In our previous post, Making a Great Website: Focus on Content, we went over the importance of original, high-quality content. The next logical question for many is likely, “What content should my website contain?” Or rather, what pages does every website need? This post is a comprehensive list of must-have sections on every single website. Again, we take an all or nothing approach to website content. If some of this information is missing, it all may as well not even exist.
It’s extremely important to view your website holistically. Sure, the individual components arguably “contribute” to the total overall experience, but remember the famous saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is especially true in products nowadays where companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft compete to offer complete ecosystems of devices that compliment one another. For example, the iPhone may be directly responsible for most of Apple’s revenue, but don’t forget all the auxiliary services that make the iPhone great. Maps. iTunes. The Apps. Apple TV and its corresponding applications. The ecosystem, and the complements of one component to the other is what makes Apple so fantastic. Your website is no different; it is an ecosystem. And you have to be prepared to invest in even the most mundane content sections because it all adds up to a more holistic experience for the customer.
Every websites needs the following sections, and why.
We have purposefully ordered the followed sections from most important to least important. We will try to describe why each component of content is a necessity, and how it contributes to the overall ecosystem that is your website. Again, I want to stress how important it is to have each section, and that the prioritizing is more about determining “What content to work on first for your website.” The prioritization of some pages over doesn’t make those lower priority pages any less important, only less urgent to sales and customer satisfaction. Until the entirety of this list is completed, your website is incomplete and will feel incomplete to a potential customer.
1. Describe your product or service on separate, distinct pages.
Perhaps the most important and obvious thing to do with a website, is tell your visitors exactly why it exists. Or at the very least, tell your website visitors why your company exists. Starting with products and services offered by your company defines your brand as a solution in the customer’s mind. If you offer a product for X, Y, and Z you need to create pages specifically for not only (1) the product, but also (2) the product being used for X, (3) the product being used for Y, etc. Already you can see an exponential amount of content you will need to create and maintain for every new service or product your company provides to the market. This is a big reason why, Simplifying Everything is important.
Simplifying products and services keeps attention spans longer, and strengthens your Brand’s affinity with a particular solution. Almost every major company fails in telling their customers What They Do and How to Use The Product or Service. This makes it that much easier to compete directly with the big guys. Remember, on the Web everyone is (or has the capability) to appear equally as valid or legitimate. Even the Household Names, or Fortune 500 companies, may seem like a worse solution to a customer for simply failing to explain the product and service appropriately.
We strongly believe that Websites Are A Weapon. You can pierce through any marketing, blow past any competitor, and mitigate a lot of customer service, just by investing heavily in your website. Take a significant amount of time developing your Product / Service pages on your website. They may as well be Everything. For a customer that knows absolutely nothing about solutions in your existing market, assume that all your eggs are in this basket. If you fail to provide nuances, small details you feel are unimportant or distracting, or any content that compliments the customer’s understanding of your product and service; you will lose business to a competitor that explains it better.
Spend a moment and think in-depth about your product or service. Who is your audience? Who is your potential customer? Here at Vanilla Video, we have different types of customers. We have both “Business” customers, and “Home” or personal customers. Each customer requires a gateway to interface with your product or service. We can’t expect people to adapt to how we present information, that would be extremely arrogant. We must adapt to how customers want to shop, and to our different demographics of customers. On our website, we’ve created various sections appealing to different types of customers, e.g., Business, Weddings, Sports, and Music. We know all of our customers are (A) interested in video or video production. Now we need to gate (read: teach or direct) customers to their (B) appropriate solutions, e.g., a Business user looking for video should absolutely click to our Business section. From that customer’s viewpoint, the fact that Vanilla Video does Wedding, Sports and Music Videos is completely irrelevant.
2. Tell the customer how your product or service works.
We briefly mentioned this above, but the point can’t be stressed enough. Explaining your products and services thoroughly on your website is the first step. The next most important thing is after explaining the value proposition, is going into How it Works. Your website needs a page or section dedicated to answering, “What happens if I order?” and “How do I order?” and “How do I move forward with making a purchase?” If you aren’t answering all three of these questions on your website in-depth, you will only win the bravest slice of your entire potential customer base.
People are naturally risk-adverse, and spending money is a risky activity. Your company’s website needs to mitigate those risks; thoroughly calm and reassure timid customers shopping around and evaluating your offerings. Remove all uncertainties from the equation. Explain to a customer what to expect, how to move forward, what happens if scenarios A, B, or C take place. Clearly outline your refund policy. If you have a Satisfaction Guaranteed policy, make it known. Customers don’t know, what you don’t tell them. So make everything about your product or solution painfully obvious.
Market the differentiating factors that make your company or solution stand out among the rest. Removing the uncertainty and risk has more to do with Being Transparent, than being an overall better product or service. Managing expectations is one of your greatest weapons against competition. If a customer is repeatedly asking you a question via email, put that information front and center on your website; you will most likely receive even more customers after doing so. The one mantra every business owner should adopt online is, beat the customer over the head with information. Give them all the information, so they can come to you ready to buy. Your website isn’t just a sales person, it is your best sales person. Your site works 24/7, so provide information.
Take a note from Amazon, and make your product or service as easy as “Buy Now”. Click on any product and be awed by how much information they provide about every single product. Providing information is the killer feature. Reviews. Pictures. Descriptions. FAQs from customers on every single product. Amazon wins on Transparency. Information is their greatest asset. Learn from the best, and apply the same principles to your business. It works. It’s how it should be. This is the way the world is moving. Self-service is the future. Humans are capable of researching products and services in their own time, across a variety of platforms (mobile, tablet, notebook.) Get with the times and start getting serious about your content.
3. Provide clear and transparent pricing directly on your website.
This is by far the most controversial point, but we are taking a hard stance on this. Everything mentioned above also applies to Transparent Pricing. We strongly believe that hiding your prices makes you a coward, and makes you unwilling to compete or stand behind your product and service. We aren’t mincing words. If your value proposition isn’t strong enough to prominently and confidently display your prices, then your product or service is probably priced incorrectly. Just because you “can” get away with hiding your prices doesn’t mean you “should”.
Nothing about hiding pricing is professional. Nothing about hiding prices is inherently better. By all measures, your potential customers will hate and despise the fact that your company doesn’t provide price information (or at least starting prices and estimates) directly online. Avoid insulting customers by making them contact a sales representative for a quote, estimate or pricing. Most, if not all, customers know that in exchanging their contact information for your pricing information, they are agreeing to be marketed to and bothered. This entire scenario is a net loss for consumers and gives colluding businesses an unfair advantage. But have you ever heard of game theory?
In our industry, most video professionals refuse to provide pricing information. Regardless of the reason (difficulty, potentially confusing, technologically feasibility, etc.,) many of our competitors just don’t, won’t, can’t or otherwise refuse to take the time to do it. We had a noticeable impact on Pricing Transparency, because from the beginning we have been committed to obviously stated prices directly on our website. In just under 3 years, we broke into a market with thousands of entrenched competitors, mostly because we very liberally provide information. With almost no competitors providing price information, we enjoyed a significant advantage for a long time.
Customers coming to us would be able to, for the first time, thoroughly do research and make a buying decision about video production entirely online. We gave customers the tools to help themselves, and they did. Answers. Pricing. Ordering Systems. It wasn’t that difficult, but it took a large, consistent effort to make it possible. Our business naturally seemed more appealing and authentic to potential customers, because we were (and are) the most Honest. We easily appear more reputable than companies who have existed for decades, with significant market share. For these reasons we believe any newcomer, startup, or entrepreneur entering a market can very easily outrun some of the biggest, richest and most established companies.
Again, let’s not mince words or dance around the issue. Your customers will (and rightly should) believe that your company is dishonest for hiding pricing. If you notice that your competitors aren’t providing price information, you will gain a significant sales advantage by doing so. Transparency is a huge, untapped battleground for winning customers; right now it’s a Wild West for anyone to take advantage of. Join the land grab.
4. Write about the company. Make an “About Us” section or page.
For anyone reading this far, this is really pretty self-explanatory at this point. How can your customers trust you, if they don’t know who you are? Spending money is risky business, and proudly standing behind your product or service sends a strong signal to customers. Let them know who built the product or service. Who runs the company? What roles do they have? Who are they exactly? Do they seem like honest people? Vanilla Video goes to great lengths in providing transparency to customers. We write 500 word biographies for each and every employee.
Anyone who wants to know Who’s Behind Vanilla Video can easily learn that. We believe in this point so strongly, that we have a link to the page in the footer across our entire website. We know based on our Analytics traffic that approximately 25% of our customers visit our Meet the Team section. Think about that, really consider it. If a quarter of your customer base wants to know who you are, don’t you think you should tell them? Or put another way, what if you are missing out on an additional X% of sales, just because your customers don’t know who’s behind the company?
In this new age of websites and open information, leaving money on the table is as easy as lacking the confidence to tell customers (1) who you are, (2) what you do, and (3) why it’s important. If all you had to do was write content to make more sales, would you? That’s what we’re advocating in our series; Everything to Know About Websites: Zero to 100.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the “About Us” section, is that (currently) almost nobody knows exactly why they should create this section. Mostly, the internet just a giant copy machine watching and waiting to see what others are doing. The web is a global experiment in figuring out the best way to push information around. It makes sense then, that information is your greatest asset against competitors. Go ahead, set the trend. Be open. Be honest. The About Us page is a direct appeals to customers, on a personal and human level. Cut all the marketing, and be real.
Customers want to trust and connect with your business. They want to know they are supporting other humans when they purchase from you. Your website isn’t just a corporate machine churning out sales. It’s a direct connection between humans working at your business, and humans acting as customers. Ultimately, everyone realizes that all things are created by other people. Don’t use the About Us section to brag about your achievements. Use the About Us section to tell them what you stand for. What makes you, You. It’s supposed to be personal, human, and emphasize character; it’s not a resume.
5. Let your website visitors know how to get in Contact with you.
Providing thorough contact information is one of those Easy Website Mistakes that almost everyone gets wrong. You might think it’s obvious (it is) but it’s painfully overlooked. Again, we feel this is one of those topics that’s hard to mince words; provide your contact information. Just do it, and make it obvious. Make your contact information blatantly obvious, annoyingly obvious, and spatter it literally everywhere across your website. There is no such thing as “too many contact methods” when it comes to getting in contact with your business. Let’s consider the following ways in which a customer may want to connect with your business:
- Physical mail.
- In-person meeting.
- Video chat.
- Text message.
- Social (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.)
- Scheduling a Call-back.
- Trade shows.
There are likely dozens of other contact methods, but these are the major ones. If you aren’t covering most, if not all, of these methods of contact, expect less customer inquiries. And when you do provide the information above, be thorough and specific. For example, we have a toll-free number we tell our customers to call. However, right on our website we tell our customers to “Press 1” for Sales and Customer Service. Tell your customers how to move through your system, and how to get things done. Don’t get mad at your customers for “being stupid” or “wasting your time” or “not searching for the information on your website”. Get mad at your Website for not giving the customer that information immediately. Your website, is a sales person; wield the weapon, and make your website useful. You only have yourself to blame if you aren’t doing these things.
Every little bit of information needs to accompany the relevant bite of information. If you are giving your customers a phone number to call, provide the hours of operation. If providing customers an email address, tell them how quickly they can expect a response. If you have physical addresses, label each address and specify what those physical locations are for. Are your physical locations open to customer visits? If so, when can customers visit? Do they need to schedule visits in advance or can they just walk in. Spell out the most obvious questions, before customers have to ask you. Why waste your time, or the customers time? Just slap all that relevant information on your website.
Take a look at this blog’s footer. We provide our telephone on every single page. We provide our social websites on every single page (even if we don’t really use them.) We put all our contact information front and center, sprinkled literally everywhere. Scroll to the top and you’ll see a link to our Contact page. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll see it again. Click on our contact page and you’ll find a handful of contact methods. Only a small percentage of our customers use our “Request More Information” feature, that simply sends them an email with more information. But that’s a few percent more potential customers than without it. We fight to connect with every customer, in a variety of different ways, usually via whichever method they prefer. If a customer wants a callback, you better believe that we will call them back. If they want an email, we tell them we will respond within a certain timeframe, and then we do. This is how you win. Remove the uncertainty.
A note for Home Businesses and Safety.
Nowadays it’s common for businesses, startups, freelancers, and other professionals to work directly from home without an office. The first principle is Transparency. However, if you are uncomfortable or find it dangerous to list your home address on your website, consider using a mail forwarding service that establishing a real address. At the end of the day, your safety is most important. We operated out of an apartment for the first 2.5 years of business and readily handed that information out to our customers, despite one of our Co-founders living and sleeping there at night.
In general, the decisions you make are your own, and you should consider your safety when providing contact information. There are a variety of tools available to help you mask your real phone number, real address, and other personal information. Do your research, but as a business it is still in your interest to provide customers with a (1) Phone, (2) Address, and (3) Email address; or methods that work as substitutes, e.g., Grasshopper, Google Voice, PO Boxes, Contact Forms, or Co-Working Spaces.
6. Provide an ordering process or page on your website.
This ties right back into point number two; telling customers how to move forward with a buying decision. You must explicitly provide purchasing instructions. Tell customers, over and over again how to proceed with making a purchase. If it isn’t obvious how to move forward, you need to take actions immediately. Typically this is phrased as, “Make a call to action.” Before a customer can make a call to action, we just want to remind you of this point. Tell your customers not only how to move forward with the order, but what to expect, and all the associated details.
Our website has an advanced video production order builder. It allows anyone to use our website, describe what they want, and get a rough estimated price. Don’t tell us you can’t show or display your pricing, or help your customers move forward without talking to someone first. We did it, and we made it possible. It’s still getting better, but we have made great strides in this area. If you for some reason cannot provide automated ordering on your website, do the next best thing. Show customers your prices, and help your customers order more easily via your website. If you have packages, clearly label them with distinct names that aren’t confusing. Be obvious. Always be obvious, predictable, and treat words on the website as the de facto standard to live and die by.
7. Invest in educating your customers before they contact you.
We cover this topic in a dedicated post, Talking to A Human Is a Poor Experience, which is again another controversial topic. Without dragging that conversation into this post, let’s focus on the technological and economic perspectives. Your time is finite. You, as a human, can only scale so far, and can only help so many customers at a time. Your time also costs something, because it is finite. Considering these facts, it makes a lot of sense to mitigate customer inquiries and questions on your website. If you find yourself answering the same questions over and over again in email or by phone, you should really put that information on your website. Stop wasting your own time, or your staffs time, and get to the point faster.
The only achievement made by holding back information, is making your potential customers more annoyed and dissatisfied for a longer period of time. Solve the customer’s problem, ASAP. If you can save yourself a few minutes of time, why wouldn’t you? What sort of maniac forces prospective customers to contact a sales person for trivial and simple answers? And in what world, or class of economics did it become a good idea to make customers upset, annoyed, and frustrated? Pretty sure none of that makes any sense, so just give the customers more information, all the answers, and try really hard to stop answering questions by phone and email. Provide answers online.
Many business owners rationalize withholding information as a way to gain customer leads, or maintain a competitive advantage. After all, if the competition knows how the operation works (the argument goes) then they can easily copy, and more easily compete with the business. Well that may very well be true, but boy, do we have some unsettling news for you. If you aren’t willing to compete with other businesses for hard-earned customer money, then you should really reconsider whether you are fit to run a business at all. Business, by definition, is about competition. Get used to it, or get out.
Period. Amen. Make the customer happy. Compete.
Your organization should invest heavily in automating customer service. Again, from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a human standing around answering questions when they could be doing so much more instead. Have your website answer questions. Create a comprehensive FAQ / Questions section. Put your non-sensitive contracts and PDFs online for customers to review on their own time. Let the customer help themselves. Get on with making your product or service better. Spending less money on answering questions, means more resources put into an overall better solution for the customer. All of this is basic economics. Minimize your costs, and start using technology to your advantage. Your website is an amazing tool that you are most definitely underutilizing. What are you so afraid of?
Worried about competition copying you? Get used to it. Your competitors exist specifically to compete with you. Providing information isn’t going to do anything. Competitors can already secret shop you, and learn all your secrets. Go make the best product or service that YOU can make, and stop worrying about everyone else.
Worried about losing an authentic, personable experience? Nowhere did we say that all of your customers have to use automated customer service, or the self-service features of your website. If a customer wants to talk to a human, they can just as easily pick up the phone or write an email and get into contact with a human. Problem solved. But if you go on withholding information from customers who are DETERMINED to help themselves at 2AM, then you have failed to provide a great experience to that new client. Give your website visitors a plethora of self-service tools, so those that want to, can help themselves. For the rest, it’s just business as usual.
Your website is significantly faster at answering questions. It’s hard to argue or disagree with the facts. Providing information online is instant, or trivially quick and costs nothing. Requiring that a customer speak with a representative wastes (A) the customer’s time, (B) the employee’s time, and (C) the company’s money. That’s a pretty tough combination of obstacles, not to mention that employees don’t scale well, it’s expensive being available 24/7, customers may not feel like taking an action at the moment, and the business could probably spend the customer service person’s salary a little bit better. Being afraid of automation is advocating a poor experience. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Especially in the context of a website, which were specifically created to pass around and share information with others. It’s THE REASON the Web exists.
8. Build a trusted network among social websites.
Once your website is well on its way with the above content sections, the next major step is building trust on the Web. Everything you write is important, but now customers need some way to verify that your business is legitimate, and your website is the real face of your company. Trust is a hugely important factor if you are trying to sell online. The About Us section discussed earlier is a major Trust Mechanism, that conveys legitimacy to your website visitors. The next step after your Meet the Team / About the Company section, is spreading your Brand throughout the Web.
9. Relevant tools and pages, specific to your line of business.
At this point, it’s almost like beating a dead horse. But if there is any additional information relevant to your industry, service, product, or offering, create the necessary tools, features, or content. For example, it’s common for customers to inquire about Availability of a particular resource. Let’s take another note from Amazon, listing the quantity available in their warehouses. This creates a sense of urgency. Only 5 left on all of Amazon? Better order quickly.
Or how about calling around to see if a particular store has an item on stock. How long does that take? Probably a long time, and it’s likely a really annoying endeavor on a customer’s behalf. Automate it. Give them availability information directly on your website so they don’t have to ask you. Find a way to do it.
10. Anything your competition produces, should be considered.
To really make this a definitive list, we need to include this last caveat. If your competitor’s website has content sections that your website doesn’t, you should probably consider creating them. Ask yourself why that content exists, or why the company spent resources developing it. Information is the new battleground that wars will be fought and won. While no page or section of content is absolutely mandatory, you can’t expect posts like this to spell everything out for you. Buckle down and start dissecting your competition. Take for example, our Video Production Careers section. Ask: Why spend resources on this?
Our website does an amazing job at finding customers, teaching customers how to purchase our services, and generating new customer leads. Internally, we call our Website our “Sales Engine” because that’s exactly what it’s designed to do. But that’s not all it can do. Websites are a very versatile tool, and can be used for nearly anything.
The next logical step for us was finding the right talent and hiring competent employees. Again, we turned to our website to generate those employee leads, and we let technology do the heavy lifting for us. Just last week, we received several high quality applications by doing absolutely nothing. Sure we wrote the Careers content (40-50 pages), and we revisit this content from time to time, but our website is working 24/7 to solve our problems. For free. It really is a beautiful thing when you leverage technology to be more productive.
Not only have we turned our website into a Sales Engine, but we have now turned it into a Talent Engine that regularly finds new people to join our team. In fact, our last 3 hires originated directly through our website, with no money paid to Monster, Career Builder, LinkedIn, etc. Content is very powerful, and your website is an insanely capable machine. We encourage you to start respecting your website and its content.
A Basic Website Outline: Minimum Requirements for All Websites
The following is a basic website outline. Think of these as the minimum requirements for appearing legitimate and professional on the Web. Without these sections, your website is losing sales, and not working as effectively as it could be with a little more effort. Take the time to care for your website and its content. We sincerely believe this is general best practice for all small businesses creating a website. If you are wondering “what pages your website needs” we highly suggest creating these pages & sections in this order:
- Distinct pages for each Product and Service
- How it Works. Explain each Product and Service
- Pricing. Or at least a starting price.
- About Us + Meet the Team section.
- Contact Section.
- Order. How to Order.
- FAQs. Answers. Educational & explanatory materials.
- Social Websites and Trust Network.
- Other relevant tools and information, e.g., (Availability, Samples)
- Consider what your competition is doing.
- Terms of Service
- Homepage (Do this last)
Your website is an ecosystem, made of a lot of individual components. If you enjoyed this post, we highly recommend that you keep reading. Especially our next post: Tips for Developing & Writing Amazing Website Content.
This post and series was written by a Website Developer with over 17 years of Experience, and Vanilla Video’s success is only anecdotal evidence. You should consult with a professional before heeding any advice. But this is our general recommendation for entrepreneurs getting started with a basic website, especially if you know nothing and need a starting place.