Should A Small Town Business
Have A Website?


by Tom Egelhoff

I stopped for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants recently. I usually take advantage of this time to catch up on some reading. Forgetting to bring something with me I picked up a copy of our local Mini-Nickel®. In your part of the country it might be called the PennySaver® or some other name but it's mostly ads for cars, boats, property or folks that have something to sell.

As I looked through the issue I did what I usually do, look at the ads and see how they are done from an advertising and marketing standpoint. As I looked closer I began to notice that many of the local businesses had web site addresses.

I suppose the natural Internet response is, "What does a local small business need with a web site?" "It's not like they're going to do business in Switzerland." Then it hit me. We are so conditioned by mass media advertising that the internet is only composed of high profile companies that average a million hits or more per day.

The internet is just one more weapon in our advertising and marketing arsenal. What's wrong with using the internet to reach your target audience of 5 to 10 thousand people. You don't need millions of hits per day to put your business in cyberspace. And, for what the internet can do for you far outweighs the expense. Let's look at the reasons why...



Does Your Business Belong On The Internet?

Once again we keep coming back to one of the principle reasons for this site. Small towns are not the same as big cities. Let me give you some common questions "experts" ask when deciding whether a business belongs on the net. And the reasons why, in some cases, they don't apply to small towns.

Printing Costs: Many large companies send out tons of paper in the forms of brochures, reports and other printed materials. Most small town businesses are just trying to keep the doors open and rarely have a large printing budget. The net can make sense for many small town businesses because you can put a full color brochure and tons of information that would cost a fortune to print and mail.

Customer Service: One of the great things about small towns is that people take care of problems in person. You go down to the store or business and in many cases you'll talk to the business owner themselves. Large companies want to cut costs by eliminating personal contact because a live person is expensive. If someone can be directed to a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page instead of to a live person then the company saves money but loses a customer contact. If you're Microsoft and receive thousands of calls then that might make sense but it doesn't in a small town. I would prefer to take my problem to the owner and in most small towns I can. I would not recommend virtual customer service instead of personal customer service in a small town.

Direct Mail: If you are already selling your product by direct mail then the net might make sense in certain instances. If you aren't but think you could then do your homework. You may need additional credit to increase your inventory. You certainly have to become knowledgeable regarding post office mailing regulations and costs. You need a return policy as well as customer security of credit card information.

Here again the small town plays a part. If you are a small or home based business and you try to compete with direct mail houses you are going to lose. Unless you have a very unusual product that is patented or very difficult to copy. Direct mail houses know every trick in the book. They are always going to be cheaper and are going to be able to advertise more than you will. We have had at least one store here close its doors and sell exclusively on the net. Usually they are the exception, not the rule.

Keyword: Can your business be described by a single word? In a small town it may or may not matter. Why? Because you may not need to reach the whole world...just your part of it. The name of your business may be well known in your county but unknown to the rest of the world. Who cares. They aren't your target market. If you're a car dealer you probably aren't going to sell many in Afghanistan.

Direct Sales To Customers: This is the first one I totally agree with. If you sell direct to local customers you can give your business a boost by being on the web. Customers don't always trust salespeople initially. A web site often gives customers a since of comfort and confidence about your business. After all you are willing to go to the expense of putting your company name and reputation out there for all to see.

These are just a few of the things you should consider before jumping into cyberspace. I'm sure you've probably heard others.



Small Town Web Site Advantages

The internet isn't for everyone. There are some businesses that can really improve businesses while others don't see much in the way of increased business. Here are some of my reasons for small town businesses to consider a web site.

There is no other media that I'm aware of where you can produce 4 color information about your business so inexpensively.

It re-enforces the credibility of your business. It's hard to find a Fortune 500 company advertising on network TV that doesn't have a web site address in the ad. Having a web site often gives the impression of a quality company. Even people who are not on the net will have a higher level of respect of your company.

You can provide company history, products, services and testimonials that provide a way for new customers to find out about your company quickly and easily.

No other media can be changed so quickly. If you need to react to something your competitor's are doing you can do it in a matter of seconds.

Use other media to direct people to your web site. For example, you don't have time to list all sale items in a radio ad but you can direct listeners to a complete list of sale items with pictures on your web site.

Each day more and more people are tuning to the internet to find products and services. You can research prices, services and companies with more information than any yellow pages ad.



Small Town Web Site Disadvantages

There are a lot of positives of small town web sites but there is also a downside. Here are some reasons to think twice before going on line.

Cost: The more you can do yourself the better it is. I do my site myself and that saves me quite a bit. Internet Service Providers will charge $30.00 to over $100.00 per hour for site design and maintenance. However in many small towns people are creating terrific web sites as a home based business and may be far more economical than similar services in large cities.

Internet Access in your community: In the Gallatin Valley, where I live in Montana, there are about 60,000 people. According to local studies 77% of that 60,000 has internet access either at home or at work. If you are in a rural area with low internet activity it may not be advisable to have a web site. You would be better served to advertise in other media.

Time: If you want to have a quality site and maintain and update it yourself that is going to take some time. I spend about 30-40 hours a week maintaining this site. Reading, research, searching and creating pages and keeping things as current as I can.

Legal: With a web site you may be dealing with credit cards. You will need a policy to insure your customers security. On my secure order page, credit card numbers go directly to the bank and not my site. I never see a customers' credit card number. If you are shipping products you will need to become familiar with both mail order and postal laws. You will also need a way to deal with returns and ways for customers to reach you if they have a problem.



What Does It Take To Make A Local Web Site Successful?

After checking the advantages and disadvantages you have decided a web site might be for you, here are some things that will help you make a successful local web site.

If I were to say Amazon.Com what item comes immediately to mind? Right...Books. Amazon.com is probably the largest online book seller. But if I had asked that question in 1994 you would have probably said a river in South America or a very tall jungle woman.

The point of this exercise is that Amazon went to great lengths to make that name synonymous with books. Can the same thing be done with a small town website? Yes, and the good news is... it's even cheaper as a rule because you have fewer people to reach and more ways to reach them.

If you are already advertising your business then it's a simple process to add your U.R.L. (Universal Resource Locator) web site address to all your current advertising. Business cards, letterhead, delivery trucks, answering machine should all carry your web site address.

Start networking your sales area. Meet as many people as possible and let them know you have a web site. Have business cards made up introducing your site and pass them out and put them in every local bill you pay every time you pay it. If you're not a member of your local Chamber of Commerce then join. Groups like this are a great way to make contacts with people who can help grow your business.

Make sure you include your email address in all advertising. This is an easy way for customers to request information after hours.



Some Things To Consider Before Going Online

First and foremost, is your competition there? What kind of site design do they have? What services and products do they offer? How are you the same? How are you different?

Your online presence is going to create an expense until it begins producing additional paying customers. Redo your business and marketing plans to address this new option and create your online marketing strategy. What are your online objectives? Are you going to be informational only? Are you a "virtual storefront?"

If you are planning a web site that requires updating on a regular basis you are going to have to budget some time to accomplish that. If you are going to have your ISP (Internet Service Provider) update your site then you are going to incur some added expense for that service.

An excellent way to attract and keep customers is with a email newsletter that customers can sign up for on your site. You send them important information about your companies products or services on a weekly, monthly or even quarterly basis. People are always looking for information about various industries and you have a never ending supply of information from associations and trade magazines that you use in your business.



Things To Remember About The Look Of The Site—Site Design

Navigation of the site should be simple and easy for the viewer. This site has over 200 pages and you can go anywhere on it in four clicks or less. Make sure the "home" page is easily accessible from anywhere on the site. You can also give customers the option of "text only" is they have older systems and don't need the graphics and other bells and whistles.

A fast loading page is imperative. If the customer doesn't see something happening on the screen in less than 15 seconds they are likely to leave. If your page loads slowly talk with your Internet Service Provider and see if they have any suggestions about speeding up the loading of your pages.

Photos sell. So does color. Make sure photos are clean and clear. Use a professional photographer whenever possible and let them know the finished product will be on the net. Try and resist being your own photographer. The worst offenders of this "rule" are Bed & Breakfast sites. I rarely see good photos on these sites. Remember, you are showing off your business. This is not the place to cut corners.

You have a certain theme or look for your business. You may have company colors, typefaces, logos and other ways for customers to recognize your business. Don't forget to carry these over onto your web site.



The Last Word On Small Town Web Sites

There is no question that the internet is going to have an impact on the world economy in the coming years. The fact that you are here now proves that. Whether the internet will be beneficial to your business or not is any ones' guess. You are the only one who can answer that question.

One deciding factor may be that if your competitor is successful on the net you belong there too. How do you know? Few people will leave a site up if it's losing money or they are unable to tell that it's paying it's part of the advertising budget. If your competitor is online month after month it's usually because it's producing income.

The other deciding factor may be that each day more and more people are turning to the net to research products and services to buy. Often a search on the net is faster and certainly has more information than the yellow pages.

Is the net for you? It's your call.


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