October 6, 2008

Planning, User-Friendliness Keys to Successful Web Sites

By Johnson, Karren L


In today's world, a Web site is a must-have for any successful business. But if it's not meeting the customers' needs, it can also be the kiss of death.

"The immediacy of the Web can be both good and bad," said Chris Edwards, chief operations officer with Creata Vivendi, a marketing, public-relations and consulting company in Conewago Township, York County.

If it's up to date, easy to navigate, interactive and visually appealing, a Web site canbe a valuable tool in providing customer service, he said. If not, it could lead to the loss of business.

In creating a customer-friendly Web site, each of the following businesses incorporated two simple strategies: plan carefully and design with the user in mind. The result, they said, was a valuable business tool that serves the clients' needs and, in turn, the company's needs, as well.

Virtual interaction

For Kathy fordan, a gymnastic coach in Connecticut, the ability to custom design her teams' uniforms online was the main reason she chose Alpha Factor, a division of gymnastic- apparel maker Perform Group (formerly Tighe Industries) in York County.

"Their Web site blows the competition away," fordan said. "It just makes ordering so much easier."

That's exactly the type of response the company was looking for with the launch of its new Web site - www. alphafactor.com - which features a virtual design studio where coaches from anywhere in the world can customize leotards with their choice of colors, fabrics and rhinestones.

"In designing the site, we put our customers' needs first," said Wendy Martin, Alpha Factor's business manager.

Enabling users to virtually serve themselves with interactive tools is one way a Web site can enhance customer service, said Denny Miller, president of Pipeline Interactive, the Lebanon-based company that designed the Alpha Factor site.

Easy navigation

After three redesigns, Mark Barocco, president and owner of Renaissance Conservatories, learned what would make his company's Web site - www.renaissanceconservatories .com - more user- friendly.

"I realized it wasn't necessary to use our site to tell customers every- thing I knew," Barocco said. "Ulti- mately, we want to talk to potential customers. Keeping the design simple with examples of our best work will draw visitors in and prompt them to call."

Based in Upper Leacock Township, Lancaster County, the company manufactures and builds conservatories, sunrooms, greenhouses, skylights, glass lanterns, pool enclosures and garden windows. With so many services, the site has to be easy to navigate, Barocco said.

"While it's important for a Web site to look attractive, if the usability isn't there, it will fall apart," Edwards said. His company worked with Barocco to design the site.

Other customer- friendly features include a gallery slideshow, a secure area for clients to view projects and downloadable design guides for architects. Barocco said he is considering adding more features.

"I'm not enamored withhaving the latest and greatest unless it's a valuable tool," Barocco said. "I feel with an introductory video or animated slideshow, visitors will be encouraged to go deeper into the site."

High-tech usability

To better serve its clients, distributers, service centers and salespeople, Morgan Corp. is going high tech with its Web site - including 360degree videos, webinars and message centers.

"We want our Web site to serve as our company's main communication channel," said Stephen Vaj da, marketing manager for the truck body manufacturer. Based in Morgantown, Berks County, the company has locations nationwide, including a plant in Ephrata, Lancaster County.

JPL Productions, a Web-site design firm based in Swatara Township, worked on the redesign of Morgan's site. The goal was to use high-tech features to enhance usability.

"Our new site makes it easy for customers to evaluate, compare and select the truck body they want," Vajda said. "They can see different products and call up a closer view and short description right from the homepage."

JPL also developed a variety of Web-based tools to streamline business processes. From a secure area on the site, reward programs for distributors can be easily managed, service centers can report all service work, and salespeople can set up new customer databases that go straight to accounting.

"A lot of research, focus groups and planning went into creating a Web site that met everyone's needs," Vaj da said. "But it's an ongoing process. We're always looking for feedback on ways to improve."

Visual appeal

When it came to the redesign of her Web site, wedding and studio photographer Leslie Bistline was all about first impressions.

"In this business, a picture really is worth a thousand words," said Bistline, who is based in Mount joy Lancaster County.

The new Web site - www. lesliegilbertphotography.com features an assortment of rotating images that best represent her style and versatility. Visitors can easily navigate to view different collections, starting prices and contact information, Bistline said.

To catch the eyes of potential customers, Bistline wanted the site to be funky, fresh, visually appealing and user- friendly. There's also something else she said she's hoping it will accomplish.

To achieve that personal touch, the site includes a regularly updated blog that describes photo shoots in detail, highlights things she does in her free time and provides a glimpse of new things she's trying. Visitors can even post comments, Bistline said.

"I want it to give people a sneak peek of who I am, not only professionally, but personally, as well," Bistline said. "If they're able to make a connection with me from my site, they're more likely to feel comfortable enough to call and ask questions."


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Experts weigh in

Thinking of redesigning your Web site? Chris Edwards of Creata Vivendi in York County and Denny Miller of Pipeline Interactive in Lebanon offer these tips on how businesses can get the most from their Web sites:

Know your audience. "Identify what types of users you might have and what functionality they want from the site," Miller said. "Build the site around those users."

Ensure speedy downloads. If your site doesn't download in eight seconds, chances are a viewer will give up and go elsewhere, Edwards said.

Reach a wider audience. Miller and Edwards agree that making your Web site search-engine friendly will improve the chances of it being found.

Invite dialogue. Encourage contact via e-mail, online forums and blogs, Edwards said. Use online surveys to generate feedback. Invite visitors to subscribe to an enewsletter.

Invest in Web analytics. 'These tools allow you to track how many people visit the site and what pages they're looking at," Miller said.


Contributing Writer

Copyright Journal Publications Inc. Sep 12, 2008

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