Online Advertising Affects Offline Sales

comScore released on Monday results of a study they and Yahoo! conducted of 5 major online retailers with offline store presence.

Article Stats:

  • People exposed to both search and display advertising spent 41% more in stores than those who saw neither ad.
  • People exposed only to search advertising spent 26% more in stores than those who saw neither ad.
  • People exposed only to display ads spent 11% more in stores than those who saw neither ad.
  • 89% of consumers shop for information about products online.
  • Less than 7% of all sales happen online.
  • Almost 90 percent of the incremental sales generated by online advertising take place in-store.
  • For every dollar spent online resulting from an advertising campaign, five more were spent by the same group of people in the store.

Why This May Not Directly Relate to You:

The study watched activities and sales of five major retailers. The announcement didn’t mention them by name, but the types were three national department stores, a major apparel retailer, and an office products supplier.

Due to the type of companies, the information may not directly apply to you. The companies in the survey probably have a strong Internet presence. They also can afford to put on large advertising campaigns and provided excellent and clear landing pages and cross-promotions on their own sites. The study also focused on consumers who were spending a bit of time researching products they were thinking of buying.

When putting together an advertising campaign, information on your products needs to be full, complete, and consistent from the ad to the point where the buy process begins. Those elements plus the ability for customers to pickup the product at a location nearby will help produce the results described in the article. Therefore, it’s not just placing the ad that makes a difference, but everything else in-between.

But what if you don’t have retail stores and you only produce the products other retail stores sell? Focus on providing all the right information on the products and then display the retailers near them that sell the product. Although you may also offer an online buying option, you can be confident that significantly more people will choose an offline option than who buy from you.

Conclusion:

Click-throughs are just as important as they always have been. Therefore, this study doesn’t replace the need for targeted advertising. This simply shows that our advertising programs may be significantly more successful if we can make it easy for people to find an offline location near them to pick it up.

References:

Types of Internet Marketing by Popularity

eMarketer just released an article discussing the effectiveness of RSS. Within this article they provided two graphs prioritizing the types of advertising marketers use the most (presented below). This really was the gem of the article for me.

They represent the conclusive expertise from seasoned marketers on where to best spend your internet marketing dollars. So, if you are wondering what the most effective types of online marketing may be or are trying to determine where to start your spending first, use these graphs to help you make your initial decisions.

Keep in mind that the product/service or company you are trying to advertise may get better results using a less “popular” advertising medium. Identifying your product’s niche is really the most important component. From there, you can decide which medium is best and how to present your ad within it. Good luck!

Most Effective Online Advertising Media
Online Mediums Most Commonly Used by TV Networks

Viral Marketing Techniques

As I mentioned in a previous post, word of mouth marketing (WOMM) is a recent craze for marketers. Viral marketing is one form of WOMM. It specifically uses social networks to increase brand awareness by creating content people naturally want to spread. Wikipedia defines this in more detail and lists a few techniques. As a person wanting to expand your marketing initiatives or simply learn about viral marketing, you may be wondering what the best performing kinds of viral marketing techniques are.

Effective Social Avenues
Based on an article from eMarketer, the following chart lists techniques and marketers’ effectiveness rating per customer focus.

Best Viral Marketing Approaches

Finding Your Customer
Knowing your customer and what social sites they visit on the web is an important element to an effective viral marketing campaign. If your company serves a niche, it’s easier to identify the right blogs or informational sites and receive strong results by simply searching the web and talking to industry professionals. If you serve an interest that is broader or in a market that’s relatively saturated, you’ll have a harder time breaking through the clutter. Getting reviews, interviews, or holding your own webinars announced through industry networks may help grow your exposure and ability to get people talking about what you provide.
Focus on Speak-Worthy Content, First
It takes time, but be patient. The most important element to remember in all this is to focus on creating content that is worth passing around. Without it, any viral campaign you embark on will fail. Content that improves one’s life or career or content that is entertaining speaks best. For some industries, creating this content is easy by the very nature of the products or services. But for others, it’s tough. If you can’t think of appropriate content, don’t waste time on this approach. Choose another. Without relative and speak-worthy content, even if you place it on the perfect social site for your industry, it will die or fizzle away. Start with appropriate, honest, and entertaining content. Then find the best places to post it.
Find the Innovators
Expect the curve to be long—as in months. Sometimes, it’s shorter. Sometimes longer. But the most attractive part of this approach is that you get people to be marketers for you. Find the kind of customers called innovators. They are the very first people to come on board. They’ll be a very small segment, but they will be the ones most willing to speak about your product or service. They are also the most forgiving as you develop your product and message. The entire customer adoption curve can be seen in the image below from Value Based Management.

Going from left to right, each kind of customer is less willing to come on board and is influenced by the people to the left of them. As you engage your viral campaign, you may see your message change as the message passes through each segment. You want it to.
Recommended Material
The information I give here is the very tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to convey if we had the time. I wish you luck as you delve into these activities. It’s fun, exciting, and inspiring to watch people begin to see how usable and awesome your product is. Massaging this process as it travels from one customer adoption to the next is explained more in Seth Goden’s easy read, Idea Virus. Basic tips on how to build an email viral campaign can be found in an article by EmailLabs, a company focusing on viral research, technology, and consulting.

The Rise of Word of Mouth Marketing

If you’ve been following any online marketing trends, word of mouth marketing (WOMM) is a recent craze. eMarketer sent out a newsletter today noting information about the rise of WOMM. Based on information from a BIGresearch study, the article points out that 91% of people in the U.S. sought advice on products or services between November and December 2006—the biggest buying season of the year (chart #080344 below). Ninety-four percent (94%) of us gave advice to others (chart #08033 below).

91% of People Seek Advice About Products and Services 94% of People Give Advice on Products or Services
The article also points out the types of marketing most people prefer to receive based on a DoubleClick study last January (see chart #080163). The top five are:
  1. Recommendations from friends (58%)
  2. Opted-in email newsletters (33%)
  3. TV ads (32%)
  4. Catalogs via mail (30%)
  5. Magazine ads (30%)

See the full article by eMarketer (available until July 4).

What is Word of Mouth Marketing

I’m about to post information about an eMarketer eblast. Before I do so, I wanted to give a quick overview of what Word of Mouth Marketing is. Wikipedia also has excellent information on this topic.

In the past month or so, I’ve heard TV and radio news programs report on this new trend. Both talked negatively about WOMM. But I think they were looking at the abusers of WOMM instead of those who are using it respectfully and accurately. The basic gist of WOMM is to encourage individuals to give an honest recommendation about your product to others. The realization is that people put more weight on the words from a friend or a person who has already experienced the product.

Abusers of this approach basically hire freelance sales reps to “sell” the product to people they know. Payment is usually received as free product or coupons. The companies strongly suggest what the customer needs to say about the product and the sales goal they need to achieve before a “gift” will be sent. When a company determines what a customer will say, it certainly is not word of mouth. When there are achievement goals to attain a “reward”, it is not word of mouth. I don’t have a problem with the approach. But I do have a problem with calling it word of mouth marketing.

To properly entice a person to talk about your product, it’s okay to offer things to increase excitement or to let them know you are thankful they chose to spend their money with you. Usually notification of those gifts happen at the purchase or receipt of your product. What makes WOMM different from incentive programs, such as frequent flyer clubs, are the type of gifts you give. The goal is to enable the person to spread the word about your product with the gift. I suggest checking with the customer to see if they are interested in spreading the word. That can be done simply by providing a means to do so or asking if they want the item you offer to further the discussion. Things given as a “thank you” of course do not need to be opted into. Your return rate on those would obvious be proportionately smaller, but overall activity should be larger.

Other ways of encouraging WOM is to simply provide a vehicle to discuss your product. This can be via an “email a friend” link (although I’m personally not a fan), emailable sample chapters if you’re a book publisher, customer comments on your site, product giveaways for the buyer to give away, or even bumper stickers.

The most important part to remember in all of this is that you need a product that’s worth talking about. Creative marketing can only go so far. If you have a bad product, it’ll come out in WOMM. That was one of my concerns with my websites or products. What if people don’t like them. I’m then empowering people to talk negatively about my product. But even if you don’t attempt to further discussion of your product, people will talk about it anyway. In fact, they already are. The advantage of being more engaged in the discussion is that you’ll find out sooner if the product won’t perform. You’ll then be in a better place to allocate your resources in directions you know will succeed.

For more information, I’d recommend a book by Greg Steilstra titled Pyro Marketing. I haven’t read the entire book, but I’ve met with Greg to get its gist and discuss some of my concerns with the WOM approach. He explains things well in the book. His fire metaphor makes understanding the WOMM concept clearer.

There is also an organization, named the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), that is committed to furthering and educating people about WOMM. They also conduct training sessions, webinars, and provide an email newsletter if you want to become a stronger advocate for WOMM.

Favorite Internet Marketing eNewsletters

I subscribe to many electronic newsletters, most of which focus on Internet marketing. Here are the one’s I most highly recommend:

  1. eMarketer Daily (left side)
  2. MarketingVOX News (the very top-right of homepage)
  3. iMedia Connection (halfway down on left)
  4. BizReport.com (top-left on homepage)
  5. CNET Webware Weekly

The publication I make sure to read every day is eMarketer’s newsletter. The content is concise and doesn’t overload you with various topics. Most articles review studies from other agencies. This gives me insight to consumer behavior and advertising opportunities. My next favorite newsletter comes from MarketingVOX. They include significantly more information, but focus more on the activities of leading companies in Internet Marketing.

Unfortunate in some ways, I typically don’t visit web sites or blogs to learn about information related to marketing or development. I suggest doing so if you have the discipline since many sites without an enewsletter signup can give you excellent information. I prefer information be delivered directly to me since I don’t always remember to visit sites for information and since the schedule of my day varies so widely. Plus, I can then easily archive the information for later reference and pass it around to others in the company.

Another option you can take is to start your own blog aggregator and look for site RSS or ATOM feeds. Internet Explorer 7.0 has an easy aggregator function within it. I haven’t had much luck finding other programs I appreciate. An aggregator enables you to go to one location to view the best content from your favorite sites. As an example, Thomas Nelson created its own aggregator combining blog posts from employees who have them. All of the sites I listed above have RSS feeds. The feeds typically include more information than what I receive from them once each week.

Conversions Increase with Ad Frequency

A study by Atlas Institute found that conversions increase as impressions when advertised across sites (see chart below). I’m not sure about you, but I think that information is common sense already. But what’s different in this study is that the percentage of conversions increase as the number of impressions increase. Instead of the percentage of responders staying relatively consistent no matter where the ad is placed, the overall portion of respondents grows with each ad placement (generally speaking, of course).


The study goes on to indicate that 9 out of 10 people in the study who eventually made a buying decision were reached by the ad in at least one other location (see chart below). We know that repetition is important in advertising. This article helps us know how much our repetitive advertising helps us.


One important note to make is that repetition is not best in all advertising applications. Plus, we should not simply advertise in various locations, but targeted locations where the same consumer visits. That requires a better knowledge of who is coming to our sites and where they shop.

Although, that could be a topic unto itself, I wanted to give you a couple recommendations if you’re interested in learning more. Hitwise is a company that provides this data most accurately. But it comes at a steep price. There are some web analytic tools you can buy for your site that attempt to find out this information as well. Both WebTrends and Omniture provide this information if integrated appropriately. They can also be pricy, but if buying the WebTrends software (not the company’s hosted solution) the use of the software can be depreciated over time. However, the best reliable option I quickly found for almost any size business is Google’s latest Google Analytics package. It’s totally free unlike the others, but Google then gains knowledge of your site’s performance and visitor behavior. Typically, that won’t be a problem. However, it’s certainly important to note.

The study is summarized pretty well by eMarketer. You can view this article until around July 4.

Standard Corporate Signature Template

For the past two years, I’ve been working on a standard corporate signature for Thomas Nelson Employees. We wanted to have a central place where we could modify a signature template and then, on-the-fly, incorporate the employee’s contact information when they compose an email.

Two years ago, I couldn’t find applications pre-built for this purpose. It was also at a time when the company’s computer operating systems ranged from Windows 98 to Windows XP and Outlook 97 to Outlook 2003. As a result, we decided to hire a Visual Basic programmer to build an application. Unfortunately, due to the varied systems, it became too risky to roll it out at that time.

Now, due to the recent reorganizing in the company, we’ve decided to revive the initiative. Fortunately since 2004, we’ve upgraded all of our computers to Windows XP and Outlook 2003 (or Outlook XP). This significantly reduced the variables we need to consider.

OUR REQUIREMENTS

So that you can put the following tools in context, here are the requirements I used to evaluate options:

  1. The signature had to be viewable when composing an email
  2. Contact information had to be pulled into the signature for each employee via Active Directory
  3. The employee’s computer needed to check regularly for changes to the template
  4. We needed to have the ability to use different logos or signature templates for various company divisions
  5. The HTML in the signature needed to be relatively compatible with Mac Entourage, PC Outlooks 2000-2007, and most major email clients
  6. The signature needed to work with Word as the email editor in PC Outlooks
  7. The signature template needed to be easy to update
  8. We needed to be able to choose the fonts, colors, signature, and stationery settings in employee Outlooks
  9. The application needed to be capable of handling over 600 accounts
  10. The application needed to be able to grow with the company and technology


OUTLOOK AND ENTOURAGE SIGNATURES

In order to understand how the solutions I recommend below work, you need a little background on how the signatures work in Outlook XP, Outlook 2003, and Entourage. For the purpose of reducing length, I won’t talk about HTML email coding restrictions. If I haven’t posted an article about this, feel free to comment on this post with your questions. I’ll respond as soon as I can.

Outlook XP and 2003
Three signature files are used for every signature you create. When editing via the signature editor in Outlook, you are editing the signature using HTML. Once you save it, Outlook then creates three files: HTML (htm), rich text (rtf), and plain text (txt). It does its best when creating the rich text and plain text versions. But if you added any graphics or copied and pasted anything from Word (especially with tables), you’ll find spacing is weird or the signature may be totally different than its HTML counterpart. This is why using solutions that create separate versions of the files is important to reduce inconsistencies between the formats. Outlook selects the appropriate signature format based on an email’s format. For example, if you receive a plain text email and reply to it, Outlook selects the plain text version of your signature to use.

The three signature files are located in the following location on your computer (most likely):

C:/Documents and Settings/[your login name]/Application Data/Microsoft/Signatures

Note: If you are not on a corporate network, your login name will be whatever you entered when first installing Windows.

Another option is to have your Exchange server automatically add a custom signature to each email as it goes out. Users won’t be able to see the signature when editing an email since it will be added after the user hits “Send” in Outlook. Unfortunately, these won’t work for Nelson at this time, but I mention my top two favorite solutions for this at the end my list below.

Entourage
Unfortunately, Microsoft’s Entourage is very limited in what code it will allow when composing an HTML email. It views received HTML emails fine, but strips out most of the HTML when composing, replying or forwarding. It also manages signatures completely different than PC Outlook versions. It uses one signature file to store all the information for all signatures a person creates. Up to this point, I haven’t conducted extensive research into whether this file can be programmatically altered.

Mac users’ only option is to modify their signatures manually. For Nelson, we created an HTML version that is friendly with Entourage so that Mac users can simply copy from an email, paste it into their signature editor, and then change the contact information. The disadvantage to this approach is that when the design changes we’ll have to notify and rely on each person to adapt their own. There is no reporting or verification available, and it requires more administration for our I.T. department. This also enables Mac users to have more control over the look and content in the signature, which the company is trying to regulate.

SOLUTIONS

As most of you know, technological advancements in software occur regularly. Therefore after two years, fortunately, a few more appropriate applications exist. The following list includes the best applications I’ve found. If you find others, please add links as comments for all of us.

  1. Symprex Mail Signature Manager (my top choice)
  2. Fliximation Systems Mailbox Central
  3. ITeFlx Adolsign
  4. Exclaimer Mail Utilities (honorable mention)
  5. SecurExchange AutoContent Edition (honorable mention)

Symprex Mail Signature Manager

This is by far the best one I’ve found for our needs. The features outweigh many other tools I’ve found and what we’ve created with our own programmer. The price is reasonable for us (a little over $2000). The company, Symprex, located in the United Kingdom, provides excellent information about this application on their site. This tool meets all of our requirements when combined with Group Policy.

Features I especially liked:

  1. Easy to use editing tool
  2. Easy to install on the server and each person’s computer
  3. Deployment reporting
  4. Customizable signature templates or content for specific departments or groups of employees
    Works with Outlook Web Access

More info >>

Mailbox Central

The pricing for this application is unfortunately very expensive (via personal quote), but the features are in-line with our requirements and it offers a few more options than what we get with our own programmer.

Unfortunately, the information about this tool on the flexnet.com site isn’t helpful. The information never really discusses anything but overall benefits. However, responses from the Fleximation sales team were quick and with patience. They were willing to answer any questions I had and provided me with the User Manual to answer the bulk of my questions. The company is based out of Ontario, Canada.

The most beneficial function not included in this when compared to Symprex is that it does not affect Outlook Web Access. The implementation also looks a little more complicated.

Basic Features:

  1. Central editing tool
  2. Works with Active Directory
  3. Uses a database to create signature
  4. Users can see the signature when editing emails
  5. Can use this across Outlook profiles (or persons using the same computer)
  6. Customizable per employee group in Active Directory

More info >>

Adolsign

This is the cheapest (at $130) and the most basic application I’ve evaluated. Unfortunately for us, a couple fields we want are not available in the application. We could repurpose a couple of the fields already available. However, I contacted the programmer, and he was willing to make modifications as needed at an additional cost. This tool does the basics of what our programmer has already programmed for us when combined with Group Policy. It does not have a central signature editor or reporting capabilities, and we would need to add the ability to have a different signature for specific groups of employees.

Basic Features:

  1. Creates signature files from user information in Active Directory
  2. Can create vcards (Outlook contact info files) and attach them to emails sent
  3. No known limitations with Outlook XP and 2003 on Windows XP

More info >>

Exclaimer Mail Utilities

This is an excellent tool although it doesn’t meet all of our requirements—specifically the capability for users to see their signature when editing emails. However, if that isn’t important to you, then this tool is one of the best out there and has a sales team (in four countries) that is quick and patient when answering emails. Pricing is not available on the site but I have not inquired about a quote.

Just like my #1 choice, it affects signatures for emails sent via the Outlook Web Access, but it also works with emails sent via Blackberrys or the like. It also has the capability to change the entire look of the email by adding a header, employee photo, and much more (see example image). In addition to those, the Mail Utilities come with many other features you may find helpful, including footer disclaimers, auto-responding, spam control, etc. The flyer (PDF) seems to be best resource for getting information regarding this application.

Best Features:

  1. Entire email template design control, not just signatures
  2. Affects signatures for emails sent from Blackberrys (or other PDA device) via the Exchange server
  3. Can setup different signatures for various groups of employees
  4. Comes with several additional utilities especially helpful for small businesses

More info >>

SecurExchange AutoContent

The final application I want to recommend is just as powerful as Exclaimer. Created by Nemx Software Corporation in Ontario, Canada, it offers several additional utilities your business might find beneficial. I don’t know what they charge for this application.

Although, this tool does not meet our requirements, it offers significantly more features than would be possible on a client-side signature application. I won’t list all of them here, but if you want controls over more than just the design of the signature, you should definitely check this out.

Best Features:

  1. Emails customized to employee groups
  2. Ability to exclude signatures for certain recipients
  3. Central editing tool
  4. Significantly more control than possible on a client-side application

More info >>

I hope you found this information helpful. Glad to share my research. Good luck selecting your own corporate signature management application.


DEFINITIONS:

Microsoft Exchange—This is the central system providing all of Outlook’s functions on a corporate network such as calendar, email, contact information, etc. It is typically not necessary for running Outlook, but on a corporate network it provides content protection, collaboration, a central source for schedules, employee information, and much more.
wikipedia info | back

Active Directory—An element of Microsoft Exchange that offers the ability to control many computers in an enterprise. The signature applications I reviewed use this to access the LDAP database, which contains our employee contact information (LDAP is also part of Microsoft Exchange).
wikipedia info | back

Group Policy—Works in conjunction with Active Directory to control Windows operating system settings globally for every employee computer on the corporate network (including Outlook settings). There are of course limitations based on the operating system and version of Outlook, but most of our setting requirements can be managed via this application since we all have Outlook XP or 2003. What isn’t naturally part of the system can sometimes be programmed or worked into the Outlook COM Add-in (see below).
wikipedia info | back

Outlook Web Access—This is basically the web version of Outlook for employees that want to access email away from work. It does not have as many features as the Outlook software, but a person can handle the majority of their needs for conducting communication. This feature is only available on Microsoft Exchange version 5.0 and higher.
wikipedia info | back

Visual Basic—This is the programming language used in Microsoft Office applications. A novice can begin coding in this language via Microsoft’s scripting tool included with Office. Using this language, you can modify Outlook (or any Office application) to perform any number of simple to complicated tasks. This includes modifying the look of Outlook, creating a customer resource management tool, changing Outlook settings, and creating your own toolbar with your own set of functions.
wikipedia info | back

Outlook COM Add-In—Created using Visual Basic, this module offers a company the ability to expand features in Outlook tailored more specifically to its needs. Integrating this is as simple as dropping the add-in “dll” file in a specific folder on the user’s computer and “turning it on” in Outlook. Since I want users to see the signature when composing an email, an add-in is the only way to make this happen. All of the “solutions” I offered above use this approach.
wikipedia info about COMs | back

DLL—This stands for dynamic link library. These files extend the capability and features of a program (exe file). An Outlook COM Add-In is basically a dll file. Visual Basic is used to program the file.
wikipedia info (link didn’t work at time of post) | Other Info | back

Site Requirements Documentation

If you have never developed a web site before or you are a novice and are planning to develop a web site in the future but wonder how to communicate your site to a designer, here is some information that may be helpful to you.

If you are reading this, you probably know the purpose of the site you want to build. However, there are many steps between where you are now and actually having a web designer build the site. The first thing I suggest you do is build what we in the industry typically call a “Requirements” document (a.k.a. site requirements). This is typically a written document that has everything you can think of in it. Examples may be what elements you want on the site, design ideas, how you plan to support it, marketing efforts, etc. The last two are typically not in an ‘official’ Requirements document, but it will significantly help you put your head in the right frame of mind and know what commitment is necessary to make your site a success.

Building a great site is not enough. You need to get the word out. You also need to make sure you have the time to give to making your site a success. Of course success is different for everyone, but defining that success and how you will reach it will go a long way to help you develop a winning web site.

For the marketing directors I work with, I have them answer at least three questions:

  1. Who’s this site for
  2. Why are you building it
  3. How will and why are you promoting it

They seem like common questions, but each one helps:

  1. a web designer know visually what the site needs to look like and how easy-to-use vs. artistic the site needs to be,
  2. you to know what your goal is,
  3. you to know what you’re going to do to promote the site, and
  4. you to know what your mission is with the site.

By going through these questions, you can then have an end in mind and can begin planning your site out in more detail with the Requirements documentation.

I’ve put together my suggestion on what you should begin with for a basic or small web site. My example only contains three sections. In the past, I’ve had Requirements that number of 50 main sections and hundreds of pages. Starting small is important. You’ll find that as you build your document, it will naturally grow as you think through each element and what you want to acheive. The sections I would start with are are:

  1. Key Features
  2. My Support
  3. Questions

Key Features

The key features are probably what you already naturally have in your head when you’re thinking about your web site. This includes a list of the most important elements you want on your site, what you think visitors will like about it, and the basics of what you know you need on the site but that may not be as interesting. For example, if I wanted to build a site that sold 60s style furniture, I would develop the following list (phrases in parenthesis are to help you know what I’m thinking behind each feature):

  1. Photos of furniture (With furniture or any product, photos are the best selling points of an items. This needs to be as many as I can get my hands on. Interiors of images, photos of all angles of a product, etc. People can’t handle the product like they can in a store, so you’ve got to help them do so online. This is one of the weakest elements of large retail sites. But if you’re starting small, you have the advantage and maybe time to provide excellent information on each product or service you have.)
  2. Rotating home page furniture feature (This is a flashy element and serves as an ad for your products. Target.com and other retailers use this feature. Doing this feature cheaply is hard, and thus requires more maintenance on down the line. So, if you want this, make sure you know what the process of updating the images will be. If the designer says it’ll be easy, force him to be detailed. Sometimes what is a small task, won’t be so small for you.)
  3. Videos talking about the quality of the pieces and how they are made (This will be hard to do well on small budgets. But the idea of this is similar to feature #1 where since people can’t handle the product, you should help them. This is not a necessary feature, but one I think would be great and helpful to the users. Plus, I also need to make sure to look into its feasibility.)
  4. Ecommerce using PayPal (PayPal is an inexpensive and easy way to add ecommerce capability to your site. However, if you want ecommerce capability on your site that is seamless with your design, your web designer may know of inexpensive services.)
  5. My business description
  6. Seasonal promotions (If you are selling products, be sure to categorize them. But more importantly, if you plan to advertise products based on season, special events, or other format, thinking through those in detail before designing your site will make it much easier and less expensive when it comes time to begin that promotion. Thinking through it will help you know what you need to have on the site and what you want it to look like.)
  7. Monthly eblasts (Sometimes this can be quite an undertaking, but if you are an author or someone who has a small list of people, it may be simple to do. In your eblasts, you may want to use some of the design elements of the site or include links to specific locations in the site–even maybe on a page. This is important to know for a designer so that he can include that in his design initially. This will avoid you having to pay for him to make a change down the line when it will be relatively more expensive.)
  8. Search engine marketing (This is important because you will need to know how to optimize your site for search engines. This is a science in itself, but some basics are to make sure you have a descriptive and specific page title for every page in your site, for section headers or any important pieces of content on the site the designer use html header codes [H1, H2, H3, H4, etc.], and finally write your text on the page with the keywords people may search by to find your site. Sometimes using industry terms is not what most of your buyers will use when they think of your products. Include the common terms many times in all three of those elements, and you’ll go a long way to improving your placement in all search engines.)
  9. 60s motif (I’m basically talking about the look and feel of the site. If you know of others out there, or you have pictures of your furniture, give these things to the web designer. It will go a long way to helping them create a design that reflects your intention on the site.)
  10. Image heavy design with bright colors (Image heavy sites are slower to show for people than mostly text sites like Amazon.com. However, images are worth a thousand words. Finding that balance is challenging. I just how image heavy a site should be based on how artistic or creative what I’m selling is. If I’m an author, a cool looking site is great, but people aren’t there to see a cool site. They are there to find out about me. The rest is icing. If I am a designer, however, a cool site is important to showing my capability and eye for design to my clients. If I sell excentric furniture, don’t use low prices to attract buyers, then I would choose a more artsy design to represent the quality and care in design I take to my products.)
  11. URL (have you reserved it yet? You’d be surprised how many marketing directors start developing a site, but don’t try to buy the url until they are ready to launch the site, only to find it’s not available. This is the very first thing you should do. If you’re going to build a business around this, don’t delay.)

Making a list of features or site needs is the most important list you can make prior to talking with a designer. Additionally, he or she may have other ideas that will improve your web site and make it more fun for them to design and for your visitors to experience.

If you need recommendations of designers I have used for small and medium sized projects, check out the following:

My Support

This section is a list of what you can offer to support the site as it is developed and once it is up and running. It could include places you realistically can advertise the site (i.e. Marketing), how often and how much time you can give per week to update information on the site, contacts you can utilize to help gather content and find out information, and the budget you have for the year on this. For my furniture web site, I would include:

  1. Monthly eblasts
  2. Search engine marketing
  3. 4 hours per week
  4. $9,000 for first year
  5. Trade show brochure ads
  6. Local newspaper ads
  7. Blogs
  8. Grassroots efforts
  9. Johnny Doe Web Designer (the person you want to design your site)
  10. Long John Hosting Company (the company that you will use to host your web site. A designer can help you with this. There are many cheap services out there. One I strongly believe in is www.dogbark.com.)
  11. eBusiness 2.0
  12. etc.

The purpose of this section is to understand the efforts required and the limitations you have to make the site successful. When you discuss your web site with your potential designers, they may know how to develop a system that will work within your means and not just your budget.

On a side note—regarding your budget, I recently read an article that said companies creating a new web site should expect to spend on advertising at least twice the amount spent on creating the web site. That’s a hard call for small businesses or personal web sites. But that should also give you an idea of what to expect to spend to promote your web site—whether it be business cards, web banners, direct mail, etc. Many people have this belief that if you build it, they will come. A web site is similar to products; you must market it before people can know about it. Even then, there is a lot of advertising noise out there. Getting past it is quite a challenge. …But that’s a posting for a later time.

Questions

As a novice planner, you probably have a ton of questions. Write them down before you talk to a designer. Be honest with yourself. Categorize the questions. This will help you be clear with the designer as to your level of web understanding. One note of advice, do not select a designer until you feel like you have an understanding of the project and what is required. It may take a while to get there and a lot of reading. However, if you are hasty in your selection and the designer begins working on your site, it’s possible you may have incorrectly identified your needs, your customers, and how to meet those needs with the web site. Most especially when funds are tight, haste really makes waste.

Questions I may have written down for my first web site:

  1. What ecommerce options do I have?
  2. What is Flash?
  3. What is web hosting?
  4. What’s a server?
  5. What is ASP and PHP?
  6. What can we do to make this site as easy to maintain as possible?
  7. Do I need any special software?
  8. What do you need from me to make your job easier?

Utilizing the expert advice from designers can be very valuable. Sometimes you don’t know what questions, support, or offerings you have until you begin talking with them. But having something written down from the beginning, no matter how vague, can be helpful in gathering your thoughts and letting you know where you stand—and where you need to go.

Conclusion

Utilizing Requirements documentation will help spur further discussion when you talk to potential designers. They also become what the contract is based off of so that both parties know what to expect. The documentation will also help you conceptualize what you are really asking for and whether or not you can afford it. The designer can then work with you on developing a plan that will still meet your needs but also be within your budget. Never rush a low-budget project and plan as much as possible prior to beginning the work. It will pay off when the site is finally ready to launch.