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Websites that are effective can help SMEs reach the global market without blowing the budget and let them respond to customers far quicker than their bigger, bureaucratic competitors.

By Anthony Doesburg

An export website built three years ago is unlikely to be reaching all its potential customers, according to the company that got the country’s biggest exporter online.

Doug Hanna, managing director of Terabyte Interactive, developer of fonterra.co.nz, says a site built today would feature a social media component to take advantage of the viral effect of the internet.

“Your three-year-old website with no social media is a bit like a supermarket in a desert,” says Hanna. Product information and expertise of value to customers would go unnoticed except by those looking specifically for it.

But social media feeds such as Twitter need to be used judiciously, says Luke Pierson, creative director of Heyday, a Wellington web developer.

WHERE MARKETING CAN GO WRONG

“Just spouting marketing messages is absolutely the wrong way to do it. Following people and have them follow you, and trying to build relationships with those people, can be quite effective.

“From an exporter’s perspective, people might be interested in their products. It costs them nothing to follow them and all they have to do is talk about some interesting stuff now and then and they may or may not get noticed.”

It should not be viewed as the be-all and end-all of online communications, however. “The thing about online that’s not well understood is that you’re still having conversations with real people — it’s just a different medium. The whole objective of online is to provoke an action offline,” Pierson says.

The beauty of the web, Hanna says, is that a small exporter can make as big an impact as a business Fonterra’s size, providing great bang for the marketing buck. “Innovative small companies can really punch above their weight online,” Hanna says. What’s more, without the bureaucratic overhead of big organisations, they have the advantage of being able to act quickly. He cites the example of Mt Cook accommodation provider The Hermitage, which has been able to reach its overseas customers directly with a user-friendly online booking system.

Auckland website developer Zeald nails site success down to two things: promotion and persuasion. Effectiveness at the first is measured by how many visits a site gets; if visitors then go on to take some action suggested by the site, then it scores well for persuasiveness.

WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?

Zeald’s sales and marketing director, Brent Kelly, says the key for any website is to be clear about its audience.

“There’s a huge amount of focus in the online space about ranking number one in Google and other search engines, and about how important it is to get traffic to come to your website. But there’s very little awareness, we find, on making sure that once you’ve got people to your site that they don’t just leave without responding to what it is you want them to do.

“The biggest point is to ensure your site content addresses the key problems or issues of your target customer. “We have customers that sell baby clothing to overseas markets and our advice to them is to understand who their site visitors are and what motivates them; to try to understand what questions or problems they might have and make sure the website addresses those.

“It’s a solid principle of business, applying to everything, but is often overlooked when it comes to websites.”

Once the fundamentals are sound, exporters can begin to look at incorporating social media features. Kelly says social networking should not just be a me-too site addition but needs to be undertaken with the same degree of deliberateness as overall site design.

With a well-directed social media initiative, an exporter can draw attention to themselves in a market such as the United States without a big outlay on advertising.

“It’s very important to have a solid strategy to power your approach to social media. There’s not much point getting a Twitter page and then just talking about any old thing on it. You need to have a very targeted audience and make sure you’re posting information that’s of value,” Kelly adds.

Adding social media feeds to a site wouldn’t typically necessitate a redesign, but starting a blog is another matter. That raises the question of whether the effort is worth it.

More important for an exporter is making sure your site is being found by search engines in the markets in which it operates. Kelly says that might mean having sites in a number of countries.

“To rank well in searches in the UK, for instance, you’re probably going to need a site hosted in the UK with content tailored for the UK market.”

For an exporter selling a seasonal product, separate sites in different markets provide a mechanism for promoting goods appropriate to the time of year.

Paul Russell, director of Auckland online marketer and site designer Adhesion, also downplays the importance of social media compared with doing the web basics well. For an exporter, Google Analytics is an essential service for understanding diverse customer wants, and whether a site is catering to them.

The free Google tool, which Adhesion can build into any site, will tell the site owner from where and how visitors got to the site, and the order in which they made their way around it.

“It can be as simple as looking at a content report in Analytics and being able to say, ‘we had a view that our target audience wanted Product A but in reality they’re all interested in Product B’. “Then you’d ask yourself whether the website was set out in a way that was meeting customer needs.”

Google Analytics provides a free means for a customer such as Pumpkin Patch to find out which colours of its children’s clothing range do well in particular markets, Russell says.

“It’s a free service and it’s inexcusable for a business not to have it to see what’s going on with its site. If an exporter doesn’t have it it’s a good reason to refresh their site.” [END]

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