Technology: creating a digital presence

Taking your small business online

5 January 2017

Understand what you want before you create a digital presence, advises Peter Haggett

Sometimes the impetus to become involved in something can be so strong that you feel compelled to dive in blindly and hope for the best. You might not be entirely sure what is going on, but other people are and they seem to be getting great results.

For instance, a rather striking renovation in a nearby street can appear to have been easily achieved, but will actually be the result of a lot of hard work. The likelihood is that the owners are still trying to forget the decision to live in chaos while pretending to the neighbours that all is well.

A strange comparison … but it is a useful way of considering the costs and benefits of creating a digital presence for your business. When you eventually stand back and marvel at your creation, it can often be everything you hoped that it would be. Conversely, there is a risk that you will end up metaphorically walking Kevin McCloud through the timbers of your broken dreams.

My point in this analogy is that hard and continuous work is needed to get an effective digital presence. You can reap huge benefits by getting it right, but waste huge amounts of effort if you get it wrong.

The digital landscape

The internet has seen a great deal accomplished worldwide. By allowing the rapid dissemination of ideas and information across vast distances, it enables people to access a remarkable amount of material – but because there is so vast a quantity of data out there, finding what you are after is becoming increasingly difficult, especially given how much of it is essentially useless to most people. This can mean it is very difficult for any new presence online to have a meaningful impact.

Barriers to the revolution in information creation are decreasing in number every day, and are now almost non-existent in the majority of developed countries

The good news is that the barriers to this revolution in information creation are decreasing in number every day, and are now almost non-existent in the majority of developed countries. There are, for instance, various options available to individuals and small businesses that completely remove the need for any coding or extensive technical capabilities. Being able to drag and drop elements on to a page and use modules that have already been built allows you to take more of a building-block approach to making an attractive website.

If you have a small budget and want to put together a professional site with imagery and live contacts, then this sort of tool is immensely useful. Many facilities even have pricing structures that enable small businesses to make free use of their services and create and manage small but professional campaigns and digital products.

Others are likely to incur a monthly cost, but this will be minimal compared to their potential value. Any good site-building tool will allow you to associate a personal domain name with the site you create. At the time of writing (July 2016) there were 1,365 different top-level domain suffixes available to choose from to widen your available pool of web addresses.

Start with people, not technology

Intriguingly enough, the best 1st step to building a successful digital presence does not involve going anywhere near an internet connection, development tools or even a computer. The most important thing to do is talk to the people that you are looking to appeal to – your customers.

Surprisingly, many large companies, small businesses and multinational brands alike, look directly through potential clients and put together a digital presence as they see fit. That is risky, even if you have a clear and innovative strategy; there are many stories of companies that had valuable propositions but did not communicate them properly.

So, ask your customers open and non-leading questions about your online presence and what they want to see from it. Do not take any responses personally; you’ll be surprised how much you learn about your successes and where you can improve as well.

Another vital step is considering what business problems or objectives your website is aiming to solve. It might sound simplistic, but writing these thoughts down on a selection of sticky notes will give you a clearer picture.

Many large and small companies share an inability to look beyond their internal perspective on what drives their business

This also means that the notes can be rearranged, grouped or prioritised according to the relative urgency or effect of their information. Putting them in order means you can match solutions to problems that were not previously apparent. These practices are not just relevant to the initial creation of an online presence – the same is true of any digital marketing campaign that you want to create or maintain.

Many large and small companies share an inability to look beyond their internal perspective on what drives their business. Rather than thinking about what you would want in your online presence, go to the people you meet every day and ask them what they want. You should try to gather as much information as possible: the greater the available data set, the better informed your strategic decision-making will be.

Making the most of data

After you have figured out what your company means to your customers, it is important to apply this knowledge logically and practically. Creating and maintaining a Twitter account for your firm is pointless if your customer base will not engage with you this way. Responding promptly and helpfully to emails may well be better, so focus on improving performance in the areas that matter.

‘Ah yes,’ I hear some of you cry. ‘I’ve already got a website, thanks very much.’ Good for you: but when was the last time you updated it? I bet there is at least 1 typo lurking somewhere in the various levels of copy. The idea is that your website should communicate the level of service and professionalism that you offer. Anything even slightly out of place is going to stick out badly and show that you lack attention to detail.

A poorly maintained website can often look worse to your customers than not having one at all. Similarly, are you aware of how many people are visiting your site, or what they are viewing? This knowledge can be invaluable when judging the kind of information or content that has worked previously and is resonating with your audience. You should be able to identify these areas and improve them.

The pace of change in digital media and rapid improvement in the technology that underpins them means that an online presence cannot be static. An iterative approach of continuous updates and change can keep you relevant and interesting to potential customers. Having a digital presence alone is not enough; you also need to maintain interest and passion for what you are doing.

Think about trying it

These processes can be as simplistic or complicated as you want to make them, but ultimately, you need to have sourced the information that will allow you to make informed decisions.

While it certainly helps to have an understanding of digital technology, making best use of the numerous site-building and content-management tools available will largely do away with the need for any actual development experience. It is possible to pave the way for more complex or specialised adaptations by building on the services these provide as a foundation for your digital presence.

My advice to anyone looking to make a foray into digital, or improve their current standing, is 1st of all to research thoroughly. Channelling that information into your website, communications or digital strategy is the point when you can have fun and create something of which you are truly proud.

Peter Haggett is Web Services Manager for Public Health England

Further information