Getting your business online

It would be interesting to know how most Nigerian businesses have survived without having websites so far. But then the reasons are not farfetched. Internet penetration in Nigeria used to be very low, so low that years before now the only way you could send an email, even business correspondences with sensitive information, would be to visit the local business center or cybercafé.

But 11 years of the telecoms reforms have changed all that. Things have transformed dramatically in the last few years; recent figures released by the World Bank in 2010 showed Nigeria has at about 43 million internet users although the CEO of Mainone, Funke Opeke, put the figure at a less stratospheric 16.5 million. Even using the smaller figure we can still ask the small to medium size business why this is not the time to have a website. After all if all Nigerian internet users should form a nation they would have a population more than 72% of all countries.

A business owner might question if there is a compelling reason why she needs to spend the hard-to-come-by money to put up a website and update it, which is a bigger headache than going online, when she has run a successful business so far? Absolutely! More than ever before, there are so many tangible and immediate benefits and I will discuss some of them.

In the more developed countries the average business website generates more business leads than any other means of advertising and Nigeria would rapidly reach that point as more citizens use the internet on a daily basis. Websites are indexed by Google and other search engines and when internet users search for information, your business website would be shown on the search results. You will be amazed at how many searches people from all corners of the globe make about products and information in Nigeria.

A business website extends its brand. Small and medium size businesses need good branding and reputation as much as bigger companies. For a small company, a well done website can project a bigger profile and a more professional image than it actually has. This should provide leverage when trying to land a new customer.

Customers and casual readers can easily know about your company and other important information without having to work the telephone. People can contact your business using website forms and emails during your non-working hours. Your business telephone contact would also be a relief to anyone trying to call for more details than you have on the website. The opportunities are almost endless. A business with information about itself and its products and services will always trump competitors that cannot be found online.

You can effortlessly keep in touch with your customers by sending newsletters and can easily allow new ones to sign up. In fact, it is so convenient for anyone to keep in touch with your company progress by following the news items which can be posted online.

Printing and sending product information to customers is expensive and modifying the information with new product updates is no less burdensome. A website allows you to publish and update your product and service information easily and as often as you want. You can even tailor your website to allow prospective customers to interact with the information, such as configuring products to get pricing, in ways not possible with paper brochures.

By the time your business is matured enough to transition to ecommerce, sales can happen 24 hours each day to customers that could not have been reached in the ordinary course of business. If possible, you might even be able to run a business 100% online without much of a physical presence.

Nevertheless going online can be a daunting move for the average business. Questions like what should we do; how much will it cost; who will do it for us; how do we maintain this; constantly come up with no easy answer. While there are no clear cut answers, having a business website is a whole lot easier than it used to be.

For a business that has never been online before, the first question is why should we have a website? Some of the reasons I have talked about, and countless others, would provide justifications.

So what type of website should we have? It could be so tempting to be carried away with the euphoria of having a website. Running before walking can only lead to broken bones. Without the resources and experience, it is almost impossible to have a successful big feature-rich website. So it is better to start small and expand incrementally with sure, measured steps.

The business must also decide on a domain name – choosing an appropriate domain name could be a frustrating experience. A domain name must reflect the business name as it would be part of the brand. It must also be short and memorable because it is more difficult for customers to remember long or cryptic domain names. Decision must also be made on the Top Level Domain to register the domain on. A Top Level Domain, TLD, is the ending part of a website name such as .com, .com.ng, .org, etc. A business domain name, as a matter of professionalism, must be registered under the appropriate TLD. Registering a commercial business under .org (for non-profit organizations) is a professional faux pas. If the desired domain name is not available in the .com TLD, the same domain name under a .com.ng would be appropriate as long as it does not infringe on any trademark.

Cost has been a big deterrent to going online for businesses trying to break even. But this has been due to ignorance. You can get your business online for as little as N1,600 a year and you could also spend millions. The electronic payments reforms in Nigeria now allows the use of the humble ATM cards (Visa, VPay and GTB MasterCard) to be used to  buy domain names and hosting online without the hassles of getting an international debit/credit card. Furthermore there are countless IT companies that would build websites with reasonable budget without breaking the bank. You can even build and host a business website for free with Google or Yola.

A website is like a living organism; it needs constant care and attention. Leaving a business website without updates on news and products information portrays a business as badly run or clueless – the last of the impressions a business wants customers to have.

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