Do you remember your first website? I can. For me it was a renegade solution that lacked any design aspirations at all but achieved the task of finally getting the company I worked for online. The site was built in Microsoft Front Page but really more in frustration and boy was it an ugly thing. But after waiting months for the technology department to first agree that we needed one and then allocate some resource to create it, I decided to take matters into my own hands and finally get “something” online.


My creation lasted a month, maybe two. Just enough time for word to get out about how bad it looked and how it needed to be replaced asap. This led to a Wellington design agency being appointed to create a replacement and kaboom, we had a shiny, new, what was then called a “brochure style” website. I quickly took my version down – it had achieved its goal.

These days there should be very few people who experience the frustration I did of having to justify the existence of a website let alone wait months for one to be built. Having a website is just part and parcel of doing business and if you want something simple then it’s a short step to get something reasonably credible online.

What form this takes depends on who you talk to. Unfortunately, most web developers still persist in presenting business owners with the limited choice of just two options – a brochure or an e-commerce website. Both names reflect the limited vision they have of their craft. One talks to the act of converting what was printed into something online – just as it was done back in 1997 with my experience. The other to the rather bland, nebulous description of selling something / anything really through mouse clicks and page views. You would think that things would have moved on from there – and fortunately they have.

This month I want to replace these two very boring and very limiting web categories with five that go a lot further to reflect the true range of possibilities that a new website can reveal. Here they are:

  • A salesperson
  • A mega mall shop
  • A local artisan retailer
  • A story teller
  • A news reader

I have purposefully made them all sound like people because that’s how a good website should be. It is not just a bland collection of text and words – there needs to be a good dollop of human personality to ensure the message gets through.

Now, some websites will pull from the pot of more than one category. So the “local artisan retailer” could well incorporate a section delivered by the “story teller” part of the site – more on this later. But to start let’s work our way through each of them, describing how they operate and how similar they are to their real world namesakes.

A Salesperson

Now this sounds a lot more accountable for results than a “brochure” website doesn’t it? Yep, you can hand out expensive brochures willy nilly hoping they may do some good but from a salesperson you should expect call reports, the use of scripted presentations and, all going well, some consistent results.

In the real world, good salespeople build rapport, listen to what prospects want and then explain what they offer in carefully crafted benefit-laden words. Then it’s about having the gumption to ask for the order, handle any objections / questions and, hopefully, close the sale.

Now I realise that in the majority of instances a website will struggle to perform all of these tasks. The steps at the end of the sales process (handling objections / closing the sale) are usually best done by people talking to people. Nevertheless, a well tuned website can do a great job in those early parts, paving the way for humans to take over once the rapport has been built and the early benefit-laden “conversations” have occurred.

By conducting some online research through your “salesperson” website you can discover the “hot” questions prospects need answering. It could be the level of experience of your staff, the technology being used, the price of the solution and even the speed with which it can be implemented. Somewhere within this there are a few points that matter most to most prospects. These are primers for rich content areas for a “salesperson” website to cover in words, pictures, audio and video. Then credibility-building case studies or customer testimonials can be included to gradually move the prospect along the persuasive process.

This usually ends up with the “salesperson” website asking for a commitment to continue this discussion in the “real world” of people talking to people. This could be an appointment request form, a contact us page or a simple report download page. Each requires the prospect to complete their details and move from being an unknown website visitor to a fully formed and named sales prospect. That simple act of conversion is the core role of a “salesperson” website – converting anonymous website browsers into known website prospects.

Sales “stars” in this category will convert at a rate of 25% plus, i.e. over a quarter of those visiting will be turned into quality prospects for humans to talk to. Other sites will struggle to get into double figures. The good news is that the process of doubling and even tripling the performance of these struggling sales sites is possible. You simply need to employ the services of a website salesperson trainer – just like us :).

A Mega Mall Shop

Wander aimlessly through any mall and you will come across shops like these. Bright lights, stocked shelves, loud announcements and usually very few people available to help you decide what you want. Prices are easy to find for each product and, due to the competitive nature of these shops, are probably the reason why you ended up here in the first place.

Here the experience is all about items being in stock, a full range and being able to quickly get in, put it in your cart and get out. Very fast, very reasonable and very easy. (Man shopping at its best.)

The simplicity of the real world mega mall shop experience does a very good job at hiding the super smarts that the retail geniuses have applied to make this system work so well. They have figured out what products to place where in the shop and at what height on the shelves. The lighting is the type that best suits a shopper experience. The colours of the walls and the shelves are too. So are the signage, the width of the aisles, the shape of the checkout and what else is presented at the checkout. And even those announcements are there because they are proven to move sales further ahead. The mega mall shop retail experience is a science experiment from start to finish, all carefully tuned to extract the maximum amount of profit from the minimum amount of space. And you thought it was just about keeping the shelves well stocked by teenagers and counting the money at the end of the day!

So the novice e-commerce store owner thinks it’s as simple as this and buys a cheap web store that will stock thousands of products but provide little if any ability for them to analyse accurately how their pages are being used. They load up images, content and prices and hope all will go well. And when it doesn’t they find it a struggle to locate where the real problem lies. Is it product selection, product price, lack of product content or a shopping cart that wants your life story before accepting your money? Maybe that last button should be blue and not red? It could be all or some of these but without any ability to track and test their visitor pathways through their site there’s no way to find out.

The smart ones realise that the “forever learning – forever testing” mantra of retail managers transfers very nicely to the e-commerce world and have picked a platform that suits this style of ongoing work. So product navigation is tested, the home page layout is constantly reviewed, and the shape and style of the shopping cart is pored over in painstaking detail.

A Local Artisan Retailer

With all its magic there’s one thing a mega mall shop struggles to provide its shoppers – informed advice. Yep, you will see a wide range of what you want in all shapes and colours but just try to get someone to explain which of these is best suited to your needs and why – well, frequently, you are plum out of luck.

Your best choice is to leave the mall and walk across the road and down the local suburban high street to find a specialist artisan retailer who sells products in the same category. The range will probably be half the size, the price probably a good 20% more but the advice will be there for the asking and lots of it too.

This is a place where you can “learn” about your purchase. What makes it work. How to get the most out of your investment and if there are any bits that, when bought with it, make the whole solution so much easier. This is the place where you will walk in looking for A and leave with A,B,C and possibly D. Not because these were forced onto you but because you now know that without them A would have never worked properly for your situation.

And that’s the core difference. In this retail environment the owner takes the time to learn what you want to do and then translates this to what they offer. A process that is forever missing from the mega mall shop due to the inability to scale this system reliably across a national retail footprint.

A website operating in this space works in a very similar way. It organises its product selection based on what people want to do rather than on what the company supplies. Knowledge is scattered around the site to make the buying process easier. This could be in the form of articles, videos or customer reviews. Anything and everything that helps to translate what the product does to what exactly the prospect wants to do with it.

A Story Teller

This is a style of website that fits well within some of the other categories I have mentioned before. Both the local artisan retailer and the salesperson can do well with a section like this. Here they can expand on areas such as the history of the business and its people. Or the views that define how the company operates, what it believes in and what it finds important.

Blog content management systems are a great way to present this type of content. There are millions of websites that are just ongoing stories in the form of a blog growing by a few inches of content each day. Someone’s life being progressively documented each and every month for everyone to pore over.

Stories are powerful things. All the great story tellers have achieved their success by presenting narratives that their audience finds compelling because somehow it reflects part of who they are or who they see themselves as.

This part is getting a bit deep but bear with me – I think its going to be worth it.

Most of the successful business people I have met have a great story behind their achievements. It could be their deep desire to give their customers an experience they never had. Or to carry on the legacy that their father started. Or to break up an industry that created too much wealth for too many doing too little – and by doing so providing the consumer with so much more. Stories like these can be shared and hence provide context to the reason why the business exists.

Don’t discount the value of sharing the story behind your business – used well it can become an extremely potent part of the reason why people choose you over your competitors.

A News Reader

Like the “story teller” category mentioned above, the “news reader” option can be used in conjunction with other types. Yes, a picture can tell a thousand words but a one minute, properly crafted video can triple this level of comprehension when compared with plain text and pictures. Artisan retail shops, with all their personality, can use video with great benefit.

Perhaps it’s the story they can add to that set of pans that would take pages to explain but can be covered in mere minutes of video, which is enough to convince you that they are worth the 20% extra on top of what you were willing to pay. A few minutes of video explaining how a complicated product works could be enough for a prospect to gain sufficient trust to complete a $500 online sale from a company they have never shopped with before.

Fortunately, the You Tube experience has helped make the “news reader” option viable for many more websites than it used to be. First, it offers a very simple and very cost-effective place (free) to store video content without clogging up a website’s hosting package. And secondly, it has reset our expectation of the balance between production quality versus content quality. We now don’t mind if the camera is a bit shaky or that the presenters are not actors – that doesn’t matter. It’s the way they take apart the product and show us exactly how it all works that makes this 2 minute video segment really rock.

Here are three tasks to work on this month to apply this content to improve your website:

  1. Review your existing website and pick a category that best reflects either what your website is now or what it should be in the near future.
  2. Match this with my notes on your chosen category and list what your site does well and, conversely, what it could improve on.
  3. From this list just pick one and add this to your task list for January to get sorted.

Have fun.