Time to get online?

Thirty-five years ago, Michael Jacoby needed only a wheelbarrow, a shovel and a pickup truck to run his Southern California landscape business, which consisted of himself and anybody else he could find to work that day.

Today, the former one-man operation is now Jacoby Landscape Management Inc., a highly successful business with 125 employees that generates $8.5 million annually. Last year, chided by his son to “come out of the Dark Ages,” he set up a Web site that, by his own admission, “was a disaster.”

What went wrong? “We tried to do it ourselves, which was a mistake,” says Jacoby, whose current site has been professionally redone by a Web design firm he hired. “The site looked amateurish. We really didn't do our homework before we set it up.”

Jacoby's story typifies the problem faced by other landscape management and green industry businesses. They want to set up a Web site and grow their business on the lucrative Internet, but don't know where to start. The events of September 11 notwithstanding, the Internet is not going away, and taking your business online is going to be more important than ever.

Setting up your Web site begins, simply enough, in your head — with a well-thought-out, five-step mental game plan.

  1. Put yourself in your customers' shoes

    It's one thing for your Web site to trumpet who you are and what services or products you have to offer. It's more important to think about who your customers are and what benefits you can offer them.

    Put yourself in your customers' shoes. What is it they're actually looking for? It could be a practical solution to a persistent problem — getting rid of grub infestation. It could be an emotional payoff — a lawn that is the envy of their neighbors. The goal of your site is to give customers what they want.

    The look of your site conveys a lot about your company: A corporate look says something far different from a more informal look. Whatever appearance you decide on, keep it consistent throughout each page of the site so that viewers always know it's your company wherever they are in the site.

    An effective home page is crucial. It introduces viewers to your company, outlines what is in your Web site and links to the various sections. Think about incorporating eye-catching graphics and images to create visual appeal to further draw viewers in.

    And don't underestimate how computer-savvy your customers already may be. As Jeff Snyder, president of Green Oaks Landscape Management in Hilliard, Ohio, says, “Most professional people deal with the Internet and advanced technologies on a daily basis in their jobs, so it's critical that we are able to communicate and serve them at their level.”

  2. Think about what you want to achieve

    What is the chief purpose of your site? Do you just want to get your name out there? Do you want to focus on conveying information? Or are you interested primarily in selling your service or product?

    To really stand out and market yourself effectively on your Web site, answer the following question: What is the number-one benefit, which sets me apart from my competitors, that I can offer my customers? Then write down one simple sentence that conveys that benefit and put it on your Web site.

    Say you're a tree-care service with the unique capability of trimming and cutting down trees that are difficult to get to. Your single, simple benefit sentence on your home page might be: “Our licensed crews specialize in safely trimming and removing trees in hard-to-reach places.” With that one sentence, you've not only conveyed your number-one competitive advantage (removing and trimming trees in hard-to-reach places) but also stated that you're licensed and concerned with safety, two added benefits that separate you from those unlicensed barbarians at Hack & Stack Treekillers across town.

    And don't forget to put all your contact information on your site: your company name and your name, phone number, e-mail and fax number. Whether it's a new job referral or a simple question, motivating customers to provide feedback is critical — the lifeblood that keeps your Web site going.

  3. Check out other Web sites

    Checking out other sites can keep you updated on what your competitors are up to and can help you with your own site. Look at colors, navigation, home pages, links — anything you like in somebody else's site is probably something similar to what would work well on your own site.

    Putting information of interest (and updating it regularly) is another way to attract customers. Quick facts (“Those pretty flowers growing in your yard may actually be harmful weeds”) and how-to tips (“Here's how to prevent Dutch Elm Disease”) add pizzazz and credibility, and ensure return visits to your site.

  4. Choose a name for your Web site

    Your Web site's name, called a “domain name,” should be the same as your company name. For instance, if the name of your company is Jones Landscape Management, then you should try to register your Web site name as the same. The advantage is obvious: When people search online for your company, they'll find your site easier if your site name is the same as your business.

    The problem arises when you discover that a Web site is already using the same name as yours. Then you've got three options. You can choose another name that resembles your company's. You can go to the site that has your name and see if there is, indeed, a Web presence. If there isn't, contact the owner and make him an offer. Your third option is to go to a domain auction site such as afternic.com and purchase a name.

  5. Decide how you want to build your Web site

    How you choose to build your Web site depends on several factors: how much money you want to spend, what you want your site to do and how much time you're planning to spend managing it. There are basically four ways to go:

  • Do-it-yourself software

    Setting up a Web site isn't like fixing a toilet. (But, of course, you can never tell a do-it-yourselfer that!)

    If you're a do-it-yourselfer who's computer-savvy, you can spend a couple of hundred bucks for a Web-site software package (Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia Dreamweaver, to name two). It takes a lot of work, however, and requires a certain degree of technical know-how.

    You'll have to design it yourself (possibly resulting in amateurish design), write all the content (Web writing is totally different from anything else), make sure your site has download and system-browser compatibility with your users, register your domain name, get a host server, transfer your files from your computer to the host server, get your company listed on search engines, etc. Even more important, your site may lack a user-friendly interface, be unfocussed in communicating the appropriate marketing messages to your target audience and be inappropriate for the way people read on the Web.

    While the do-it-yourself method is okay for some people, it's definitely not for everyone.

  • Free or low-cost host servers

    Free or low-cost host servers claim to do everything but turn off your computer for you at the end of the day. Their advantage, of course, is little (or no) cost.

    Host servers (Bigstep.com is one that's popular) may seem to do all the work, but there are disadvantages: you'll probably have banner ads continually running across the top of your pages; your site will be text-heavy and lack space for images; you won't have an individual URL (your Web site would be reached through a host server address that would be long, hard to remember and says nothing whatsoever about who your company is); your site will lack marketing effectiveness; and the host server won't provide much follow-up maintenance or customer support. Even more important, your site will probably lack a user-friendly interface, be unfocussed in communicating the appropriate marketing messages to your target audience and be inappropriate for the way people read online.

  • Freelancers

    Picking a freelance Web designer can be a gamble. There are good freelancers out there, but there are also many who won't be able to deliver all the capabilities you need. You might get a freelancer who does revolving logos and other “cool” whistles and bells (then again you may not get any of these), but not much follow-up maintenance or customer support. Also, the freelancer may have expertise in one area, such as design, but be unfamiliar with the other three essential areas of expertise for building an effective Web site: user experience, technology and marketing.

    Similar to choosing any type of service provider, do your homework. Ask for references and look at several Web sites the freelancer has created for actual paying customers. When you discuss your needs with the freelancer, notice whether he or she is really attentive to your specific needs, or whether they seem more intent on dazzling you with gimmicks.

  • Web design firms

    How do you choose a Web design firm? Before you close your eyes and pick one out of the Yellow Pages, check the company's Web site. Is their focus on marketing, design or technology? A good Web design firm should be adept at all three.

Make sure to ask about their quality assurance system: do they test across browsers and systems and on several modems? Do they push fancy, expensive technology? If so, they're not for you.

Do they listen to what you want (not what they want) and come back with a plan that works for your Web site? Do they offer a maintenance package and follow-up support?

Despite their downside (the wrong design firm can be egotistical, rigid and high-priced) Web design firms can do a lot: provide killer content, do advanced technical and e-commerce work, change your image, provide dynamic marketing and branding directions, get your site maximum Web exposure and maintain your site after it's launched. Web design firms also provide some objectivity that may help you to think like your customers.

Net results

With all the uncertainty in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, one thing remains for sure: The positives of having your Web site and taking your business online far outweigh the negatives. You'll expand your company's visibility and reach more customers. And you'll realize greater profits thanks to the biggest game in town — the Internet, the most powerful marketplace in history.

David Hunter is a writer and senior content strategist for Rothstein & Memsic, a Los Angeles Web design firm. You can reach him at david@rothsteinmemsic.com.

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