Everyone knows that a website is an essential marketing tool for a business. Yet strangely, too many people do not know how to use a website to its fullest capacity. For too many companies in the financial services world, websites are the digital equivalent of a Maserati racing car with an empty gas tank – it may be lovely to look at, but it is not going to get you anywhere.
Remember that your website is often a customer's first impression of your business. In particular, consumers under 35 years old will invariably check you out online first before picking up the phone or stopping by your branch location for an in-depth discussion on home loans. Unfortunately, the average business probably has no idea how many transactions have been lost because of an unsatisfactory or nonexistent online presence.
This creates a problem in which users' expectations are growing exponentially. Some basic ‘who we are and what we do’ verbiage no longer suffices – especially in today's mortgage banking field, where competition is increasingly aggressive and geographical boundaries are meaningless when it comes to chasing potential borrowers. Customers want to be able to create an account, submit applications, pay their bills, get online customer service help, and more. Quite frankly, can your company's website accommodate that?
The old adage ‘You get what you pay for’ is true. Websites aren't just some static text and HTML markup, as they were back in the 1990s. Not only are today's technologies far more complex, but end users' expectations for Web interactivity have grown exponentially.
Take a look at the example of multibillion-dollar enterprises like Google and Amazon that build out rich, deep user experiences that suddenly raise the bar for what customers expect from a Web experience. Now, you may be saying that their example is not relevant to our industry or that their Web design budgets run into the six- or seven-digit range. But look at the bigger picture, and ask yourself, What are they doing correctly that this industry, in general – and my company, in particular – can learn from?
The real goals
A crucial mistake that companies make is in framing the purpose of the website. It's critical for companies to understand customers' needs and desires and to make sure they provide a solution. Of course, there are two very different types of customers – those who are seeking out a home loan and those who have secured a mortgage. Needless to say, both of these types of customers need to be considered when companies create or update a website.
Today's customers, whether they are buying a home or downloading a hit song, are very tech savvy and prefer to interact online. They also judge a business by its website presence. This becomes incredibly important in industries where the product or service is a distinctive commodity and where it appears that (at least to the layman) very little differentiation exists between vendors.
If one loan originator has a sophisticated site that will allow you to fill out applications, examine product offerings in great detail and read detailed educational materials explaining all of the options – while another has a basic ‘brochure-ware’ site (to use a tech developer's term) – which one do you think will get more business?
The best way to approach a Web project is with three bottom-line-focused criteria in mind: lower costs, increased sales and streamlined operations. All three of these criteria affect a company's profitability by either increasing revenues or decreasing expenses, while the secondary benefits increase efficiency (think productivity and profitability) and customer satisfaction.
Please remember that website design and maintenance go far beyond mere graphic design. That's merely one element of the project, and this line of thinking is what results in nice-looking, yet poorly executed, projects. That's not to say that graphic design isn't a key consideration, but there is more to the equation than that.
Before designing one element or coding one line of code, it's critical to do the information-architecture and business-requirements planning phases. One must understand the target audiences (often, there are more than one, and companies overlook 30% of their audience) and plan out all of the appropriate features from a business perspective – the strategic planning, marketing emphasis, and so forth. This level of critical, strategic thinking is very often missing entirely, which dooms the project right out of the gate. Regardless of how great it looks, it'll never hit the mark.
Beneath the surface is the execution of code, and this is where many companies get tripped up. We're past the days when a designer could crank out a nifty-looking design, whip up the HTML and be done. Especially today, with online business transactions, the need for interactive forms, database-driven content and more features requires that websites become increasingly complex. And since online mortgage banking data transactions require the transfer of highly sensitive personal data and, often, large amounts of money, security is a major issue to address.
Here we are!
Being on the Web is one matter, but standing out from the competition is another. Everyone wants to get to the top of the search-engine rankings. Unfortunately, amid billions of websites, there can only be one No. 1 – which leaves the other billions in the hunt, clawing and grabbing.
There are many strategies for increasing one's search-engine rankings, but quite honestly, it's a whole specialty in and of itself. There is not a magic bullet that will solve the issue – it takes a lot of work, without the guarantee of success. But there are some tips to strengthen your search-engine rankings.
First, focus on inbound links. The more people that link to you, the greater your perceived relevancy, and your rankings will improve.
There are many strategies for doing this: Tried-and-true public relations outreach and the newer social networking media endeavors are available. There is also a niche field where experts specialize exclusively in search-engine marketing and search-engine optimization.
Another tip is to use specific keywords on your site. Rather than being a generalist, this is where it pays to own a niche. As an example, the owner of a small hobby shop could more easily reach the peak of the search engines with a specific search request for ‘Hank Aaron rookie card’ than ‘baseball.’ Likewise, mortgage bankers can use keywords that play upon defining characteristics that make their business stand out, such as geographical location – ‘Indiana mortgage,’ for example – or specific products, such as ‘energy-efficient mortgages’ or ‘reverse mortgages.’
By reworking the text at your site to hone in on specific keywords, it will be easier to take a leadership position in a search-engine niche. In the world of search engines, it's far better to be a big fish in a small pond than the other way around.
Many people become concerned about generating a robust level of Web traffic. But in the case of a site such as a mortgage bank's website, the quantity of Web visitors should not be a higher priority than the quality of who's clicking in.
It is important that your website's visitors be qualified and serious about doing business. You don't want to waste your time and resources on unqualified ‘tire kickers’ who will never seriously pursue a loan application. But that circles back to your bigger-picture efforts regarding marketing – are they driving the right kind of traffic to the site, and does the site support (via messaging, imagery and functionality) the right kind of message to attract and retain the right kinds of people?
One obvious caveat to this approach is a matter of transaction size versus volume. A website that helps close large deals will need substantially less traffic to be ‘successful’ than one that's based on a high volume of small transactions. Therefore, traffic-level requirements are also a function of the relative value they derive.
A new look?
So how do you know if the time is right to update your company's website? There are two main areas on which to focus: marketing and technology.
On the marketing side, you may decide it's time to redesign a site if the look and feel are getting old. Styles change. Hey, the orange shag carpeting and lava lamp that were groovy back in the 1970s elicit chuckles of ‘You've gotta be kidding me’ from today's savvy younger generation. The same goes for websites – what was cool and hip just a few years ago can look completely outdated today.
Aside from mere aesthetics, there are also real-world issues of functional capabilities. If your closest competitor has a website that can take applications, provide automated status updates, allow people to submit payments online and more, while your site is little more than an online equivalent of a telephone directory advertisement, it is time to seriously think about updating the site.
On the technology side, we all know that technology changes at a blistering pace. Sometimes, you have to throw out the whole thing and start over, because a site was developed on a technology platform that was cutting-edge back in the day, but is now antiquated. Although it can seem tempting to want to build upon what you have (thinking from a return-on-investment standpoint and wanting to leverage the previous investment), the fast-paced change of technology makes it ‘penny-wise and dollar foolish.’
Newer platforms and technologies, such as Microsoft .NET, are substantially more secure and offer much faster development of websites than older technologies, such as flat .ASP and .PHP scripts. Whereas average websites take about the same amount of time to develop today as they did back in the 1990s, the level of functionality is far greater. There's no way we could have built such incredibly elaborate projects in such short time frames based upon the older script technologies.
The Internet is also a bit of a scary place. Websites get hacked all of the time, and unsuspecting customers find themselves victimized with phishing attacks from digital miscreants. More often than not, many of the sites that are being victimized were built 10 years ago with basic scripting engines that have not been cutting-edge in a decade. Technical security issues such as SQL Injection Attacks are preventable, but sites built five or more years ago and that have not been updated are at greater risk.
And by the way – if you do not know what Microsoft .Net, .ASP, .PHP and SQL Injection Attacks are all about, that's perfectly fine – the wonderful thing about the Internet is that you never run out of new things to learn. Getting up to speed on what to expect from the online world will help to ensure that your corporate website will not bring grief.
Eric Robichaud is CEO of 401 Consulting, based in Woonsocket, R.I. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.