If You Build It, Will They Come?

There’s no question that the Internet has changed the way we do business. By this time, you know it’s important to have a presence online. Many rental businesses have websites, but it’s a constant challenge to keep content fresh and visitors coming back.

If properly constructed and promoted, your website can become a magnet to attract customers. But simply sticking a website out in cyberspace and waiting for customers to find it is not the best method to increase your bottom line.

Here are some helpful hints to get people to your website - and to keep them coming back.

Design basics

According to Bob Shaffer with Point-of-Rental, there are two primary types of websites: static and dynamic.

"A static site simply displays pages of text and usually some images," says Shaffer. "It’s simple and consequently, cheap. If your goal is to simply provide prospects your company phone number, address, hours of operation, directions and possibly some broad categories of equipment you offer, this is all you’ll need. Essentially it’s a ‘yellow pages’ ad on the web. With a static site, any changes to the store’s inventory or pricing would need to be manually updated on the site, resulting in additional maintenance and cost.

"On the other hand, a dynamic site provides a richer user experience and is a lot more interesting to the visitors since they typically can interact with site content," he explains. "For example, a dynamic site for a rental store probably has a shopping cart so that a prospect can assemble a basket of inventory items to create a quote that is e-mailed to the rental store for follow up. A dynamic site for a rental store also typically has an online database that provides visitors the ability to browse through categories of inventory items as well as search the inventory using keywords. Finally, a dynamic site typically allows the rental store owner to update at least some of the website’s content on demand without any cost or involvement with any design or programming."

Shaffer says a dynamic site will help a rental business generate more customers and revenue. Jack Shea with Solutions by Computer agrees.

"If you develop a website that includes product photos, specifications, operating instructions, etc. and make that site interacts with your rental computer system, you’re using the Internet to enhance both customer service and sales," Shea says. "This can lower your cost of doing business and serve customers better in a classic win-win situation."

However, too much information is not always a good thing, says Mike Stilwagner with Wynne Systems. He says to not saturate your website with too many options. "Provide key must-haves, like types of equipment, company news, company history, locations and customer service information," he says. "Make it easy for users to find the information they need when they need it."

Shea also points out that you shouldn’t expose too much of your business data directly to the Internet. "In many cases, the more facilitation there is for the customer, the more potential exposure there is for the rental data," he says. "When working with a host company or website developer, be sure you know all the risks and rewards of offering certain functionality on your site and make an informed decision."

Speaking of designers, be sure to find one with experience and samples you like. If you have a non-professional design the layout, you might regret it later. And don’t forget to get references.

"To protect yourself, even for a simple static site, you need to ask at least three design companies to provide a recent list of their customers with names, phone numbers and their web addresses of the site they have designed," says Shaffer. "Call at least three from each company and ask specific questions on the quality, cost and timeliness of their work."

Keep in mind that you want to have fresh content, and that periodic updates and maintenance will have to be performed on your website. You don’t want a website that is obsolete or contains erroneous information. "It’s important that these costs are identified and agreed upon up front with the website design companies to eliminate any surprises in the future," reminds Shaffer.

Tell people about it

Once you have your online presence, you have to shout it from the hills so people know where to find it. Get the message out there where people can see it. With that in mind, make sure to include your website address:

  • On your business cards, rental contracts, brochures, ads, mailings - any printed materials
  • On your delivery trucks
  • On your equipment with decals
  • In your e-mail signature, so it goes out with every e-mail you send
  • On your front door

The best, but consequently most costly, way to market your website is to pay search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, to direct people to your site.

"Suppose you own a party rental store in Kalamazoo and a potential customer wants to rent a tent along with tables, chairs and other items," says Shaffer. "If your prospect goes onto Google and types in ‘party rental,’ ‘table rental,’ ‘chair rental,’ etc., you can instruct Google to display a link to your website at the top or side of the search results page along with a short description of your business.

"If your prospect clicks on the link, they will be redirected to your site," he continues. "Since the web knows geographically approximately where your potential customer is accessing the web, you can arrange with the search engine to only display your advertising link if the prospect is close to Kalamazoo."

How will you know if all your marketing efforts are working? Depending on the hosting company you use, you’ll have access to different site analysis tools, such as hit counters.

"Using these tools will allow you to see how many people are visiting your site on a daily basis," says Dick Detmer, rental business consultant. "It’s also important to analyze the effectiveness of the other advertising channels that send prospects to your website. You could have a top-notch website, but if nobody goes there, it won’t matter."