By Bridget McCrea
Shea Concrete of Amesbury, Mass., has had an online presence since 2000. Every three to five years or so, the company takes a close look at its website, checks out the “latest and greatest” online technologies currently in use, and then figures out how to incorporate those tools – like social media, online video and other options – in a way that effectively meets the needs of its prospects and existing customers.
Greg Stratis, manager, says Shea Concrete’s most recent website upgrade was unveiled in January. He says the underlying goal of all site upgrades is to keep the company’s online presence fresh, relevant and useful for visitors. To achieve that goal, the company regularly makes slight changes to its online presence, typically on a quarterly basis. “This also helps our site move up the ranks with the search engines,” Stratis points out.
Shea Concrete’s most recent site overhaul included changes to the menu structure, better mobile enablement (to ensure that users on “small screens” can interact with the site), a more user-friendly interface, and improved navigation capabilities for the firm’s three primary target areas: engineers, contractors and homeowners. The company – whose original website was developed in-house – contracted with a third-party marketing firm (which also handled the company’s 2008 website overhaul) to complete the upgrade.
Stratis says the process went smoothly. “We’re at the point where I just send the designer a little bit of information about a product or project, and they are able to run with it,” says Stratis, who also sits down face to face twice a year with the vendor to go over the company’s marketing plan. “This meeting helps to make sure we are all on the same page.” For example, while Shea Concrete’s previous site was jam-packed with information, that content wasn’t necessarily optimized for search engines like Google. Additionally, Stratis says making the site mobile- and social networking-friendly were top priorities during the most recent site upgrade.
“Our last site wasn’t iPad- or mobile-friendly, and social networking wasn’t being used much back in 2008,” says Stratis. “Today, both of these tools have become extremely important for manufacturers that want to ensure their websites are up with the times and relevant.”
Stratis says those efforts have paid off for Shea Concrete, which receives a daily flow of requests from new customers via its website. “On a weekly basis, I would say we average about five to 10 homeowners, two to three engineers, and one to two contractors,” Stratis explains. “Our database from forms submitted on our website has grown to around 2,500 contacts (including homeowners, engineers and contractors) in the past five years. That’s pretty significant.”
Show your true colors
Studies show that it only takes a fraction of a second for a visitor to develop his or her first impressions of a website. With technology evolving rapidly, and with more tools being introduced and used online, precasters not only need to completely overhaul their sites every three to five years (there are no hard and fast rules around this timeline), but they also need to regularly update site information, navigation and tools to make their online homes as effective and engaging as possible.
For the crew at Gainey’s Concrete Products in Holden, La., regular site updates are a “no brainer,” according to Cyndi Glascock, design drafter. “If you’re not putting your company’s products, information and message out there, you’ll miss out on a booming market,” says Glascock. “Young engineers don’t want binders; they want information that’s easy and fast to access online.”
To meet those customer demands, Gainey’s Concrete – which is in the middle of a major site overhaul right now – divided its site into two different sections. One is for specifiers who want specifications, CAD drawings and other materials at their fingertips. The other section is for contractors who use the site’s “request a quote form” to communicate their needs and who also turn to the precaster’s published articles, tips and other content for help solving their own problems (such as how to install grease traps and how to prep for excavations). “We try to put as much information on our site as possible to help make our customers’ lives easier,” says Glascock.
As one of few woman-owned and operated precast manufacturing firms, Gainey’s Concrete also uses its website to brand itself as such. “We try to focus on our culture by using pink-and-black color schemes and by playing off our woman-owned status,” says Glascock. The company also wants its online audience to know that it is “fun and easy” to do business with, she adds, so its website also includes photos from events and other items that show off its corporate culture. “It’s about being fun and interesting to work with while also helping customers understand that we know what we’re doing,” she says.
Maintaining that balance while staying ahead of the Internet technology curve isn’t always easy for Gainey’s Concrete, which established its first online presence 10 years ago. Any time the updating requires more than just a 30-minute stint with the site’s user-friendly software interface, the precaster brings in a third-party designer to handle the task. To keep the upgrades within budget, Glascock says she always comes to the table with a clear direction on exactly what needs to be changed and why.
“If you just ask a firm to overhaul your site, you’ll wind up paying thousands and thousands of dollars for the work,” says Glascock. “But if you bring someone in and give them specific goals, you can keep the costs to less than $1,000.”
Armen Alajian, owner of Arto Brick in Gardena, Calif., says his company’s website is an extension of its overall sales, marketing and branding strategies. It helps the company go beyond price, says Alajian, and position itself as an expert in the field of design – something that’s extremely important for a firm that sells precast tile and decorative products.
“Even in today’s tech-oriented world, buying is still a very personal decision,” says Alajian. “The more you can tell the world about your company – and the more you can use the Internet to achieve that goal – the better equipped you’ll be to go beyond price.”
On Arto’s site, for example, one link takes site visitors off to the company’s new products page, where one new launch per month helps the precaster “keep ahead of the rest of the world,” says Alajian. The site is connected to the firm’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts, where Arto regularly broadcasts information about its products and services (see the sidebar “Getting Social Online”). In return, Alajian says his company – which upgraded its site to its current format two years ago, and conducts continuous improvements on an as-needed basis – has been able to increase its sales while also branching out into international markets.
“The feedback we get from our site comes in the form of dollars and greater ROI,” says Alajian. “In the last two years alone, for example, we’ve gone from being a local company to one that has an international presence.”
To precasters looking to upgrade or completely overhaul their web presences this year, Stratis says the key is to pick a reputable, reliable web designer (see the sidebar “Seven Tips for Selecting a Web Design Firm”) and then communicate your wants, needs and concerns in a concise, understandable fashion. Avoid getting overwhelmed by the many different tricks and tools that are available and constantly in flux, and focus on customer needs. In fact, one way to figure out the latter is to simply ask your current and prospective clients this simple question: What do you want out of our corporate website?
“Customers are hungry for information, so don’t be afraid to put too much out there,” says Stratis, who early on preferred to limit the amount of information posted online in order to get prospects to pick up the phone and call the company directly. “Nowadays everybody needs things instantly – from the engineer who is doing his project research at 2 a.m. to the specifier who is looking for drawings online at 2 p.m. Your site content has to be able to satisfy those needs in a fast, effective way or your visitors will click over to another site.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.
Sidebar 1 – Getting Social Online
Getting Social Online
Online social networking may have started out as a convenient way to connect with old schoolmates, find a date or meet new friends, but over the last few years this strategy has evolved into a valuable business tool. Today, companies of all sizes and across all industries are using sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to engage current customers, reach out to new prospects and gain market share.
Social media sounds simple enough in theory, and the barriers to entry are both low and cheap. All you have to do is set up a presence on a social networking platform currently available online and start posting information, uploading photos and videos, and interacting with customers, vendors, colleagues and other manufacturers. Interact enough, the experts say, and the results will compound upon themselves and eventually lead to new business and increased sales.
That’s when things start to get a little more complicated. As it turns out, maintaining multiple social media presences requires time, patience and creativity. Combine these requirements with the demands and the time constraints of running a precast business, and it’s easy to see why many social media efforts wind up languishing.
Jim Devitt, owner of Merritt Island, Fla.-based Devitt Consulting, says most industrial companies miss the boat when it comes to social networking. Devitt has worked with numerous firms over the years and says that while most will take the time to register and set up profiles on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, that’s about the extent of the typical company’s social networking efforts.
“Most companies don’t know what to do with social media once they get up and running with it,” says Devitt. “Facebook and Twitter are littered with firms that had good intentions at the outset, but that stopped posting and participating within a month or two.”
To avoid that trap, precasters should integrate social media into their overall marketing plans. So instead of just posting the occasional tweet or Facebook update, look at social networking as an important component of the company’s marketing approach. Use similar logos, company messages and information across all of your channels, says Devitt, and you’ll avoid confusing and alienating potential customers.
Throwing darts and hoping something sticks doesn’t work in the offline world, and it definitely is not a fruitful way to conduct a social networking campaign. To get the most out of their social networking investments, precasters should identify the top few primary audiences they would like to market via social networking, and then devise a plan for reaching these groups. Be sure to include in your research exactly which social media platforms will work best to drive traffic to your website, catalogue, landing pages and other online sites.
And to ensure that their social media strategies don’t wind up gathering dust online, Devitt says companies must allocate time to the effort (either on a daily or weekly basis) and understand that results don’t come overnight. “You have to let things season,” says Devitt, who advises companies to spend at least 90 days establishing themselves in social circles online. “Focus on building a fan base first and grow it until you have critical mass. From there it will take off on its own.”
Sidebar 2 – Seven Tips for Selecting a Web Design Firm
Marketing expert Michele Spiewak of Rhino Public Relations based in Boston advises firms to follow these tips when selecting a web design firm:
- Do your due diligence. Scope out competitors’ websites and those of other firms that appeal to you. Note the features, photos and amount of text. Do you prefer the sites with more photos? Minimal text? Social media access on the home page? Does your firm require a client portal for project management and communication? Knowing what you want and what you like, and explaining why is very helpful to the website creation process.
- Craft a thoughtful RFP. For many companies, hiring a web design firm is a new experience. Rely on what you already know about RFPs and responding to them: articulate your goals, target audience, project scope, budget and schedule. Outline the elements that web design firms should include in their proposal. Be sure to ask for functionality across many mobile platforms, and include search engine optimization (SEO) to improve your search ranking, web analytics and visibility. Some companies will take the opportunity to refresh their corporate logo along with the creation of a new website. If so, engage the services of a graphic designer and build that into the RFP as well.
- Request proposals from five or six firms. There are many web design firms out there, designing websites that range in complexity, technology and price. Since the process may be new to you, ask for proposals from a variety of firms so you get an education and learn the questions to ask. You’ll be surprised by the array of responses you receive.
- Schedule interviews with each firm making the short list, and insist that they bring the designer and developer who will actually be doing the work. Personality is important, for example, but technology is even more so. Most websites can be designed and built in as little as 12 weeks, so the chemistry should feel right between your firm and the selected designer/developer team working together for the duration of the project. Long after the site is completed, however, your firm will have to live with the website on whatever web platform and content management system (CMS) you choose.
- Be sure to ask enough questions about the technology the website will be built on to ensure longevity in the marketplace and ease of use for everyone in your firm making updates. A web-based CMS will allow your non-technical staff to easily update content on both the online and mobile sites.
- Assign an internal project manager to oversee the web design process. Typically, your firm will supply all source material, including written content, headshots and project photography for the website (if not, expect to pay extra for these services.) Having one person in your firm responsible for the web design project will facilitate communication with both the designer and developer and ensure that deadlines are met. Remember that delays and redesigns might also cost you money.
- When your website has been thoroughly tested and is nearing completion, prepare your e-marketing. It’s a smart idea to include in your RFP a request for an email blast template that will reflect the new website design and support the firm’s email marketing program with consistent branding. Create an email blast that celebrates your firm’s new website, and don’t forget to announce your new website on social media.