Generating a Higher Return from Your Web Site

Sandi SmithGenerating a Higher Return from Your Web Site
Presented by Sandi Smith, CPA
President, Sandra L. Smith, P.C.
Contact Sandi at sandi@sandismith.com

August 23, 2001

Visit the AccountingWEB Workshop Calendar for upcoming sessions.


Summary

You can read the complete transcript of this workshop.

You should be receiving a return on your Web investment. If you're not, something could be wrong with your site. So many sites have not lived up to their potential because Web designers and businesses were not certain about what was going to work. This workshop helped participants zero in on what works on the Web. Sandi Smith discussed how a Web site can be profitable for a company, how to employ diagnostic techniques to find out why one may not be as profitable as it could be, and how to implement ongoing measurements to evaluate a site's future effectiveness.

Workshop topics included:

  • Common Web Myths and Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
  • Design and Content Ideas and Tips
  • Implementing Procedures to Work the Web
  • Creating Measurements to Evaluate the Web’s Effectiveness


August 23, 2001 Session Sponsored by: National Payment Corporation

National Payment Corporation


Workshop Transcript

Session Moderator: Welcome everyone and thank you for joining us today! I'm please to introduce Sandi Smith, who will be presenting a workshop on how to generate a high return from your Web site.

Sandi Smith helps people achieve their potential and grow their businesses through best-practice technology solutions. Her 18 years of experience include information technology leadership in Fortune 500 companies as well as small business management.

Sandi's technology solutions focus on simplification, geek-free language, streamlined operations, and bottom-line business results.

Sandi has advised over 10,000 people through her technology consulting services, conference sessions, and numerous publications. She has authored four books, dozens of articles, and several seminars.

Welcome Sandi!

Sandi Smith: Hello everybody

First of all, I'd like to thank our sponsor, National Payment Corporation, for sponsoring this workshop today. I'd like to also thank the AccountingWEB staff, including Kelly McRae, for having me today. Our topic is "Generating a Higher Return from your Web Site."

In this workshop, we'll cover a brief history of Web sites, talk about myths and common Web design and marketing mistakes, and present some tips on content and design. We'll explain some basic online marketing procedures to think about and implement.

Michael Horrocks: I hope this is aimed particularly at accountants' websites?
Sandi Smith: Definitely, Michael.

Sandi Smith: And we'll talk about measuring your Web investment through e-metrics. We'll also take your questions throughout this workshop.

The first thing that I'd like to cover briefly is to talk about how in the last five years Web site development has evolved.

After I do that, I'll talk about some mistakes I am seeing specifically in accounting web sites.

I just reviewed almost all of the "B" firm web sites. Those are the top 100 sized companies in accounting.

If you're an accountant in industry, this workshop will be useful as well.

Specifically the part on metrics and making sure you can measure return on investment.

A lot of the things I say are useful for any industry.

Devon Palmanteer: What is the average size of the "B" firms?
Sandi Smith: Devon, I believe these firms have 50-100 employees, but their web site budgets don't look anywhere near that in many cases.

Brief History of Web Sites

Sandi Smith: At first in the early and middle 90's, the Web was this new technology invention that no one really knew how to use. The "early adopter" advantage was strong then.

There were lots of stellar small business successes. After the Web caught on in the late 90's, mainstream and new businesses built Web sites, but many of their approaches defied good business logic.

CEOs had to have one because other businesses had one. They didn't care what went on them; they just wanted one. Other CEOs hired young people and even their own teenagers to build and manage the company Web site without sufficient supervision or direction.

The stock market encouraged a gold rush mentality and fueled somewhat delusional spending for a while. Everyone wanted a piece of the magic.

In summary on the Web history, businesses spent a lot of money on Web site technology without regard to the way a normal company asset should be acquired or managed.

Now we are up to today. We've learned some business and technology lessons about what works and doesn't work. However, most businesses have yet to apply what we've learned.

This could just be that it's hard now to get budget for Web site spending.

Common mistakes and myths of Web sites

Sandi Smith: The first section I'll cover falls under the broad category of what I call "wrong content."

One of the most common mistakes out there is that most Web sites accidentally create lots of hurdles for their clients or potential customers to have to climb over in order to get even the most basic information.

For example, we see firms putting up huge Flash files before you even get to the home page. Let's take a look at this from the Web visitor's perspective for a minute. The Web visitor, at this point, doesn't even know if the firm is right for his or her needs.

If the prospect put in some keywords in a search engine and found your site that way, s/he doesn't even know what type of business you're in or what services you offer yet. Therefore, why should s/he hang around and watch a low-content, high-bandwidth Flash file?

I guess that the firms that put up these splash screens think they are doing some low-content branding, which is a good thing to do. But I don't think the home page is the right place or time for it.

I do think Flash is fun when used in the right place on a Web site.

But the trend right now is toward less graphics.

Session Moderator: Are there specific types of graphic files that load faster than others?
Michael Horrocks: small ones!
Sandi Smith: Yes. And there are tricks you can do in the HTML to make sure your page loads fast.

Sandi Smith: It's important to examine the business reason for using graphics. Not to use it just because it's cool and a programmer wants to code it.

Graphics can create a huge wall the prospect has to climb over just to find out who you are.

Speaking of finding out who you are on your web site, here is an example of what not to do.

I do CPE training video on technology topics for the AICPA, and periodically, I have to find guests for these videos.

On one search, I visited a Web site where it took me three clicks to find out whether they were a CPA firm or not. I didn't invite that person to be on my video. This is one example of how your Web site can actually be hurting your business if it's done wrong.

The first page should have the firm logo and a tag line, such as "Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants."

Other firms have slogans, such as "More than Bean Counters" or "We Count You In" or "A Bottom Line Business." Well, anyway, I am making these up, but you get the idea. These types of phrases should be on your home page so the user can distinguish the type of site and firm that you are.

We've also learned how annoying those blinking objects are and most firms are avoiding those items. These were overdone to an extreme level at the beginning, but are still overdone today, primarily to get your attention on one portion of the screen.

On the user end, study after study has shown that users want their pages to download quickly. On the maintenance end, we've learned a lot about how labor- and server-expensive a graphics-intensive Web site is to maintain.

Michael Horrocks: like the advertisement at the top of this page!!
Session Moderator: Thank you Michael for drawing attention to today's sponsor!
Sandi Smith: And I do appreciate sponsors. This is free information we can all benefit from because of our sponsor. So my graphics comments don't really apply to advertising.

Sandi Smith: There is no need to give up color completely: color can be done in other ways in the HTML code without having to create any graphics.

One more mistake about graphics is posting poor quality graphics. If your firm is a quality firm, your Web site can hurt you if you put up a fuzzy logo or cheap-looking clip art.

So, in summary about talking about graphics, graphics are a huge barrier for a prospect and many of the more successful companies have eliminated or minimized the use of graphics for a while now.

Brian Falony: Can you give some examples?
Sandi Smith: Brian, you can use color boxes by coding in the HTML. You can use GIFs that are sized and edited efficiently.

Sandi Smith: Let's talk about another example of wrong content that is more important than graphics.

I have seen only one firm do this right.

Another example of wrong content is a Web site that is focused on the firm. A Web site should not be all about your firm.

I'm sure some of you are saying, "What?" If it's not about the firm, what's it about, then? Well, to me, the Web site should be all about the prospect who will eventually use the firm's service or otherwise contribute to a profit center of the firm.

So the Web site is about what the firm can do for the customer. This is a subtle difference, maybe, but it generates completely different content that what most people have on their sites.

It can be very powerful to switch your perspective from yours to your customers'. In other words, put yourself in your customers' shoes and try to anticipate what will meet his/her needs in relation to what the firm offers.

When a Web site is designed with that approach, it's highly likely to be profitable. And it will break down those barriers that I was talking about above.

You can tell a customer-focused Web site when you see one. It has a lot of "you" statements. It talks to YOU, instead of talking all about the firm. A good writer with some marketing experience or direction can really make a difference in attracting customers.

And that brings up a pet peeve of mine since I am a writer and a common mistake, especially on accounting Web sites. Most of the copy is not professionally written or edited, and it shows.

If a CPA has a grammar or spelling error on his/her Web site, do you think it's reasonable to conclude that s/he'll make a math error on the tax return? As a prospect, that's where my mind goes.

We'll cover one more common mistake, then we'll start talking about what to do instead of what not to do.

The last common mistake we'll cover is not asking the interested Web visitor to take action of some type. This is in the category of not having actionable content.

You have to somehow capture the lead, drive the prospect toward the firm's profit center. If you don't do that, your Web site will never pay back.

One indirect example of this I am seeing frequently is not having detailed enough service descriptions, case studies, client lists, and white papers to further explain (but not give away) your services.

This type of content allows your potential customers to make an informed decision about whether to do business with you or not.

There are about 150-200 things that I like to cover with you but unfortunately we don't have enough time. Hopefully, the items we cover in this workshop will help you to become more discriminating about what to look for when hiring a Web design firm.

Devon Palmanteer: What about providing too much info, i.e. too much text to read?
Sandi Smith: Yes Devon. I agree. It's really hard sometimes to be succinct, but a Web page format forces you to.

What To Do With Your Web Site

Sandi Smith: Now, let's focus on what to do with your Web site. What to put on it.

Before you even code one line, I recommend to clients to determine what goals they want their Web site to meet. Do they want to increase business on a new service line?

Do they want to sell a product? Do they want it as a passive marketing device? Do they want cold leads that can turn into new business?

Do they want to improve their third party credibility? Exactly what do they want? Once I know this, I can design pages that drive qualified visitors to the firms? goals.

The first Web page, or home page, is very important. You must communicate many things all at once.

At a minimum, you should have your logo, company name, tag line that quickly and clearly describes the business you're in, why you're unique and/or your approach which should include what types of customers you can handle, and third party credibility (press, memberships, credentials).

Also, very important, your Web site will want to convey the personality or culture of the firm (not the Webmaster).

Is the firm friendly and approachable? Industry-specialized and expensive? Business-oriented instead of individual-oriented?

The prospect needs to find out if there is a fit. If you don't narrow it down, you'll have all sorts of inappropriate prospects coming to your door and wasting both your and the prospects' time.

You have about ten seconds to woo a prospect. The prospect needs to see on the first page: what can this firm do for me, am I a fit/will I belong here, and if I'm interested how can I get started.

The best Web pages attract qualified customers and deter unqualified ones. This makes the best use of everyone's time.

A good overall approach to Web site design is one of balance. You are balancing and blending the best of many disciplines: marketing and technology are the most obvious ones.

But there are many more considerations: usability, business profitability, graphics design and aesthetic aspects, the communications aspect, metrics, competitors, the level of client education and awareness, back office processes and capabilities, data capture and privacy, and security.

Somehow you must put together a team or hire a team that contains skills for or takes into consideration all or most of those facets. You can see how a lot of Web sites are lopsided, having been unfavorably influenced by one or a few of the considerations that should be there.

For example, if a graphics person did it, it may very well be graphics intensive. If a technologist did it, it likely won't have the marketing focus it needs to appeal to the customer and may be hard to use.

If a usability person did it, it may be too stark. If the back office staff does not get involved, it may lack interfaces and be too static to meet the business's needs. And so forth.

Some firms that are not committed to their Web sites should probably take them down completely. If they are not willing to make a committed ongoing investment, then it's likely they'll have a two-year-old design out there that is actually hurting them.

You do have to maintain and update the site in order to keep customers and continue to attract new business. For one thing, the Web has changed. And you have to keep up with the subtle Web cultural things or you'll look not cool. Your site won't look like it ROCKs.

Implementing Procedures to Work the Web

Sandi Smith: By procedures I mean having a marketing plan and doing what you need to do to get noticed by people and to get some qualified traffic.

This includes executing a number of items for both an online marketing strategy and offline marketing strategy.

The most common mistake I find here is where Web designers have completely ignored the marketing aspect and have forgotten or simply omitted telling their customers about this. To me, this is akin to printing the brochure but not delivering it.

Although a Webmaster may feel it's not his/her responsibility to deliver the brochure after it's been printed, the medium is so new that I feel there is at least a client awareness step that should take place to let the customer or Web owner know that this step needs to be done.

There is content that has to be placed in the HTML code on each Web page in order to set it up to be found by the search engines. Then there is work that has to be completed with each search engine.

Search engine placement has evolved to an entire industry in itself, and contrary to what the vendors would want you to believe, you don't have to pay a search engine fee to get in the big online "phone books” or the search engine directories of the Web.

If you do this step right, your Web site can generate qualified cold leads or sell your product while you sleep. It happens to me all the time.

Another important area to cover is lead collection on the Web site. Not every Web visitor will want to make a phone call to do business with you, but may want to stay in touch with you.

If you offer expensive consulting services, you know the sales cycle can be a long one, sometimes. It may be years before that customer matches up your service with his need.

The online equivalent of keeping this customer on your mailing list is to offer an e-mail newsletter, which means first that you'll have to collect the e-mails.

Then, perhaps quarterly, or even every six months, you can send out a short e-mail that contains links back to your Web site of news or new articles or whatever would benefit the recipient.

It's just another way to keep in touch with the client, keep your firm name out there, and help them to remember you. If they don't remember you, I can guarantee they won't be calling.

Session Moderator: Any suggestions for collecting the e-mails?
Sandi Smith: Yes, I just started using ListBuilder, a Microsoft owned company. It's the old (no longer free) Listbot.

Sandi Smith: There are several more online marketing steps that should be done to publicize the Web site. These depend on the type of business you have and the goals, so I can't go into them more specifically here, but these steps would be included in an online marketing plan that would be executed over time.

How to Create Measurements to Find Out How Your Web Investment is Doing

Sandi Smith: When people ask me how many hits my Web site gets, I don't really know and I don't care anymore.

This is a big switch for me from the 1996-97 time frame, when I took quite a bit of trouble to design this elaborate Microsoft Access database to bring in the raw hits data and manipulate it.

I could tell you how many hits I was getting from certain e-mail addresses at companies, what time of day was the peak, which pages got the most traffic, and almost what everyone had for breakfast.

But the problem with hits analysis was the counts don't really tell you anything about effectiveness (unless you sell online ads and I didn't). They only tell you about volume/quantity.

The relevant measurement should have been: Am I getting out what effort I am putting in? Or in other words, was it getting me business? That's the only measurement that matters if profit is your goal.

So I have shied away from asking how many hits and replaced that phrase with how much bottom-line business is being generated from the Web site. This is a tricky measurement, but can be captured with some diligence.

You'll want to measure cold leads turned into business ("I saw your Web site and was wondering?.") as well as how many times the Web site was one of several factors in deciding to do business with you.

You may have met a lead at a cocktail party and directed him to the Web site, where he got the phone number and called you the next day. This business counts in the payback of the site.

You can become very scientific about the measurements of metrics, or you can simply wing it if your firm is a small operation. For example, you can set up several formulas to measure visitor actions.

Let's say you have a splash page, despite all of my protests above. You can measure the skip rate of your visitors: how many people clicked the Skip Intro link divided by how many total page views.

The higher the percentage, the more you should agree with me and get rid of the Flash video, at least on the splash page. A measurement like this could be inaccurate due to computer illiteracy. Some people might not see the Skip Intro link or know what it does.

Factoring these types of things in, however, you can use metrics at numerous points to justify design changes to gain a higher return on your Web site investment.

If your firm is a small operation, it may be okay to work off of gut feel rather than set up a number of these Web formulas. But the outcome is the same: you'll want to put a procedure in place to measure your investment.

Sandi Smith: Now I'd like to see if you have any questions about any of the subject areas I covered.
Sandi Smith: Did I answer fully the questions you had earlier?
Michael Horrocks: Can you give any more examples of measuring site returns?
Sandi Smith: In accounting, we have profit and loss statements. On a Web project, you can do the same thing.
Sandi Smith: Michael, the company should be generating more business from a Web site than it is costing them to maintain it.
Sandi Smith: Michael, for a great source to read more about metrics specifically, NetGen is the thought leader in this area.
Sandi Smith: In September, an employee of NetGen will be my guest on an AICPA video I will be doing about the topic for the profession.
Michael Horrocks: Is that netgen.com

Andrea Sparks: As a marketing person in an accounting firm, it's hard to track what business you get from the website. How do you get the partners to let you know if the website is being an effective selling piece. It's not so easy to measure. I think a website is one piece of the marketing/selling process and might not necessarily get credit for the sale.
Devon Palmanteer: Andrea, We do a new/lost client report and ask the partners to identify where all new clients come from. It's not perfect, but it gives us an idea.
Sandi Smith: Andrea, your question is related to metrics as well.
Andrea Sparks: Devon, we do that as well, but more often than not I think the partner might say they just got a phone call. I guess I need to make sure the partners are asking if they've visited our website
Sandi Smith: In marketing, companies have ways of measuring their return on each sales project.
Sandi Smith: Let's say they do a direct mail piece. They'll know how much it costs and how much business they generated from it.
Sandi Smith: But you're right Andrea, It's not easy to measure.
Sandi Smith: A Web site will generate both active and passive marketing contacts. Somehow both should be measured.
Sandi Smith: The very start of it is when you get a new customer, find out how s/he heard about you.
Sandi Smith: Put a procedure in place like your report you mentioned.

George Weiss: Any additional specifics on "actionable content"
Sandi Smith: Yes George. Actionable means directing that prospect to doing business with you.
Sandi Smith: Actionable means when you have described your service on a Web page, don't stop there.
Sandi Smith: Give the prospect contact information a phone number, an e-mail to call for more information.
George Weiss: I thought you were referring to interactive features... any suggestions?
Sandi Smith: George, interactivity may or may not be what the prospect wants. I see a lot of firms that have calculators. I wonder how much they are used.
Sandi Smith: I would want deadlines, IRS keep me out of trouble info, don't know if calculators are what I really want.
Sandi Smith: Gets back to being in the customers' shoes.

Michael Horrocks: You mentioned a website that "Did it right" Can you say which one it was?
Michael Platt: Yes, I would like to also know which site did it right!
Sandi Smith: The firm in Florida that I feel has a good web site is www.kaufmanrossin.com

Sandi Smith: I've enjoyed being here today, and I hoped you have picked up some money-making ideas for your firm. Feel free to contact me via e-mail if you have other questions or issues you'd like to touch on if we didn't cover them here. It's sandi@sandismith.com

Michael Horrocks: Would you be willing to give a quick review of any of the listeners' websites?
Sandi Smith: Feel free to e-mail me and we'll talk one on one since we're out of time.
Michael Horrocks: OK Thanks

Session Moderator: We really want to thank Sandi for today's presentation, and thank all of you for attending today! We'd also like to thank National Payment Corporation for sponsorship of today's workshop!
Sandi Smith: To wrap up the presentation portion, I'd like to thank our sponsor, National Payment Corporation, for sponsoring this workshop today. I'd like to also thank the AccountingWEB people, including Kelly McRae, for having me today.
Sandi Smith: Our topic has been "Generating a Higher Return from Your Web Site."


Biography

Sandi Smith helps people achieve their potential and grow their businesses through best-practice technology solutions. Her 18 years of experience include information technology leadership in Fortune 500 companies as well as small business management. Her technology solutions focus on simplification, geek-free language, streamlined operations, and bottom-line business results.

Sandi has advised over 10,000 people through her technology consulting services, conference sessions, and numerous publications. She has authored four books, dozens of articles, and several seminars. Accounting Technology magazine named her one of the top 10 technologists of 1998. She is a CPA and earned an MBA in information technology management.

An avid traveler and adventurer, Sandi has circumnavigated the globe twice, once copiloting a tiny, single-engine airplane. Having traveled to 78 countries to date, her goal is to reach 100 countries in the next five years. When asked to name the coolest place she's ever been, her reply is Antarctica (groan).

E-mail: sandi@sandismith.com
Web site: www.sandismith.com


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