Is your website a parking lot?When you start out on your own in business, building your website will probably be one of the biggest initial expenses you will incur.

And finally launching the site is a massive milestone event, a momentous moment for any small business owner. I know, I’ve done it myself and helped countless other small business owners achieve this.

But it’s amazing just how many small (and even larger!) business owners I speak to who feel that a website should be done as cheaply as possible or see it as a one-off exercise – one more tick on the ‘must do’ list. This is one of the BIGGEST marketing mistakes you will ever make.

A website that is approached in this way will undoubtedly turn into a pretty parking lot that fails to deliver leads or generate sufficient sales for your business. Every business exists to make sales, so your website has to be a fundamental tool in your marketing toolkit. In fact, it’s one of the most important.

No small business currently trading or even starting out in 2012 can afford to take such a blinkered approach to having an online presence. This doesn’t just apply to e-tailers but to all businesses with an online presence – whether yours is a service or product business. If you have a website now, it needs to deliver!

Your most powerful marketing tool

As your website will be one of your largest marketing and business start-up investments, it’s vital to get it right first time.

To make sure your website doesn’t gather virtual online dust and doesn’t generate the leads or sales your business deserves, take a look at my top 3 tips below:

1. Start with your end goal in mind

You need to clearly define what actions you want your website visitor to take and build the content, navigation and engagement elements around this to support it and aid conversion to this goal(s).

If you fail to do this, you will end up with a site that might look good but will probably never support your commercial objectives or contribute to your long-term business success.

Write down what you need your website visitors to do to start the relationship with your business and/or buy a product or service from you.

Map out clearly the steps in the process that will lead to a successful outcome for your business – for many of us, this is either a warm lead or an actual sale.

Some web designers (not all I hasten to add, and most certainly not the lovely web associates I have selected to work with) can be a hindrance to achieving this. They are, after all, passionate about design and can often spend more time on the look of the website than they do on search engine optimisation and effective techniques to aid visitor conversion. Or perhaps worse, they just get carried away with the latest whizz-bang fad in development (the past obsession with using Flash or snazzy animated landing pages springs immediately to mind!) – these things often just annoy your website visitors and send them straight back to the search engine to look elsewhere.

2. Invest in your future success

Build the website you will need in 3-5 years time NOW! You must understand your future requirement of your site. Nobody has a crystal ball but it is vital to consider your long-term business plan so you can choose the right technical platform to deliver this over the next 3-5 years.

Rarely do freebie templates and website creation sites deliver this requirement. Don’t do it on the cheap using free templates, proprietary website creation sites that may not even be around in 2-3 years time (you then lose your most precious marketing asset), or get a ‘friend’ to build static web pages that will limit your ability to update your website weekly and add valuable content as you develop your business. It really is false economy.

I have met so many business owners who took this approach and within a few months (typically under a year), they realised they had a white elephant that was holding them back, forcing them to start again and incurring much more expense in the long run.

3. Get to know every website visitor, on every page

If somebody visits your website and leaves without completing one of your goals or progressing a little down the pathway to conversion, you have failed. It is such a waste – someone found your business, had a look around and walked out.

If you had a physical bricks and mortar shop would you ignore potential customers visiting your shop and not interact with them? Would you let them walk out without understanding a bit more about how you could help them or satisfy their problem or need? So many websites replicate this offline experience so well!

It’s a true recipe for online failure. Make sure you build analytics and data capture into your website on every page, so you understand visitors’ behaviour and what content they do or don’t interact with, and capture their details to enable you to start to build the relationship.

Think back to your goals and the map you created of the steps involved to convert a website visitor or repeat ‘lurker’ into an actual customer.

And this is only the beginning!

If you want to find out more about building a successful online business, why not come along to the BIG eCommerce Conference on 29th May where I’ll be revealing five steps that every small business owner needs to work through to achieve online success.

I’ll share my step-by-step approach to guide you through the myriad of marketing techniques and the online marketing information overload that many of you have told me you suffer with.

This event has a great line up of online marketing experts, it’s going to be a fantastic day for business owners to supercharge their business performance online. I’d love to see you there!