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How to make your small business an e-business By Scott Brinker

Use the Internet to turn your small business into an e-business.

Okay, so you're not eBay or Amazon.com. But that doesn't mean there aren't cost-effective ways you can use the Internet to enhance your small business. Here are a few proven Web and email marketing tactics you should consider.

  1. Start by making sure your Web site has a good user interface. It should project an image of quality, professionalism, friendliness and attention to detail - the image that you want people to associate with your company. A sloppy, disorganized site implies a sloppy, disorganized business.

    Unless you or one of your employees is really good at Web design, hire a professional. You don't need an expensive work of art, but you do need a clean, effective presentation that reflects and enhances your identity.

    Pop Quiz: Show your site to friends who surf the Web a lot. Do they cringe or nod approvingly?

  2. Provide detailed reference material to customers and prospects. This might include spec sheets, manuals, menus, event calendars, articles - anything that one of your customers might want to have at their fingertips to make a decision or to get self-serve help.

    It is important that this information have both depth and accuracy. Glossy brochures are rarely enough. Make sure your wellspring of information is organized so that it is easily navigable, and also that these pages are presented in a way that looks good when printed.

    Pop Quiz: Is there any printed or databased information about your products or services that isn't on your Web site? Get it up now! Also, how frequently is information updated?

  3. Post your up-to-date contact information so that it's readily available. Include phone and fax numbers, physical address with directions, email addresses - perhaps the names of specific people to contact for different purposes or even the name of the owner/president for people to send feedback. Ideally, you'll include a form on the site that encourages customer comments.

    Pop Quiz: Have a friend visit your site while you're watching over his shoulder. How quickly can he find your contact information? One click...two clicks...more?

  4. Make good use of email. The big advantage of email for customers is that it enables them to ask detailed questions about your products or services without having to pick up the telephone. It's also convenient when people are thinking about your company after hours, on weekends or in a different time zone. Therefore, it's important that incoming email is both (a) replied to promptly, at least by the next business day, and (b) answered with the specific information that the customer requested (in other words, no form letters).

    Pop Quiz: Undercover, from an anonymous email account, send a detailed question to your company's Web site. How long does it take to get an answer? And is it the right answer? (Obviously, this test is moot if you're the person who answers all email. But what happens when you go on vacation?)

  5. Do not engage in spam under any guise or circumstances. It will only alienate otherwise potentially happy customers. If you're innovative and respectful, you can make email marketing work for you without resorting to spamming.

    Acquire email addresses from prospects on your Web site in exchange for something (for example, a discount on their first purchase). Offer them an opt-in choice to be notified of special deals and events, or a truly useful newsletter. Note: Opt-in means customers explicitly check a box affirming that yes, they do want to receive email from you. Agree to never sell your list to other companies.

    Pop Quiz: Is there a place on your Web site for people to opt-in to an email notification service from your company? Does it present a compelling incentive for people to subscribe?

  6. Keep your site updated. Everyone nods their head when they hear this, yet very few people actually do it. Unless your business is stagnant and fading, you should have something new to add every month. New product announcements, articles, tips and tricks, seasonal information, occasions for celebration - share the vibrant and growing tapestry that is your business with your prospects and customers.

    Pop Quiz: When was the last time you added new material to your site? When was the last time before that?

  7. You don't have to spen a fortune on e-commerce to make your small business an e-business.

  8. Host your site at a good location. You might have a wonderful site, but if a customer is unable to reach it - or if it's painfully slow when they do - it's all for naught. It's your credibility that's on the line. If your hosting provider is unreliable or has insufficient resources to give your site high-speed connectivity and good hardware, do yourself and your customers a big favor and find someone else.

    Pop Quiz: In the past month, how many times have you heard of customers who were unable to reach your site, or found it terribly slow when they did?

More helpful tips

  • Highlight new information as it's posted on your site, so it's easy for repeat surfers to see what's happened since they last visited. (Be sure to stay on top of this, though - there's nothing more annoying on the Web than "new" information that's out-of-date.)
  • Testimonials, press quotes, case studies, reviews and customer lists (all used with permission, of course) provide credibility for people who have only met you on the Internet, so use them if you have them.
  • Pictures tell a thousand words. Use real photography of your products and your team wherever possible to make your online presence more tangible. Stock photography is never as good as the real thing.
  • In the interest of providing deep, rich information to your customers, include links to helpful third-party information. This should include resources and educational materials that aren't specific to your products or services but offer general knowledge in your field. 

Scott Brinker is the chief technology officer at i-on interactive, a leading e-business consulting group in South Florida.

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