Who are you? Developing an online identity

01-12-2012

Scott Schnell

Scott Schnell of Verisign gives TB&I an insight into how businesses can best use the Internet as a resource to develop their bottom lines.

Scott Schnell of Verisign gives TB&I an insight into how businesses can best use the Internet as a resource to develop their bottom lines.

Why is having an online identity important for businesses?

Today, people often turn to the Internet first for information about businesses and products— whether they are shopping online, or simply looking for a business’ address or phone number—making an online presence one of the most important assets for business. No matter the size or the industry, an Internet presence is vital for businesses to help ensure customers can access the information they want.

A recent consumer study by PwC found that online research is essential for driving traffic to physical stores. And Forrester research predicts sales influenced by the web in 2014 will reach $1.409 trillion. These are sales driven by consumers looking for product information online while shopping in a store, researching products and services via social media, and comparison shopping among competitors. It doesn’t even include direct sales from e-commerce, which McKinsey estimates at more than $8 trillion globally. With more than 25 million businesses around the globe online, those without an online presence are at a clear disadvantage.

Finally, consumers are looking to connect with companies more than ever, and establishing an online presence through a website, blog or social channels provides a perfect way to fulfil this desire. Maintaining ongoing communication and providing updates on company initiativesand promotions through digital channels helps companies reach a broader audience to create and strengthen relationships and build trust, which is vital for creating the all-important customer loyalty.

What should businesses think about when working to establish their online identity?

The most important decision a business owner can make when establishing an online identity is choosing the right domain name. In this digital age, domain names are central to all online activity and businesses should consider carefully when making their choice.

First, businesses need to ask themselves which top-level domain (TLD) best serves their business. TLDs appear to the right of the dot, such as .com, .net, .tv. The domain name industry is a competitive marketplace and there are many TLDs to choose from.

When deciding where to build your online identity, a TLD can be as important to your business as your secondlevel domain (what’s to the left of the dot, ie, your name, brand or product) for many reasons, including security, credibility and search—which will be how most customers find your site.

For more than two decades, .com and .net have been the TLDs of choice for businesses seeking to establish their online presence because they have global recognition and consistent records of security, availability and stability. They are also the TLDs of choice for many search expertsbecause search engines give more weight to websites on .com and .net, making it easier for them to be found.

In countries where the country code TLD (ccTLD) is prevalent and very desirable for businesses— such as the UK’s .co.uk and Germany’s .de—a business may want to consider building a domain portfolio and registering the same domain name on .com and .net to protect its online identity. It is easy to resolve many domains to the same site, and by registering multiple domains on different TLDs, businesses can protect and position their brands for future growth.

For instance, video has become a huge draw for people online and many businesses are establishing video hubs on .tv domains that are associated with their primary websites. Examples of this are www.RedBull.tv and www.Lipsy. tv, which both have distinct .tv websites that house video content and are linked to their .com websites. Registering domains on these additional TLDs is an investment in future growth and a great defensive brand protection move, too, as in the past companies have been known to purchase domain names associated with competitors and place questionable content on them.

There is a common misconception that popular TLDs like .com and .net, which are powered by Verisign, are ‘full’ and businesses need to go elsewhere to get the domain they want, but that is simply not true. Millions of new .com domainnames are registered every year and millions of great domain names are still available.

With recent changes to search algorithms, businesses can obtain better search engine rankings by registering longer and more descriptive domains (which, conveniently, make up the majority of available domains) that include keywords, their brand, their location, or memorable phrases. This is because many Internet users today prefer simply to type a search term into a browser to find what they are looking for, unlike 10 years ago when most typed in a direct domain address to reach a website.

Businesses should take advantage of this evolving behaviour and try to think of the keywords their customers might use to find their business and register a combination of those keywords as a domain name. For example, if someone in London is looking for a bakery, they’re likely to search for ‘the best bakery in London’ as opposed to ‘bakeries’. A business with the domain www.thebestbakeryinlondon.com, or www. bestlondonbakedgoods.com would be served well in this example.

Moreover, a trend in marketing today is to register ‘brand-able phrase’ domain names, such as www.nowwhat.com, that uses a phrase that’s intended to be catchy so it will draw interest or intrigue to a promotion or advertisement.

Once a business decides which domains it wants to register, the next step is to decide which registrar to purchase from. Registrars are effectively domain retailers that send the necessary domain name system (DNS) information to a registry like Verisign—the wholesaler—to register a domain name on behalf of businesses, or registrants.

Many registrars provide online tools to help people search for available domain names and create websites around their new domain name once registered. Registrars can serve as a business owner’s onestop shop to help establish its online identity.

Setting up and managing a website can seem daunting for many small businesses. What are some best practices they can employ?

There’s a common misconception that buying a domain name requires one to set up a website. But once a business selects and registers a domain name, or several, there are many ways they can be used to establish an online presence.

From free and low-cost channels that require no or little investment or technical expertise, to a fully customised website, the control that having a domain name provides is vital because it allows businesses to scale their web presence as they grow without the risk of losing customers.The simplest way a business can establish an online presence is to take advantage of the prevalence and popularity of social media and resolve its domain name to its social site of choice.

This means that when people type in the company’s domain name, they will be directed to the company’s page on social sites like Facebook or Pinterest. This technique is a great way for small businesses to get their feet wet online because it requires no or little investment or technical expertise and enables them to see the immediate benefits that an online presence can deliver.

Similarly, for companies looking to expand their sales to the online market, services such as www.bigcommerce.com, www.etsy. com, www.ebay.com and others, make it easy to establish an Internet storefront without investing in a full blown e-commerce website.

One thing to consider with both of these approaches is that by subscribing to these types of free and low-cost services to support an online presence, businesses give up control and are beholden to the rules and any changes these platforms may make.

This means that a business’ relationship with its customers is moderated by someone else. It is also why it’s important for businesses to make a domain name their central online marketing destination. In the instance that a new social or e-commerce channel becomes more desirable, or a business decides to switch its online presence to a custom website, a domain name can be easily redirected to the new site without the risk of losing customers or the need to invest in new letterhead and business cards.

If a business has decided that it wants its own website, many registrars and hosting companies make it very easy to develop a website through templates that include most of the same features as custom websites: e-commerce support, branded email, search engine optimisation and interactive tools.

The interface for maintaining these types of sites is generally very user-friendly and requires very little technical expertise. Many small businesses subscribe to this practice because it is inexpensive, low effort, and allows for more control over the user’s experience, and therefore more control over their brands.

What other features should a website include that will help a small business succeed online?

Aside from making sure essential contact information—business address, phone number and email address—is present and remains consistent, small businesses should consider including e-commerce and mobile technology on their websites.Consumers cite convenience and better deals as primary reasons for shopping online instead of in stores, and this has prompted major and smaller retailers alike to invest more in e-commerce.

In June 2012, online shoppers in the UK spent an estimated £6 billion ($9.3 billion)—an average of £117 ($181) per person, up 13 percent from June 2011—and this figure is expected to grow even bigger.

Forrester research predicts e-commerce sales will represent 8 percent of all retail sales in the US by 2014, up from 6 percent in 2009, and in western Europe, Forrester expects a slightly faster 11 percent growth rate for online retail sales to $156 billion (€114.5 billion) in 2014. There is a huge opportunity for small businesses to get a piece of this pie by incorporating e-commerce into their websites.

"If someone in London is looking for a bakery, they're likely to search for 'the best bakery in London' as opposed to 'bakeries'."

E-commerce platforms also allow businesses to collect valuable customer contact information as part of the checkout process.

Collecting customer contact information allows you to communicate directly with customers about new offers and promotions, and draw them back to your site for repeat business.

When a small business establishes an online presence, it is essentially opening its store front to a global market. A growing global trend—especially in many European and Asian markets—is shopping from a tablet computer or mobile phone.

Research shows that number is expected to grow. In order to streamline the customer experience online, businesses need to have mobile-friendly versions of their websites that prioritise the content that’s important for mobile users to access. Whether through advanced options such as responsive design, or easy to use mobile website tools such as Verisign MobileView, mobile capabilities can provide a competitive advantage.

Once a business establishes a solid online presence, making smart marketing decisions that get customers to your site is important. A business’ online presence should be at the centre of its marketing efforts. Many small businesses have found success driving visitors and sales to their sites through daily offer sites such Groupon and Amazon Daily Deals.

These sites, for a fee, allow businesses to take advantage of large, established user bases to gain exposure and get new customers. Some enterprising small companies have capitalised on the mobile trend by building smartphone apps that easily direct customers to their websites. For example, this technique catapulted Woot into a well-known e-commerce brand.

Businesses need to garner customer interest, and building and investing in an online presence is one of the most effective ways of doing that. For more information on how to build and develop an online presence, including how to purchase a domain name, visit www.GetA.com or www.VerisignInc.com/smallbiz

References are available on request to the author

Scott Schnell is senior vice president of marketing, strategy and business development at Verisign. He can be contacted at: pr@verisign.com

e-commerce, tld, online identity, domains, smartphones