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Moving Your Company Online (Part 2)

Designing your site
Realize that the design and development of your Web site will never be truly complete. Great Web sites evolve over time just as new products are created, new markets are developed, and new business strategies are launched. These ongoing changes should be reflected in the content and presentation of your Web site.

Abstract ideas and flights of fancy meet the real world of technology during the design stage. This is also the point where your team will debate features and functionality vs. speed to market. This stage is critical. You’re developing a set of software that models your business’ best practices and exposes those practices to new and existing customers. The better your initial designs, the better your customers will receive them.

Consumer Benefit (Why buy on the web?)
The content of your site should compel your customers to buy on the Web rather than through traditional purchasing mechanisms. Therefore, you should create additional benefits for those who order electronically. Take the time to build your consumer benefit story. Think about what makes customers buy your products. Remember, every electronic order you take streamlines your business process and drives costs out of your supply chain. These results will be magnified as you build sales volume on the Internet. These principles are the same for business-to-consumer and business-to-business sites. The ability to attract your largest purchasers to your site with improved service will reinforce their customer loyalty.

Integrate your processes
Not long ago, Web sites were developed as stand-alone applications. To be successful today, your Web site must interact seamlessly with all aspects of your business, including writing and reading information to and from your customer database, inventory, and accounting applications.

Your site should leverage all sales information such as available inventory and promotional pricing. These systems must be able to share data and move transactions between the Web site and your back office applications electronically. The Web is quickly becoming the way companies want to deploy mission-critical applications. You must leverage your investment in your existing internal systems to enhance the experience you provide customers over the Web. Integrating your Web storefront to your back office financials will encourage increased profits, productivity, and data integrity. It will also decrease the time staff has to enter data from the storefront into multiple applications and the chance someone will make a mistake or duplicate data entry.

What’s your risk?
Security concerns frequently cause companies to delay or postpone their Web commerce plans because they imagine the worst. The best way to determine your company’s Web security needs is to evaluate your risk. What kinds of controls can you put in place? Some commonly perceived risks include:

–  Lack of security for personal information,
–  Fraudulent use of credit cards, and
–  Fear that hackers will be able to access your business data.
–  If you can identify the risks involved in taking transactions over the Web, you’ll find that the benefits often outweigh the risks. Keep in mind the benefits of electronic commerce when determining the level of security you need to secure your site and maintain usability. There is a definite trade-off between security and ease of use.

Scalability is important
Electronic businesses have access to more than 75 million potential customers. Your site, your systems, and your applications must be able to be scaled to meet the constantly increasing number of Internet users. This requires hardware, bandwidth, and software solutions that can begin small and grow quickly. Build the flexibility you need into these systems to handle a large number of page views and transactions. This will enable your Web site’s growth to be congruent within your financial controls.

Who’s involved in development?
Web site development requires the involvement of your internal systems team or an outside consultant. The development of a corporate Web site is an evolutionary process. The nature of the Web demands that sites grow, change, improve, and reinvent themselves regularly, which means that ongoing design, development, and testing are mandatory for success. A company’s key individuals must be involved. These are the people who must formulate a direction that will separate your site from the multitudes.

Take a test drive
Once your initial Web site is complete, put it through a rigorous evaluation. The initial design team should verify that their ideas have been incorporated successfully. Ask key end users (customers, salespeople, and marketing personnel) to review various components. If you test every part of your site as though you are a real user, you may find things that may be making your site difficult to navigate and other areas where users are becoming confused or frustrated.

Test your site to ensure that it meets required levels of performance and scalability by visiting it through a wide range of Internet browsers and connections. Evaluate its speed by benchmarking concurrent user counts. Testing can be a large initial investment, but it can pay huge dividends by detecting problems before you go live. There are a number of software tools available that can help you with Web site testing.

What products should you sell?
Your product selection may be a subset of all of the products your company produces or distributes. When Web shopping first became popular, the most successful products were commodities like books and compact discs. Now the list has grown to include complex products such as computers and routers. Your Web commerce strategy should complement existing storefront and/or catalog sales strategies.

Distributing your product may also become an issue. Many products can’t be sold over the Internet because of specific geographic distribution agreements with channel partners. This can be a challenge for some companies and a golden opportunity for others. If you want to establish market share quickly, a Web-based sales strategy will yield faster results than the traditional distribution channel.

What about advertising?
How do you measure the success of Internet advertising? Some companies are developing sophisticated advertising management software applications solely for this purpose. You should plan to spend your advertising dollars on campaigns that result in a large number of visits to your site. There are many ways to achieve low-cost advertising on the Internet. You can trade advertising banners with another site, for example. Integrate your Web site and your URL into your brand strategy, and include your company’s URL in any print or audio marketing and advertising materials.

Customers won’t buy what they can’t find. To make your site easy to locate, register it with all the popular search engines, and make sure your URL is similar to your company or product name. Customers would rather enter a URL than search for a specific site. The URL you select should be short, easy to remember, and convey important company or product information.

Run product promotions
Product promotions on your Web site will encourage customers to revisit. To attract business to your site, promotions must be creative and specific to the Web-buying audience, but they are possible only if your site is integrated with your back office business applications. The complexities in pricing and companion promotions can be significant, so you should address them before you implement a promotion calendar if your site is tightly integrated with your internal business applications.

Managing your site
Site management is critical to the overall success of your Web site, but is often overlooked during the initial development process. Your ability to manage your Web site, to take orders in a timely fashion, and to exceed customer expectations will be the true test of how well you planned and executed site development.

Maintenance is critical
How tightly your site integrates with your existing systems will determine how much time you need to spend on the day-to-day operations. When you design your site, focus on your existing business applications. This integration makes it possible to add new items, remove exiting items, and change key item pricing information through your core business applications. You’ll have consistent product offerings, pricing, and business practices from your Web site to your traditional order-taking systems. An integrated process for orders taken over the Web will drive down your maintenance costs.

What kind of analysis will you perform?
Before you build your site, explore how you plan to analyze its performance. To consistently improve your customers’ shopping experience and provide the type of compelling content that will generate sales, you must analyze what you’re doing almost daily and check out competitors’ Web sites to see what they are offering customers.

Examples of the type of information about your customers you’ll want to capture include profiles on your customers, products they’ve purchased, times they’ve visited your site, and much, much more. The ability to identify high-value customers and provide preferential treatment is the hallmark of any good business, whether it’s on the street or on the Web.

Once you’ve analyzed your site, business managers can build rules that match customer behavior with relevant product offerings and advertisements. Moreover, you’ll be able to quickly respond to or anticipate changes in product availability and pricing and recast promotions to meet business needs.

What enhancements are necessary?
As we’ve said, your site will be constantly evolving. Your ability to make regular enhancements is critical to gaining a competitive advantage. Use your customers and your employees to identify ways to improve the user experience. Good analysis will prove invaluable.

Also, changes in Internet technology will continue to affect the availability of bandwidth and the types of features you can implement. Think about a time when bandwidth will be virtually free. Then brainstorm about the products and services you will provide. This era isn’t that far away. The use of video, audio, conferencing, and other delivery mechanisms is being refined continuously. To compete, you’ll have to embrace these technological advancements.

Did we miss something?
We’ve covered a broad base of issues for you to think about. It always seems like there are more questions than answers, more problems than solutions. The good news is that as technologies and business processes become commonplace, we’ll see a rapid growth in their adoption and a rapid reduction in their complexity. Businesses like yours will be able to spend their time and money creating the consummate site, rather than maintaining a modest Web presence. The dollars earmarked for Web site creation and maintenance will be used in more creative ways that enhance the customer’s experience.

Addressing these issues will enable you to determine and allocate the appropriate resources for your company’s Web strategy, enabling your company to achieve the greatest return on investment from your Web experience.

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