All channels and paths lead to your company’s Web site. Regardless of the paths followed—seeing your URL in print, finding your business through a search engine, discovering your company through a database, a post in a forum or through an online RFQ marketplace—your and your competitors’ Web sites are where more and more prospects are gravitating to research available sourcing alternatives—anonymously, and on their own terms.
These “stealth prospects” are technology-minded purchasers or influential team members that scour the Internet looking for suppliers and technical solutions providers for their own businesses and projects. But unlike prospects that engaged the static information channels of the past to “inquire” for information about what you do and how you do it, today’s “stealth prospects” don’t reveal their identities or contact you directly because they don’t have to—the information they need is available online, on your site or someone else’s.
As more manufacturers find better ways to define their capabilities online, and as these “stealth prospects” find greater volumes and quality of data there, manufacturers’ Web sites—and your Web site in particular—are having greater influence on the research and buying habits of the discrete parts and machining markets.
But, the reality is that many machining businesses are squandering this potential because they aren’t represented properly through their Web sites. Often, the information encountered online by these prospects is inadequate, scarce, or not much beyond what can be found in directories, catalogs and other traditional media.
So, with more and more prospects coming online, and with shop sites struggling to effectively portray themselves, what can you do to optimize your site to capitalize on these changing behaviors and improve your results?
This list is presented with the intent to inspire, not instruct. The value each business assigns to its Web site varies wildly from the next, in the same ways that shops themselves differ from one another in the ways they approach the markets. But while the details may vary, these “rules of the road” are paramount to a Web site’s success in today’s environment—especially as a service to prospects in manufacturing or industrial markets.
Get A Strategy
Whether you have a mature Web site, a newer Web presence, or you’re about to launch or create a site to represent your manufacturing business, you must have a strategy to maintain this critical channel. A Web strategy should be revisited often, as it will help you recognize success on the site, identify whom it is you want to talk to, what you want to say and how you want to say it. But at what stages do you initiate or revisit an online strategy?
Try these suggestions up front to get and stay focused on your Web site’s role:
Build A Solid Team—Whether you’re an owner, a manager or a motivated instigator pushing to get your company’s Web strategy in order, you’re going to need the support of as much of the enterprise as possible. There are many good political reasons for seeking a team that crosses the borders of your company, but just as important are the benefits that come from empowering these internal information sources to “feed” your site with relevant information. Depending on the administrative complexion of your company, areas that are seemingly unrelated to marketing offer excellent sources of technical data—engineering, design, shopfloor management, and, quite possibly, even your receptionist. Each of these groups or positions likely brings experiences with your customers, prospects, projects and capabilities that can translate into insightful and compelling content to serve the “stealth prospects” looking for evidence that you will make a good partner.
To Whom Are You Talking?—Do you covet work that is industry- or specification-specific (medical, aerospace, military, automotive and so on)? Do your goals include growing your business through your strengths in advanced or specialized processes (titanium machining, five-axis, hard turning, high-tolerance prototype work, and so on)? Of course, your competence in these environments and applications must be well represented online. But also ensure that those capabilities and experiences are expressed in ways that speak to the unique and industry-specific needs of the manufacturing-savvy prospects you are targeting.
Establish Responsibilities—Whether your Web site is hosted by internal or external sources, assign responsibility of Web site management, development, measurement and content revision to a person or persons within your business. Your site’s long-term success will depend on consistent attention to sustain the information channels established and fed by your Web team, ensure the continuity of the company’s online message and adjust efforts to match your business goals.
Determine Measurements For Success—As your team identifies and creates areas of your Web presence, identify the benchmarks by which you will measure your success. These benchmarks may include how often certain pages or areas of the site are visited, how many sales leads accumulate through the site, or how service of existing customers is improved through a password-protected extranet. Whatever your company’s goals for its Web site are, establish these standards early.
Say What You Do
Simply put, there is nothing more important to the marketing strength of your manufacturing-based Web site than communicating in detail what you do, how you do it, and how you’ve done it for others.
Try this exercise to improve the quality of your site in general (and its content specifically):
Imagine a prospect has called you on the phone to ask you some questions—for the second time. Imagine that you’ve already spoken once; where you are, what you do, what equipment you have, how many you employ, and how long you’ve been in business have already been discussed. What would you talk about then? Use your site to answer questions like these, as posed by a “stealth prospect” digging deeper into what you do.
“What projects have you done similar to mine?” Describe projects you’re proud of that are industry—or process—specific (aerospace, medical, EDM, titanium, hard turning, high volume, prototype and so on) that relate more directly to a prospect’s project or needs related to these topics.
“How have you expanded your capabilities/technologies for past projects?” Portray your shop’s growth, not just in terms of time, but of process. Longevity is important, but so is your agility and ability to grasp and implement new technologies. Have you adopted high speed milling, knowledge-based programming, or other technologies successfully? Explain how, and what benefit it had for you and for the customers you were serving at the time.
“How have you overcome challenges to provide better service?” If you’re in the business of manufacturing, then you’ve had to deal with a calamity or two—probably daily. These challenges can provide rich content that is extraordinarily effective in differentiating you from your competitors. Give details about what happened, what processes were applied, what type of customer/industry it was for, and how you saved the day.
“How have you improved your processes and capabilities, maybe even mid-project?” Like the previous question, explain how you may have suggested and adopted new technologies or processes outside the original scope of a project that translated into real value to a customer. Don’t forget to define the characteristics of those solutions as they relate to what industry a prospect is from, and the specific process changes that made their parts better or cheaper.
“What do you do for customers, beyond the specs of the part?” Explain in detail the logistical and ancillary support you provide your customers (finishing, shipping, quality, file transfer, project support, and so on).
Answering these questions for prospects who visit your Web site can be extraordinarily effective, without revealing the identity of existing customers. Portraying a customer for whom you’ve worked as “a tier-two automotive supplier of steering column components” or “a manufacturer of high-tolerance titanium parts for medical applications” is often enough for prospective buyers to draw the appropriate conclusions.
Make Your Site Easy To Navigate
Nearly all manufacturing Web sites, regardless of their size or sophistication, portray some similar characteristics. Nearly every site offers up online depictions of a company’s offerings with names such as Our Products, Our Equipment, Take a Tour and others.
There’s nothing wrong with links on a site titled Our Products, Our Equipment, or Take a Tour—they’re sometimes exactly what are required by prospects who visit your site. But these paths to the “meat” of your site usually aren’t nearly specific enough to suit their needs. “Stealth prospects” are online looking for alternatives, options and answers, and the links to information they encounter must be of greater detail and relevance to them than the high-altitude offerings mentioned above.
Put another way, most shops’ Web sites do a fine job of presenting information about their own products, but they do little if anything to portray knowledge of or experiences with the types of parts prospects or their customers make.
To better capture the attention of motivated prospects, think about your Web site’s potential for “buckets.”
At their basic level, Web sites are nothing more than a set of directories and subdirectories identical to the directory tree you’ll see in Windows Explorer. Using the URL www.machiningpro.com/precisiongears/ as an example, the root directory (or Home page) is a directory named “machiningpro” that contains a subdirectory titled “precisiongears.” The “precisiongears” subdirectory is a “bucket” that can contain files (pages, graphics, specs, job descriptions, equipment capacity, previous experiences, and so on) that pertain exclusively to the precision gear making capabilities of the fictitious shop MachiningPro.
Imagine a prospect who is interested in finding alternative sources for precision gears visiting MachiningPro’s home page and encountering a prominent link to “Precision Gear Making,” and following that link to an area that explains why MachiningPro is an expert in precision gear making. Now, imagine that same prospect encountering another site with links to generic areas such as Our Equipment or Our Products. Which business appears as the preferable source and is most likely to garner further consideration from the prospect?
Creating buckets in your own site that portray the company’s process strengths is an important part of this equation. But just as important to the success of this pursuit is linking to the buckets from many areas of the site—not just the home page—as prospects may enter or find your site via other pages or buckets.
This bucket approach can yield other benefits, as well. Creating bucket subdirectories gives your Web team areas in which to feed relative, process-specific information. For example, if MachiningPro augments its gear-making equipment, the content of the bucket changes, but the vessel remains in place. Also, search engines that index Web sites automatically (such as Google) prefer sites with buckets, since longevity, change activity and keyword/phrase association all count toward higher ranking over time.
Approaching the management of your company’s site in this fashion will provide a natural navigation scheme that is more appealing to manufacturing prospects.
Build Paths To Your Web Site
What’s the point of building a Web site if no one comes to it? It’s important to look for opportunities to attract or “push” potential prospects to your site, or to influence prospects to include your site as a research option when they are looking for sources.
Think of each piece of your traditional marketing communications efforts—collateral materials, direct mailings, directory ads, leave-behind materials, your voice mail message—as opportunities to “push” potential customers to your Web site.
Explore the options of how to optimize your Web site for Search Engine placement. There are several Web sites that provide tips and tricks. You can find some in MMS Online’s Metalworking Web Links Repository (www.mmsonline.com/links/).
Online Request for Quote (RFQ) marketplaces offer extraordinary opportunities for buying prospects to discover your company in context. And many of these Web-savvy buyer-prospects choose to perform due diligence on companies they’ve initially encountered in the RFQ marketplace on the Web sites of prospective suppliers, away from the confines of the RFQ model or in conjunction with it. If you choose to participate in online RFQ marketplaces, don’t discount your Web site’s role in enabling or extending these research needs.
Remember that in this time of transition, each prospect or specifier uses combinations of research and communications methods. Some folks still like to use the phone, directories or sales representatives along with Web sites to assemble sourcing options. Go to where your prospects are—figuratively or literally—and promote your Web site there.
Make It Easy To Contact You
An often-overlooked feature on Web sites is contact information.
Make certain your company’s e-mail address, mailing address, phone number and fax number are available on every page of your Web site. Many prospects print out pages of Web sites—especially highly technical content—to support their research gathering functions, and having that contact information resident on those static pages can play a powerful role off-line.
Enable your site to accept files, drawings, project-specific documentation and other collaborative materials from prospects. An example of this function would be a utility that allows prospects to browse their own hard drives or networks and attach files easily to the e-mail or form sent to you through your site.
Online RFQ marketplaces can offer inspiration for improving your site’s communications or collaborative capabilities in two ways. First, these marketplaces constantly develop and refine methods that streamline the communications between manufacturing professionals. Emulating comparable features on your own Web site can be very effective, as they can streamline the communications between prospects and your business. Second, some online RFQ marketplaces offer programs that actually imbed these advanced communications features in your own site.
Be efficient in your e-mail account management. One unique e-mail address—firstname.lastname@example.org—may work just fine for your business. But other addresses that communicate directly with specific areas of your business may put prospects in contact more directly with the information sources they seek, depending on where they’re encountered on your site (for example email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and so on).
There is an old saying that applies most importantly when enabling the communications properties of your company’s Web site: Once you teach a bear to dance, you’d better be prepared to dance until the bear is ready to stop. Ensure that once you’ve enabled these channels there is someone in place who has the responsibility to answer the messages propects send through them—quickly.
Easy On the Graphics
Pay less attention to “interactive,” in terms of your site's functionality or design. For manufacturing-based, technically motivated prospects, “interactive” means providing the information they’re looking for quickly and in context. Don’t sacrifice easy access to information for flash or pizzazz. Often, a brief description that contains relevant technical data accompanied by a graphic or drawing can be much more effective than an elaborate presentation that delivers more than is necessary.
That is not to say that animation or technically adroit graphic presentations cannot be effective in conveying your shop’s prowess in a machining process. But overuse of these techniques is not helpful to streamlining the path prospects are taking to find the information they require, and rarely do these applications impress them.
(Editor’s Note: If your Web team is considering introducing an animated, “flash-splash” screen to your manufacturing company’s Web site, please encourage them not to. If your Web site has one, please consider removing it. These are seen as roadblocks in the paths of prospects using your site and others to support their research needs. If these screens are so useful, why do they all have a “skip intro” option?)
Your Site Is Not An Island
The Web presence of your manufacturing business is seen differently by prospects than it is by you or your Web team. To “stealth prospects,” your site is part of a group larger than your site alone but much smaller than the Web itself, a “snapshot” of current available sources with precise capabilities similar to one another. While perhaps more ambiguous than other proposed ideas listed in this article, this point can be very helpful in defining the overall content, navigation and behavior issues of your Web site.
Constantly and consistently revisit your site and the sites of known competitors. Compare the overall ease-of-use of these sites in comparison to yours, and how efficiently they serve the needs of the “stealth prospect” and how well they portray their competencies. Which sites offer more precise paths to their descriptive content? Which sites offer the best collaborative tools? Which sites look great, but offer little in the way of definitive information about what the company does well and how it does it?
The bottom line is that your Web site isn’t a brochure or catalog that can be forgotten once it’s been completed. It is a living platform that is representing your company right now, this minute, and it requires nurturing and continuous improvement to communicate the technology and business values your organization offers. Its value isn’t determined as much by you or your employees; its worth is being established both by the growing numbers of prospects flocking to the Web to support their sourcing research and by the expanding landscape of competitive sourcing alternatives available to those same prospects.
Your Web site will not change your business or its ability to compete. But it is most certainly defining your standing in the industrial marketplace and communicating your value as a preferred supplier—or not.