waterI’ve talked for the last two blog posts about the steps you can take to plan your business’ first web site before you even hire anyone to build it. First, I talked about your design — the look and feel of the site and your brand in general — and last week, I gave you some ideas for the content of the site. This week, I want to focus on what I call functionality, or what your site can DO beyond delivering content and images to your readers.

What does that have to do with water infused with fruit? Well, plain water does the job of getting you hydrated, but water with orange slices and strawberries adds just a little something extra. It’s the difference between the cup of water on the table of the diner and the glass of water served to you at a fancy restaurant, with the waiter who has the napkin draped over his arm. The little extras you add to your site can make a noticeable difference to your customers, so it’s worth considering adding a combination of special features either at the same time as the rest of your site, or in a “phase II” somewhere down the road.

Of course, some people really don’t need any lemon slices or strawberries in their water, and some web sites don’t need any extra functionality. It’s up to you to decide if any of these “extras” will add value for your audience.

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Passive Interaction Features

Doesn’t “passive interaction” sound like an oxymoron? Bear with me. There are pieces of functionality you can add to your site that allow your users to interact with the content in a way that doesn’t call on you specifically to do anything immediate in response. Some examples are:

  1. Online Calendar. For businesses with public events or dates to schedule only. This should be more than just a list of dates and times; it should be downloadable as a PDF, allow people to import it into their own electronic calendars, and include everything you can possibly share about each event. If you are someone who schedules clients (like a business coach, a physical therapist, a tutor, etc.), you could show openings on this calendar.
  2. Embedded Videos. Have your existing customers loved what you do or sell? If they’re willing, take a simple, nicely-lit video of them talking about what they liked and create a YouTube channel of all the testimonials you record. No customers yet? Maybe you have a few pieces of advice or products you can demonstrate in your own videos. Put them on your own free YouTube channel and embed these videos into your site. Your users can watch them, share them on their own social media, and spread buzz about what you have to offer.

Active Interaction Features

These will require you to be on top of you online presence in real time — at the very least, once per day, and ideally two to three times per day. However, as you know if you’ve ever sent an online request to a company, every moment they wait to hear back from you is spent forming an opinion of how much you value their business. I’ve been listening to the fantastic new podcast from Scott Stratten, and he and his co-host talk a lot about the impression that bad — and great — online customer service can create. If you’re not totally convinced, listen to the UnPodcast and see if you feel differently. Once you’re ready to tackle online interaction with your customers in a fully committed way, you can try some of these options:

  1. Contact or Feedback Form. I’d argue that this isn’t really optional — I don’t have very many clients who don’t have a contact form on their site. It can be very simple, but it allows your users to communicate with you in a way that allows you to gather the information that will best help you provide what they need. At the absolute minimu, the form should have fields for the user’s name and email address, and then a field marked something like “How can we help you?” or “Your comments:” or “Your feedback.”

    When they click the “submit” button at the end of the form, they should see a page thanking them for submitting the message and letting them know exactly when they can expect to hear back from you. Something like “Thank you for sending your feedback. Someone will get back to you within the next three business days.” You shouldn’t wait that long, but it gives you some wiggle room if you need to think carefully about responding. Whatever this web site visitor entered into the form should be sent to an email address that you check regularly, at least once or twice a day.

  2. Links to Your Social Media. Entire books and countless web pages are dedicated to your social media presence as a business. It’s a whole other area of discussion, but if you are active on social media, you should include both links to your social media pages and an easy way for your users to link the content of your site on their own social media pages. There are simple ways to do both.
    1. Facebook Everyone and their cousin is on Facebook. If your business doesn’t have a business page on Facebook, at the very least you’ll want to let your web site users to easy share the content on your web site on their own pages. If you do have a Facebook page for your business, you can also choose one place on your site (your Contact page, or your home page) to stream your News Feed from Facebook. Just be sure you’re curating that feed well if you’re allowing other people to post on it.
    2. Twitter Twitter is a serious, regular time commitment for any business that maintains a dedicated following. If you do not have the time to post on Twitter once a day or more, you’re not likely to get much traction here. Like Facebook above, however, it’s a good idea to give your users an easy way to “tweet” the address of the page of your site that they find valuable. And also like Facebook, if you tweet regularly, you can stream your tweets to a location on your site
    3. Pinterest¬† This is more of a niche social network that works especially well if your audience falls in its general demographic, which is more pointed than Facebook or Twitter. A majority of the users are women (68%) and the average household income of a Pinterest user is high. If you are a retailer or sell a physical product, Pinterest is probably worth your time. If you are like me, and sell largely to businesses, it might not be the right fit for you. However, just like the networks above, you can either allow people to “pin” pages on your site to their own Pinterest boards, or you can share all your “pins” on a dedicated page of your site.
  3. An Online Store. This is a huge commitment, and it requires coordination with your bank and a credit card processor, and if you’ll be stocking large numbers of items for sale online, an inventory management system, but why not dream big? You can sell online through a service that manages most of the process for you, like Etsy or eBay, or you can install your own payment processing and shopping cart system.
  4. Your Own App. Sure you can! Why not? You can hire an app developer to build an iOS and Android app if you think it will add value for your customers. Here’s the key: it has to do something neat. It absolutely cannot cannot cannot CANNOTjust open up your web site. That’s not an app — that’s a waste of space on someone’s smart phone. What could your app do? Here’s what some of my favorite small business apps do and why I like them:
    1. Our local fitness studio has an app that allows you to login to your account and reserve space in one of their classes. That’s pretty nice. I can check the schedule from my phone without navigating through their entire web site to get to the right place, and I can book the class for tomorrow morning when I’m out to dinner the night before.
    2. Our local Thai restaurant has an app that allows you to order your food for delivery — I use that one all the time, standing on the playground of my daughter’s school, letting her play an extra twenty minutes because I just “made” dinner with my phone. That app from the Thai restaurant was the difference between them getting my money for dinner and me deciding when we got home that we were all having cereal because it was too late to call anyone.
    3. This isn’t exactly a one-business app, but the City of Evanston (where I live) has a downtown that banded together to build an app. Retailers and service providers who are involved list themselves on the Downtown Evanston app, which offers discounts at lots of local businesses and a directory organized by business type. When I’m in the area at dinner time and trying to decide where I want to go, I can open the app, see a list of restaurants, and pick one that has a discount today. It’s very useful — I even get discounts on hair cuts from a place I didn’t know existed before I got the Downtown Evanston app.

Be sure, of course, to prominently display download links for your apps on your site.

Remember, all of these extras are totally negotiable. You don’t need to do any of it right away, or ever, but if you’re looking for ways to add value to your site, this is a nice range from accessible, reasonable options (forms & social media) to slightly more involved items (calendar, embedded videos) to more advanced development ideas (online store, custom app). As you plan what your first web site is going to be, “what does it do?” should always be one of the questions you ask yourself. Imagine the most amazing things it could do — things that would make your users say, “Wow, that’s cool!” — and then plan to do those things whenever you can, even if that’s in five years.

Do not, however, stand on your upright bass, no matter how cool it looks, unless you are a member of the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Do you have questions for me about other cool web site functionality you’ve seen? Do you want to know what would be involved in making it happen? I’m happy to answer your questions on Twitter or Facebook, or via email. Feel free to get in touch and ask — I’d love to hear from you.