Starting out online can seem like a massive step both for new and established businesses. The whole process of designing a site and plotting a marketing strategy to drive traffic to it are not tasks for the faint of heart. Given the loaded expectations that the internet holds for small businesses, you could be forgiven for wanting to put your best foot forward when it comes to filling your new website with content.
This is where many businesses go wrong. It might seem safest to feature screeds of information about how successful and accomplished your operation is on your site, but this isn’t what visitors want to see. Any content that appears on your site should be carefully situated to appeal to the needs of those who are most important to your business: the customers.
An online presence that is properly customer-focused will perform much more strongly than one that spends every square inch bragging. The following are some tips on how to make visitors to your site feel as though they’ve come to the right place.
1. Know your customer
If you don’t know anything about your customers or what they expect from your business, you don’t stand a chance of holding their attention for longer than a few seconds online.
“In order to make web design effective, you need to know who you’re designing for and what they want to do on your website,” says Lisa Wade, director of Stamford Interactive. “Often, companies can make assumptions about their customers which might be incorrect. They might assume their users have a particular degree of technical knowledge that they don’t have or that their users will understand jargon more than they do.”
For example, an insurance company’s marketing team may assume that customers know what a premium is or what third-party property is, but the average customer might be completely oblivious to the actual definition of these terms.
It’s also important to understand a customer’s motivations for visiting your site in the first place.
“It might seem really obvious, but when you start to dig a little bit deeper, you can see more questions about the kind of experience that the user wants to have there,” says Wade.
If all an insurance customer wants is a quick rough quote, then forcing a 20-minute online form on them is not the best thing to do.
2. Structure it for them
The structure of a site – the hierarchy of page layers and the simplicity with which a user can navigate through them – plays an important role in how user-oriented it is. Again, it’s important to know what customers expect. The simplest way of finding out how is simply to ask them.
There are a number of ways to learn how your customers classify the various sections and pieces of information that you’re planning to include on your site. Wade recommends writing each proposed section and piece of content down on a piece of card, shuffling them, and getting a small sample of prospective customers (friends or relatives, if need be) to arrange them into groups that they find meaningful.
“What you’ll see is that the user’s approach to the information can be very different from the organisation’s approach,” she says. “A really common thing that we see is that organisations will tend to structure a website around their organisational hierarchy.”
By this, she means business sites are often arranged according to the categories of product or service on offer – the dvd section, the book section, the music section – but the average customer might order the site according to a completely different logic. The card-sorting process is a simple way of figuring out your approach might differ to theirs.
It’s not only important to ensure the navigation makes sense to first-time customers. You also need to anticipate which content they’re likely to find most useful, and lead with that.
“Think about the most commonly accessed pieces of content, and try and make those prominent,” says Wade. “You always want to make sure that you’re not hiding things on your website. If there’s something which 80% of your users always access when they come through to the site, you might want to make it really prominent in the design.”
Perhaps most importantly, try not to confuse the structural design of the site by getting caught up with how it should look. The colours and images should come after the navigation and page hierarchy has been planned out.
“When an architect designs a house, they consider the needs of the family living in the house, and then they draw a schematic outline of the house. Once that’s done, the interior designer comes in and applies the colours and the tiles and all of that sort of thing,” says Wade. “It’s the same with a website. You need to consider your overall strategy, and your overall design [first].”
By the same token, if you’re going to get people to test your site for functionality, it’s best to do so before applying the finer aesthetic details, as these can distract from the process.
“If you’re testing a design when it’s too polished, people can get sidetracked by saying things like ‘I don’t like the blue’, when really what their problem is that they’re confused by the navigation,” explains Wade. “If you address those early issues first and then apply the visual treatment to a strong structural design, you’ll have a much stronger website.”
3. Address them directly
A simple way to make your site more customer-oriented is to phrase all of the content – from writing through to video, if you use it – so that it addresses the visitor directly, in the first person. Instead of writing about your business’s goals, products and achievements in the third person, phrase your content as though talking to a single friend, using personal pronouns like ‘you’ and ‘we’. This makes your message seem more personal, and readers will be more receptive to it therefore.
“It’s more connective. It makes them feel like you’re actually speaking to them, having a conversation with them directly,” says Sheryl Allen, copywriter and editorial consultant. “Some people would argue that takes away your authority – that you can say more about yourself if you’re speaking in third person, but you’re not really talking about you; you’re talking about them. If you’re going to go to the bother of being visible using search engine optimisation and getting traffic to your site, then if you don’t capture them once they’re there, with some sort of connective messages, then you’re absolutely wasting your time with your other effort.”
4. Put the benefits first
It’s not enough to change your site copy to address visitors directly. The topics addressed need to focus on the customer’s interests instead of the company’s achievements and products. Instead of phrasing copy to talk about the specifications of a product or the quality of a service, use it to illustrate how it will benefit the customer.
“Purchase decisions are based on emotions, generally, so connecting to customers’ feelings is the most successful approach,” says Allen. “Obviously, somewhere on your web presence you’re going to put your company history and your background and your experience, but I recommend considering that as secondary information and layering it back through the hierarchy of information.”
Don’t limit the beneficial detail to product landing pages, either. The customer needs to know how your business is likely to solve their problems as soon as they land on the homepage. Anything from the business’s name or slogan through to welcoming copy can be used to appeal to the their desires and expectations.
“For instance, with a financial planner, you might be tempted to talk about your financial products, or how experienced your planners are, but what you’re really selling is aspirational,” says Allen. “You want to talk about how the customer will feel with a well-planned financial future, so it [should be] about your financial confidence and well-being.”
5. Don’t brag
Much of the writing small business owners use online makes the same mistakes corporate sites often make: using precious page space to catalogue the business’s achievements and capabilities. If you feel it’s essential that your site includes copy praising your business, it’s best to frame it in a more forgiving context than your ‘about us’ page. One way to do this is to feature testimonials – written recommendations – from customers that have had a positive experience using your business.
“The holy grail of the online presence is believability – a sense of authenticity makes the customers feel that they belong, that they’re part of a collegiate group, experiencing your brand along with other people,” says Allen. “If they can understand that there are real people with real success stories using your brand, then it works towards creating that sense of belonging which translates directly into brand loyalty.”
Provided the positive comments are genuine and you can back their claims up by replicating the service they refer to, testimonials are a clever way to blow your own horn online.
6. Don’t say too much
Finally, don’t put all the information you can possibly muster on each page of your site. The more cluttered the page is, the more difficult it is for visitors to tell if it’s relevant to them.
“While you want to make certain things prominent, you also don’t want to clutter your page,” says Ellison. “Don’t try to be all things to all people at the same time, because then the page will have too much information on it, and you’ll end up not emphasising anything at all.”
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