Tune-up time for your Web presence

You've worked hard on your Web site -- does your Web site work equally as hard for you and your company? Sure, the site churns out pages and it registers e-mail addresses for the company newsletter like there's no tomorrow. Streaming video, RealAudio, QuickTime movies -- all the niftiest multimedia technologies work like charms.

But what about the business value of the site?

A Web site may have no technical glitches, but that's not to say it works well for your customers. And in the final analysis, how well a Web site works for your customers has everything to do with how much value it adds to your company.

Back when you begged senior executives for money and resources to build and maintain a Web site, perhaps you wrote a compelling brief about the wonders of the Web. The executives liked what they heard, particularly the bit about dovetailing the power of a Web site with the latest corporate strategic direction to open new markets and create new services. Since then, you've discovered a hundred and one new things your site can do such as expanding your brand or facilitating electronic commerce. But are they the right things?

If opening new markets and creating new services is not in keeping with the board's current desire to consolidate operations and cut costs, it's time to reassess the purpose of the Web site.

The goals of the corporation and those of the Web site have to head in the same direction. Once they do, it's time to figure out tactics. The first question to ask is: Are your Web projects as good for your customers as they are for management?

For example, suppose your corporate mandate calls for reducing costs by 20 per cent. You offer self-service order applications on your Web site, and in doing so, decrease overhead and inventory costs by the desired amount. In the process, you slice the number of available product options by one-third. Turns out, your customers want both efficient service and selection. It's your job to provide customers with Web services they want while delivering the company goals.

Yet it's essential to remember that your Web site is an electronic representation of your company, but it's not for your company. It's for your customers, prospects, investors and business partners. When it's time to reevaluate the Web site in light of changing corporate goals, ask your constituents what they want from your Web site. The feedback button on your site should always include a "How Are We Doing?" survey, but don't stop there.

Reach out to people who don't have time for surveys. Offer your reticent customers enough incentive so that they will answer a quick question or two via e-mail. A token gift or a coupon good for 5 per cent off their next purchase may do the trick. If that doesn't sway them, send them nice letters and find out what you might offer them that would make it worth their while to chime in.

When customers send e-mail to you, track what's on their minds. This can be done fairly easily by categorising incoming mail into positive and negative "piles", and reviewing them for common, underlying themes. Take a look at the server logs and see which frequently asked questions they read most. Is it a question about the return policy? Then clarify the policy and post it (or a link to it) prominently on the order page.

Another vehicle for gauging customer perceptions is facilitating an electronic discussion via an e-mail list or password-protected area on the Web site. Get your top 10 customers in an electronic round robin and let them hold forth about the value and performance of your site. They'll come up with ideas your Web team would never have thought of and will offer suggestions for services they can't find anywhere else.

It's important to analyse site navigation. Do people seem to know where they're going and how to get there? Or do they wander from page to page? Determine which information most visitors are after and put a link to that information on your home page. For example, if 9 out of 10 visitors wend through five pages of marketing information to get to the product catalogue, create a link to the product catalogue from the home page.

Printing pages is also a form of Web navigation. If you don't have guidelines designed to ensure printability, it's time to write some. If you have guidelines, are your content creators following them? Print a random sample of pages and check. Few things are more annoying to a customer than printing out a Web page only to discover that the text runs off the page along the right-hand margin.

Once you've heard from customers and collected their ideas, direct your attention to how well the company as a whole is tuned in to what's happening -- or what should be happening -- on the Web site. Do the managers who run your company always think of the Web as one of the arrows in their quiver? If not, there's an opportunity for you to educate management about what the Web can do for the company.

The job of educating can fall under your responsibilities as resident "Web crusader". In this capacity, continuously inform the rest of the company about the value received from successful Web projects. Write a column in the company newsletter. Host a Web Day Open House and serve lunch. Spread the word.

At the same time, your job is to keep things well in hand. Sometimes an inspired manager will look at the Web as an all-purpose solution to every problem. Keep in mind that you can't do everything at once and expect to maintain coordination, organisation and direction; achieving common corporate goals requires an ability to set priorities and assign resources to the most appropriate projects.

Of course, you can help to set priorities by seeing what other companies are doing on the Web. Remember when you did that competitive analysis way back when? Remember that great matrix you created that showed all of the features your competitive sites had?

If you updated that more than one quarter ago, it's time to do it again. On the Web, technologies -- and strategies -- change fast.

In conjunction with competitive analysis, you should hold a brainstorming session. Get your company stakeholders in a room and make them leave their mobile phones at the door. Keep the session lighthearted, and encourage attendees to roam. It's an opportunity for tossing out wild ideas and flights of fancy; winnow the wheat from the chaff later when it's time to actually select which ideas will be funded and implemented.

Your final task is to scrutinise how those ideas get implemented. Are your rules and regulations still appropriate? This issue is particularly important if your company's Web efforts -- and the number of people involved in them -- has increased significantly. If you wrote initial policy documents when the Web site was first proposed, it's time to evaluate whether they still do the job. For example, marketing may have pioneered the Web at your company. If so, the existing guidelines may apply only to marketing collateral. Do the guidelines fit for all the different kinds of content -- ranging from press releases to job postings to product catalogues -- now on the site?

If they don't, you need to write new policies that clearly define the corporate code of conduct. Ask yourself a series of questions including the following: Are the right people responsible for the right things? What's the process for approving projects like? Who owns the content? Who evaluates and selects the technology?

It used to be that IS departments wrote a five-year plan every year. Now IS writes a one-year plan every six months. Things change fast on the Web, so it's necessary to get in the habit of reviewing your business progress on a periodic basis.

(Jim Sterne is author of What Makes People Click: Advertising on the Web. He can be reached at jsterne@targeting.com.)

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