Q: My business is very small, just me and two employees, and our product really can’t be sold online. Do I really need a Web site?
A: That’s a good question. In fact, it’s one of the most important and often-asked questions of the digital business age. Before I answer, however, let’s flash back to the very first time I was asked this question. It was circa 1998, during the toddler years of the Internet.
I was giving a speech on the impact of the Internet on small business at an association luncheon in Montgomery, Alabama. Back in 1998, which was decades ago in Internet years, the future of e-commerce was anybody’s guess, but even the most negative futurists agreed that all the signs indicated that a large portion of future business revenues would be derived from online transactions or from offline transactions that were the result of online marketing efforts.
So should your business have a Web site, even if your business is small and sells products or services you don’t think can be sold online? My answer in 1998 is the same as my answer today: Yes, if you have a business, you should have a Web site. Period. No question. Without a doubt.
Also, don’t be so quick to dismiss your product as one that can’t be sold online. Nowadays, there is very little that can’t be sold over the Internet. More than 20 million shoppers are now online, purchasing everything from books to computers to cars to real estate to jet airplanes to natural gas to you name it. If you can imagine it, someone will figure out how to sell it online.
Internet marketing research firms predict that online revenues will range between $180 billion and $200 billion in 2003. They also predict that the number of online consumers will grow at a rate of 30 to 50 percent over the next few years. These numbers alone should be enough to persuade you that your business should have a Web site.
Let me clarify one point: I am not saying that you should put all your efforts into selling your wares over the Internet, though if your product lends itself to easy online sales, you certainly should be considering it. The point to be made here is that you should at the very least have a presence on the Web so that customers, potential employees, business partners and perhaps even investors can quickly and easily find out more about your business and the products or services you have to offer.
That said, it’s not enough that you just have a Web site. You must have a professional-looking Web site if you want to be taken seriously. Since many consumers now search for information online prior to making a purchase at a brick-and-mortar store, your Web site may be the first chance you have at making a good impression on a potential buyer. If your Web site looks like it was designed by a barrel of colorblind monkeys, your chance at making a good first impression will be lost.
One of the great things about the Internet is that it has leveled the playing field when it comes to competing with the big boys. As mentioned, you have one shot at making a good first impression. With a well-designed Web site, your little operation can project the image and professionalism of a much larger company. The inverse is also true. I’ve seen many big company Web sites that were so badly designed and hard to navigate that they completely lacked professionalism and credibility. Good for you, too bad for them.
You also mention that yours is a small operation, but when it comes to benefiting from a Web site, size does not matter. I don’t care if you are a one-man show or a 10,000-employee corporate giant; if you don’t have a Web site, you are losing business to other companies that do.
Here’s the exception to my rule: It’s actually better to have no Web site at all than to have one that makes your business look bad. Your Web site speaks volumes about your business. It either says, “Hey, look, we take our business so seriously that we have created this wonderful Web site for our customers!” or it screams, “Hey, look, I let my 10-year-old nephew design my site. Good luck finding anything!”
Your Web site is an important part of your business. Make sure you treat it as such.