Branding Your Business

A recent Small Business Roundtable addressed the topic of Branding Your Business. The consensus during this facilitated discussion was that the “brand” of a business is the complete experience that customers or clients have as they interact with the business. It includes visual and emotional components such as in-person and telephone interactions, printed materials, social… Read more »

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Branding Your BusinessA recent Small Business Roundtable addressed the topic of Branding Your Business. The consensus during this facilitated discussion was that the “brand” of a business is the complete experience that customers or clients have as they interact with the business. It includes visual and emotional components such as in-person and telephone interactions, printed materials, social media, website, and even your position in the community.

Just as a person can influence but not completely control their reputation, a business must do everything possible to create and enhance the experience that customers have before, during and after contact in order to enhance their brand. So how do you, as a small business owner, influence and mold your brand?

First, think about what people like about you and your business. How are you different from the other companies in your area? Look at both your target market and at your competitors. Identify your mission and make sure that the spirit and culture that you want for your business is reflected throughout all interactions.

Listen to your elevator speech and how you and your employees answer the telephone, greet customers, and interact with each other. Are you all on the same page?  If the vibe that you want to show the world is calm, soothing and professional, make sure that is what comes across to those encountering your business across all platforms. Are you the happy and cheerful place for your customers? If so, make sure that your people and your website, location, and social media interactions are happy and cheerful.

Once you have thought about your culture and the image that you want to project, take a look at your visuals. Logo and your identity can be a challenge. Everyone has seen logos and visuals that are tired or just don’t seem to fit the business. It is often easier to spot this in someone else’s business rather than your own, so ask your trusted customers and even friends for input.

A branding specialist at the Roundtable suggested that we think of the brand of a business as its body, and the logo as its face. You need to take care with your logo, as you take care of your face. If your logo is done successfully, it can be a building block to position your brand for success. It is important that your logo be designed carefully so that it can give a consistent look and feel throughout all platforms and media. What works on a business card should also work as a text avatar and look great on your website and mobile devices.

Your logo designer will most likely accomplish this by producing multiple logos with different backgrounds and tag lines that work with the requirements of each medium but with a consistent look across all. Particularly if your customer base is cross-cultural, it is very important to make sure that your name, abbreviation, or symbols do not have cross-cultural implications that reflect badly on your business. Remember that what looks funny or stylish in one culture can be considered an insult in another.

Keep in mind that often simple is better. The Nike swoosh is about as simple as it gets but is a recognized logo throughout the world and a good “face” for the Nike brand. A professional branding expert will also be able to guide you regarding color choice; different colors often promote different emotions, and you want to be sure that your color choices reflect your culture and your brand. Once you have considered your culture and your brand and decided on your logo and color choices, be sure to use them consistently in all facets of your business. Ultimately, it is all about communicating to the world what you and your business are all about; if your visual identity does not “speak” to what you do, it is time for a refresh.

Take a step back and review your materials, and then make sure that your customer interactions reflect the vitality of your visual “face”. Proudly take your brand to the world and watch your business flourish!

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Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 2

In the second of our two part series, we provide tips on website development after you have selected a firm to work with. 1. Don’t skimp on the strategy phase of your website redesign. A good website firm will have a defined process for determining what you want and need from your new website. This… Read more »

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In the second of our two part series, we provide tips on website development after you have selected a firm to work with.Internet

1. Don’t skimp on the strategy phase of your website redesign.

A good website firm will have a defined process for determining what you want and need from your new website. This helps them understand your organization and your desired outcomes so that they can give you the best advice on how to achieve these goals. We did a lot of the leg work for this phase before we had even selected a firm to design our website. We knew that we needed to reorganize our existing content as well as add a lot of new functionality and resources. We had many brainstorming sessions internally where we identified our “wish list” of things that we wanted to incorporate and how we wanted that to look. We had documented this process and were able to provide it to our firm for their review and feedback.

Even though we had done all of this preparation ahead of time, our firm’s fresh perspective and expert advice was very helpful. Their questions help us really flesh out our ideas and pinpoint exactly what we wanted. They provide us recommendations from both a technical and strategy perspective, and they were sure to be conscious of our budget and, ultimately, the ease of use of the site. While this step can be time-consuming, it’s critical to laying the foundation for a strong final product.

2. Recognize that a strong sitemap and high-quality wireframes will make your website better and save you time and money.

Before we could even begin thinking about the look and feel of our website (which is really the fun part of the website redesign process!), we knew we needed to establish a clear and logical structure for the site. Our first step was to create a sitemap with advice from our design firm. This is where you put together an outline of your website that includes each individual page and identifies the hierarchy of where those pages fall within the site.

For some groups, it may be helpful to complete a physical exercise to determine all of the pages for your site and how they should be organized. For example, you could use index cards and write topics for individual pages on each card. After you have brainstormed all of your topics, see if you can group those topics together under different headings. Once you feel like you’ve captured everything and are pleased with how information is grouped together, you’ve completed your sitemap.

After we finalized our sitemap, we moved on to the wireframe process. This process involves the design firm presenting options for laying out information and showing us how it would appear on each page. This is done without any of the visual elements like graphics or specific fonts. Instead, the wireframes include placeholders for photos, text, hyperlinks, and any other essential elements that make up a webpage. This allowed us to get a sense of what the website would look like without getting caught up in the aesthetics of the site.

Make sure to request wireframes for any custom designed pages on your website. Many of your pages may have the same layout, but you will likely have some that are unique. For example, we built an Interactive Resource Library for our new website that allows users to sort and filter documents. This required a custom wireframe because the layout of this page was unlike any other page. Your home page will also have a designated wireframe. For standard landing pages that are used across your website, your firm will develop one wireframe that will be used for these pages.

The wireframe process is your opportunity to tweak exactly how the information on your page will be laid out, so make sure you are completely satisfied with the final product. It is much faster, easier, and less expensive to make changes to a wireframe than it is to make changes to a final webpage that is live on your site.

In both of these steps, it’s important to think of your website from your user’s perspective. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget that most of your uses will not be as familiar with your subject matter or your site. If you constantly think about your site through the lens of someone who is unfamiliar with you and your organization, you will be more successful in developing a user-friendly finished site.

3. Consider all other materials (logos, brochures, flyers, etc.) when choosing the visual design of your website.

We knew we wanted a clean and modern look, as well as a design that would tie strongly to our existing brand. We wanted to strike a balance between maintaining white space on the website while still having interesting visual elements and plenty of information on each page.

These design decisions worked for us because they were in line with our existing designs for event flyers, email distributions, our logo, and our professionally-printed collateral. Unless you are rebranding your entire organization while you are redesigning your website, it makes sense to try to match the look and feel of your existing materials.

While most of our website has a consistent visual design, we had a few distinct landing pages for the site that were custom designed differently from the typical internal page design. We actually mocked up several of these pages by hand so that we would be sure that we were conveying our ideas accurately.

Don’t be afraid to give specific feedback to your design firm, whether that’s through examples from other websites or hand drawings on the back of a napkin. We spent some time discussing options with our firm for those pages, and they gave us a few different designs to choose from. We are very pleased with how these unique pages turned out.

4. Once you move into the development phase, keep in touch with your website firm.

The development process, in a way, is the easiest phase from the client perspective. We put a lot of effort into the strategy, wireframe, and design phases, and then we got to sit back while our website firm did all of the development work! During this phase, the firm was implementing all of the technical components and actually building the website.

Midway through the development process, we met with our firm to make sure that we were all on the same page and that we were pleased with their progress so far. Once the development was completed, it was our turn to go through the website and identify any technical problems or things that needed to be fixed. This process is called the QA (quality assurance) phase. We kept a running list of issues and changes, and the firm addressed them one by one.

Once all of our changes were made and we were happy with the final product, we went live with our new site.

5. Don’t forget about the content of your website; that’s what your users are coming to your site to see!

While all of the phases of the website redesign are going on, it’s easy to forget about the content of your site. Not only do you have to develop all of the content for your site, you also have to load all of the content for your site. Some firms will migrate your existing content from your old site, but others will recommend that you enter all of your content into your new content management system so that you become familiar with how the interface works.

Using our sitemap, we set up a spreadsheet that listed all of the pages on our website. Where possible, we identified which pages from our existing website would match up with pages on our new website and made a note of this in the spreadsheet. We then briefly outlined what new or additional content we would like to add to each page. We also identified what links or documents we wanted to include on each page. After going through this exercise, we felt like we had a good grasp of the scope of creating content for the site.

We then divided up the content between different members of the team. We created a Word document where each person could input their content. This made it easy to see our progress and for us to work collaboratively. Every week, we had a brief meeting to check in and discuss any questions that had come up during the content creation process. This kept us on track to meet our deadline.

Once we were comfortable with the content for our individual sections, we each went through and provided edits on the other sections. After editing all of the content, we were ready to start putting the content into our website.

Our website firm provided excellent training on how to navigate the backend of the website and had set everything up in a way that was very intuitive for the website administrator on our end. Even so, it took us a few weeks to get all of our content loaded. We were not just loading text, but also images and documents. Each image or document requires a description before it is uploaded to the site. We also tagged our documents with relevant key words so that people could easily search for them.

While all of the content creation was intensive, it was a great opportunity to review our messaging and to make sure that we were giving our clients the information they needed. We significantly increased the amount of information on our site, which is certainly helpful to our users. By having an organized approach to updating our content, we made the process as smooth as it could have been.

6. Remember that a great website is always changing and evolving.

Hopefully, you will be able to incorporate all of your wish list items into your redesign, but always keep a running list of ideas for future enhancements, even if they are very ambitious. From a content perspective, realize that a great website redesign is a lost opportunity if you fail to keep the content on the site up to date, so have a plan in place to keep things fresh and exciting once you launch.

We hope these tips will be helpful if you choose to undertake a website redesign. Please feel free to reach out to us if you have individual questions on any of these topics.

The post Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 2 appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 1

The process of developing a new website can seem overwhelming to many small business owners. There are so many variables, and most small business owners are not website development experts. During the redesign of the SBDC website in early 2014, our staff learned several valuable lessons that we wanted to share with our clients. In… Read more »

The post Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 1 appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

websiteThe process of developing a new website can seem overwhelming to many small business owners. There are so many variables, and most small business owners are not website development experts. During the redesign of the SBDC website in early 2014, our staff learned several valuable lessons that we wanted to share with our clients.

In this two-part post, we will outline some of the things we found most helpful and some of the lessons we learned along the way. The first post will cover the process through selecting a vendor, and the second post will cover working with the vendor to complete the redesign. We hope you will find some helpful information as you consider redesigning your own site.

1. Recognize that this process is going to require a significant amount of planning up front.
A website redesign will require a substantial amount of time and effort on your end, and it may impact your day-to-day activities for the duration of the project. We don’t say that to scare anyone, but it’s good to be prepared for the realities of this type of project. As the client, you know your users and customers best, so you are the content expert, and you need to bring that information to the table. Of course, you will have the support and guidance from the experts at the design firm, but a team effort will yield the best results.

2. Before doing anything else, figure out why you think you need to redesign your site and what you want to accomplish.
We started out the process by considering these five basic questions:

  • What is our overall vision for the website?
  • What is the purpose and desired outcomes from the new site?
  • What is our wish list of items that would make our current website more effective?
  • What are some best practices from other websites, both within you industry and beyond, that could be incorporated?
  • What essential tools and functionality need to be included in the new site?

We started out by putting together a big brainstorm wish list of all of our ideas. We looked at our current website to determine gaps and areas for improvement, and we also talked more broadly about what additional information we could incorporate. We visited other websites, both general sites and other SBDCs across the country, to get ideas. After looking at all of this information, we narrowed down our wish list to the things that were most important and that we felt would best help us meet our mission.

As the client, you need to have a clear vision for what you want your site to be before you look for a design firm. Yes, they will give you recommendations and help you shape that vision, but you need to know your core requirements before the project starts. Otherwise, you may end up wasting time later going back and forth about different decisions.

3. Determine how much you can afford to spend on your website redesign.
The price of website redesigns can vary from several hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Part of the price of the design will vary based on how much you need your site to do. For example, a simple site that lists a business’s contact information will be much less expensive than a site that includes the capabilities for customers to buy things online. A simple site that is well-designed and attractive is better than an overly-complicated site that has lots of bells and whistles but does not give users the key information they need.

As the business owner, it is up to you to determine how much you can afford to spend on a website. You can choose whether or not to share your budget with potential firms. Recognize, however, that if you choose not to share even a ballpark budget with those firms, you may get proposals that are significantly over your budget.

4. Write a detailed Request for Proposals (RFP) to send out to potential firms.

Using the information that we gathered during our initial brainstorm and research, we put together a very detailed RFP to send to local web design firms. This included our mission and vision, a project overview, specific tools and features that we wanted from the site, other considerations for the project, our expectations for specific deliverables throughout the process, and our budget.

The more specific and detailed you can be in your RFP, the better. This helps web development firms understand what you are looking for so they can prepare a thorough response. The more they can clearly grasp what you’re looking to do, the more likely it is that their proposal will be on target. This makes it easier for you to evaluate whether you think the firm will be able to meet your needs.

5. Do your research on potential partners before sending out your proposal.
For us, collaborating with small businesses in Alexandria is very important, so we started by looking for website firms in the City. We recognized the value of working with a partner that was familiar with the local business community, and we wanted to take advantage of our local resources. We used a list of all of the web design firms in Alexandria and started by visiting their websites. We also asked some of our partners and contacts for referrals.

We looked at each company’s website to gain insight into their past clients and examples of their work to determine who might be a good fit for our vision. We immediately discounted companies that didn’t have an updated and professional website that included examples of past work. This isn’t a necessity, but we felt more comfortable being able to see these examples. It also helped us judge whether or not the company would take on a project of our size. As a nonprofit organization, we are very budget-conscious, so there were also companies that we simply couldn’t afford. Otherwise, we kept an open mind during this process.

6. Interview multiple firms and prepare carefully for the interviews.
Ultimately, we were able to narrow our list down to about five firms. We sent our prepared RFP to these companies. We had preliminary meetings or phone calls with these firms where they gathered more information about our project. Each of the firms then submitted their proposal by our deadline.

After submitting the proposal, each firm came to our office and presented their proposal. We were able to ask questions, which we had prepared ahead of time. Try to ask the same general questions to each firm so that you are able to compare all of the firms on the same information. If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to email the firms or call after the proposal presentation.

7. Evaluate each firm on the same criteria using a quantitative scale when possible.
We found it helpful to develop a matrix and rank each firm on a variety of factors. These included past experience, cost, capabilities, perceived ability to understand our business, and a variety of other categories. We also did a pros and cons list for each company to help us make a decision. After evaluating all of these options, we came together as a group and selected a company. It is important that everyone feels comfortable with the final decision, even if the company was not everyone’s first choice.

Find a firm that has a strong track record, that you feel comfortable with, and, most of all, that is willing to give you honest, constructive feedback. Sometimes, you may have “pie in the sky” ideas, and it’s helpful to work with a team that can (gently) bring you back to earth! This is the sign of a good working relationship and will lead to a better final product.

8. Notify your company, sign the contract, and begin the redesign process!

Next week’s post will cover the remainder of the website redesign process.

The post Tips for Developing a Small Business Website: Part 1 appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

To Do More Business Online, Be a Little Less ‘Businesslike’

It’s nearly 2014, and you know your business has to be on the internet.

But once you’re online, just how businesslike do you need to be?

Obviously, your company’s online presence has to meet some basic standards of professionalism — make sure all the text on your website has been spell-checked and, if you use social media, avoid embarrassing meltdowns, for starters.

But succeeding on the web requires a business to discard some traditional practices and attitudes from the offline world. Here are a few ways you should alter your approach online to connect more easily with potential clients and customers:

Don’t overdo formal language.

You need a consistent voice for your web presence, determined in large part by the market you serve. But even if you are shooting for a relatively high-end market, don’t be afraid to loosen up occasionally online — especially when using social media.

With apologies to Spinal Tap, it’s sort of like a volume knob. If your overall goal is an “8” in serious, it’s okay to dial down to 6 or 7 at times. Users implicitly understand that the web is a little less formal, and using a contraction or addressing users more directly won’t turn them off.

Don’t be a broadcaster.

Old media was a one-way transaction — businesses used media to send a message to people. The people had no effective way to talk back.

The internet has made just about every new form of communication two-way. Now, with features such as social media, comment threads on articles and live video chats, the web has made it easy for any two parties to have a conversation.

Customers know and expect this. Businesses ignore it at their own peril. It may feel more “businesslike” to send out your message and wait for the customers to start rolling in, but that’s not how things work online. You need to post your content, see how people respond, and respond to their responses.

Be transparent.

Many businesses are afraid to post their prices online — “It might scare customers away,” they say.

Business blogging expert Marcus Sheridan refutes that line of thinking with five convincing points. Perhaps the most persuasive is this: You shouldn’t waste time trying to sell a product to
someone who can’t even afford to buy the product.

Talking about price isn’t the only way transparency can help a business online. If you use your website to tell customers a little more about how your business works, what the people who work there are like, and even what you think of the state of your industry, they will identify with you and even trust you a little more. And that should lead to good results.

Be human.

In a way, this sums up all of the points made above. Technology often seems to be anything but personal. But with the widespread adoption of the internet, technology has had an opposite effect on business. It’s much more personal.

Understanding and adapting to that fact is just good business.

Jon DeNunzio runs Squarely Digital, a digital consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

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