Stout Sign Company, headquartered in St. Louis, makes money the same way it did when it opened in 1886: It makes metal signs. While the product, hanging on everything from grocery-store fronts to bar bathrooms, hasn’t changed much in 124 years, the way sign makers drum up business has changed a lot.
For much of its life, explains Stout’s president Patrick Conners, the company trolled for customers using direct mailings, catalogues, tradeshows, trade magazine advertising and roll-up-sleeve-style cold calling. That was enough to pull in some $10 million in annual revenue.
In the Internet age, curious prospects often type “metal signs” into Google and go from there. But even if Stout’s Web site managed to snare a few eyeballs, the company wouldn’t have stood much of a chance with customers: In short, it’s digital home was a mess.
“It looks like they threw up the Web site years ago and never came back to dust off the cobwebs,” says Brian Cross, managing partner in charge of digital strategy at Elasticity, a digitally focused public relations firm hired by Stout to give it a digital makeover.
Stout’s site’s ailments were myriad, says Cross. Just a few: It didn’t highlight the company’s most attractive products; it had a bevy of broken links; it didn’t rate with the search engines; and, well, it didn’t have much personality. Laments Conners: “Im not even familiar with all of the Web vernacula, but we have modern clients who need modern relationships.”
Stout’s story is all too common. Fifteen years and millions of sites later, the Internet is still rife with shoddy virtual real estate. For many sites the problems boil down to a disregard for the fundamentals.
Connors and Cross want to change all that. “Within our industry, SEO [search engine optimization] and Web site strategies don’t even exist yet,” says Conners. “We want to be at the front of that.”
SEO is just one piece. The new site, due to roll out in late March, will highlight work Stout has done for Anheuser Busch, Kelly Tires and Miller Brewing. It will also feature loads of fresh content, such as polls for picking the best sign designs. (Fresh content drives traffic two ways: It gets the attention of the search engines, and it keeps people coming back for more.) Elasticity also aims to build Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages for each of Stout’s five salespeople, allowing clients more touch points.
For all the Stouts of the world (or anyone with a Web page they hope gets read), here are a handful of essentials common to any effective site, courtesy of Web designers, consultants, entrepreneurs and marketers. For a full list of 10, see our slideshow.
Who and What
Just like declaring a thesis in a term paper, a Web site has to scream the basics at all who land there. Don’t leave people guessing: Visitors must recognize immediately that XYZ Trinkets is an Idaho manufacturer of car air fresheners. This step may not be necessary for the home page of Coca-Cola , but for the rest of us, it couldn’t be more critical.
Front-and-Center Contact Info
Web surfers have the attention spans of drunken gnats. Give them the information they’re searching for before they move on to find it more easily at a competitor. One easy step: Make sure your company’s contact information (address, phone number, even a link to a Google map) is conspicuous and ubiquitous throughout the site. At the very least, put the phone number at the bottom of each page. “There’s no reason to make people search around for it,” David Chapman, president of Webrageous Studios, which manages online search campaigns and pay-per-click search ads.
It’s 2010, not 1998, and the dial-up experience is neither nostalgic nor comforting. The old eight-second rule–the maximum time consumers generally wait while a site loads–has collapsed to the three-second rule, according to Compuware , which has benchmarked Web site performance for more than a decade. If you’re going past three seconds, de-gunk your home page, simplify your code or upgrade your servers.
Educating visitors is a good start. Getting them to return again and again is the real trick. One technique: Make free features available only to registered users. (That list of names becomes a handy marketing tool, too.) Dr. Siegals CookieDiet.com makes its weight loss calculators, recipes, meal guidelines and customizable goal sheets available only to those who register. Those free and meaningful features require continual updates from customers–and that keeps coming back. “Repeat visitation is everything,” says Benjamin Wayne, CEO of Fliqz, an online video company.
Utility reigns on the Web. Nothing snares more press, blog posts and chat room banter than a site that actually does something for users, says Rick Mathieson, author ofThe On-Demand Brand. Nationwide Insurance’s Web site, for example, features a compelling iPhone app that helps users cope in the event of an accident. The app calls emergency services, gives users an easy spot to jot down and exchange insurance information (automatically sent to Nationwide), takes and stores accident photos and even turns the iPhone into a handy flashlight.