by Colin Gilboy
(This article originally appeared in the November 1996 CSI Specifier. This text has been modified somewhat from the original submitted text.)
It is essential that your construction-product Web site be useful to architects and specifiers. A well designed Web site will provide project specifications and qualified project leads to a manufacturer. These specs and leads will ultimately result in sales to distributors and contractors. Architects who contact manufacturers after reviewing their Web site are now looking for additional specific information for their project, not just making a general information inquiry. These qualified leads will include international inquiries as the Internet may be the best way for an architect in Singapore or Munich to learn about your products and services.
A business-to-business Web site is very different than a consumer-oriented Web site. Consumer Web sites are intended to entertain and draw people back again and again. These consumer sites often rely on advertising to pay for the costs of development and maintenance. High visibility Web sites such as ESPN Sports Center and the Wall Street Journal are expensive to develop and maintain.
There is a wide range of variability in cost among Web sites. A construction-product Web site does not need to be expensive. The complete development package can cost under $10,000, including converting an existing 8 page brochure and 50 pages of data sheets into a Web site. Annual maintenance and development costs would be well under $5,000, including access fees and updating of information. Unlike a brochure with 50,000 copies printed, new product introductions and data sheet changes are easy to make and inexpensive to implement and distribute quickly.
GETTING STARTED AND ONLINE:
1. Identify a person or firm to develop Web site. This could be an employee, your advertising agency, a graphical designer or Web consultant. They will set up your Web site and convert your current product information into a form usable on a Web site. Since the World Wide Web is a rapidly developing field, there are few people with many years of experience. Be certain you get someone who understands both construction-product marketing and Web site development. Have a staff member learn how to do some of the simpler Web site maintenance to provide continuity if you use an outside consultant.
2. Select a local business-oriented Internet Service Provider (ISP). You do not need your own Internet server and high-speed connection. Only a very high-traffic Web site requires a dedicated server and high-speed access. Using a shared server, the annual Internet access costs for the 4specs.com Web site is under $400 per year, allowing over 5,000 pages to be stored. Our ISP has a generous bandwidth policy, allowing 4specs.com to serve over 10,000 visitors per DAY at the $30 per month cost.
3. Register your company name on the Internet. This is important and should not be delayed. Some companies have already lost the rights to use their own name on the Internet. For example the Internet name STO.COM is owned by Stone Mountain, not STO the EIFS manufacturer. CSI failed to get their name and now uses csinet.org. CSI.ORG is owned by Colorado Swimming. Your ISP will register your name for exclusive use on the Internet. Name registration costs about $150 including the first 2 years registration costs. This will let you use your company name on both your Web site and for e-mail, e.g. www.royal.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Start your Web site by using the information and photos now found in your brochures and design binders. Convert existing photos and word processing files to the image and text formats used on the Web. Next, expand the Web site by adding data sheets, adding CAD details, and providing information you want an architect, specifier, distributor and installer to know about selecting and specifying your products.
5. Register your Web site with the Internet search engines and construction-related indexing sites. Architects and specifiers can locate your Web site through advertising and Internet search engines and directories. Yahoo lists Web sites after receiving registration information. Infoseek and AltaVista use electronic robots to visit Web sites to develop searchable key-word lists. 4specs.com is a specialized directory service that provides free listings to all specified-construction-product Web sites.
6. Use the Internet to supplement your advertising. Include in your advertisements a specific page location that will direct the reader to supplementary information, such as http://www.royal.com/9611. The /9611 is a directory that provides the information supplementing the ad. It is frustrating to get lost in a large corporate Web site and not find the supplementary information you hoped to find after reading the ad. Manufacturers lose interest if it is difficult to find the desired information.
DEVELOPING YOUR WEB SITE:
Some construction-product manufacturers have followed consumer-site guidelines for their Web site and have unnecessary graphics, image maps and frames that do not increase usability and may not work on all systems. I recommend that:
1. The CSI Manual of Practice is a good starting point for information about construction-product literature. Make it simple to find and use your product information. Provide a mini-home page for each CSI MasterFormat Section where you have products.
2. Keep the content high and the graphics low. I cannot emphasize this too much. Business-to-business Web sites must be fast and provide information for the designer and specifier to use in their work. Glittery and slow Web sites are not effective for design professionals' selection and specification of products. I propose that sites that are slow to use and provide unnecessary graphics will be skipped. I have some design recommendations on web site development after looking at the home pages of every site listed on 4specs.com.
Architectural firms do not want to pay their employees for surfing the Internet looking at Web sites that will not increase productivity. Make your site usable fast by minimizing graphics. Employees (or at least the employer) want to move quickly to the desired data and not wait for the complete page to down load. Splash pages, pages that have no content and are the introduction to the site, should be avoided for commercial web sites.
3. Look at your Web site through AOL and with different browsers. Web pages using the latest design features, such as frames and fancy font effects are not effective when viewed on browsers, including Netscape and Microsoft browsers more than 6 months old. Check to see how your web pages look using older browsers and slower connections.
You will probably want to redesign your Web site to make it load faster. I recommend a 10 second download per page maximum as a good target time during design. This represents a target of 20-30,000 bytes total on the page, including all images. When a page is larger, it will load more slowly; people get frustrated and leave without looking at the content. When connections are slower due to traffic, the load times will still be acceptable.
4. Provide product selection guides with appropriate uses of materials and list recommendations for product evaluation and selection.
5. Provide a list of FAQ's - frequently asked questions. Many architects do not know the right questions to ask about some products. They can read the FAQ's and learn more about your product selection and what performance criteria should be used in product selection. You can provide checklists for design and specification issues.
6. Provide product data sheets. Use the Adobe Acrobat PDF format to preserve the complete formatting of your documents. The PDF format can be protected so no changes can be made by unauthorized sources. When printed on a laser printer, the PDF file looks like an original document. Adobe provides a free reader for the PDF format.
7. Provide specifications and CAD files. Use DWG files for the CAD details and use WordPerfect 5.1 for specifications as all word processing systems will be able to convert those files. Do not use compressed files to save time. Do not rely upon the user having the programs at hand to decompress your files prior to use. Most 28.8 modems automatically compress and decompress the data during transmission if configured properly by increasing the internal transfer rates. Thus, there is no significant transmission time savings between transmitting a compressed and an uncompressed file.
8. Provide MSDS sheets and installation guides. Installation guides help the designer understand how to better detail and specify the products.
9. You will be able to reduce the size and cost of your architectural design binder with new, thinner brochures and only the most important data sheets. Include photos and color charts in the binder as colors do not reproduce accurately on a computer due to technical limitations. Put less important data sheets on your Web site. Include in the binder a map of your Web site to help locate information. Offer to provide information on a disk to those who are not yet connected to the Internet.
Start small and inexpensively. Continually improve your Web site as you get more Web site visitors and feedback. Use consultants to help you get started and have your staff learn how to maintain and add to your Web site.
Colin Gilboy was an independent manufacturers' representative for 25 years, focusing primarily on Division 7 products in the San Francisco area.
Publisher - 4specs