Developing or maintaining a website in the growing world of e-commerce can be an overwhelming process. This new environment of business and communication is always changing and that means, to stay competitive, you have to keep changing and nurturing your Internet presence too.
Even though the grain and grain processing industry has been slow to enter the e-commerce realm, the Internet is beginning to take on a larger presence. The November 1999 launch of Icecorp.com, the first online interactive commodity trading exchange, and its success with over 160 million bushels of grain already traded, positively reflects Internet use potential for the grain industry. The Grain Elevator and Processing Society and the American Feed Industry Association, as well as many grain handling companies, have launched highly developed and interactive sites.
Should your company follow the trend by launching a new or redesigned website? E-commerce experts believe there is room on the Web for everyone, even smaller companies.
Cognitiative, Inc., a San Francisco, California, U.S.-based planning, operating and marketing consulting firm, has closely followed Internet trends and has observed what it calls the "Web Effect." Laurie Windham, Cognitiative's founder, c.e.o. and president, discussed this phenomenon in her "Ask the Consultant" series on Cognitiative's website.
"We find that once customers gain access to the Web, they quickly develop a preference for it," Ms. Windham said. "We refer to this shift in consumer behavior and its impact on business as the Web Effect."
"Almost every company, large or small, stands to gain by leveraging the Web as a strategic business vehicle," Ms. Windham said. "In most cases, exploiting the online opportunity is not only important to a company's future, it is essential."
Ms. Windham emphasizes that strong education and strategy on this new playing field can lead to dramatic success.
To remain competitive, she said, small and mid-size companies should capitalize on the Web Effect. By talking to customers and discovering how they would like to do business with you on the Internet, a company can thrive in the new Web-enabled economy, she said.
THE MISSION. Whether or not to launch a website seems to be less of a question than how to start the project and ensure its success. When starting an initial website design or redesign, don't get bogged down with minor matters, such as deciding what color the home page should be. The most important place to start is evaluating your company's objectives for the website, Ms. Windham said. A detailed mission statement can be the core and lifeline of a website.
Ask the hard questions, like "What should this website accomplish for our company?" Or, "What are ALL of the possibilities of having a website — now and in the future?
(Tip: Think big. Internet technology and software is booming at an uncomparable rate. If a groundbreaking idea for the company website isn't a reachable goal at the moment due to technology, time or financial constraints, chances are that it could be possible in just a few years.)
In the rush to join the digital world, companies often begin by establishing a website that is basically an electronic version of their company brochure. But technology and Internet activity is growing too fast not to explore further potential.
The best way to begin a first website development project or a website update is to create an extensive strategy plan.
"A well-designed plan forces clarity onto your development effort and helps avoid expensive and time-consuming missteps," Ms. Windham said.
She suggests composing a web development team, led by one clear leader, which will explore all aspects of and set goals for the new website. Although team members will depend on the individual hierarchy and structure of each company, Ms. Windham recommends including an executive leader/sponsor, a tactical project leader, content contributors, a designer, a developer and departmental representatives (marketing, sales, service, etc.).
PLANNING. Cognitiative, Inc. has developed a Web Strategy Planning template to provide structure to and comprehensively review a company's web initiative. The template, which is available on Cognitiative's website, www.cognitiative.com, helps guide and focus web development efforts and save time.
First, Cognitiative stresses performing a "situation overview" by analyzing external and internal activities. According to the company's planning guide, external analysis consists of reviewing competitors' sites and studying how customers and target prospects currently use the Web — as well as how they want to use it to do business.
Examining how employees perform current tasks and how the Web can change the functionality of your company is key to the flip-side internal analysis. Also, evaluate the level of web skills within your organization and the effectiveness of your current Web presence, if you already have a site.
Once you have a background established, achievable and measurable business objectives must be set. "These are the guideposts that you will look back on to ensure you are accomplishing what you started out to do," Cognitiative said. "You should have a clear picture of your organization's Web goals." Although these goals vary greatly, the strategy planner offered these examples: increasing new product sales by X%; building brand awareness; improving customer satisfaction; or decreasing sales costs by X%.
Categorizing target audiences is Cognitiative's next planning step. "Your web site is a business vehicle, and as such must serve a range of audiences and markets," the company said. "By defining which audience categories are most important to you and creating specific content geared towards them, you achieve focus and leverage your investment."
According to importance, categorize your target audiences, which might include customers, prospective customers, partners, press, employees or future employees, and decide if they are primary or secondary targets. Attention to these details will help you make informed content and deadline decisions later, Cognitiative said.
Next, it's time to decide just how much you want your new site to be integrated into everyday business. Cognitiative's "Whole Experience" methodology describes a business strategy through which marketing, sales and customer support are facilitated simultaneously with the Internet. After assessing the needs of both your company's employees and audience base, identify the intent of the new site. Cognitiative lists these questions as examples: Do you want the website to…
• drive your marketing messages?
• support your customer through the sales process?
• help organize and track product deliveries?
• act as the focal point of your service and support?
• enable interaction among prospective customers?
• develop search functionality within specific areas?
• be designed for easy updates by non-technical personnel?
• forward information via email to registrants?
Now that all these ideas are rolling around in your head, Cognitiative brings you back to earth by stressing the need for a realistic assessment of the financial impact of your Web initiative. A financial analysis — even if only working with estimates — can eliminate some unpleasant surprises.
"Your priority here is to set a ballpark budget range for the project," the company said. "Ultimately, you need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the cost of your Web implementation. Include estimates of charges from development vendors, temporary technology staff, outside consultants, as well as software and hardware costs."
Keeping the financial numbers current is very important, the company added. If the budget changes, make necessary changes to the profitability estimate for the site.
Select priorities within the project and set a timeline, including a date for the initial launch. "It often pays to rollout major Web implementation in well-defined phases, meeting urgent business needs with early releases and building towards more refined functionality," the company said.
Finally, while still in the early planning stages, it's best to decide how and when the success of the site will be measured, Cognitiative urges. The cursors to track will depend on individual business objectives described early in the planning stages, while the frequency of success checks may vary, for example, six months after the initial launch, then every subsequent three to six months.
MORE HELP. Laurie Windham's book, Dead Ahead: The Web Dilemma and the New Rules of Business, released last September, has been described as a "survival manual" for coping with business changes within the world of the Internet. Ms. Windham's thesis is that businesses must recognize the power shift to e-commerce and adapt business strategies accordingly. Also, Cognitiative has published on its website an in-depth e-business roadmap that focuses on each phase of the website creation process.