Archive for the 'Small Business' Category

Why SMEs Should Take Robotic Process Automation Seriously

Alan Jackson, the Better Business Bureau Ltd.

Process (2)

IT applications that are inevitably involved in a business process have to talk to each other, so that an end-to-end workflow can be completed. Office workers have increasingly found themselves having to “plug the gaps” between multiple systems by hand. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology can run processes with little or no manual input. These tools have become affordable for small businesses, so they are able to enjoy the same productivity benefits of automation as their big company competitors.

Office workers generate, handle, analyse, process and distribute information to sustain the business and to service customers. This so-called knowledge work typically requires a significant element of intellectual effort, “non-routine” problem solving and subjective judgement. The strengths and qualities of a company’s knowledge workers can represent a substantial competitive advantage, which is especially true for small businesses.

Companies have been supporting knowledge workers with packaged software (COTS) for many years. Examples of the more generic systems of record that are becoming indispensable include Enterprise Resource Planning, Customer Relationship Management, finance and accounting, payroll, HR, and Web content management. Now knowledge workers are expected to work extensively with this essential information technology (IT) to increase the value they can add to the organisation.

But it’s not easy to get these applications to “talk” to each other so that a bespoke business workflow can be completed, end-to-end. This results in knowledge workers spending a substantial, if not inordinate, amount time dealing with the shortcomings that are inherent to most multiple-system environments. They become skilled in low-level “machine minding” tasks, rather than in adding business value. High on the list is monitoring, managing and moving data manually between sources, intermediate storage, and systems of record. These involve tasks that are frequently tedious, repetitive and, having virtually no intellectual content, unfulfilling. Searching one or more applications, collating then rekeying selected data to another, which happens alot in customer service centres, is now termed “swivel-chair integration“.

Why waste brainpower on mind-numbing work that requires little or no analysis and no judgment? Knowledge workers deserve to be liberated from such highly-structured, routine, and dreary tasks. Small companies can ill-afford to pay capable, expensive staff to perform such mundane work.

The answer is a relatively new technology, called Robotic Process Automation. Software robots automate low-level integration processes. They can handle tasks completely from start to finish (known as “unattended operation”) or they can work hand-in-hand with humans as their digital assistants (known as attended or desktop automation). Attended automation can significantly increase the productivity of knowledge workers, enabling them to focus on work that is more intellectually stimulating and of more value to the company. Unattended robots can take care of processing transactions in bulk, freeing up headcount.

Should SMEs Take Robotic Process Automation Seriously?

Robots can take care of the mundane, repetitive tasks allowing humans to add value with cognitive and problem-solving skills. Large companies are increasingly using robots to support humans in their value streams. Transactions that they outsourced in their tens of thousands are being brought back in-house to be run by unattended robots on cost grounds. As RPA technology and managed service provision have become more affordable, SMEs need to take RPA seriously or risk falling further behind their larger competitors.

For an in-depth look at the benefits of automating processes, have a look at: The Value of Process Automation

About

As a productivity improvement specialist I can offer business & process analysis, process mapping, automation and improvement for all types of small businesses operating in the UK Midlands region.

Follow me on Twitter (@B4BBler), email me at alan@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau).

 

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What can a CRM System Do for a Small Business?

If you’re a small business owner you’ve likely heard about CRM and just about grasp that it stands for Customer Relationship Management. But exactly what does that jargon mean and, more importantly, what does it offer a business? It’s only useful for big companies, right? So it can’t possibly be affordable, and what’s wrong with managing contacts in Excel anyway? Well, actually, CRM offers much, much more than a glorified Rolodex. It can transform the marketing efficiency of any business and it is most definitely affordable, even for a micro-business!

Improve your Marketing with a CRM

If you do any kind of marketing, CRM can improve both the effectiveness and efficiency of your marketing efforts. A CRM marketing solution that is engineered to fit your business can transform every customer touch point into a marketing opportunity, enhance customer loyalty and maintain and enhance your brand image. In short, CRM provides the tools to set up, execute and monitor marketing campaigns and help you to form insights that will make your efforts more productive. From customer profiles, product inventory, support calls and buying history to photos of business owners and their facilities – CRM can bring it all together!

CRM System Capabilities

A flexible and easy to use CRM application provides a comprehensive set of marketing and sales capabilities designed to improve engagement with prospects and customers (see Practical Tips to Make Your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Initiative a Success). Campaign management facilities can increase the efficiency of your marketing campaigns; marketing analytics enable you to track all the key metrics to increase their effectiveness. You can manage customer e-mails, sales appointments, tasks, and contacts from a single business application and deliver marketing communications quickly with Mail Merge. Use reporting and analysis features to evaluate the performance of your print, e-mail, online, and other marketing efforts so that you can identify and concentrate on your most effective marketing channels.

CRM can exploit undiscovered potential that lies within your customer database. Use each customer’s preferences, relationships, and buying history to anticipate their future needs and make effective cross-sell and up-sell offers. A “360-degree view” of your customers will uncover new opportunities, suggest replacements or renewals, and reward customer loyalty. By transforming customers’ data into knowledge that is actionable you can respond quickly to changing customer preferences and emerging market opportunities.

Tracking and managing all customer details, events and contacts in a central repository provides capabilities that set an “industrial strength” CRM application apart from a simple database of contacts. Let’s take a look in more detail at typical CRM facilities to improve your marketing efforts.

Targeting

  • Categorise prospects and customers, both current and lapsed, into meaningful segments based on purchasing trends, and demographic information
  • Create targeted lists using selection criteria that can be associated with campaigns and respect customer permissions with opt-in/opt-out tracking for all contact records (essential to comply with GDPR regulations)

Campaign planning

  • Define campaign activities, assign them to appropriate people and schedule them
  • Define follow-up activities for respondents and non-respondents
  • Create new campaigns from scratch or from reusable templates based on successful campaigns
  • Set alerts and reminders for campaign milestones
  • Define scoring rules for qualifying e-mail responses
  • Define workflows that will automatically deliver the right lead to the right person according to criteria such as product, territory or revenue value.
  • Define special offers and discounts

Campaign resources

  • Create marketing materials for the entire campaign life cycle, including professional e-mail templates, product catalogues, price lists
  • Create marketing messages and offers precisely targeted to customer lists
  • Create Internet landing pages for campaigns
  • Create guided dialogues to streamline the lead qualification process

Campaign execution

  • Effortlessly launch communications en masse with a “Mail Merge” capability
  • Capture and track campaign responses into a central repository automatically
  • Dynamically assign scored responses to the most qualified sales person for follow-up
  • Automatically capture and categorise responses from Internet landing pages

Decision making

  • Measure your marketing success for every campaign with key performance indicators such as response rates, interest levels, cost per response and return on investment
  • Gain business insight with dashboards of key campaign indicators and from built-in reporting
  • Identify trends with predictive analytics to allocate marketing resources, introduce new products and services, and improve up-sell and cross-sell opportunities

Take your CRM “on the road”

Access your CRM application from any Web-enabled device – anywhere, anytime, to:

  • Access customer profiles and product data
  • Track budgets and push through approvals
  • Update campaigns “on the fly”
  • Update, qualify or assign leads
  • Track key marketing metrics

The Clincher

With all these capabilities on offer you’d be forgiven for thinking that a CRM application is way beyond what you can afford. But think again! Even the big players, such Microsoft (Dynamics CRM), SugarCRM, SalesForce.com and Sage offer a Cloud-based CRM application on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, from a few pounds per seat/month. HubSpot and several other vendors offer a basic system for free. Yes, really! For that you get a fully functional, customisable, “industrial strength” application that is exactly the same as you’ll find being used by the largest of your competitors.

Of course, it takes some effort to realise the full potential of these highly capable applications. But you can start small and slowly build up additional capabilities. These applications are truly “big business solutions for small businesses”.

As a productivity improvement specialist I can offer business & process analysis, process mapping, automation and improvement for all types of small businesses operating in the UK Midlands region.

Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau).

Feel free to comment on my articles or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

 

The Value of Process Automation

Alan Jackson, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.

How great would it be if your work just flowed automatically? Could you steal a march on the competition if your staff weren’t bogged down working with manual processes? Automating your business processes is the way to keep your work flowing.

Workflow

Work together to get more work done


Automation elevates collaboration to an entirely new level: your work flows from person to person, system to system, front to back office, to the Cloud and back—without bottlenecks or delays. The silos come down so your people can work smarter, faster and be more connected.

Get rid of paper and eliminate the paper chase


Paper-based workflows are slow, expensive, error-prone, and with automated workflow, completely unnecessary. Shuffling paper, searching filing cabinets and relying on spreadsheets, post-it notes and to-do lists makes no sense when you can use electronic forms, documents and databases can do the same jobs better.

Work faster by not killing time


People are busy but time poor. Doing routine tasks and keeping track manually, waiting for in-tray documents to be processed, emails to be answered, and phone calls to be returned can be a real time killer. Automation gets the right task to the right person at the right time to improve turnaround.

Do more with less


Improving productivity means you can do a lot more work with the same staff resources so avoiding the cost of recruiting and training new staff when there’s more to do. The extra capacity also means you can do things that would otherwise be too labour-intensive to contemplate.

Improve the work to improve the lot of your people


Automation takes the tedium out of repetitive manual work that is mundane, thankless and unfulfilling for staff. Nothing slips through the cracks. Data doesn’t get lost, errors are avoided so remedial actions become a thing of the past. That means your people can get on and do what you hired them to do.

Keep work moving, while you’re on the move


Keep the work flowing by making your workflow mobile. Contribute to processes right from your phone so nothing stands in the way of business moving forward, wherever you are.

Visualise how your business is working


Automated processes capture actionable metrics, which can be presented on a dashboard. With this entirely new perspective on how your business is working you stay in control.

Take care of compliance, painlessly


The tide of regulation seems to be never-ending so governance issues are causing an increasing number of headaches. The electronic audit trails that automated processes produce take the pain out of demonstrating compliance with governance and ever more burdensome regulation.

Stay agile, responsive and adaptable


Business must adapt when the market shifts, working practices change, new products are introduced, or new regulation must be followed. Automated systems can be reconfigured quickly so new processes don’t mean new problems.

To Summarise


Automation software is being used increasingly by big businesses to improve productivity. But it has only recently have SMEs been able to afford it (Providing Small Businesses with Affordable Automation Solutions). Of course, it takes some effort to realise the full potential of automation technology. But you can start small and slowly build up extra capabilities. These applications are truly offering “big business solutions for small businesses”.

About

As a productivity improvement specialist I can offer business & process analysis, process mapping, automation and improvement for all types of small businesses operating in the UK Midlands region.

Follow me on Twitter (@B4BBler), email me at alan@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau).

A Way to Provide Small Businesses with Affordable Automation Solutions

Small companies are currently unable to take advantage of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and workflow automation due to the pricing policies of most of the current vendors and digital transformation consultancies, which they can’t afford. A co-operative of skilled RPA and workflow automation practitioners sharing facilities to develop solutions for SMEs in their local area may be the only way to offer affordable automation.

Most of the current vendors of RPA and workflow automation, and the digital transformation consultancies, seem to be slugging it out toe-to-toe in the same small marketing space, which includes just the big companies. It’s only these companies, which make up fewer than 0.5% of all UK businesses, that can justify an RoI with the prevalent vendor pricing policies. But 99.5% of UK businesses, some 5.7 million, have fewer than 50 staff and the majority of these are micro-businesses, with 10 or fewer staff. For these, the need for automation is real but the current pricing policies are quite simply unaffordable. So they are falling further behind their big competitors for whom this technology is reaping substantial productivity benefits.

I have no doubt whatsoever that automation of manual and mundane, rules-based processes is just as beneficial to small businesses as to large corporations. Perhaps even more so as business owners struggle to find the time to do all their administration and the compliance tasks dictated by ever-increasing and burdensome regulation. Small companies need automation to stay competitive. But they don’t have the transaction volumes of big businesses so are unable to support an RoI of more than a few pounds per month. Neither do they have the wherewithal to employ and train “developers”. They are certainly NOT companies that typical RPA vendors and most digital transformation consultancies would stand the remotest chance of selling to.

In my experience, smaller companies are open to automation solutions – they are completely disinterested in owning the enabling technology per se. One answer is a managed service providing bespoke solutions with an affordable price tag. I believe this means set up costs of no more than a few £100’s and ongoing subscription costs of just a few £10’s per month – have a look at my Automation Break-even Calculator. This is an RoI they can justify (in contrast to the charges of digital transformation consultancies that are typically upwards of £25k per year). So there appears to be an opportunity for some enlightened, agile solution providers to develop what will remain a completely unreachable market to most of the current vendors and consultancies. Recent pricing innovation by a small minority of mainstream vendors promises to enable this affordable pricing model to become a reality.

So I have in mind a network of skilled RPA, and workflow automation, practitioners who would each serve a local market of SMEs, principally developing bespoke solutions. In its most basic form, the consortium would provide a pool of expertise, insight and mutual support, not only for automation development and infrastructure but also for marketing content, and business development. A consortium Web portal could offer collaboration facilities, a use case library, lead exchange and educational blog. Generic functionality, such as creating a date stamped file name, could be shared. Even complete solutions developed for a specific client could be made available to all subscribers to use as a start point to accommodate their own clients’ specific requirements. The buying power of the consortium could also be used to secure valuable services from vendors, such as support, free or discounted training and access to marketing resources.

The focus on local clients enables a collaborative and sharing ethos, rather than competition. The inevitable lowering of costs for a subscriber offers a realistic and achievable way to provide automation solutions that small businesses can afford. It’s really a case of “a problem shared is a problem halved”. In some respects, the sharing and re-use of all automation resources is not unlike the concept of Open Source software, which is demonstrably alive, well and flourishing.

There are three enlightened vendors, and the mighty Microsoft, that do offer free or low-cost licences – UiPath, Workfusion (RPAExpress) for RPA and AuraPortal and MS Office 365 Flow for workflow automation. These could form the basis of an affordable managed service provision. If you are a small consultancy with a local focus, have experience in any of these technologies and would like to explore the consortium option, email me at alan@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau).

 

How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget – Part 3

WordPress

In this, the third part of the article for micro-businesses that want to set up a Web site, I will outline the additional steps you will need to get a new site up and running on the “self-hosted” version of WordPress – choosing a Web site hosting service , registering a domain, installing the WordPress content management software and customising your site with a theme and plug-ins.

Why Use Self-hosted WordPress?

If you find a particularly appealing custom theme on the Internet, or decide that you could usefully take advantage of some of the functionality offered by the 22,000+ plug-ins that are available, then you will need to install and run (“self-host”) the WordPress.org software on a Web host. To do so, you will first need to register your preferred domain with a Web hosting company then install WordPress on the host. It sounds difficult, but it’s really very straightforward.

Web Hosting

There are plenty of Web hosts to choose from (search Google “top web hosts uk” for comparison sites). You can expect to pay anything from £2 to £10 per month for a hosted domain, depending on the plan you choose and the duration you pay for. As you will need to install WordPress, choose a host that offers “one click installation” (search Google for “one click installation wordpress” to see what I mean). WordPress is free to install and you should also get a number of email addresses for your domain and several other services, such as autoresponders, backup, a file manger, an FTP file transfer account and Web site analytics.
After opening an account with the host of your choice, you will have to wait (up to three days) for the Web registration process (called “DNS propagation”) to complete and your domain to become visible on the Internet. While you’re waiting you have time to take a look at the facilities available from the host’s control panel, install WordPress (one click!), look for and then import a suitable theme, and start building your site (as I outlined in part 2).

Installing a Theme

It’s easy to implement a bespoke theme, with rich customisation features, straight from the dashboard (as I showed in part 1). There are many commercial themes that are feature-rich but still come at a modest, one-off cost. As with WordPress.com, both free and paid themes are available by selecting Appearance -> Themes -> Install Themes. You can also search the WordPress themes directory, maybe visiting providers’ Web sites to get a better feel for what the theme, and the provider, offers.
If you choose to import a free theme from a catalogue site, make sure the source is reputable (such as Woo Themes, Theme Forest or Elegant Themes). Be aware that you wouldn’t be the first to be unwittingly duped into using a free theme that carries hidden links to sites of dubious content or even malware that could turn your Web site into a “spamming machine”.
When you find a theme you like, just download the theme (Zip) file to your PC. From the Appearance option on the dashboard, select Themes -> Install Themes , browse for and select the Zip file you downloaded then press “install” followed by “activate” – it’s really that simple.
A bespoke theme inserts additional site customisation options into the dashboard. These give much more control over the look and feel than a basic theme, which helps you to get the site looking and behaving just how you want. If you pay for a theme you should expect to get comprehensive user guidance that often includes video tutorials, and regular updates as they become available.

Installing Plug-ins

Plug-ins are programmes that extend the functionality of a site. They are really the main reason why you want to go with the self-hosted option. With so many plugins available, many of which are free, your problem is choosing what’s right for you!
There are basically four types of plug-in. The first type provides facilities that are used to enhance a page’s look and feel and extend the functionality (e.g. additional fonts, columns, special buttons, search and contact forms, a Facebook “Like” button, image gallery, etc.). The second type enables a degree of integration with third party services, such as auto-responders for outbound marketing. The third type adds a complete sub-system for the site, examples of which are document management, e-shopping, online diary planner or a private members’ sub-site.  The fourth type extends the dashboard with Webmaster site administration tools that may be as simple as an improved content editor or as sophisticated as automatic content backup or search engine optimisation facilities.
Adding plug-ins is just as easy as installing a theme. From the dashboard “Appearance” menu, select “Install Plugins”. First search for a plug-in that you want; you will be presented with brief descriptions and popularity measures (e.g. number of downloads and users’ assessments). You can also search WordPress.org for plug-ins and/or follow the link to the providers’ Web sites to get more detailed information. When you have identified one that meets your needs, select it then install and activate it.
Most plug-ins, like themes, will add set up options to the dashboard that enable the plug-in to be customised or provide administration facilities necessary to manage an entire sub-system, such an e-shop.

A “Must Have” Plug-in

Until you get a feel for site building and administration I would recommend being very sparing about what you install. They do affect performance. But, worse, they can divert your attention from delivering good content, which should be your first priority. Follow an authoritative blog or two (Lisa Irby, MakeUseOf and ManageWP are my favourites) that will provide you with information about useful additions to your armoury.
But one “must-have” plug-in is JetPack. This provides a number of facilities that come as standard with a WordPress.com site. You will need a WordPress.com account to activate it, even if you don’t intend to use it to set up a site or blog. So this plug-in puts your self-hosted site “on a par” with the facilities available on a WordPress.com site (it does, in fact, offer more facilities!).

The Bottom Line

So there you have it. With a little know-how and without too much work you can put up a £1,000, £2,000 or even a £3,000 Web site for less than £100 – that you can manage and enhance yourself! It’s also based on the most popular content management system, used by the biggest of companies, so it has an entire support industry available if you need it. Don’t forget that there are ways to get help with content if copywriting or creating logos is not your forte.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget – Part 2

English: WordPress Logo

English: WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this, the second part of the article “How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget“, I will outline the simple steps you will need to take to get a shiny new WordPress Web site up and running. WordPress comes in two “flavours”, so you will need to appreciate the differences in order to choose which option is best for you.

Vive la Difference!

You have the choice of free Web site hosting at WordPress.com, with a WordPress domain (e.g. mysite.wordpress.com), or register a bespoke domain and install the WordPress software on a commercial web hosting service of your choice. This will cost £2-£10 per month, depending on the plan you choose; WordPress itself is free to install.

Both flavours have the same dashboard for site administration, and WordPress.com site offers all the same facilities except the ability to import third party custom themes or plugins (of which there are some 21,000 in the WordPress catalogue see part 1). There are, however, over 200 free, but customizable, WordPress.com themes, a number of more comprehensive premium themes and a variety of stock widgets to choose from.

Although WordPress.com has some limitations, it’s a little easier to get your Web site online, and it could be entirely free (unlike WordPress.org). So I’ll outline the steps you will need to take to set up a WordPress.com site and talk about the additional steps and costs to put up a site with using a WordPress.org installation in a later post.

Preparation

Before you dive in to building your site, you will need to do some planning and preparation first. As a minimum, I suggest that you:

  • identify one or two simple sites that you would like to emulate,
  • study the site(s) to get a feel for the menus, the layout and type of content of relevant pages (including use of multimedia, such as images and video), the widgets used and the content of  headers and footers,
  • work out what pages you want on your site, and the menu options that will take a visitor to each one,
  • write a draft of each page (remember copying pages from another site is never acceptable and constitutes infringement of copyright),
  • identify a source of multimedia content –  if you don’t already have picture and logo files there are plenty of online catalogues to choose  from (for which there might be a modest cost).

Building a Site on WordPress.com

With your preparation done, all you need to do to get up and running is to follow the steps below. If you need additional help, there are plenty of video tutorials on YouTube.

Register an account

From WordPress.com:

  1. Complete the online registration form,
  2. Activate the site from the email acknowledgement,
  3. Exit from the new starter script – you might as well go straight to the dashboard to manage your new site (mysite.wordpress.com/wp-admin) where you will find plenty of help, including more details of the registration process.

After registration, all the administration options are available from your site’s “dashboard” – this is where you work the magic.

Step 2Choose a Theme

From your new site’s dashboard menu:

  1. Select the “Themes” option from the “Appearance” menu,
  2.  Use the “Feature Filter” option to select a likely-looking theme from the catalogue, based on the characteristics you want, like colour scheme and page layout (you will be offered a mix of free and premium themes),
  3. Preview the theme, check out its “Details” and, if it’s acceptable, “activate” it with a single click! If you change your mind later, it’s not a problem, just find and activate another one.

WordPress provides some dummy content so that you can preview your new site.

Step-3Create the required pages from your drafts

From the dashboard “Pages” menu:

  1. Use the “New Page” option to import your draft content into the inbuilt content editor (remembering to use the “Paste from Word” option to remove any formatting),
  2. Insert any images by using the “Add Media” icon and following the upload instructions,
  3. Add a name for the page.

You may save a draft version and preview a page at any time. When you are satisfied that a page is finished, use the “Publish” button, which makes it available for viewing. You should also remove the WordPress Sample Page – select “Pages”, then “All pages”, hover over the dummy page title and click on “Trash” (illustrated here).

If you’re not much of an author and would like some help with writing copy, you should check out the WinWeb “virtual assistant content writing service.

Step 4Set up the theme options and site settings

You need to set up your site like a conventional Web site rather than as a blog.

  1. From the dashboard “Appearance” menu, select the “Themes” option then the “Customize” button,
  2. Open the section “Site Title & Tagline” and add a title for your site and a “tagline”, both of which will be displayed in the header,
  3. In the “Static Front Page” section “, select the “static page” option and nominate one of the pages as your “Home page”,
  4. Select the “Theme Options” button and choose one of the page layout styles offered by your chosen theme.

Define the navigation menu

From the “Appearance” menu:

  1. Select the “Menus” option and create a new menu,
  2. In the “Pages” section, select the pages you want to become available via the menu,
  3. Arrange the menu and sub-menu options that appear on the right of the window – a simple drag & drop task
  4. Save the menu and review your site by clicking on the site name in the administrator’s banner.

Step 6Include widgets

From the “Appearance” menu:

  1. Select the widgets option,
  2. On the left is listed all the available widgets, on the right are the areas in your selected theme in which you can put widgets – simply drag & drop a widget into a widget area,
  3. For each widget, click on the down arrow in its title to open a short form to complete any setup applicable to the widget.

You are done! Don’t expect your site to look as good as the one you chose to emulate “straight off the bat”.There are many more options you can explore at your leisure, but the above steps, with the defaults, means your site is “good to go”.

It’s easy to add blog posts to the navigation menus. You may also change the appearance of your site at any time, simply by choosing a different theme and changing the settings, as above. All of your content is retained.

Picking a Custom Domain

To look more professional you could pay the $18 pa for your own domain name rather than use the default that has “.wordpress.com” in it. You should try to pick a domain name that is the same as your product or company name or very close. This will tell people exactly what to expect, and if they are looking for this product, they have a better chance of finding your site in searches.

To check that your preferred domain is available, use one of the numerous sites offering a domain name search facility (Google “domain name search”). Just enter the name of the domain and you will be told whether it is free or taken (and the purchase price if you were looking to buy it). You may have to try several names to find one that is not taken; most sites will give you a list of similar names that are available.

In the next post I will describe the additional steps needed to set up a site with the self-hosted version, WordPress.org.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.

 

How to Set up Your Micro-business Web Site on a Tight Budget – Part 1

English: WordPress Logo

English: WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all the non-core business concerns perplexing start-up and micro-businesses, Web sites feature high up on the list. The most vexing question is “how can I get a decent Web site built – inexpensively”. Business owners, it seems, are having rather less than satisfactory experiences with free site offerings or paying good money, sometimes several thousand pounds, for a site that falls way short of meeting their expectations. If you recognise these failings, there is a way to set up a professional-looking Web site quickly and easily, that you can enhance with bespoke features and manage yourself, all from under £100 – as I shall explain.

The Value of an Online Presence

Increasingly, small and micro-businesses appreciate that an online presence can increase the chances of potential customers learning about their product range or services. A Web site acts as a virtual shop window for a business, an effective means of showcasing their wares and capabilities. Savvy consumers expect businesses to have a Web site where they can learn about the business and its products and services, find contact information and even purchase items online. Ignoring this channel to customers is, effectively, handing business to your competitors.

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

There is certainly no shortage of Web design companies advertising on the Internet, nor of various types of company offering free sites. I dare say that many would do a very good job at a reasonable price and the free site might “fit the bill”. But it’s the almost unlimited choice which is the essence of the problem faced by SMEs. Do you really have the time or inclination to shop around and even then, do you have sufficient knowledge to differentiate a good deal from a “lame duck”? One solution is to “bite the bullet” and build a site yourself – yes, it’s really not as difficult as you might expect! The tool of choice is WordPress – it’s FREE and you don’t have to know any coding.

Why WordPress?

WordPress is committed to serving non-technical users who want to publish on the Internet easily and effectively. This has helped to make it the most popular and fastest growing Web publishing platform; version 3.2 was downloaded half a million times in its first two days. WordPress started life as a free, open source tool for blogging that has flourished and evolved into a comprehensive Web site content management system (CMS). WordPress is currently the most popular CMS in use on the Internet, used by large corporates and small businesses alike – it is used by over 50% of the top 10,000 sites. With that kind of pedigree, not only can you be sure of being in very good company, there’s a thriving community of practice and access to a wealth of guidance and support, both free and for profit.

Just Add Words and Pictures

WordPress enables you to select a “theme” for your site. Themes are what make WordPress so powerful. A theme defines your site’s page layout – where on the page words and pictures (“content”) and “widgets”, such as carousels for pictures and adverts, are displayed. It also defines the site’s look and feel. A theme has specific administration functions that you use to customise the site, for example, to change the logo and message in the banner heading, add images or streaming video, or manage (add or remove) navigation menu options. Free text, page content is added simply by writing or cutting and pasting your copy into a WYSIWYG text editor.

In short, the theme hides all the Web “jiggery-pokery” so there is no need for any HTML knowledge. You just add the content needed to populate the theme and, hey presto, you have a working site within a few minutes (plus, of course, the copywriting time, which you would have to put in anyway)!

Take Your Pick

You can choose from thousands of themes that are entirely free; some are surprisingly feature-rich. WordPress.org itself has over 1600 free themes. Themes are generally designed with a look and feel that’s appropriate to a particular purpose or to appeal to a particular target audience (a hairdresser’s site would tend to look quite different to a plumber’s site or an online magazine site).

So you should pick a theme that matches who and what you are, and what you are trying to achieve. You should also pick one that you will not find too onerous to populate and keep fresh with new content. Don’t pick a theme with lots of features and widgets unless you really need them as it will just increase the amount of time you will need to devote to keeping them populated.

Changing & Extending Your Site

But don’t worry if you want to rebrand or simply get tired of the old look and feel and fancy a change. All the content you have added is safely tucked away in the content database in the “Cloud”. To change the theme all you need to do is find a new theme, upload and activate it, and then spend a few minutes customising it (e.g. adding in your preferred menu options).

Themes vary from the very basic to the ultra-sophisticated. So if you “outgrow” your theme and find you need more sophisticated features and facilities, and/or value the peace of mind of regular upgrades and formal support, you can purchase a “premium theme”, for a once-off cost as little as £30.

It’s also very simple to extend the facilities available with your theme using “plugins“, which do almost anything you can imagine, even adding e-commerce or document management facilities or creating your own company Intranet or Extranet. On WordPress.org you can find over 21,000 free plugins! Again, you could expect to pay £100 or more for the more sophisticated premium plugins. Just pick what you want, download and activate it, it’s really that simple. Some even work “straight out of the box”. Most put an option in the administrators ‘”dashboard” that you use to set up the plugin (i.e. tailor it to your specific requirements).

Summary

A Web site is a great way to promote your small business and to help develop a valuable and enduring relationship with your potential clients, by sharing information and news about your business, your products, and yourself. A Web site can also be used to sell products and to provide after-sales services. In short, a Web site should not be overlooked as a means of maximizing profits for your business.

Now you should have an inkling of how to avoid getting suckered into the straight-jacket of many free Web site offerings, or of paying “over the odds” for a bespoke site that you are locked-in to for content maintenance and future enhancements. It’s really not that difficult to build a professional, high quality site that you can manage yourself and to which you can add valuable features as the need arises – and all on the tightest of budgets.

In my next post I will give you a step-by-step overview that will get your site up and running within a couple of hours.

About

Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect, WinWeb Business Mentor and Green Deal Consortia consulting partner operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter, email me at alan.jackson@B4BB.co.uk or call me on Skype (TheBetterBusinessBureau). Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.


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