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Does Your Business Still Need a Website? Between third-party apps and social media, some business owners are saying no--and it's working.

By David Port

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Rudy Mendoza makes no bones about his strong aversion to computers. "I don't enjoy them," he states flatly.

So what's a cyberphobic jewelry maker from West Covina, Calif., doing on the vanguard of online marketing, intrepidly--and, some would argue, unwisely--testing a strategy to build his company"s web presence that is nothing if not unconventional?

What's unusual about Mendoza's approach is that it involves abandoning the website his company, Jewelry Sales & Design, launched close to a decade ago in favor of a simple third-party-hosted landing page. In doing so, Mendoza is breaking a cardinal rule of mainstream business strategy that says companies, however small, must have a formal, static website to be competitively viable.

Venturing into the online world sans website is not a widely endorsed practice. In fact, it runs contrary to the better judgment of even the most progressive internet marketing experts (see sidebar). What's surprising is that Mendoza's nonconformist approach seems to be working.

"We spent tens of thousands of dollars on our website and got almost nothing out of it," Mendoza says. "We spent $2,500 or $3,000 for this whole [landing page] package, and I'm very sure we got that much out of it in the first couple months. We've had thousands of hits, and we're getting a lot more phone calls from those hits."

Why Forgo a Website?
In the experimental laboratory that is the internet, convention-bucking entrepreneurs are using a distributed strategy to build an online presence exclusively with social media and web apps. It's an approach that has merit in certain situations, if only as a stopgap until a company has the resources to invest in a full-blown website, according to Kirsten Mangers, CEO of WebVisible, an internet marketing firm that develops small-business online marketing strategies built around landing pages. "There's an immediacy to these kinds of vehicles, an ability to change on a dime to meet changing needs, without having to maintain a 20-, 30- or 40-page website."

Voices of Reason
It is possible--though hardly advisable--for a business to build a viable online presence without a website, according to web marketing experts.

The ideal online strategy blends the static (a formal website) with the dynamic (social networks, landing pages, etc.). "Think of a website as the hub and all the social media activities as the spokes that come off from it--all are necessary to make the wheel turn and drive the vehicle," says Beth Schillaci, president of Villageworks, an emerging media marketing firm.

What's more, adds Schillaci, "It simply doesn't make sense to give control over availability and content limits to a third party when your corporate image is at stake.

Given how quickly and inexpensively a layperson can build a functional website, there's little justification for not having a static site, considering the benefits it brings, says Dawn Gregg, associate professor of information systems at the University of Colorado-Denver. "It's really the best tool you have to control your message and build credibility."

Other justifications for having a website:

. Some of your best prospects may not be members of Facebook or any social network.

. Not having a site is a red flag, says social media guru Shama Kabani.

. You don't have complete control of the message with social media; you must take the bad with the good.

. Search engines likely won't find your business as readily without a website.

. What happens to a company that has staked its online presence on one or two social media vehicles if those vehicles lose public favor?

When it comes to building and maintaining relationships with clients and prospects, a business may not need a website when there's Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, contends Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief at Mashable.com, a blog-based site that covers developments with Web 2.0 and social media. "Social media can really be far more impactful than a traditional corporate website to engage people on an ongoing basis. It's great for regular conversation and mindshare."

Even startups such as Digital Americana, a soon-to-launch web-based multimedia literary and culture magazine designed specifically for the Apple iPad, have been emboldened to launch without a formal website.

"So far," says Tony Fasciano, the New York-based magazine's publisher, "by using Tumblr as the main blog site, and creating pages on Twitter and Facebook, we have been able to generate about 100 page views a day--all without yet issuing our first press release."

Going without a website is a way for the startup to keep operations lean until it becomes more established, at which point Fasciano says he may consider adding a website. "For now, we're looking to stay pretty low to the ground and not overcomplicate things."

Cost is a key motivation for taking the website-less approach to online marketing. Participation in most social media outlets comes at no charge, while many web apps are free or almost so. Another is the ability to target local markets via vehicles such as Facebook advertising. Using a tool such as Twitter or a landing page also allows a company to create a "quick and dirty" online presence for specific purposes such as special offers, events and product launches, explains Joseph Manna, community manager at InfusionSoft, a firm specializing in online marketing tools for small business. And, according to WebVisible's Manger, it provides a platform for a company to test a marketing message before full-scale rollout.

Those factors make such a strategy best suited to certain kinds of businesses. For example, says Ostrow, restaurants and bars can post a special on Facebook or Twitter to drive foot traffic that day. Sole proprietorships and very small companies, from yoga instructors to contractors, can use landing pages, LinkedIn and Facebook to create a simple yet functional online presence.

Best Practices for Going Without
While there may be no real substitute for a conventional website, the right combination of tools and tactics can deliver an online presence that in many respects rivals what a website can provide. Here are some suggestions from the web marketing experts:

  • Identify a social media focus. Businesses pursuing informal relationships with the public, such as restaurants and bars, might look first to Facebook, for example, while those wanting relationships with more of a professional flavor might start with LinkedIn.
  • Customize a blog, social media page or landing page with logos, images and information about the business.
  • Lean heavily on web apps to bring dimension, functionality and reach. A wealth of plug-and-play apps are available, many at little or no cost, to add vital elements such as a shopping cart, a lead form, coupons and video. Apps like TweetDeck and Involver, which manage and coordinate content posted through social media, are worthwhile, says Ostrow, as are those that help a business reach local prospects.
  • Blog. Besides being a great way to feed fresh content to the masses, it positions a person as an authority in their field while also spreading the word about their products and services. With a blog, you control the content, which is not necessarily the case with other forms of social media. Tools such as Wordpress, Blogspot and Tumblr are among many solid options.
  • Embrace analytics tools. They're vital for measuring the reach and impact of a business's online efforts. Fasciano says Google Analytics has been invaluable for its ability to provide simple, useful metrics on how web users respond to specific social media actions.
  • Interact. Lend a personal touch by judiciously inserting yourself and your company into the social media dialogue through groups, Tweets, etc.

All these components, says Mangers, should be geared toward conveying and controlling the desired message while capturing vital competitive information--and, of course, new customers. "What you're talking about is reputation management--controlling your content and your data so it is wholly owned by you as an asset."

David Port

Entrepreneur Contributor

David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.

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