Reggie Lindsay was a little nervous when customers stopped calling after he discontinued his home improvement Web referral service and invested in his own website.
But within months, the phone started ringing off the hook at Lindsay Lawn and Landscaping.
“It skyrocketed,” said Lindsay, 33.
His business increased about 35 percent and went from receiving two or three calls a month to four or five calls a day.
The Web traffic would boost the business that he started in 2008 with a small push mower given to him by his mother-in-law. Six months after the online switch, Lindsay was able to leave his job and focus on his company.
Small businesses can’t afford not to have some sort of Web presence, said Jeremy Sisk, president of Xperience4Higher, a marketing and consulting firm in Durham that focuses on small businesses.
“The Web is now the second most popular media source in the world,” Sisk said. “Without being there, you are giving up a huge demographic, especially the 20- to 40-year-olds.”
Small-business owners with a tight budget can start with establishing and monitoring their web presence on sites such as Yelp and Google, and turn to a fitting social media channel to interact with customers, Sisk said.
“If you are going to be in business long term, and your budget is increasing, I think it is very important that you have your own website,” Sisk said.
Levels of professionalism
A website can do many things, Sisk and others said. It allows small-business owners to tell their story, differentiate themselves from their competitors and own and capitalize on organic Internet activity that maximizes search engine optimization.
“It creates another level of professionalism,” Sisk said.
A website can also engage and recruit potential brand advocates.
“If you are going to play for traffic from the Web, and therefore conversions in money from the web, then you need to have a website not just a social presence,” said Martin Smith, director of marketing for Atlantic BT, a web development and marketing firm in Raleigh.
At a minimum, Sisk said, every website should give details about the company’s services or products, explain why customers should stop there and include contact information, which Sisk recommends should be in the header or footer of every page of the site.
Sisk also recommends presenting at least three contact options on the website. Some consumers don’t mind filling out a long contact form, but others just want to send an email or pick up the telephone to ask a question.
Small-business owners should seek professional help when building a site, as it is an important representative of the brand, Sisk said.
“If you have a website, and it is not quality when folks go to it, it may deter them from shopping with you,” he said.
Other components of a website are more specific to each business. Display pages should highlight services and products. An attorney might include a page on family law. A clothing boutique should include high-quality photos of the store and products.
“Educate me when I get there,” Sisk said.
How to jump start
It can take a business up to six months to start to generate enough activity to rank in Web searches. Businesses that want to jump-start their Internet activity can buy paid ads on Google and social media to bring people to their site
Companies can turn to Facebook and Twitter to build buzz, “but make sure that you also build links to something that you own,” Smith said.
Small-business owners should also use the website to create content and ask their customers questions, Smith said.
“The cheapest market research you can do is to ask good questions and have your customers tell you,” Smith said. “Before you know it, you have all this great content.”
In general, about 1 percent of the traffic to a site will review and comment, about 10 percent will vote on what the 1 percent does, and 89 percent will ride for free, Martin said.
Small-business owners should also include testimonials from customers.
“You want to have other people say those things that reinforce the values that you talk about in your about page,” Smith said. Testimonials also encourage advocacy and support a belief that a customer is becoming part of the tribe, he said.
Margaret Polashock, president of the Raleigh corporate housing company Home Suite Home, uses the business’s website to increase its visibility on a national level and customize its inventory for their target market.
Polashock monitors website traffic and uses that information to determine where she should increase her inventory and where to cut back.
“We are watching what people are looking at, what they are doing on the website,” she said.
Lindsay, a father of three, was behind on his family’s finances in 2008, when he started working as an insurance customer service representative.
“It was a struggle to take care of everything we needed at the time,” he said.
So Lindsay started mowing yards for extra money and advertising on Craigslist.
Lindsay’s regular customer base increased to about 40 in 2009 after he started working with a website that allowed Lindsay to bid on jobs requested by customers.
In January 2010, Lindsay left the service site and hired Sisk to manage his Web presence. Sisk put a professional polish on the site, added key terms to increase its search engine optimization, and made the site easier to access on smartphones.
Lindsay’s Web traffic, customer reviews and phone calls increased. He left his insurance job about seven months after improving the site.
He now serves a customer base of about 60. He also keeps busy managing his three employees and customers’ service schedules.
“It’s working,” he said.