A good web site can be created and maintained for less than the cost of a colour brochure. However, unlike a brochure which can quickly go out of date, a web site can always be fresh, topical and interesting for the visitor. Planned effectively, a site can be a valuable and inexpensive way to promote your practice. But on its own, a site is very unlikely to drive new clients to your practice - even with links from the riba's client advisory service that is now on-line at www.riba.org/.
To make the web work for your practice, you have to take the initiative and you have got to incorporate the web into your business thinking - it must become part of the everyday business development that you do.
Here are some ways your site can be used:
In casual conversations, chance or introductory meetings, how often have you scribbled someone's name down or searched through your pockets for a business card or wished you had a company brochure with you? If you have a web site, the problem is solved; just give people your web address and your full brochure and portfolio are only a mouse click away.
In preparing proposals, how many times have you wondered how much detail you should include or how many examples of your work you should give? Now you do not have to worry - just include your web address in the proposal and clients can decide for themselves how much they want to see about your background.
In presenting your company, how many times have you put a slide show or Powerpoint presentation together, shown it at an event, then rarely used the slides again? Now you can get real value from any presentation you do - it is very easy to save your presentation as an html document and publish it on your web site. Even better, your presentation material can be created specifically with the web in mind.
In direct promotion, how many times have you sent out an expensive mailing and wondered if the effort was really worthwhile? With a web site, you can send a simple, attractive and inexpensive postcard with your web address clearly directing them to the material you've published on your site.
So what should you include in your web site?
Planning a web site is, of course, a creative process, so you probably will not want to follow a rigid formula, but you should make your site as client-focused as possible - try to imagine what potential clients will want and make their experience as easy and rewarding as possible. A web site should be much more than your company brochure on-line and should add an extra dimension to your marketing.
As a minimum, a good site should include:
A professional image of your company and a structure that will allow your site to grow and develop. Don't skimp on good design and content; you are in a world-wide shop window and should present yourself accordingly. You really should use an experienced web design company rather than try to design in-house.
A description of your key areas of expertise and what differentiates your practice from all the others. Use simple and direct language at all times.
A selection of projects that you are proud of - this is what visitors to your site are most likely to want to see. Show your projects in such a way that people can quickly scan an overview of what you have done, then dig for more detail if they want to. Keep your copy short and well- written and keep photographs to thumbnail size for ease of loading. You can always invite people to click for further detail or for a full screen photograph - do not force them to wait or plough through loads of information if they do not want to.
cvs and profiles of key staff - clients like to see people, so add some personality to your site.
Full contact details - phone numbers, fax numbers and your physical address should all be easy to find. Include international dialling codes - +44 (0) 171 instead of 0171.
A feedback mechanism - invite people to e-mail comments about your site - what do they like, what do they dislike and what improvements would they like to see.
Above all, include fresh material. It really is a waste of time to create a web site and not add anything new to it.
And some things to avoid:
over-elaborate design or programming that gets in the way of your message.
large photographic images that can take minutes to load
long documents and verbosity - whatever you write, keep it direct and simple
visitor counters - these are ugly, naff and of no use whatsoever to your visitor.
The great thing about the web is that you can learn as you go along; start simple, gain experience and start to understand your audience. You will find lots of help and information on planning a web site at www.webreference.com/.