Web-savvy businesses ‘on the grow’

Even a decade ago, Dale Schemel knew his company needed a web site.

“We set it up because we knew potential clients were probably researching on the Internet,” explains the president of BBL Buildings & Components Ltd. in Perryville, Mo.

But 10 years is an eternity in cyberspace. So as part of an overall business plan, BBL hired an agency and invested $7,500 in upgrading its site, www.bblconst.com. Some of that cost can be recouped from manufacturers the company represents. But Schemel reports his up-front costs have already been justified by the returns.

“We’ve seen good growth in the side of our business that does custom homes,” he points out, “because we realized that people looking for a custom home builder were searching the Internet for contractors and reviewing their options before they make any purchases.” And since BBL employs panelized construction as an alternative to stick building, he adds, its web site has become a powerful tool “to get information out about the process.”

Further, the site informs potential customers that BBL is a member of the National Frame Building Association and has earned designation as a Post-Frame Accredited Builder. The company maintains two other divisions for post-frame construction and roof truss manufacturing.

Though BBL is in the construction business, Schemel believes that builders must develop expertise in web site administration, just as they would for any management function. Rather than outsourcing, BBL plans in time to operate its web site in-house. For one thing, the company can then post photographs of its latest projects without any lag time.

Yet Schemel cautions do-it-yourself designers to beware. “Getting an outsider’s perspective can be valuable,” he notes. “Part of the reason we used a marketing agency is that we wanted to upgrade the site with information that would be helpful from a consumer standpoint. If I was in control of what went up on the site, there might be a bunch of facts that may or may not meet the needs of customers.”

So what are the results? “We’ve definitely seen an improvement with the new site,” says Schemel. “We’ve gotten more sales leads and more activity on the site than ever before.” While the old web site generated only a few leads a month, the new version yields multiple leads every week.

Schemel points out that builders must consider ways of driving traffic to their sites. BBL printed new promotional materials that advertise the web site. “Our advertising is designed to lead people to the web site.”

Tracking the sources of leads is vital to deciding how marketing dollars should be spent. BBL has purchased multiple Internet domains so that each advertising method the company uses can drive traffic to a different domain. “This way,” he states, “we know where each lead comes from and can tell which ads are doing better than others.”

BBL maintains a listing in local phone books, Schemel continues, “but I think that, in general, the Web is more effective than the Yellow Pages.” As such, BBL has pulled its phone directory advertising. Instead, because the company enjoys significant referral business from existing customers, the phone book functions as a way for potential clients to look up BBL’s number after hearing about the builder from a friend.

To sum up his advice to rural builders, Schemel says, “The key to your web site is not to let it get stale. Keep it fresh and current. Most people want to see projects that you’ve done. So take quality photos and then keep putting up new building photos often.”

Hey, look here!
Owner Tom Craun of Craun Construction, www.craunconst.com, in Basehor, Kans., is another Internet convert who believes the medium “is great advertising, definitely better than the Yellow Pages.” The company is active in several markets — agricultural, equine, suburban, commercial — so that a visual showcase for its different services is vital. “We live in a Web-oriented society,” he says. “So about seven years ago I knew we had to get something on the Internet for potential customers to see pictures of our work.”

Because Craun Construction utilizes components from Wick Buildings in many of its projects, the two companies cooperatively market each other. A link on the Craun site to Wick Buildings helps consumers easily find needed information, while the Wick site guides consumers to Craun Construction through its “Find Your Builder” directory. The listing includes Craun’s photo and a customer endorsement. Moreover, Wick has a co-op advertising program that helps its builders pay for the construction of their own web sites.

Now that his web site is in operation, Craun reports that $150 per year is all it takes to maintain the site. “It’s really easy to manage,” he says. “I can change photos in as little as 10 minutes, and we try to do a comprehensive update of our photos about two or three times a year. I can also tell when I receive an e-mail through the web site, and I tend to get four or five of those every week.”

Why some rural builders don’t yet have web sites, Craun can’t imagine. “Even if it’s just for contact information, in this day and age you’ve got to have a web site,” he contends. “And it’s OK to keep it simple. Though some web sites are really intricate, you don’t want potential customers to get lost in the details. You want them to clearly see what services you offer.

The webs we weave
At Greiner Buildings of Washington, Iowa, president Matt Greiner still believes that word-of-mouth “is always the best advertising.” But having an Internet presence has become increasingly important, especially as advances in speed and bandwidth have enabled consumers to quickly download images of builders’ projects.

As Greiner saw major builders migrating to the Internet, he took the cue and knew his own company needed a web site. “For a long time, the Yellow Pages were our bread and butter,” he recalls. “In fact, we were one of the first builders in our market to buy big ads in the phone book. But they don’t justify the expense anymore.”

Development and maintenance of the Greiner Buildings site, www.greinerbuildings.com, falls to office manager Kathy Rode. “We initially recognized the need to have a web site,” she reports, “and so a friend of our company constructed one quickly. But it wasn’t quite exactly what we needed. So a few years ago we began the process of developing a site that’s a good fit for our current standards.”

After two months of researching the design and content of other web sites, Rode spent a week putting ideas on paper. “I wrote down each potential page we might have on our new site,” she remembers, “and looked at it like a storybook.” Once the content and layout were finalized, she transferred the ideas to make a computerized slide show. The concept was then handed off to a professional designer Greiner Buildings hired for about $2,500. “But all the prep work definitely saved us money,” she says.

Today Greiner Builders can independently manage site content and update pictures as needed. “We have a person in-house who takes pictures as jobs are completed,” Rode says, “and after that, the web designer we initially used taught us how to make changes.”

A professional appearance and constant updating are “musts” for a builder’s web site, Rode insists, because “Your site is a reflection of your company. It’s sometimes the first impression you have with a potential customer. Consumers are reassured not only by your project photos, but also by the overall professional look of your web site.”

This attention to detail has paid off. Since Greiner Buildings redesigned its web site, the volume of sales leads has dramatically increased. “The old web site was up for about a year, and we might have gotten six hits a month,” Rode reports. “Now we’re getting 98 hits month!”

The additional business has also generated a spin-off benefit with some of Greiner’s suppliers. “Two of our steel suppliers give us a rebate at the end of the year for the advertising we do for them on our web site,” Rode says. “And we’ve seen improved service from our suppliers. When we have problems, need product quickly, or want to hold the line on material prices, the web site promotion we do for our suppliers is a real point in our favor.”

Rode advises rural builders to develop a plan before jumping on the Internet bandwagon. “You have to assess what you need before you try to develop it,” she points out. “Begin at the beginning and do a lot of research. Then keep everything easy to read and clearly worded. And avoid items that take too long for users to download.”

Working through the details takes time, but the result is worth it. “Don’t expect things to happen overnight,” Rode says, “but your web site really will pay off in the end.”

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