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Get Online: Building and Marketing Your Website

Do it yourself, use a template or hire a designer?here are three options to getting your business on the web.

By Peter Bates

Has this happened to you? You decide that your business should have a website. One weekend you buy a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Web Page and sit down with your college-age nephew to give it a try. You put it up on the internet, wait a few months for the business to roll in—and nothing happens.

What should you do? Buy a ready-made template site? Hire a professional designer? Whatever you decide, use caution before you sink more money into the venture. There is a minefield awaiting you if you don’t know your way around. But with a few basic tips, you can build a website that markets your business and allows qualified prospects to come to you.

Template sites
In most service industries, including insurance and financial advising, businesses can purchase website templates from vendors. For a low initial cost and a monthly fee, you run the website creation program and insert information specific to your business.

In fact, NAIFA has partnered with Financial Visions to offer this type of service. The company provides members with turnkey websites that can include insurance calculators, news headlines, stock quotes, reply forms and a library of news articles.

Remember that a website is only useful if people can find it. Make sure you list your new site with search engines like Yahoo!, Alta Vista and Google. Also, because your business is local, make sure you are listed on any hometown directories, like the chamber of commerce, local government sites and newspapers. Private companies and citizens often set up local Web directories for their towns and regions. Spend a day searching the Internet for these types of sites and make sure you're listed. If there is a legitimate Web directory for your hometown that a potential client can stumble across, you want to make sure your business is on it.

When hiring a designer, do your research, get some referrals and only go with a designer if you feel completely comfortable with him.

Do it yourself?
What if you build the site yourself? There are hidden costs and complications with this approach. Have you purchased web, graphics and scanning software? Do you have time to learn the software, as well as what to do when something goes wrong? Most of all, do you have enough web-design savvy to construct your pages so they load quickly and are easy to navigate? If any of these answers are no, perhaps you should consider hiring a professional web designer.

Hiring a web designer
So you hire a professional. What next? Is there anything you can do before this designer knocks on your door? First, you should peruse the Web and examine other sites in your field. “I looked at dozens of other sites [before hiring a Web designer],” says Jim Hennigan of Hennigan Insurance in West Roxbury, Mass., “and not just insurance sites. Other service industry sites, like real estate.” Although not a designer, Hennigan soon learned a lot about color combinations and navigation structure. He picked what appealed to him and told his designer.

The disadvantages of hiring a Web designer mainly concern money. Professional designers can be expensive and they usually work by the hour. Hiring one may remind you of what your potential clients go through, so follow the advice you'd give them: Do your research, get referrals, and only go with a designer if you feel completely comfortable with him.

You've built it, now make them come
So what should you put on the site? “Consider your objectives,” says Fred Light of Nashua Web Design. “What is your work style? Are you reasonably comfortable around computers, or do you avoid using them whenever you can? Are you going to respond to email inquiries as promptly as you do phone calls? If a person fills out a rate request form and you don’t respond immediately, you’re going to hurt, more than help, yourself.”

The work doesn’t end after you’ve launched your website. Just because you build it does not mean they will come. You must promote it. Light suggests people put their website addresses wherever their phone number appears. Announce the launch in the local newspaper. Send out emails to your clients with the website listed on your email signature. “Better still,” says Light, “publish a monthly e-newsletter filled with article snippets.” If the reader wants to know more, supply a link to the complete article, which resides on your site.

Speaking of links, try to exchange links with as many sites and listings of sites that you can. Search engines rank a site on its popularity. If 100 people or organizations link to you, you get a higher rating and increase your chances of appearing on Google’s first results page.

Light provides this final tip: “Change your website often.” Don’t just put it up and forget about it. It’s not a billboard. If it remains the same month after month, people won’t return. “Keep a mailing list of everyone who’s ever been in touch with you and send out an email once a month saying that there is new information on your website.” This demonstrates to visitors that you are an expert at meeting the needs of your customers. My grandmother always claimed that what brought her crew back to the dinner table was her famous “come-back sauce.” A successful website always has a lot of come-back sauce.

Peter Bates runs Bates Communications, a marketing communications firm in the Boston area. You can contact him at or through his website at

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