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what stage of evolution is your website at? >

stage 1: the online brochure

This is where your website resembles a brochure. It is attractive, well written, and informative about what you do.

The important point is that like a brochure it is unlikely to be read twice by the same person. This may not matter where the purpose is to give background information, and encourage the visitor to contact you to do business. Once a business relationship is begun, the website no longer plays a part of the relationship.

The website is for new business only. It acts as a way that a potential client can perform some due diligence on you, or your company. We have all done just that: taken a quick look at someone's website. It gives a good measure of the business, besides (hopefully) letting you know what it is that they do, and what makes them different. By looking at the quality of writing and quality of design you get a measure of how professional are they.

Any competent web designer can build a brochure website. Their failing is that once the website is built, it requires you to contact the design company to make changes to the content. Usually brochure websites become out of date the minute they are approved - certainly within their first 12 months. After which, it is time to start the exercise of commissioning a new one, as you will find your business has changed considerably and your website is now a source of embarrassment.

pros: (can be) inexpensive, web designers take care of everything.
cons: requires contact with web designer to update, sell-by-date passes quickly, may be more expensive in the long run.
done well: can be an inexpensive extension to your business card.
done badly: is often over designed (form over function), badly organised, out-of-date, embarassing, and you have no idea where the designer is who originally built it.

stage 2: the basic CMS

This is where your website is linked to a content management system (CMS), which allows you to update the content of the website yourself. The website is still a brochure but should be by definition more up-to-date to reflect onging changes in your business. The CMS site allows you to quickly update your product and service offerings, also your staff members (in or out). It allows you to introduce elements like news, case studies, links, etc. which a static brochure site would typically not have.

This site is still a brochure, but it is an all together more impressive introduction to your company for the visitor who wants to know more about your company.

A web designer may or may not be able to build a website and connect it to a CMS. Many are specialist graphic designers and work with other companies who can do the technical elements. The benefit to you is that once the site is completed you have the freedom to update the content yourself. You only need to go back to the designer for design changes, or new features. You control the content. The downside is you now need to update the website yourself and not allow it to look dated.

pros: relatively inexpensive, web designers do the initial build and content population, leaving you to do maintenance only. This site is more impressive to the visitor as it is more up-to-date and relevent.
cons: potential clients are still only likely to visit once, but a CMS site will cost more to build.
done well: a CMS site will be well maintained with regular turnover in content. It will never look dated.
done badly: the content will get out-of-date because there is no strategy in place to manage the content. Visitors are likely to notice.

stage 3: the CRM site

This is where your website is linked to a content management system (CMS), which allows you to publish content to the web, but it is also capturing data from visitors - in the form of enquiries, registrations, sign ups, purchases, etc. This is the CRM angle, where CRM stands for customer relationship management. This data is being used later to contact the visitor / customer again - usually by broadcast email - and drive / entice them back to the site for more.

This site is now more than a brochure, it is a means of communicating with your customers. It is a system that generates its own returning traffic, and referral visitors. Data that is captured should be profiled so that communication is not blanket, but targetted to groups with similar interests. The more a communication speaks directly to your customer, the closer they will get to you and your company.
 
Now the skills being asked of the web designer are becomming more specialist. But the tools are not the full story, you will need to know how to use them effectively. Writing content and then sending out emails about it is easy enough but to generate repeat traffic of interested customers who do not feel turned off by your marketing efforts, requires careful planning and consideration.

pros: you have the tools to be a marketeer. You can update your website and tell the world about it.
cons: you have to learn to use the tools effectively. You have to generate useful content, newsletters, and manage your contact list.
done well: your website rapidly builds its own traffic of repeat visitors. This is translated into referrals and repeat business. The website complements and enhances your brick & mortar operation.
done badly: you alienante and bother your customers by spamming them with uninteresting blanket emails. The content is not fresh enough to warrant repeat visits. Former customers black list your website.

stage 4: the e-commerce engine

At this stage a significant amount of your business (if not all) is derived from the Internet. Your CMS is connected to your supply chain management. You CRM software tracks buyer trends and tells you who are your most important referal customers. You are linked to payment gateways, shipping APIs, and increasingly sophisticated reporting software.

You regularly analyse your website's traffic reports to see what campaigns are successful, and which are not. You regularly turnover your content. What remains depends on what attracts the most eyeballs, and the most revenue. You live by better Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and how you rate against your competitors over common search key words. You advertise.

You have a budget allocation for Google Adwords, and you have a Google Affiliates programme, where potentially thousands of related 3rd party websites are posting ads for your products.

pros: a business on your desktop. There are many inexpensive tools at your disposal which any sales and marketing department would love to have.
cons: expensive and it can all go wrong. Right tools in the wrong hands will still be a disaster. There has to be a well thought through business strategy. This is a responsibility, and the Internet never sleeps.
done well: you are successful, and sell out, or IPO, or copy the methodology and turn out repeat online ventures until you retire (early). You are a dot commer done good.
done badly: you burn through a lot of cash. The site goes belly up. You run off and start another site but this time with a plan.

what stage of evolution is your website at?

Websites have evolved rapidly since the invention of the Internet - more rapidly we can suppose than any other media. In this short space of time a basic heirarchy has emerged - what we call the 4 stages of web presence.

Each stage has its characteristics, each stage is perfectly valid depending on your objectives for the world wide web... and each can be done well, or done badly.