By Judy Vorfeld
In much of America, when you walk into a store for the first time, you generally do so because it's attractive, clean, has professional signs, and good parking . . . but you still need to be persuaded to make a purchase.
Does someone greet you with a smile and ask if you need help, or do salespeople avoid eye contact as you enter? Does management display merchandise well, or leave boxes stacked up in the aisles? Can you read the prices easily, or do you need to pop out your Sherlock Holmes Magnifying Glass?
When you pick up a mail order catalog for the first time, you also want to know you're using a reliable company. Does it offer clean, clear graphics and text? Do the prices and shipping charges seem reasonable? Do they offer a toll-free phone number? What about a return policy?
Many local businesses, chain stores, and catalog enterprises have years of experience and a great deal of time and money invested in their reputations and products . . . merchants running businesses on the Web find a number of slightly different challenges.
With numerous technological tools combined with free, often expert advice, Web business owners can move steadily toward the time when they can begin making a profit. They are discovering what local business people already know: it takes time to create a business plan, obtain capital, then find the right support team to help put together and maintain a solid business. They understand the need to advertise, network, market their businesses and themselves.
PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER. Some Internet business owners have yet to learn the value of effective presentation. Of themselves Those who want to be taken seriously may be wise to provide some type of a picture of who they are and what they believe.
CREDENTIALS. Would you search the Internet for a professional (e.g., CPA, coach, psychologist, attorney) and, upon finding an attractive Web site, plunk down your hard-earned money without checking that person's credentials?
Why not offer a business profile or resume, and/or an About Us area? This helps interested visitors know you better. Mention community involvement, such as service club membership and volunteer work (school, church, nonprofits, etc.). Note professional affiliations . . . hobbies, if they would help people know you better.
TESTIMONIALS. Along the same lines: integrate testimonials (or comments about your site, product, customer service, etc.) onto your site. This isn't bragging . . . it's good business procedure. Be creative. When someone e-mails you a valuable comment, ask if you may use it on your Testimonials page. When designing the page, provide a link to their sites, and include their logo, if they offer one.
Many of the most successful businesses, regardless of size, are known for their commitment to the community: local, national, and/or international.
GIVE. When people create Web sites offering tutorials, tips, articles, discussion boards, ezines, etc., what are they really doing? Giving. You can, as well. Many of us don't have products to give away in contests, or the funds to buy promotional items for giveaways. But you have courage, intelligence, and ingenuity, or you wouldn't be trying to start a business in cyberspace. Take those qualities and come up with something.
Find something that grabs your interest, perhaps a hobby, a celebrity, an author, a subject of some kind, and set about creating a page that will be your gift to visitors. Example: let's say you love poetry, but you don't write poetry. Why can't you set up a page of links to the most expressive poetry sites on the Internet? Scour the Internet for just the right ones. Or maybe your hobby is collecting buttons. Can you create a page of links, and scan some buttons to use as graphic bullets on the page? The list is limited only by your imagination (or your ability to brainstorm with others!!).
This unique gift, then, becomes another part of your business portrait. In my case, I have little to give away but information. I provide tips and carefully chosen links for people wanting information on writing, grammar usage, learning, site design, and site marketing. Actually, I do give away business-related books and now have a free ezine template (along with a tutorial on how to create an good ASCII ezine).
A distinguished visitor to my site said, "Your site demonstrates what I consider an important principle, one that applies to both commercial and non-commercial websites: in the long run, people will prefer sites that strive to be of some direct use, sites that actually try to 'give' something, to all those sites that mainly keep irritating visitors with a bombardment of blaring ads."
One last note on giving. Not everyone can give more than they are already giving in their lives. This includes time. If you have no extra time, that's okay. Don't waste time fretting. There is no magic formula for operating a successful Web business . . . just lots of ideas that seem to work . . . but not all at the same time, or on the same site.
If you say nothing more than, "We never use our visitors' e-mail addresses to spam, and we never divulge our visitors' e-mail addresses to anyone," you'll have made a powerful statement. Especially if you keep your word!
BECOME ACCOUNTABLE TO A GROUP. Consider affiliating with a group of ethical Internet professionals who will hold you accountable for your business ethics. There are some excellent organizations that require ethical business behavior of their members. Some will only accept an application after they have carefully studied the applicant's site.
Membership in such a group speaks volumes about you. You reveal that you are willing to have a third party involved if a dispute arises in the process of running your business. Hopefully this statement will register with those you want for clients or customers.
CONCLUSION: The above suggestions, if implemented, won't necessarily make or break your Internet business. They're not all vital . . . but they may be valuable.
For more information on how to build a solid online presence for your small business, contact Judy Vorfeld