How can you win on the Web?

It seems that everything is based on the Internet these days. You can chat with your doctor, apply for a mortgage and order everything from soup to nuts. E-mail has replaced letter writing; even monthly bills are transmitted electronically.

It’s easy to understand the benefits of the Internet for many businesses. Some large retailers now earn more revenue from online sales than from actual storefront locations. The Web’s popularity has spawned entirely new, Internet-only enterprises, such as superseller Amazon.com and Google. Can a Web presence benefit your operation? If you haven’t made the cyber leap, now may be the time.

Web site pros and cons

What can a Web site bring to your business? First, it takes your operation to the global level; you can reach anyone in the world. Your site can serve as a full-color brochure to a potential buyer in Great Britain. It’s a salesperson who’s on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In today’s marketplace, even a simple site lends credibility to a commercial venture. In the minds of heavy Internet users, a business that can’t be found on the Web doesn’t exist. The information supplied on the Internet can save you unnecessary phone calls and meetings by answering basic questions clients may have. Your overall communications can be improved by posting available crops and other news on your site.

There’s the opportunity for new marketing strategies, such as a Web-based farmers’ market, which allows customers to order online. If agritourism is a part of your business, a Web site is vital to effective marketing.

On the downside, a Web site does bring some work and expense. Even if you don’t develop it yourself, you must collaborate with a Web creator on the content. To be effective, the information should be updated regularly and provide a reason for people to return to the site. Your needs determine how extensive the site is and what resources will be dedicated to it.

If you are seeking new business or planning to expand your offerings, however, the effort can pay off handsomely on your bottom line. A Web site isn’t a magic marketing machine, however; think of it as another tool in your arsenal, just like business cards and networking.

Web development resources

Developing a Web site can be a quick and simple procedure or an elaborate production, depending upon your goals for Internet marketing. Do you simply want a basic calling card? Do you want to sell products online? Visit other sites to help establish your plan.

To get your feet wet, outline the general information you want to convey. Com-municating your offerings and your contact information can form a simple site that may be created with easy-to-use tools provided by most e-mail suppliers. If you prefer not to tackle the job yourself, many high school and college students are savvy about Web development.

Many growers’ organizations make it even easier. Some state agriculture departments and related groups will host a site or listing at no cost. Simply type in your information and you’re on the Web. Visit North Carolina’s General Store (www.ncagr.com/ncproducts) for an example.

An advanced site with photographs, shopping and other features should be entrusted to a professional. Taking and confirming orders and credit card processing requires secure procedures to protect client privacy. You don’t want to be responsible for compromising financial information.

A way to enhance your site is to establish a blog, or online journal. Blog setup is user-friendly and no-cost versions are available. A blog can communicate harvest schedules, special events and other news. Following the progress of your crops may appeal to consumers who are interested in locally grown food. A blog also can stand alone as an alternative to a full Web site. Again, it can be simple; some blogs are “read-only,” while others allow visitors to post comments about the content.

Web marketing

Once your site is up, take steps to ensure that people visit it and have a reason to return. Your Web site address should be on all printed materials, such as brochures, business cards and flyers. Add it to your signs, vehicles and Yellow Pages listings, too. Give customers motivation to visit you online by offering something special. You might publicize an online coupon in existing ads, your newsletter and on bag stuffers, for example.

Once you have traffic on the site, create incentives for visitors to return and to tell others. Ideas include online contests, weekly recipe postings and Web-only specials. A competition, recipe swap or online chat gets visitors actively engaged in your site; they’re more likely to bookmark it and return often.

What are others doing?

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in Web site planning. Take a look at what other growers are doing to generate ideas that will work for you.

The Blueberry Farm’s site (www.theblueberryfarm.com) offers an example of a relatively simple, yet effective Web presence. The basic information about the operation and its offerings are outlined. Extra features such as the calendar, availability information and opportunity to join the mailing list help involve consumers.

Agritourism is a component of Walnut Springs Strawberry Farm (www.strawberryfarm.com), which the site helps to promote to educators and parents. At the time of publication, the farm had updated its homepage to share news of a recent award. The ability to make such announcements keeps your site fresh, giving visitors motivation to return. It’s also a way to promote your operation even if the traditional media such as newspapers and television don’t carry your story.

A much more sophisticated agritourism site is found at www.shamrockfarmstour.com. Shamrock Farms has chosen a cartoon style to capture the attention of teachers who are planning field trips. Educators will be drawn to the lesson plans and other resources offered. This operation is maximizing its use of technology by offering online tour reservations and a post-visit survey. The survey can be completed electronically or by mail; an incentive to participate is included.

Some farms are creating online stores to market their crops. Mariquita’s Farm (www.mariquita.com) allows consumers to join its CSA online; produce is picked up at designated locations. This site promotes farm events and incorporates a blog. Capay Organic (www.farmfreshtoyou.com) takes it to the next level by offering CSA members home or office delivery. It also operates a retail store and attends farmers’ markets. Capay’s Farm Hero program engages current clients in spreading the word about the operation and offers coupons as enticement.

Wholesaler Serra Produce (www.serraproduce.com) has an online ordering system, while Farm Pak (www.farmpak.com) uses an e-mail form for clients to request assistance in placing orders. For direct marketers, the Locally Grown Network (www.locallygrown.net) is one example of online produce sales. The service, which charges a small commission, establishes an online market for each participating grower, complete with everything needed to place and process orders via the Internet.

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.

Agriculture Blogs:
Mulch
www.mulchblog.com
Pocket Farm
www.pocketfarm.com
The Farm Gate
www.farmgate.uiuc.edu

Web Development Resources
Blogs :
www.blogger.com
Web sites:
office.microsoft.com/en-us/officelive
www.godaddy.com

geocities.yahoo.com/
Web marketing:
adwords.google.com