Getting your firm online – be honest with yourself first

23 Jun 2011

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Every day, we hear of businesses, particularly retail businesses, going to the wall in a country gripped by recession. The sad irony, however, is there is no recession online.

Irish people are, in fact, buying goods and services on the internet and most likely are buying these goods and services from web-savvy overseas firms because local businesses in this country don’t get e-commerce.

But if they woke up and suddenly did get e-commerce where would they start? Once it was just about setting up a website. Now it involves blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn profiles, iPhone and Android apps, and much, much more.

There is a danger that if firms just rush online, it will mean they’ll just be ticking a box, without solving their business problems.

Rick McKee, of leading Belfast and Dublin web design and development house Tibus, says firms need to be realistic and take their time rather than rush.

"The biggest challenge we face sometimes is that organisations are very quick to decide what they want and how they want it – a snazzy homepage, a nice Facebook page – but often haven’t given a huge amount of thought to who they are trying to reach and compete with.

"The first principle of doing business online is to ignore the technology and think realistically of what you are trying to achieve as a business.

"On that basis, it becomes easier to generate a digital marketing strategy that resonates with the customers who you are trying to reach."

McKee adds that while there are still many websites in Ireland that have evolved very little since the firms first took their online plunge a decade ago, many are finding that they are doing most of their customer engagement via their Facebook pages, depending on who their customers are.

He says that classic mistakes are still being made. For example, senior people in an organisation get very excited about having a digital strategy, have a wish list of nice-to-haves, but when it comes to using them properly pass the buck to the office junior.

"This is a trap many firms are guilty of. The responsibility of managing the updating of a website or social media interaction often gets passed on to whoever has the most time to deal with it. Often the newest member of staff gets landed with it.

"Businesses need to ask themselves: ‘If you wouldn’t give your advertising or sales presentation to that junior person to take responsibility for, should you be doing that with social media, which is now the most public face of any organisation?’"

How businesses should use social media

Another mistake is when firms engage in social media, thinking it could be a channel purely to sell stuff. Wrong. In a recent Sunday Times interview, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pointed out: "These channels are not designed for that (selling stuff) but to add value and build trust. We understood that from day one."

Which goes back to McKee’s point – would you hand the responsibility of building value and trust to a junior?

"The situation is based on senior people being busier than ever and the responsibility gets pushed down the organisation," he laments.

"Yet senior people want all these things – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare – but haven’t thought realistically about applying them as a business.

"If someone still needs to be convinced about online in this day and age, then there’s something missing in the company’s business outlook."

Another tip from McKee is look up usability trends on the web, such as what fonts, designs and layouts customers are likely to respond to.

But the essence of truly great decision making from an online perspective, McKee says, is for a firm to simply ask customers themselves how they are using the web. Do they prefer social networking sites? What’s the nature of the information they are seeking?

"So much of the time, what often appears online in terms of a business’ strategy is the anthesis of good advice.

"The success or failure of a web project or social media project can be decided by seeing if companies are listening to their customers or not."

Photo: Rick McKee, of web design and development house Tibus

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com