Tending Your Garden

Mmmmm Harvest... - Fort Collins, Colorado
Creative Commons License photo credit: gregor_y

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of speaking about websites at the monthly Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting.

While it’s not exactly opening for the Stones at Madison Square Garden, it’s an honor because it’s a group of mostly local business owners whose success is important to me.

I was asked to talk on the subject “So, Ive got a website…now what?”

While it’s a valid question, it’s not how I want you to be thinking about your site. See, a fair number of business owners think about their site as “Something I gotta do” rather than something that is part of their strategic efforts to win business.

Please don’t do that.

Your website (like your advertising, hiring, etc) is not a checkbox that you mark off and have done forever after you’ve finished it the first time.

Your website, like those other things, is like a garden.

Be the Farmer

When you have a garden, it requires a process to start it and continued maintenance to help it produce.

You till, you plant after the last frost, you water, you weed, you chase off the deer and rabbits. After doing those last few things all summer, you enjoy the harvest before the first frost (mostly). All of these things happen on a schedule.

Your business is no different. You perform various activities on a schedule because it’s strategically wise to do so.

You don’t plant a garden and then walk away from it for months at a time and come back expecting it to feed you. Likewise, you shouldn’t expect that of a website. Both require strategic thought and upkeep.

What to plant?

Let’s back up a little though… In your website garden, what do you plant?

Would it help to consider the roles you want your site to serve?

Depending on what you do, your website may carry a heavy burden that makes it seem an impossible task. Don’t let that stop you from starting a site.

You might have to start small and incrementally expand the roles it fills.

Some possible roles…

  • Brochure. Far too many small business websites stop here.
  • Greeter
  • Customer service department
  • Order processing
  • PR person
  • News source. What’s new. If you havent changed your site’s content in 5 years, what does that say about your business?
  • 24 hour answering service
  • Reservations agent
  • Waiter
  • Maitre D
  • Marketing dude
  • Trade show booth

How well does your site fill these roles? Did I miss any?

The toughest question facing many small business owners is “What should I put on my site?”

Why do people call you? What info do they need?

If you look at the roles your site serves, the questions and answers become obvious. You deal with them every day.

Weeds

A big mistake I see made with small business websites is that they are created and then ignored (or close to it).

You wouldn’t do that to a garden…why would you do it to a strategically important part of your business?

You wouldn’t ignore a client at your doorstep or on the phone, so why do it online?

Some example weeds include…

  • A site that offers no way to interact with a visitor or let them contact you.
  • A site that fails to give visitors a reason to come back regularly.
  • A site whose address (URL) isn’t included on your other business materials, signs, vehicles, brochures, business cards, etc. I shouldnâ??t have to mention this but I STILL SEE it.
  • A site that doesn’t offer information to help the customer get more out of their investment at that business.

Curb appeal

Most people don’t care so much about their garden’s curb appeal, unless it’s a flower garden.

How are you presenting the information your site’s visitors want?

Think about describing your favorite national park to a friend.

  • You can write a description.
  • You can talk about it.
  • You can show them photos.
  • You can show them videos.
  • Or you can take them there.

Which has the most impact?

While the last one is ideal, it isn’t always possible, so aim for the next best thing.

It’ll depend on what info you are trying to convey, but short videos are likely the most powerful.

The impact difference between text  vs. photos and video is substantial. The investment is cheap. Most people won’t have to invest in a fancy camera and software because their cell phone will capture photos and/or HD video. Some of them will upload directly to YouTube (etc).

Critters who visit

Mobile browser use continues to grow like crazy. How does your site look in a mobile browser?

For some people, it doesn’t matter all that much. In the last 10 months, our chamber website has had only 150 visits by mobile browser users. The reasons are obvious because of the type of info a chamber site contains and the content sought by typical site users.

Your site might be exactly the opposite. If I had a restaurant, motel or tourist attraction, I’d be sure my site worked well from mobile browsers so that people could use it from their phone while traveling. If your site is one that would be used frequently by a person on the go, failing to have a mobile-friendly site is like putting a fence around your garden to keep the bees out during the bloom.

Location, location, location

Location-sensitive mobile web applications (Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places, et al) are growing in lock step with mobile browsing.

Taking advantage of them is a great idea…unless your garden has been neglected and overrun with weeds. Until the site is in tip top shape, your time is best spent on making the best possible content available to your visitors given the roles your site serves.

Even if you don’t take advantage of location-specific mobile applications, there are several location-specific things your site should address. Is there a map to your business? Is your business registered with Google Places? (formerly Google Local) If you’re in a tourist area, how close are you to big ticket items? What can you help them enjoy? How hard is it to find out all the stuff a visitor wants to know? How hard is it for them to make an online reservation?

Pests

All over TV and elsewhere, you see businesses referring to Facebook-based web pages.

While it’s OK to have a Facebook page for your business, I don’t recommend that its the ONLY site you have. Keep in mind that your Facebook page is also yet-another-garden to tend. Don’t spread yourself too thin or the weeds will take over.

So…how’s your garden doing? Is it primed for a great harvest?

Hi, my name is TriFold Brochure. Not.

The primary message / goal / mission of this blog is that you and your business need to create a more personal connection with your clients.

To that end, someone asked me this morning about the website work that I do. We talked briefly about the technology (because that someone was a technical person) but the really important thing to talk about is the conversation you want the site to have with the people who visit it.

To your existing clients and those who already trust you, your site can be a channel to elicit conversation, to keep folks up to date on what’s new in your business and how you can help them.

But…you have to get them from “Hi, nice to meet you” before that conversation makes sense. Otherwise, it can feel like spam or an unwanted telemarketing call.

Nice to meet you

To everyone that you’ve never met or who hasn’t yet got a reason to trust you, your website is an introduction. It’s a way to expose to them what you do, what you think, what you have in common, perhaps personally and professionally but more importantly mindset-wise.

How would you want a client, friend or partner to introduce you to a prospective new client or business partner?

How would you want to be introduced to someone who has needs that are a *perfect* fit with your best skills and deepest expertise?

How would you want to be introduced to someone who already has the trust of 614 people who would greatly benefit from what you do?

What conversation about you would motivate the perfect prospective client feel the need to contact you immediately?

Is your website doing these things?

Scoble learns what Kennedy’s been telling us for years

That is, Design matters, but not nearly as much as you’d think IF your content is strong.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a slam on Robert, it just is.

What is “it”?

Content, but not just *any* content. Relevant content.

If you have it, the rest is a bonus. If you don’t, the rest is lipstick on a pig (hey, I promise this is a swine flu free blog).

Read more about Scoble’s design discoveries after he “VGA’d” his blog in today’s guest post.

A slight edge to improve your website’s contact page and calendar

This morning I got a note from Keith Lee at American Retail Supply in Seattle regarding our contact page discussion about Scouting.org from earlier this week. He mentioned that his site’s contact page includes directions to his retail locations.

That’s a simple idea that can save you and your clients a lot of time.

Let me put the cherry on top: Add a Google map showing where your business is located. Give them a page that can be printed that includes both – without all the other baggage your site has.

If you have a calendar of events on your site, speaking engagements, or what not – add clickable iCal links for them.

Those links will allow your customers to click them and automatically add them to your phone’s calendar, your Outlook or whatever calendar tool you use.

Message received: “DONT CONTACT US”

As you might be aware, I’m the Scoutmaster of a local Boy Scout troop here in Columbia Falls.

I’ve been involved as a Scouting volunteer in numerous forms for about 20 years, at levels as low as you can get, and as high as a VP on our Council Executive Committee.

As a result, I have a pretty fair knowledge of the organization, and I know where to find info when I need it.

Earlier this week, I decided to call the National office of the Boy Scouts of America in Irving to ask a few questions.

Normally, Scouting officials expect folks to ask these questions of the local council office (ours is in Great Falls), but the questions I had were of the nature that the local council office couldn’t possibly answer them.

I should note that the local Council President, the Scout Executive (paid position, similar to Executive Director) and most of the Executive Committee are friends. I know when they won’t know the answer to a question I have – and this is one of em. Enough background, now the story.

So, I moseyed over to Scouting.org (the BSA’s national website) and got one message loud and clear.

Is anyone home?

The message being sent by scouting.org: DONâ??T CONTACT US.

The main page of scouting.org has no phone numbers on it. No postal address. No physical address. No map to the National Scouting Museum or to National HQ (both in Irving).

There’s no “Contact us” link or contact page. There is a link to find a local council office (ie: Ask them, not us).

Even in the area where it gives direction for someone applying for a job (I am not) all they offer is a PO Box for the 4 regional offices. No fax, no phone, no physical address.

So I broke down and did a search. The results?

  • Search the website for “Irving”…. you’ll find no hits.
  • Search the website for “National office” or “national headquarters”… you’ll find no hits.
  • Search the website for “scouting museum”… you’ll find no hits.

If you dig around and end up on scoutingfriends.org, youll eventually find an email form and a PO Box for Irving. But still, no phone number.

If you wanted to contact the national office for something of national consequence – such as giving them a bazillion dollars, becoming a major sponsor of the National Jamboree, calling the Scouting museum to make a donation, or simply to ask a question that a council office absolutely CANNOT answer (in my case, I guarantee it), you are out of luck unless your message is suitable for US Mail.

The girl’s got it

By contrast, girlscouts.org has a contact us link at the bottom of the main page, which takes you to a page with a mailing address, physical address, a phone number, a local council office finder tool and email contact form.

There is always a silver lining when stuff like this happens. In this case, the silver lining is that I have a new question for my Communications merit badge students: “Look at scouting.org and tell me if you can see anything wrong with it, Communications MB -wise.”

It’s easy to forget the simple things. Your customers want to talk to you. A “Contact us” link is one of those simple, essential, first impression things.

Taking the kids – and your website – on a long road trip

Today’s guest post is from Jill Whelan of HighRankings.com.

Jill describes a nice parallel between the preparation necessary for taking the kids on a long road trip (vs having them cry) and the symptoms your website uses to tell you what a crying child is trying to tell you.

It’s a good read, go check it out. Your website will thank you.

Insulating yourself from disaster

Late last week, a friend of mine’s website exploded.

More accurately, his webhost’s electrical room exploded and caught fire and took down NINE THOUSAND servers with it.

Because my friend knows these things happen, he was well prepared for it.

He had backups in place. He had an alternate server in place and in more or less the time it took to switch a “Go here” sign from server A (the exploding place) to server B, his site was back up for the most part.

Meanwhile, all 9000 servers are still not back in service after 4 days.

Some of this is their fault, and some is not.

The fire department wouldn’t let them run their backup generators, which is ultimately what forced 9000 servers (and no doubt hundreds of thousands of web sites) offline, but physical damage to the facility would have made that a moot point as they later found.

When the fire department had finished their work, the generators were started, but failed. More delays as a new generator had to be brought in and installed.

Now the generator is up but each of 9000 servers has to be started manually and then checked to make sure it is working. And some of those are going to be problematic because of destroyed cabling on a lower floor.

Imagine if you had your e-commerce online store on those servers. Maybe you’re Brad Fallon and your $750k a month wedding favors online store has been down for a week. A week to Brad is almost $200 grand, and remember, he has a pile of employees and warehouse space to pay for. Can you afford that kind of hit?

Redundancy is an expense AND an investment

The real issue here is a lack of redundancy on the part of The Planet. My understanding is that they have 5 different data centers, yet it appears that they are simply 5 standalone data centers that do not replicate each other.

Ironically, their blog talked about redundancy and recovery from catastrophic events just a few short (pardon the pun) weeks ago. Ironic?

While the expense of redundancy at that level (estimates are that they have 50,000 servers) is substantial, exactly how much do you think it will cost them because they didn’t have that redundancy in place?

It should be noted that they do offer a backup server service, where you get the main server and a backup server (presumably in another location). Wonder how many of those will get sold this month?

So how many customers will this cost them? 9000? 900?

I doubt we’ll ever know, but let’s put on the speculation hat and take a look at the math.

If it cost them 10% of their customer base at that location (900 lowest price dedicated server accounts), at the lowest service level, that’s a loss of $80,100 PER MONTH.

What about future customers who will find out about the explosion and the lack of redundancy and decide to go elsewhere? Pretty hard to measure that. After only 4 days (probably far sooner), there are Google AdWords ads on the net for the keywords “Houston webhost” (and probably others) that suggest “moving off of The Planet”. Their competition isn’t going to let this go away.

And what does this have to do with you?

Are you as well prepared as my friend was?

  • What happens if your web host provider explodes tonight?
  • Do you have backups?
  • Do you have a plan in place – or at least the knowledge – to move your site elsewhere and restore backups to that location in a timely manner?
  • Do you know what kind of redundancy your web host offers? Some have duplicate systems in other locations, some do not. Some do backups for you. Some do not. All serious web hosts have power protection in the form of battery backup systems and generators.

What doesn’t matter to you: The Planet’s problems. There are plenty of other good web hosts out there if you need one.

What does matter to you: How does an event like this affect your business when those problems occur? How many customers do you lose because your systems are unavailable? How many new customers give up after you’ve spent X dollars to get them to your site in a mindset that is ready to buy?

With that in mind, spend some time thinking about what makes sense regarding an investment in redundancy. Then take action.

What do I do for my sites and the ones I manage?

Weekly – I have automated server-level backups taken. They are downloaded to a server here in my office in Montana (the web server is in Michigan). They are then copied to a high end RAID-5 network addressable storage (NAS) drive in my office. All of this happens automatically.

Daily – SQL databases on my web sites (and my clients’ sites) are backed up to a different web server, and in the wee hours, they are downloaded to a server here in my Montana office. They are then copied to the NAS drive mentioned earlier. All of this happens automatically. In addition, all web programming and images here on my main development machines is copied to the NAS drive on a nightly basis. Automatically. Finally, those same items are copied to a laptop (yes, nightly and automatically) so that if my office and the server in Michigan decide to explode, I have the laptop as a last resort.

What’s next? I am in the process of establishing a second web hosting center account so that these automated backups can be pushed to that server so that I can quickly switch to the new site in the event of a disaster, without having hours of restore-from-backups time. Even though the backups are automated and kept current, the time to restore them can be critical for some accounts.

These are the kinds of processes and situations you need to be thinking about.

Don’t depend on someone else to protect your business assets. Let them, but make sure you are covered by things within your control.

These events would likely bury a lesser-prepared competitor. Handled properly, they will make you shine even brighter as the expert in your market – even if your market isn’t tech-related.

Related info: Lessons learned: Think like a fire marshal.

Sticking a fork in restaurant websites

Though I haven’t mentioned it here in a while, my series of columns in the Flathead Beacon about local websites has continued over the last couple weeks. It’s on topic here as well, so let’s elaborate on it a bit further than I have space for in the Beacon.

Next week’s column takes a look at local restaurant websites in my area.

One thing stands out here, and thatâ??s the chains. Most all of the franchise restaurant chains have corporate-managed websites that are well done. But weâ??re not here to help them â?? they have plenty of help already.

What you can do is look to them to see what to consider when putting your web site together. Things like menus, a map to your location (pleaseâ?¦), whether or not you do catering, what meals you serve (ie: do you serve breakfast and lunch only?)

One example was a restaurant between Columbia Falls and Kalispell that I happen to like. Their site is simple, isnâ??t much eye candy-wise, but it touched on the essentials for a 3 or 4 page restaurant website.

It talked about their location (included a graphical map), their phone number, their address, their catering info (could have been more complete), their hours, which credit cards they take and the facilities they offered. This site could easily be completed in an afternoon. No, itâ??s not as fancy or as complete as it could be but it is what is absolutely necessary.

Slow cooked Angus sirloin, local asparagus, truffle butter sauce
photo credit: irrational_cat

They didn’t bother to go into great detail on the food, the special ingredients they fly in from coastal fisheries, their use of local game, organic local vegetables, custom processed meats and local seasonings, the romance of their massive fireplace area, the expertly trained staff, the menu, special occasion bookings, private dining rooms, banquet and special occasion services, their expert sommelier (not sure if they have one), the chef and his/her training and experience, and so on (those are all hints, if Iâ??m not being obvious enough).

No testimonials. No photos. No video. Cooking is an experiential thing. Video and photos are critical.

Butâ?¦their site achieved an important goal: to provide basic information needed to contact them and go there for a meal.

The unfortunate thing is that many local restaurants had no site at all, and that included those who also offer catering.

Iâ??ve gotten some good feedback from previous posts on this topic, including a great phone call from a reader in Kalispell whose input I will include in a later post on the subject.

Someone told me they felt that not all businesses need a website. Sorry, but I have to disagree.

Even if all you do is put up a one page site with your location, hours and a map, that is far better than nothing. You wouldnâ??t likely open a business and not have a phone. You wouldnâ??t skip on printing menus in your restaurant. If youâ??re a consultant, attorney, CPA or other service professional, you wouldnâ??t blow off printing business cards.

Not having even a one page website is equivalent to not having a phone or a business card.

Even if your business is busy and doesnâ??t need more work right now, you need a website. Everything has ups and downs. The time to dig the well is before youâ??re thirsty.

See all those kids running around with cell phones? They wouldnâ??t use the Yellow Pages unless you forced it on them. It wonâ??t be long before they are your 18-35 demographic group.

If you donâ??t have a website, to that group of people, you donâ??t exist.

Kids these days know that they can text â??59937 mexicanâ? to 466453 (ie: G-o-o-g-l-e on your phone’s dial pad) from their cell phone and get back a list of Mexican restaurants in Whitefish Montana with their phone numbers.

Le digo yo
photo credit: fluzo

Did you know about that? This feature isnâ??t limited to searching for restaurants. Where do you think that data comes from? A Google search, of course.

But it isnâ??t just the young adults who use the web these days.

One of the phone calls I received about websites was from a self-proclaimed â??older personâ?. She had some great feedback about what is important to make a site usable for people who arenâ??t 29 anymore. She doesnâ??t want to be ignored when she uses the web. Neither do the 18-35 or 25-55 groups.

What demographic can you afford to ignore? Most businesses canâ??t afford to ignore any of them, but there are exceptions. Not having a website is ignoring at least one, maybe more â?? especially tourists. They research what they plan to do using the internet.

Do you want to be on their radar, or not?

Woopra web analytics: Mom, I take it all back

Over the last few weeks as I (im)patiently waited for Woopra approval for this site’s URL, I said a few grumbly words in the middle of the “Why is it taking 3 weeks to get approved?” kinds of sentences.

Finally, I got notice of approval last night.

With that, I have to say: Mom, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean it.
It took a few hours to get some results worth viewing in Woopra, but when they came in – holy moly.

It takes a moment to get used to the serious eye candy in the interface (which isn’t a supermodel, but for a screen, it’s pretty nice), but then you find some pretty cool stuff  – including customizable visitor behavior alerts.

More on this in a future post, but I just had to say – this thing is pretty cool. If you study your site’s visitor behavior (and you should), it’s worth taking a look at.

Locals grumble about real estate websites too

Several local people mentioned the real estate post from yesterday at last night’s CFHS Speech and Debate State Championship celebration.

People who had never said a word about the blog before. Surprised me a little. Avast mayteys, we’ve got lurkers!! 🙂

Anyhow, I got a lot of “No kidding” and “Why don’t they do this?” sort of comments out of it. I think I hit a nerve with a couple of em. They were downright grumpy about it.

Grumpy attacks
photo credit: Jere Dow

The “Why don’t they” comments were common-sense stuff.

Things like this:

  • Why can’t I search the available listings by school district?
  • Why can’t I search the available listings by subdivision?
  • Why can’t I get new business listings sent by text message to my phone?

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So…what about your web site?