Paul Chato’s company has built over 2,000 small business websites, so he’s had a front-row seat to the web’s takeover of the business world. “Canadian businesses are brutally behind almost everybody in the world,” he says. “Even though we have some of the highest data speeds in our homes, Canadian businesses have just not wanted to invest in any kind of [online presence]. They’re not investing—I don’t know why.”
Chato took quite the circuitous route to his current job, via a Ryerson University degree (in Radio and Television Arts), graphic design, standup comedy (he helped found The Frantics), and the CBC (where he was Head of TV Comedy). Today he’s CEO of Your Web Department, which provides managed website services.
Here’s what Chato says Canadian firms need to understand in order to build a robust and sustainable web presence.
It starts with a brand
A website is only one piece of the marketing puzzle—albeit an important one. Chato says not enough people understand the importance of a brand. “I always thought it was hilarious in the 2000s when it was declared that bricks-and-mortar companies were going to be dead,” he recalls. “I laughed, even back then, because they were the only ones with the brand.” Web pundits believed simply being online was enough, but strong brands that consumers connected with helped digital laggards survive the digital revolution.
Every company has to start by finding a brand and a tone, Chato says. “If you are thinking of buying furniture from some place, do you remember a corner store with a nondescript logo and no personality, or do you remember Bad Boy and Mel Lastman?” he asks. Your website and online presence should follow from the tone you choose. “I can very easily create a verbal cloud that will conjure in people’s minds an idea of what that website should look like,” Chato claims. “[But] most business owners have no idea what that image cloud needs to be.”
Know your needs
“Build it and they will come” is not a maxim that applies to the online world anymore, but Chato says people who utilize free website-builder services haven’t realized that yet. “I think it’s great if you’re at the very, very beginning of building your website and you’re researching to find out whether your business is a viable business,” he allows. “But once you’ve found out that there’s some traction and some viability, I strongly suggest that you go out and spend the money on people who can help you put the pieces together.”
Meeting Google’s needs
The list of things you need to do to attract traffic to your website is long, and it starts with the Internet’s most powerful force: Google. The search engine has very specific requirements. Chato uses the example of the <H1> headline atop your website. “It can’t be pithy—it can’t be ‘We bring good things to life,’ because Google has no idea who ‘we’ is and they have no idea what you mean by ‘bringing to life,’” he explains. “They need ‘Joe Blow Garage, in the GTA, fixes Volkswagen diesel engines to make them emission-compliant,’ and that’s an ugly headline.” It may not be creative, but it tells the search engine who you are, where you do your business, and what your product is.
Not just for show
Once you’ve got people to your site, you need to do something with them. Chato says too many small businesses websites consist of just corporate histories and mission statements. “No one cares,” he says. “The home page has to be about solving the problems of the person who’s visiting.”
Your website should have clear, actionable calls to action, he says, and those call-outs should represent at least 80% of the business. Chato cautions against putting in what he calls “dream” functions, sections about things you’d like your business to do but that it doesn’t already. “Don’t put a button in that says, ‘You know, I’d really like to get into fly fishing. I think that would be really big,’” he warns. “How much money do you make from that now? Nothing. Well, then don’t make that into a call-out.”
Don’t get too ambitious
Small business owners are dealing with packed schedules and limited budgets, so any effort that won’t produce clear returns is a waste of both. “They’re all told to blog and 90% of them shouldn’t be blogging,” Chato says. “They should be managing their website, updating their website, and trying to find ways of driving people to a mailing list, at least to begin with.”
The same applies to social media—it’s not right for every business. “Be practical, be efficient, and just hammer the things that you know how to do really hard as opposed to spreading yourself too thin.”
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