The internet is possibly the most powerful communications tool available and with websites costing from as little as £500, one of the most cost effective. It is also fast growing, and as the net’s users double every 100 days, the issue that concerns even the smallest of companies is not so much whether they can afford to have an internet site, but whether they can afford not to.
A website differs hugely from other PR tools. For a start, communications are immediate and operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is also interactive – more so than press releases or advertisements, it offers a real opportunity to respond directly to your customers’ needs.
The greatest mistake is to simply re-create a corporate brochure – this fails to realise the substantial differences between internet sites and other tools of communication. Aim to find ways of adding value to the site beyond basic information. Interactive techniques might include enabling viewers to comment or subscribe to an on-line newsletter. You could also provide additional information such as white papers, research reports, features, statistics or surveys. A website must also differ from a brochure in style – your website is your annual report, sales brochure and press office rolled into one. The home page must cleverly incite interest from a range of audiences, including shareholders, customers, journalists and new employees.
First impressions are important – the visual design should reflect the brand image and the company’s reputation for quality while being clear, simple and uncluttered. A website must be continually updated, as out-of-date links send out a very negative message. The technological design is essential: menus and the site map must be easy to understand and uncomplicated.
Contents of website typically include an ‘about us’ section with contact information and company history; a sales page with an on-line ordering facility; press releases perhaps case studies to draw attention to your expertise, and links to other websites. You might also include a chatroom or something unique – from a tool for making calculations or something amusing and fun.
To promote a website effectively, you will need to buy a URL (a website address, or uniform resource locator) which includes the name of the company. The URL should be included on all branded materials – company stationery, vehicles, uniforms etc. Seek professional advice on search engine optimisation (SEO) to to ensure that your site is easily found by a search engine.
There are various opportunities for advertising on the internet but the most commonly used are classified and banner advertising. Classified advertising can be cheaper than off-line advertising, butbe careful about placing your company’s details as many so-called free advertising sites are in fact devised as a means for people to get hold of email addresses and you may be bombarded with unwelcome emails as a result. Banner advertising is a strip of advertising material on another website with a link to your own site. Clearly this needs to be on an appropriate site, well positioned and capable of making an immediate impression.
You may wish to either take part in or sponsor a discussion group. Providing appropriate subject matter is chosen, this is an ideal opportunity to position yourself as an expert in your field and to gain a good understanding of what your audiences are thinking. If you choose to host a discussion group, however, be aware of the legal implications – in the past companies have been shocked to find themselves guilty of libel as a result of a comment on their website which they did not know existed.
Email newsletters are an effective means of communicating with clearly defined groups. They can be varied in such a way that targeting can be very specific and unlike websites, allow you to reach your target audience’s desktop with messages and timing that suits you. In encouraging a response, you make it easy for the communication to be interactive. You would also benefit from including a link to your website, where further information can be found.
The internet and e-communications, therefore, can offer a wide range of opportunities – marketing and sales opportunities through e-commerce, audience development through sponsorship and advertising, internal communication through email newsletter and employee-only web pages, opportunities for research through chat rooms and on-line surveys and direct communication with journalists through on-line press offices.
Ideally each of these opportunities is already being addressed by traditional forms of communication and therefore is extremely important that your on-line strategy takes place alongside your general marketing strategy. Consider the risks as well as the opportunities but bear in mind that one of the biggest risks you can take is failing to have a presence online.