Why a Website is Important to your Marketing Plan

(And how to keep it affordable)

I'm still surprised by how many people operate a small business and do not have a website. The U.S. is a high-tech country, and while word-of-mouth and referrals are still very important ways to get new customers, having an online presence has become almost mandatory. When people search for products or services online, they're not just looking for ways to purchase online. In fact, according to searchengineland.com, "59% of consumers use Google every month to look for a good local business" and 14% use Google almost every day to locate local businesses.

This jump in local searches is partly due to the major increase in the number of mobile phone users over the last few years. 77 million people (about 1/3 of all mobile subscribers) use their phones to search for local companies on a weekly basis (this data is also from searchengineland.com). People love being able to carry the internet around with them on a smart phone and search for things instantly. The question is, when the internet returns search results back to someone, is your business included? (And, is your website mobile-friendly? - this is a topic we'll discuss another time.)

Sure, you could take some time to make sure you are listed on a variety of directory sites and local search pages - in fact, even if you have a website you should still make sure your basic business and contact information is spread around to different pages (Google Places, Yahoo/Bing Local, Mapquest.com, Yellowbook.com, Citysearch.com, etc). About 25% of web users will go straight to these types of sites rather than just searching Google, since they believe they'll get to the info they want in fewer steps. Many of these sites will list your company for free, so it only makes sense to use them, and yet less than 40% of businesses have claimed their spot on these local listing sites. There are other specific sites you may want to be included in, such as Yelp.com, because being listed with them means you're also listed on their mobile phone Apps (smart phone users love Apps!). You can also keep your current customers informed through social networks like Facebook, which should cost you almost nothing, except maybe an hour of your time per week.

(Side Note / Shameless Plug: For those of you who live on the south side of Des Moines or are looking for businesses and things to do in the area, please visit the site I designed and help maintain - www.southsidedesmoines.com. Created with the input of "southsiders" for other south siders, the site hopes to encourage people to buy local and take advantage of local events, and it's a good site on which to be listed for this area.)

Of course, even if many people use these types of sites to find local businesses, they still only get the basic information about you. If you have a website, you can often include your web address as part of your contact info, and when someone wants to learn more about your company they can click to visit your website instantly, which gives them a reason to continue learning about you and less reason to just move on to your competitor. Even if you're getting your name to the public with TV, radio, or print advertising, people still want to know more about your company, and they often want to be able to research your product/service on their own time. By directing people to your own website, you give them the opportunity to learn more about you while controlling the way this information is presented.

So there you go, some reasons why a website is an important part of your marketing and advertising plan. Now the best news: designing and maintaining a website can also be one of your least expensive forms of advertising, in terms of time or money spent on it. You could spend a few dollars per month for a basic web hosting account and try to build the site yourself. This isn't recommended, however, because what you save in dollars will be eaten up by the many more hours you'll have to spend learning to create and update the website. Plus, the result will never be as good as your competitors' websites, since they will have employed the services of a professional designer and will be benefitting from the designer's experience in many different ways. You probably wouldn't try to create your own TV ad, since the result wouldn't be professional enough to give people a good first impression of your business. The same rule applies to websites.

Even hiring a professional web designer doesn't have to cost a lot, though. Many companies only need a handful of pages on their site to start, which can cost as little as $500 for the initial design. Then once your site is up and running, you may find that it doesn't cost that much to keep it updated. Every site will have annual fees to keep the rights to the domain name (such as www.example.com) and secure space where the files for the site are hosted. These costs usually add up to less than $100 per year ($8/month) unless your site needs specific features which take up more space or need certain kinds of servers (e-commerce sites, for example). If you want to advertise online, you'll have additional costs, but we'll go into that in more detail another time.

Finally, since Google and other search engines give priority to websites which are updated regularly, you'll want to have your web designer make changes and updates to your site at least on a monthly basis, and set up ways to track how well your site is performing, but that probably won't add up to more than a few hours of their time (maybe $100-150/month). At OGara Graphics, we do this type of work all the time, even if you had someone else create the initial design for your website - contact us for more info. If that sounds like a lot of money to update the site regularly, you can always pay more up front for a site with a Content Management System, which allows you to make some of the updates yourself without the help of a professional designer, but many people are too busy to actually get around to updating their site, so sometimes it pays to just keep your web designer on retainer so they can take care of this for you.

And, of course, these are all standard business expenses which can be written off when you do your taxes! Check with your accountant to be sure, but the federal government realizes the important role your website plays in your business, so they should consider most website-related expenses to be "ordinary and necessary". Many companies file these expenses under "marketing" or "advertising". So, when you're figuring out your marketing budget this year, consider creating a website or re-designing your current site as part of your overall marketing plan.

Matt O'Gara
Owner, OGara Graphics

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