to discern which theories of modern communication are best suited for putting into action.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Ignorance is vulnerability. Lifelong learning is the best, most fulfilling path to technological confidence.


Technology In 2009: Resolution Number One

December 26, 2008

 

The first of AxisPortals’  technology oriented resolutions for the New Year is a very early Valentine for the Small to Medium Business.

smbmedium

Resolution One:  SMB’s understand that technology plays an increasingly central role in the success of their business, but too often aren’t sure exactly which resources they need.  This can lead to both technological and economic vulnerability.  If you want to avoid becoming the proud new owner of an enormous (and enormously expensive) new dedicated server whose power your company requires only the tiniest fraction of, then embrace and celebrate your SMB-ness.  This entails recognizing that the best technology solution for you should both meet your current needs and have the capacity to grow and evolve along with your business.  Conversely, this also entails recognizing that you should not purchase resources that you do not need, that you are not likely to need in the foreseeable future, and that will only confuse and complicate your work processes and procedures.   You’ve lovingly built your company.  You work hard to service your clients, support your employees, and turn a healthy profit.  Don’t let IT vulnerability compromise your success.  When you are looking for IT services of any sort–website design, website hosting, email management,  document sharing, database deployment, etc.–be sure to gather many quotes and proposals.  Compare these carefully.  Don’t forget to  ask plenty of questions, and to request examples and hands-on demos whenever possible.  Be sure to include maintenance and support costs in your projected expenditures.  Seek out input from from your partners and employees so that your technology needs are clear, and draw upon the wisdom of colleagues who are particularly knowledgeable and experienced in this sphere.    Most importantly, keep in mind that excellent and affordable technological resources are available for the SMB.  

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Embrace Your SMB-ness