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You don't have to travel far to get to the world's largest shopping mall. In fact, it's on your computer screen. You can find any product you want or any service you need. And you can do it anytime that's convenient. Of course, I'm talking about the Internet.

These days, it's tough to find a business that doesn't have some sort of online presence. In fact, a very large (and growing) number of merchants conduct their business exclusively online. But for most enterprises, a website serves a slightly different purpose—augmenting an already well-established business that conducts the lion's share of its merchandising offline.

Such businesses typically have an offline marketing brand and identity that they have taken great pains, and sometimes many years, to build and nurture. Yet when they take their messages online, those same businesses take their eye off the ball.

Very often, a company's website not only fails to provide a good reflection of its business but also, in some cases, actually interferes with or distracts from the overall image the company is trying to project. When that happens, it's definitely time to recalibrate. And the best time to avoid that pitfall altogether is before you create your company's website.

Here are five tips to maximize the synergy between the online and offline identities of your business:

1. Maintain a consistent look

The last thing you need is a confused customer. When customers look at your website, it should be crystal clear to them that they are "entering" the online establishment of that same business they are already at least somewhat familiar with—the business they see reflected daily in your advertising, your logos, your company vehicles, and even on the shirts of the Little League team you sponsor.

How do you achieve such consistency? You do it by being very careful to mirror your brand identity on your website. That means paying close attention to things like fonts, logos, colors, and even the language you use on your site. Make sure that all of those things are perfectly consistent with your signs, newspaper ads, TV and radio spots, and, of course your stores and other places of business.

If you put as much time, care, and thought into your website as you have always put in the offline aspects of your business, you will ensure a consistent look and feel.

2. Make clear what you provide

Talk about confused customers... What can be worse than a visitor to your website scratching his head and wondering what your business is all about? You definitely don't want that to happen, so make things very clear on your website. Grab the customer! Place your most important information front and center—smack dab in the middle of the screen.

List the top products or services you provide, and then provide links to other pages on your site where you can pack lots of information about those products or services.

Your website allows you to do things that a shop with the greatest sales staff in the world could never do: sell the product in full. Don't skimp on the images, descriptions, examples, and testimonials. Supplement all of those with an FAQ and a Contact Us feature in case customers still have unanswered questions.

3. Avoid clutter

You don't clutter your newspaper ads or company vehicles with a lot of hard-to-read verbiage. So why do it on your website?

A common trap that people who run and maintain websites fall into is to keep adding more and more content, to the point that the site becomes an unwieldy mess. They often become fearful of leaving stuff out or providing what they think is too little information. In some cases, they try too hard to make a convincing case for their product or service. What they need to realize is that sometimes less is more.

Keep it simple, and your message will resonate loudly and clearly.

4. Keep your website current

One of the biggest mistakes site managers make is to neglect the website for extended periods. Out-of-date content can be a huge turnoff to a discerning customer. The problem can even extend beyond content; it can creep into the realm of design or technology. They, too, must be kept up to date.

Remember that your business climate is constantly changing and evolving. If you want your website to accurately reflect your business, you have to make sure it continually changes and evolves accordingly.

5. Let your customers get to know you

Nothing is more effective than the personal approach. And no better place exists for conveying that approach than your website. Let your customers know all about your team, your staff, your management, and even your pets. Don't be afraid to include pictures.

If you humanize your business, your clients and customers will get to know you and trust you.

* * *

The world's largest shopping mall has an open spot, and it's waiting for your business to step right in. Your website can be a huge asset to your business if you let it. By taking the time and the care to do it the right way, you can create an online identity that will make your offline business thrive.

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Bill Post is a small business research analyst at 123Print Business Cards.