Developing an Online Presence for Businesses: Start to Finish

Chris Tomlinson February 2015

Developing an Online Presence for Businesses: Start to Finish by Chris Tomlinson

Introduction

Establishing an online presence for the first time or revamping an existing one can be a truly daunting task. This paper aims to walk you through the trials and the rewards of building a world class web presence for your business. We will cover the creation of the key pillars of online brand presence such as your website, social media accounts and content strategy and will look closely at the digital integration and involvement of the traditional parts of your business including customer service, sales and marketing and recruitment. We will start with the planning and development phase and work through to analytics and follow up. If you are hoping to establish or completely rethink an online presence, this guide will not only show you how to maximize benefits, but also how to proactively avoid pitfalls that result in wasted time and money and a loss of business opportunity.
Whether you’re an established business wishing to enhance its web presence or a new business seeking to get online for the first time, you probably already know how important the Internet is in today’s increasingly digital world. What you may not be aware of is exactly how much of a boost a solid web presence could be for your business. Since the dawn of the personal computer, the number of people logging in each day has exploded and there are no signs of that slowing down or fading away. Since 1995, the percentage of the world’s population using the internet grown from 0.4% to a staggering 42.3% (http://www.internetworldstats.com/emarketing.htm).
This tells us that now more than ever, businesses can benefit from developing a workable online presence. However, that is not as easy as simply getting a website or starting a Facebook page. Without following best practices and making sure you approach the internet from multiple angles, you will likely find yourself adrift in a sea of competitors, never seeing a tangible ROI from any of your efforts. Building an online brand can put you in front of customers who otherwise may never have known your name. It can provide your business with customizable, scalable, and affordable advertising and marketing outlets. It can even help you run your business better from an internal perspective. However, building your online brand requires some forethought, preparation, and an ongoing dedicated effort. With the right approach, it does not have to be a costly, nor a time consuming endeavor, but it can turn into one if you take a shotgun approach rather than a methodical one.
To ensure that your business is making the most of its new or growing online presence, you should concentrate on a few key areas. Your brand presence is the first (and possibly the most obvious) area; you should know about best practice and have plans in place for developing a website, a social media presence, and your message. What’s more is that you’ll need to spend time deciding how that online presence will integrate with your traditional brick and mortar business. Through-out this guide we will try and help you to answer some of these questions.
Elements of a great online experience
Once you’ve found ways to integrate the internet with your business, you will need to focus in on how you will handle providing customer service and how you manage the customer experience online. You will need to decide how to use the internet as a sales and marketing tool, including how to measure analytics and ROI from your combined and individual efforts. Lastly, you will need to take a look at how taking your company online will affect your business by applying the same dedicated approach to making decisions related to your working environment, company recruitment, and the development and maintenance of the online face of the business. With that outline in mind, it won’t require undue effort, cost, or time to develop a world-class online presence for a business of any size, regardless of your market, location, or the nature of your services.

Brand Presence

Unfortunately, developing your business’ presence online isn’t as simple as just getting your website up and running. That will be an important part of your online strategy, but it’s far from the end of the journey. To develop a strong brand presence on the internet, you should also be incorporating a social media presence, coordinating your efforts to ensure that they are consistent and targeted, and working to weave your online strategy into the fabric of your business as a whole, rather than allowing it to operate in isolation as a separate arm of the company.

Building and Maintaining a Website The first, and perhaps most obvious, step toward developing your business’ online presence should be the creation of your website. A 2014 study found that over half of all small businesses operate websites today (http://www.statisticbrain.com/small-business-website-statistics/), so this should be considered a new norm. Your site should serve as the home base for your business online, so make sure your first impression is a good one. You may choose to build your own website, hire an internal employee to handle web development, or outsource the design and deployment to a professional service provider or developer. If you do choose to go it alone, make sure you know what you’re doing. Some web hosting services offer easy set-up and assistance, while others offer you bare-bones, so you should assess your own needs and skill level before you attempt to tackle the project. Choosing to hire on a developer, either internally or as a third party vendor, will give you another set of resources entirely. Make sure you are getting a company or professional who can demonstrate that they have been successful at delivering at the level you’re expecting. The cheapest route may seem attractive, but that can wind up costing you money in the long-run, as you end up having to pay to have the mistakes cleaned up later on.

Once you have selected a webhost and a developer, your challenge becomes creating a website structure that clients and customers can navigate easily, as well as one that gives you the features you’ll need to maintain the site and connect with your customers. Your customers have increasingly little patience when it comes to page errors and redirects, so make sure that your website is fully functional before you launch. You should also ensure that there is an easy process in place for if (and when) you need to make edits or add content to the site. Your design should be uncluttered and modern, devoid of over the top graphics or difficult to read fonts. All content on your website should be checked for accuracy and proofread thoroughly. Potential customers will be judging the credibility of your business based on your website, so strive to be as professional and informative as possible.

Building and Maintaining a Social Media Presence

Perhaps equally as important as your web presence is your social media presence. Before potential clients or customers make a purchasing decision, they are likely going to look for reviews and details about your company from sources like social media. Studies have found that nearly 60% of people have used social media (http://www.statisticbrain.com/social-networking-statistics/), and that number continues to grow. Ignoring social media may cause customers to see your business as unprofessional or outdated, so it’s a trend that should be readily embraced. What’s more, social media can actually be a wonderful resource for customer engagement and marketing. With the advent of targeted and affordable ad campaigns, such as Facebook ads, even small businesses can develop world-class social media marketing strategies. You don’t have to actively engage on every social media channel, but you should at least establish accounts with the major players. If nothing else, this will ensure that your business maintains complete control over its online identity and has the broadest reach possible.
Aside from advertisement, social media can also be used to engage with current and potential customers. Increasingly, consumers have taken to social media to lodge complaints or seek information. It’s easy, free, and direct, so it can be a wonderful resource to your business when it comes to providing great customer experience or simply reaching out to drive engagement. A rule of thumb is to update your social media accounts regularly. Once to a few times a day is optimal, but that may not always be practical. However, as long as you’re making an effort to share new content and engage on a weekly basis, you should see the benefit. It can be nearly impossible to generate enough content to keep up-to-date, but you can also source interesting content that’s relevant to your business to share with your social media followers. Sharing good content from reputable sources will help your followers view you as a subject matter expert and boost your business’ credibility overall. Shorter posts which are accompanied with media, such as video or images, are much more likely to see high engagement scores. So strive for this model as you’re creating your postings. You may have to deal with some negative comments, but that’s simply part of doing business. You should seek to resolve complaints privately, but show that you respond quickly and personally. Seeing this type of complaint resolution will assure potential customers that you work to resolve any disputes.

Tone and Voice

Between your various social media accounts, your website, and your day-to-day customer communications, it can be easy to become splintered or inconsistent. This poses a problem, as your customers are looking for stability and consistency. To avoid appearing disorganized, you should take some time to think about your messaging. Make sure that you are using similar verbiage throughout your entire company – and not only online. Even your internal messaging, including signage, email, and training materials, should reflect a similar voice. This will ensure a consistent experience, whether your customers are talking with you in person or interacting with you online.
While you should always strive to be professional, it’s important that you still convey what makes you unique. Your clients and customers choose to do business – and to continue doing business – with you, versus your competitors, for very specific reasons. As you work to develop your business’ “voice,” make sure you leave room for originality and organic content. It’s not hard to tell when a company isn’t being genuine, and that’s one factor that the internet age hasn’t changed about doing business. People still want to know that they’re doing business with a real company, run by real people. Don’t be afraid to add a little character to your content.

Creating Consistency within Your Business

No matter how important your business’ web presence is to your success, the most important part of your plan should still be your business. If building and maintaining your online strategy isn’t done with the best interests of your business in mind the business will naturally suffer. As you outline your strategy for taking your brand online, be cognizant of the pressure you’ll put on your business’ day-to-day operations. Will building and maintaining the website and social media accounts require so much time and effort that you’ll need to hire a dedicated manager? How deeply will the cost of building your online presence cut into your budget? How will you let your current customers know about doing business with you online? If your online demand increases suddenly, how will you balance the needs of your other customers, whether online or off? Throughout the process, you should be asking yourself how your online business will affect your business as a whole. Failure to do so may result in preventable costs and/or time wasters.

Customer Service

With the trend of businesses taking to the internet growing at never before seen rates, it has become almost a necessity to deliver customer service online. More and more, your customers are turning to online channels to seek help, make complaints, or share feedback. This is evident as you scroll through the Facebook feed of any major brand. Pay attention, and you’ll see a bevy of complaints, comments, questions, and suggestions posted directly to the company. Check out the “contact us” section of any big box store and you’re sure to find an option for live chat help or online customer service ticket creation. What this shows us is that the best in the business have already recognized the need to deliver stellar customer service through multiple channels. However, there’s a wrong way and a right way to do this. A recent study showed that consumers in the UK have very specific needs when it comes to a satisfactory customer service experience. Timeliness and efficiency take precedence. 82% of those surveyed indicated that resolving issues quickly was a key element of a great online customer service experience.
Social media sites used for content distribution
From the results of those polled, it is clear to see that consumers are looking for fast and uncomplicated customer service experiences. They would like a single point of contact, customized and personalized responses, and a follow-up to ensure that their satisfaction was achieved. What is interesting to note is that they are still concerned with the human element. Your customers want a friendly representative, and someone who they can reach out to if they continue to require assistance. This just goes to show that no matter how automated businesses become, consumers still want to know that they are dealing with a competent, friendly person behind a computer screen.

Providing Customer Service via Social Media

Social media has become a popular outlet for those seeking information or help from businesses. It is important to handle these interactions delicately, since they are largely public and happen in real time. The first rule of thumb is to respond to every interaction, if for no other reason than to acknowledge the customer and ensure that they feel heard. If there is a complaint, you may wish invite the customer to follow through with private online customer service channels. Social media can be a unique way to interact with your customers. Often times, they will volunteer feedback – both good and bad. If you’re smart enough to listen, you may gain valuable insight into the voice of the customer. Of course, there have also been horror stories of companies with social media debacles, from inappropriate tweets to account takeovers. Social media is a very public platform, so you should be sure to put a lot of thought and care into developing your social media presence.
There are many different social media outlets that you might choose to use. Keeping up with several different accounts may prove to be too taxing, so you may wish to do a little market research before investing a lot of time and effort. You should claim your company’s name on all social media platforms, if for no other reason than to prevent any uninvited third parties from taking the reins. However, you don’t necessarily need to be active through all channels. You should find your customers where they are. That may take some trial and error, but it shouldn’t present an undue burden for you to determine where you are best received. Depending on the available resources at your disposal, you may only choose to actively provide customer service through a few platforms.

Web-based Customer Service

It’s incredibly frustrating to go online seeking help, only to find yourself stonewalled by a vague FAQ section and an anonymous support email address. With such a variety of possibilities out there, providing good online customer service doesn’t have to be a chore. There are plenty of third-party vendors who can offer you platforms to provide good customer service, such as live chats. Creating “trouble tickets” for issues via your website may also prove to be a crowd pleaser. Many companies offer the option of both live online chat and email support, but your strategy will depend on your budget and resources.
It’s important to note that, despite the increasing popularity of online customer service, some of your customers may still want to talk one-on-one to a live, human voice. For this reason, you may want to think twice about using online customer support as a complete replacement for phone support. However, if you are satisfied that you can provide adequate support through online channels, live chat can be a fair substitute for a live, human voice.

Feedback, Follow-up, and VOC

As we touched on earlier, social media has become a valuable tool for collecting feedback and collecting useful information about customers, but there is much more you can do to leverage your online presence. For one, social media platforms now offer a wide range of analytic tools that can provide you with powerful insights about your customers. At a high level, the data these platforms collect offers you a breakdown of what content consumers find engaging and what content they could do without. Without saying a word, your customers will give you feedback on each post you make.
It’s important for your customers to feel heard, especially in the faceless landscape of online commerce. Your website can be a great place to allow your customers to speak their minds. Sending email follow-ups asking for feedback on interaction or sending survey opportunities to customers and clients are both potentially great ways to actively seek feedback. No matter what methods you use to collect feedback, the most important thing is how you use the information and data collected. Take the time to review feedback and make sure that you follow up on customer complaints and questions.

Sales and Marketing

No matter how well developed your website is or how closely you monitor your social media accounts, you won’t be doing your business any favors if you aren’t driving sales through your online presence. Even the best website can still be a drain if it’s not accomplishing your sales goals. It is for this reason that you need to put the time and effort into determining a sales and marketing strategy early on in your transition online.

Measuring ROI Online

The first thing you’ll need to do is decide how you’re going to measure your return on investment (or ROI) for your web presence. As we covered earlier, many social media platforms offer businesses built in analytics tools for tracking and monitoring followers and individual posts. The same should be true for your website. There are free admin tools, such as Google Analytics, that show you a comprehensive breakdown of your web traffic information. This data doesn’t just include volume of traffic, either. You can get as specific as your viewers’ interests, internet service providers, and the types of devices they’re using to access your website. Keeping track of these analytics will be key in measuring the overall health of your website, but they do more than just that.
Watch your click through rates carefully, and you will gain careful insight into not just who is visiting your website, but also how many of these visitors are actually being converted to customers. Web traffic is not the end all, beat all for online success. Your business is still a business, so you should monitor things like click through rates to get an idea of what content on your site is actually driving customers to spend money.
You may also wish to run targeted online marketing campaigns, such as pay per click (PPC) and/or social media ad campaigns to directly advertise your business. These campaigns are particularly useful when you are just starting to develop your online presence, because you only pay for the traffic you actually generate. Popular examples of this type of online marketing strategy include Google AdWords and Facebook advertisements. These forms of online advertisement make it a simple task to monitor your ROI, but you still have to put in the effort to do so. Keep careful track of what online strategies are directly driving growth and you will be able to define your online marketing strategy and avoid unfruitful investments.

Social Media Marketing

Social media platforms aren’t just good for running advertisements – although that is one great advantage. With the ability to target local or national customers through advertisement, you can even boost your traditional business in the local market without ever making a sale online. It is more difficult to measure ROI when it comes to online advertisement driving new business, but that is a difficulty inherent in most marketing campaigns. With online marketing efforts, you at least have one side of the equation in the way of analytics tracking. In addition to running scalable, targeted ads through social websites, many businesses also choose to use their content distribution as a place to promote sales and marketing efforts. This helps drive consistency within the business and allows you the opportunity to share information about promotions and products with the people you already know have an interest in your business. Many brands have also enjoyed great success running online giveaways and contests. There aren’t many limits to what you can do with the right social media presence, so be creative and take the time to analyze the results. Social media can actually drive sales in very tangible ways, if you put mindful effort into it.

Ecommerce and Online Sales

Perhaps the most traditional and direct method of driving revenue online, ecommerce involves the direct sale of goods or services via your website. Some businesses are run entirely on online sales, while others only use their web presence to drive traditional sales, without ever exchanging a dollar online. Ecommerce comes with its own particular set of challenges, not the least of which is the infrastructure required to safely transfer and store your customers’ personal payment information. There are countless services that offer services, from the most basic online payment platforms to comprehensive platforms that include support. If your business plans to support an ecommerce platform, you should spend the time to determine what your needs and budget are and take great care in selecting a provider. Your budget may have an effect on what ecommerce platforms you can use, but you needn’t sacrifice security or ease of use for price. There are free, but basic, platforms like PayPal that can start you out at no cost at all, while still ensuring that your basic needs are met.
There are challenges that will affect your business’ day-to-day efforts as well, not the least of which could be shipping and logistics. The internet opens your business up to customers across the globe that otherwise would never have fallen into your sales funnel. This is great for driving sales, but it also necessitates that you develop a global shipping policy from the start. Can your business afford to ship worldwide? Ever the optimist, you should also plan for expansion. Think about what could happen if you experienced a sudden influx of new business. Are you able to scale up to meet growing demands; and if so, how quickly can you do it?

Recruitment and Employees

Part of the benefit of taking your business online is that it suddenly becomes possible to do much more, much faster. While this is great news for your business, it may also mean that you have to rethink the way you handle employees and vendors. With the ability to do more and more business online, you may find yourself doing business quite differently than you have in the past. Your volume, hours, clientele, and even your employees may change with this landscape. If you’re a small business, you may not have had much need to bring in outside help before, but in entering the uncharted waters of the web, the need may suddenly arise. Make sure you know how your online presence might affect your business, and more importantly the people who run it on a daily basis.

Working Remotely

As many as 3.3 Million people telecommute at least part-time in the US alone, and this trend of working away from the office is far from isolated. Even if you don’t plan on hiring a stable of remote employees any time soon, you might find yourself doing more business away from your traditional workspace. You’ll likely find yourself checking email from your cell phone or working on your website on your laptop at home, and so will your employees. First and foremost, you should make sure that all devices you have that may access sensitive or personal information on have been properly protected with anti-virus software and password protection, just in case the worst happens. If you have employees, you will need to determine a telecommuting policy. It’s up to you what that policy will detail, but you can bet that you’ll have cause to address it before too long, as working remotely continues to gain popularity.

Social and Online Recruitment

The advent of social media has essentially revolutionized the way recruitment is handled. This is great news for growing businesses, as they now have access to a talent pool who, much like their customers, they might not have been able to reach offline. Whether you’re seeking a contractor or a full-time, dedicated employee – or even if you think you might at some point in the future – it’s a good idea to establish online recruitment strategies early on. This might mean building and maintaining a dedicated careers page for businesses with high turnover or multiple needs. On the other hand, it could be as simple as scouring LinkedIn for a very specialized candidate just once or twice. Whatever your business’ talent needs prove to be, you should be proactive in learning what resources will be available to you. Online recruitment can connect you to professionals across the globe instantly, and you may find a lot of use in turning to your established web presence when it comes time to start recruiting.

Hiring and Contracting Online Services

Unless you just so happen to be developer, SEO expert, cogent writer, and have the hours free that it will take to build and maintain all of your business’ websites and social media accounts, you’re going to have to contract help on some things. From selecting an appropriate web host to finding someone to develop SEO optimized content, there are specialists for everything. The volume of business you do online will determine much about how and who you hire. For instance, if you are just looking to get your business online, you may hire someone to write the content for it on a one-time basis. However, if you plan to include blogging and social media posts to your online strategy, you might wind up hiring a permanent person to develop content for your business – or tapping an employee to take on the responsibility.
You should take the same approach to selecting providers for your online services. If you don’t plan to make frequent updates to your website, you probably won’t need much help – just a single point of contact or the info you need to update your content when necessary. On the other hand, if you plan to continue growing your website over time or to make frequent edits, you should have a dedicated web developer who can be available as and when you need them.

Summary

The benefits of taking your business online are well established, but the biggest takeaway should be need to approach the web with a methodical and thoughtful approach. It is necessary that your business comes first throughout the process, and that everything you do to bring your business online is aimed at the singular goal of driving revenue. Without a consistent approach, you can wind up wasting precious time and resources on unproductive campaigns and the online equivalent of wild goose chases. However, with time and a well thought out strategy, your business stands to connect with clients and customers from around the world and to drive business, both online and locally.
The first steps to building a web presence involve putting down the building blocks for a website and social media accounts. Even at these early stages, you should be keeping your business at the forefront of your mind and seeking to create synergy and consistency between the two arms of the company. From there, it’s important to note how all aspects of your business can be integrated with – and improved by – an online strategy. Providing world class customer service is no longer just for multinational corporations. Through vendors and online outlets, you can provide live, comprehensive assistance for your customers, and even gather insights on their behavior and experiences.
Your sales and marketing efforts can also be well integrated to your online strategy. While some online marketing may be done as a standalone effort, it’s also a best practice to promote your traditional marketing campaigns through your online and social outlets. By measuring your returns through simple, integrated analytics tools, you equip your business with everything it needs to develop increasingly effective marketing strategies in the future. You may even wish to take sales online, perhaps tapping into a global market your business has never before entered. While this presents a very unique set of challenges, the rewards can be well worth it.
Lastly, you must consider the profound effect that your online strategy will have on the most important component of your business – you and your employees. No matter what stops you pull out in developing a web presence, the people who run a company, along with the goods and services they offer their customers, is what makes a business successful. Make sure you take into account how taking things online could change the nature of your working life. Leveraging the online global marketplace can give your business new reach into employee talent pools, but it may also necessitate the addition of vendors who can provide online services for your business as it continues to grow.
In the end, it is your business’ unique needs that will shape your online strategy. No two companies are identical, and while some strategies may work for the majority, there is simply no one size fits all solution to online presence. With foresight, research, and an ongoing effort toward continuous improvement, you can make the most of a very rewarding marketplace, without sacrificing time or money unduly. Don’t be afraid to get creative and to try some new approaches, but be sure that everything you are sinking your time into is aimed at providing tangible results to the business. If you can master this approach, then you may find great success in the online space. This success is hardly isolated, however, so be prepared for the impacts that an online presence might have on your business – both the good and the more challenging. Your customers are already online, and you can rest assured that your competitors are as well. Make sure that you aren’t losing out on new business, and that you continue to remain relevant and vital to the customers and clients who have helped make your business a success up to this point. Gone are the days when word of mouth alone could make a prosperous business. You will find that the rewards are well worth the time and effort.