PresentObviously any business regardless of its size needs to be present on the web. A custom-built website can be great, but to get it right you will need to spend a lot of time and money. Luckily there are many alternative options available to establish an online presence. Some are easier and more affordable than you think. Many of the options below can be combined with each other to suit your specific needs. You could begin with a simple landing page to engage with a few customers and to find out what their needs are. Based on your initial findings, you can then refine your strategy to establish a permanent web presence.

 

 

This post is for:

  • Entrepreneurs starting a new business
  • Business owners that don’t have a web presence yet
  • People that have a basic website but like to know about more options
  • Anyone who wants to see a complete picture of what it means to be present on the web

 

What will you learn:

  • What alternatives are available to a custom built website
  • Required skill, time, and budget for each option
  • General advice on how to get most  out of your web presence

Social Media

Skill level: Low
Time commitment: Short
Budget: Mostly free

This is probably the easiest way to establish your presence online. Whether it’s creating a Facebook page, opening a Twitter account or signing up for Instagram or Pinterest there is absolutely zero IT knowledge required. A google search will reveal an endless lists of guides on how to get started with each social media platform. Even if you don’t update your social media account very frequently you can add important information like your contact details, opening hours and a location map to your Facebook page much like on a website. It also allows your customers to contact you, leave comments and ask questions. People frequently underestimate the positive impact a Facebook page can have on your business. For example if you have a shopfront then you could encourage your customers to check in via Facebook as all of their friends can see the activity in their feed.

Below is an example of an informative Facebook page with loads of social proof on the left (checkins and likes).

Facebook page

 

Launching page

Skill level: Low
Time commitment: Short
Budget: Between free and a few pounds

Companies like LaunchRock offer a simple way to create a launching or coming soon page as a placeholder until your permanent site is ready. You can use your own domain for the launch page and track your visitors. These types of sites are basic but good looking, mobile friendly and easy to setup. They allow you to collect email addresses and start an initial conversation with your customers. A LaunchRock page for example lets you customise built-in sharing tools so prospects who sign up can recommend you to their friends via email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or tumblr. The professional plan for $5/month allows to add your own domain.

Launch Effect is a responsive WordPress theme that allows you to customise a landing page where visitors can sign up with their email address and receive a unique referral URL to share with their friends through social media. The Stats page shows you who has signed up and how many conversions each visitor has made – great for setting up a viral campaign. Its integration with Mailchimp, AWeber and Campaign Monitor also makes it easy to grow your mailing list.  Launch Effect can be installed on your existing WordPress powered website and used with your own domain. Launch Effect is free to use with limited features. It offers a premium single license for a one-time fee of $35, or $65 for unlimited licenses.

LaunchGator is a lesser known and lesser used option. It is completely free to create a “coming soon” page.

There is no programming or HTML knowledge required with any of these services.

A landing page is rarely a viable solution in the long run, but useful to test initial demand and web traffic. If you get no traffic then your bigger challenge might be to market it rather than building it. Based on the traffic stats you can then decide whether to invest time and effort in a website. A solid website builder might be a good next step.

 

Website builders

Skill level: Low
Time commitment: Short
Budget: Free with ads or $20-$30 a month

Website builders come with a range of templates to choose from and a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor to add various elements to your page.

Site Builder based in Hampshire offers a fantastic package with a free domain, and free templates. There’s no catch except you will have a banner at the bottom of your site unless you upgrade. It’s great to see a UK based tool be ranked #1 on websitebuildertop10.com as of July 2015.

Strikingly is an easy to use tool and a good compromise between price, ease of use and professional appearance. One interesting fact about Strikingly is that all of its sites are one page sites.

Wix has become incredibly well known over the last few years, in part due to its massive marketing budget. It’s the most used website builder and offers 100s of templates including the option to add an online store. One drawback is that once a template is chosen it can’t be changed anymore. Wix is particularly strong with visual presentations and so well suited for creative users such as artists, bands, photographers etc.

Weebly and Squarespace have started out as a website builders and have now added a checkout option. They are both great choices and can be used as a standalone builder or with the e-commerce option.

All of these tools are mobile friendly and allow to use your own domain.

I recommend to sign up for a free account with at least 2 builders and test them thoroughly. It’s the only way to get a good feel of which one works best for your needs. Don’t cut corners here as switching website builders later is a big time sucker.

The tools in the next category offer slightly more functionality than the site builders listed here.

 

Landing page builders

Skill level: Medium
Time commitment: Medium
Budget: Between free and $100+ a month
Landing page builders are designed to optimise conversion and sign up rates without relying on a developer. They allow to easily change certain elements on a page such as website copy and button colour to see which combination leads to the best conversions. There is a blurry line between website and landing page builders as some of the tools in this category have powerful visual editors to build a great looking website. Price is a differentiator since most landing page builders start at about $30/month and thus are more expensive than website builders. You can use these editors without the A/B testing and conversion optimisation feature but if you want to improve your own conversion, note that you need at least 1,000 unique visitors per week.

Option Price of Starter package Skill Required Key Takeaway
Instapage Free plan or $29 for own domain Easiest, simplest, most intuitive page builder Has a very large, high-quality selection of free templates.
Kickoff Labs Free plan or $39 for own domain Easy to use and suitable for beginners. Combines their landing page tool with smart email marketing.
Lander App $29 with 14 day free trial Suitable for beginner One of the most well-rounded services available.
LeadPages $37 with 30 day money back guarantee Good for all levels but leaning towards intermediate user. Easy to use and has a marketplace with dozens of landing page and minisite templates.
Unbounce Free plan or $49 with 30 day free trial with own domain Powerful builder with a great degree of customization – leaning toward intermediate user.” A well-known leader in landing page optimisation whose builder has flexible configuration options.

One service that I have used extensively myself is is Unbounce. At approximately $49/month it is not that cheap, but their landing page builder works really well and allows to build several interconnected pages such as a homepage and contact us page. That flexibility comes with a steeper learning curve and therefore Unbounce might be better suited for an intermediate to advanced marketer.

If you want to dive deeper, Anne Fleshman from autopilot has written an in depth review of landing page builders.

These tools are a decent choice for companies that need their own website with a good degree of customisation, but they can get quite costly over the long run. However, it is highly recommended to use a custom landing page for all PPC campaigns such as Google AdWords to experiment with and improve conversion rates.

 

Takeaway websites

Skill level: Low
Time commitment: Short
Budget: Setup fee of approx. £1,200 and 10% commission

For catering businesses like my friend’s Hans Wurst, online food ordering sites such as JUST EAT and hungryhouse are a great option to have a web presence and sell your yummy dishes online. A range of online takeaway services exist with Quick Buffet UK for example focusing on caterers only. All of them provide a platform so that customers can place an order via web or mobile app along with a page to display your restaurant’s key information such as address and opening times. They spend a lot of money to attract hungry customers which is money that you can save. In exchange they take about a 10% cut. Needless to say that anyone offering online takeaway should give them a try before building their own ordering website. A well maintained Facebook page along with being present on a few ordering sites is a great start to an online presence for any restaurant.

 

Membership sites

Skill level: Low
Time commitment: Short
Budget: Between £9 – £60

If you are a professional organisation such as an industry association and need a way to communicate with group members then I recommend looking at London based GroupSpaces. Founded in 2007 by Oxford University students David Langer and Andy Young, it is now used in over 90 countries worldwide. GroupSpaces can help you save time on boring administrative tasks and also provides a public group page which can act as your website. Here is an example of a Financial Management Association using GroupSpaces for their website.

 

All-inclusive industry tailored website packages

Skill level: Low
Time commitment: Short
Budget: Setup fee of $200 – $750 and approx. $50 monthly

Unlike the standard templates from website builders, there are companies like Restaurant Engine and TourismTiger that have built a perfect solution for a specific industry. You can be sure to get a site that is tried and tested to perform well in your niche. Customers can customise the pages themselves or use their full setup service. It’s a middle ground between using a website builder and hiring a developer. All sites are mobile ready and fully SEO optimised. TourismTiger will even help you to optimise text and other elements of your website to get most bookings out of it.

Any of these services will provide you with a top website at a fraction of the cost of hiring a developer. Included in the monthly packages is hosting, maintaining, securing and constantly improving the site as everything runs on the same platform.

 

Online Stores

Skill level: Medium
Time commitment: Medium
Budget: WooCommerce is free. Most others start at $29

There are numerous online stores that allow businesses to set up a virtual shopfront without going through the hoops of creating their own custom store. Many businesses spend a huge amount of money on their own ecommerce site. The design and performance of their site can rarely compete with, for example, a site set up on Shopify which is the most well-known online store followed by Bigcommerce. WooCommerce is a good option if you already use WordPress, whereas Etsy focuses on handmade items. All of these platforms allow you to add your own products and customise the checkout page. There are services out there such as Shopify Ninjas to help setup your shop for a fairly low amount of money.

Unless you are doing some massive online sales or have very bespoke requirements there is rarely a need to set up your own custom ecommerce store. For businesses that are just starting to sell products online I cannot see a good enough reason to not use a pre-built online shopping site. As always, sign up for a few and test them thoroughly as the costs of switching are very high.

If you are interested in hearing more about those different options then contact me and I can cover it in a separate post.

 

Content Management System (CMS)

Skill level: High
Time commitment: High
Budget: Between free and a few dollars for a theme but often extra cost incur to get it right.

 

In theory a CMS is a web application to make it easy for non-technical users to add, edit and manage a website. In practice it’s harder to use than a website builder but offers more flexibility and functions.

WordPress is the best known CMS. It started off as a blog but is now the most popular way to have a presence on the web. A whopping 75 million sites with very different needs depend on it. Other popular CMS are Joomla and Drupal. Hosting companies provide an auto installer that perform the CMS installation. The user can then choose to add a theme. Most CMS’ are not very easy to use because they offer too much functionality and are trying to cater to various different needs. Many service providers and tools are available to help you with your CMS. Our own service CMS Assist for example takes care of all your Joomla and WordPress website updates and helps to keep the site safe. To setup a new CMS based website people often hire a developer which can become as costly as getting a custom website built by an agency.

 

Custom website

Skill level: High
Time commitment: High
Budget: A few hundred to a few thousand dollars

A custom website requires a high time commitment and a fairly large budget. Fewer people are choosing this option nowadays as it’s easier to modify a template that is 80% close to your needs rather than starting with a blank page. There are numerous frameworks and tools available to make your life and that of your your web developers easier. Occasionally a custom website can make sense but often it’s a better idea to use a CMS and have your web developer build custom functionality on top. Cost and quality varies drastically depending on whether you work with a local agency or an offshore developer.

I recommend that anyone takes a hard look at the options above before investing time and money in a custom built website.

There you have it. A comprehensive list of the various options to be present on the web. Remember to start with low effort and easy to setup options to engage with your audience early on and understand what their needs are. Use these learnings when creating a more established web presence.

If there are any areas you’d like to learn more about then please reach out to me via Twitter, our contact form or just leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your input on future blog posts!