Web sites drive business 24/7:

Define your objectives

Before investing in a design, decide what you want to accomplish. For example, you may be trying to: Let people know about your company. Your Web site establishes credibility by providing customers and prospects an introduction to your firm. Develop a research tool. Online surveys help gather information regarding customer preferences, interests and market trends. Operate a retail shop. Some sites offer customers the opportunity to collect information, view pricing and shop online. Extend your customer-service department. Special log-ins and protected areas allow customers to place and track orders, check project status and provide feedback. Provide an educational resource. Most sites provide information about the company and its industry. Whatever its purpose, you should integrate your Web site into your overall business process. For example, if you accept orders online you must have the manpower to process the orders. Be sure you have the systems in place to support the expectations of your customers.

Function vs. cost

Once you have defined your business and online goals, it’s time to explore functionality: the specific features your site will include.

Start by searching the Internet, looking at sites of other companies that offer a similar product or service. What features do they include? Also, evaluate your favorite sites. What features make you come back?

Build your own wish list, then prioritize by dividing it into must-have and optional features.

This list will form the foundation of the initial conversation with your Web developer, who can help you assign costs to features so you can evaluate the cost/benefit of each.

In many cases, it makes sense to look at a phased approach, launching a small site first and expanding as your business builds.

A rose by any other name

As you begin your Web planning, you will need a domain name-the Internet address where customers can find you. Hint: The longer your name, the harder it is to remember or type without mistakes.

Take the time to be creative and find an address that is short and logical. It does not have to be the name of your business, but simply related to what you do. A butcher might choose www.meat.com, for example, if it were available.

To secure the name, you must register it and pay an annual renewal fee. There are many legitimate registration sites, but one of the easiest and least expensive to use is www.godaddy.com. You can search the database to determine if the name you want is available, and if not, the system will automatically suggest alternatives.

Once you have registered your name, you are ready to begin building your site.

Designing your site

There are several options here to:

For the do-it-yourselfer, online templates on sites like Godaddy.comand Yahoo.comoffer an easy, affordable way to create a professional presence quickly.

For professional help, look for Web designers who use templates. This is less expensive than a custom design, and sites usually can be up and running in a few weeks.

Custom designs are another option, although typically more expensive. Still, investing in a site that presents your business like no others-incorporating online functionality and back-end operations-could help you leapfrog your competition.

A host of other concerns

In some ways, your Web site is like a mobile home. Once constructed, it can be placed almost anywhere.

As you evaluate online hosts, ask about services such as e-mail, memory, maintenance fees, security, backup, e-commerce gateways and technical support.

And don’t think you can develop a Web site and walk away. Your online storefront is never really finished. You must give visitors a reason to come back by periodically offering new content.

Ball owns Indianapolis-based Roundpeg, a marketing firm for small-business owners. She also works with the Neighborhood Self Employment Initiative to deliver a foursession series entitled “The Internet: A World of Possibilities.” She can be reached at lorraine@roundpeg.biz.

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