All the experts will tell you: Even the most exciting graphics or animation won't make your Web site a winner. Success means visitors return again and again. The secret to pulling them back is refreshing the content. Constantly updating a site requires attention and the right tools. Whether you use an off-the-shelf software package, hire a developer, or go with an online offering, content management is a critical element of your Web strategy. "Think of it as the steering wheel for a Web application," says Marci Glazer, an analyst with Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet consulting and research firm in New York. "If you ignore the steering wheel, you won't be able to drive your business forward."
Steve Graceffa, president of ExNihilo, an Internet consulting company in Providence, R.I., goes further. "We've built approximately 100 Web sites over the last four years, and choosing the right content-management package is about more than just software," he says. "You'll need to take into account all of the folks who contribute to and control the content, the type and volume of content, and, of course, your budget." His suggestion: Peruse other small-business sites that have similar offerings (competitors are fair game) and find out what packages they use. In addition, ask for recommendations at industry events.
Time is of the Essence
For Mary and Julian Marx, the right content-management package required two characteristics: It must be quick to learn and easy to implement. Mary, a former kindergarten teacher and Wall Streeter, opened The Chocolate Bear on Union Street in San Francisco in December of 1994. Her husband Julian, a private-practice psychologist, built the company's Web site in 1995. "That first site was more flash than function," says Julian, "so when we re-launched a couple years later, we needed a program that would let us do simple things quickly."
The program they chose was Microsoft Front Page. By the end of the year, their online sales equaled those of the retail shop and Julian was spending about 90 hours a week on site maintenance. "We were constantly adding new products, deleting old ones, and updating text," he says. "Front Page is on par with Word in terms of ease and reliability. The whole process takes just a few seconds."
In addition to retail sales, the Chocolate Bear does corporate and private-label work for such clients as Williams-Sonoma, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Ford, and Microsoft. The Marxes design corporate logos in chocolate, and, by using Front Page, Julian uploads mockups of the designs for clients to check out on line. "It doesn't require any HTML or programming, so I'm really comfortable with it," he says. "It's all fun, easy, and headache-free. Considering that this isn't what I was trained to do for a living, I couldn't be more pleased."
He has a lot to be pleased about: Last year, chocolatebear.com grossed more than $2 million.
The Price is Right
Bruce Klein, a partner in the 15-year-old Pink Rose Pastry Shop & Cafe in Philadelphia, moonlights as the Web master of the shop's companion site (pinkrosepastry.com). Klein discovered the content management offerings of Bigstep.com when someone came into the pastry shop handing out bags emblazoned with the company's logo. He had been shopping around for a local Web development firm and had grown disillusioned at the thousand-dollar bids he'd received.
Within a week of signing on, Klein's site was up and running. "Updates are a breeze," he says. Klein alters product descriptions, announces company awards, creates new links, and promotes new items while making others invisible.
Bigstep's site template and basic services are free. In return, however, your URL begins with bigstep.com/, and the site states "powered by Bigstep" at the top. If you'd prefer to have your own URL and no mention of Bigstep on the site, you can pay a small fee. Bigstep offers several other services including promotional efforts, a shopping-cart icon, and back-end e-commerce functionality.
Klein is especially happy with Bigstep.com's customer service. "The few problems I've had have been addressed right away, surprising considering it's free," he says.
Whenever he logs in, the software reminds Klein of the tasks he didn't finish. "I like that I don't have to make changes immediately and it still remembers what I've done," he says. "I can't stress how easy it is. Anybody who can sit at a keyboard and type with two fingers can build and update a Web site with this software."
When off-the-shelf packages don't suit your needs, it makes sense to customize. For Sam Cutting of Dakin Farm, a $4.4 million specialty foods company based in Ferrisburgh, Vt., coordinating e-commerce with direct mailings was essential. Cutting's operation includes the main store, where the foods are produced; a South Burlington store; corporate sales; a
catalog business; and e-commerce. "Mail order is the core of our business," he says. "Over the years we've developed a very strong mailing plan and our best customers get 10 mailings a year."
Cutting wanted his site (dakinfarm.com) to mirror those mailings. "It had to have the same offers and tell the same stories," he says, "and be able to send broadcast messages to our 4,000-member Web community about special offers and deadlines, all based on the mailing plan."
When Cutting first launched a site in 1995, he had an unsuccessful experience with a local developer. Luckily, however, the supplier who installed his network called him in and asked if they could rebuild his site and test their content-management package. "We built the site based on my marketing plan," he says. "Competitive Computing (C2) handled the e-commerce and the look and feel; my staff takes care of product pricing, copy [writing], updating links, and broadcasting. I wanted my staff to do as much as possible, and C2 made that happen."
Since its launch, Dakin Farm's Web sales have tripled every year except for last, when they doubled. "We did $320,000 last year, but hope to break half a million next year," says Cutting.
It may be one of the most challenging aspects of running a Web site (you just can't set it up and let it run itself), but the ability to continually revise content is also one of its most attractive capabilities. You can put a product on sale, send out holiday greetings, or ask for feedback. The opportunities are there, as long as the package you choose is simple, affordable, and useful.