Your shop window – website design tips

For manufacturers, building an effective website to showcase the business can prove a challenge. Malcolm Wheatley searches out best practice.

A manufacturer of innovative geohelic small antennae used in GPS systems and similar portable devices, Wellingborough-based Sarantel sells its wares through a global network of agents and distributors, each of whom routinely requires samples for submission to the end-customers they are dealing with.

The problem? Keeping track of the resulting sales pipeline, making sure that samples are produced and delivered as required and that end-customer sales prospects aren’t being approached by overlapping distributors or agents, leading to confusion and duplication.

A solution came to Sarantel in the form of a private website, created by Buckinghamshirebased Ice Blue Sky, a specialist marketing communications agency for the technology industry.

To obtain samples, agents and distributors log on to the website, enter information about the project and sales prospect in question, and thereby put in train the manufacture of the sample.

“Going digital helped reduce costs by making the sample request process much more efficient, and also automated the process of taking agents through the process of antennae selection,” says Charlotte Graham Cumming, a director at Ice Blue Sky. “Not only was the sales process faster, but Sarantel found that it had also gained valuable insights into its sales pipeline.”

Chris Muir, sales director at Sarantel, concurs. “With a project like this, there isn’t a particular metric that we could use to demonstrate its effectiveness,” he says. “But it’s clear, when we look at our sales pipeline, that we have much more visibility into it now, as well as control over it. We’ve gone from having either no, or very limited, information about the pipeline, to having just about as much information as we could reasonably expect.”

Different strokes

Writ large, it’s a story with a myriad echoes across the manufacturing sector.

At Tamworth-based tap and shower manufacturer Bristan, for instance, a website sourced from specialist e-shopping website firm ePages, allows customers to identify the spare parts and accessories that they need via exploded diagrams and then enter an order that is automatically transferred to Bristan’s IFS Applications 7.5 ERP system. Also automatic is the link to shopping sites such as PriceRunner, Kelkoo and eBay, explains Antony Bourne, global manufacturing industry director at IFS.

Meanwhile, at Birkenheadbased 17-employee H&O Plastics, a website sourced from The Artlab – a specialist creator of websites for manufacturing businesses – is credited with delivering an increase in sales of at least 10%.

Having traditionally sold its tamper-evident plastic buckets through distributors who applied a hefty markup, H&O can now sell direct to the end-customer, explains managing director Bob Lavender – and thereby keep that margin for itself.

“Manufacturers need to stress that they are a manufacturer, and not a distributor – so as well as showing off the product, show off the premises, and the machinery, and show people at work. It’s manufacturers’ secret weapon – and many of them are surprisingly reluctant to use it.” – Rick Lees, Managing Director, The Artlab

Yet the fact remains that for manufacturers, who predominantly follow a businessto- business model, website design poses a challenge. Ideally, their websites should be readily accessible to both domestic and foreign buyers, and showcase not just products, but also technical, design and logistics capabilities.

But this requirement is complicated by the frequent need to blend the presumptions of business-to-business customer relationship management with businessto- consumer capabilities and careful interaction between the ‘shop window’ front end and back office systems. So, when it comes to website design, what does best practice for manufacturers look like?

Secret weapon

Talk to those close to the issue, and one thing quickly becomes clear: developing websites for manufacturers is complex and a search for best practice will first throw up an awful lot of bad practice.

Damon Segal, chief executive of design group Emotio
Damon Segal, chief executive of design group Emotio

“Websites for manufacturers are different,” says Damon Segal, chief executive of design group Emotio, where about a third of the workload is for manufacturers. “You’re profiling an extensive catalogue of products, but also educating the customer in terms of the company’s capabilities, and the capabilities of the products it sells. And in terms of the sales process, the end-point is much further away – it’s not necessarily about generating a sale right now, on the website, or even soliciting the completion of an on-line enquiry form. The emphasis, really, is on establishing credentials and credibility.”

Rick Lees, managing director at The Artlab – which built the website for H&O Plastics – makes a similar point. “The website isn’t just a piece of customer-facing IT, it’s a design that sets an expectation that you will be a credible and reliable partner,” he says.

“Manufacturers need to stress that they are a manufacturer, and not a distributor – a lot of distributors go to some lengths to hint that they are manufacturers when they’re not. So as well as showing off the product, show off the premises, and the machinery, and show people at work. It’s manufacturers’ secret weapon – and many of them are surprisingly reluctant to use it.”

Imagery, it turns out, is also a bugbear among website professionals. Talk to designers, and many will complain about the quality of the imagery that they see on manufacturers’ sites.

“Most manufacturers try to use the same imagery for the screen as they do for print – which doesn’t work, as print can deal with detail much better than the screen,” says Alan Goodwin, marketing strategist at specialist website creator Fizog Design.

“In any case, the advantage of the web isn’t in displaying images, it’s displaying motion: people often know what a product looks like, what they want to know is how is it used, and how does it look in action – and that’s what a website can show them.”

“It’s important to have a sophisticated, creative approach to website imagery,” adds Emotio’s Segal. “If you’ve got blurry images of all different sizes and formats, then it’s going to look very messy.” And from long experience, The Artlab’s Lees suggests that following some commonsense content guidelines will help to maximise the effectiveness of an investment in a new website.

“Often manufacturing businesses think about what they want to communicate, rather than taking a step back and putting themselves in a web visitor’s shoes,” he says.

“A good search facility makes your website user friendly – which is particularly true if you have a big range of products and technical information. A search bar takes the hassle out of finding what you want when you have a more specific query, looking for a particular model of a product, for example. Remember: if finding information quickly is difficult, visitors are likely to go to your competitors.”

Likewise, there’s a skill to correctly positioning products. Again an example of how the world of print, and printed catalogues, doesn’t necessarily translate to the web in the same way.

“If the products are very similar then it may make sense to group them together – but if products have different features and benefits, it’s often better to have an individual page for each, because then you can optimise each page accordingly, targeting search engine optimisation keywords to match a specific product,” he recommends.

“Specification sheets provide more detailed information, but make sure that these are available to download and print from the product page, and not hidden away in a library on your site. Again, it’s about making life easy for potential customers.”

And in a choice between providing a lot of technical information and what might be considered too little information, err on the side of plenty, advises James Shakespeare, managing director of web design company Evosite.

“Don’t worry about being too technical,” he says. “You’re not trying to appeal to the masses, but to the key decision makers in your potential client base. Your target audience are likely experts in your domain, and will certainly be experts in theirs; use the content of your site to demonstrate your own expertise.” Keep it current That said, an effective website isn’t just about content, presentation and design.

Back office integration can involve much more than simply viewing the website as a ‘front end’ to a sales order entry application. Take product configuration, for example: replicating human interaction can be time-consuming and expensive to build into a website.

“The productivity gains from online ordering come when you can transfer the content from an online ordering system directly into an sales order processing, accounting or manufacturing application,” warns Fizog’s Goodwin.

“There’s an ROI, to be sure, but the cost of entry into product configuration is high, and it can be very difficult to make it affordable.” And don’t forget to keep updating the website, and maintaining its freshness and currency. A website that looks dated and stale will put potential customers off, as will one highlighting ‘news’ that is months or years old.

Just as undesirable: a website that no longer reflects the business, but remains oriented around the nature of the business at the time that the website was commissioned.

At White Waltham-based motor sport transmission manufacturer Hewland Engineering, for instance, the current website, while superficially glossy and professional, no longer represents the full scope of Hewland’s business, says Alex Thornton, a sales and marketing coordinator at the engineering firm.

Accordingly, web design firm Emotio has been commissioned to develop a replacement, and to develop it with a content management system, which will make it easier to update.

“Hewland has come a long way, very quickly, and rather than patch the existing website, it seemed sensible to go back to the beginning, and develop an easily-navigable website which would actually showcase what we do today,” sums up Thornton.

Laudable sentiments, and a recognition that for a website showcase, only the best will do. But for every Hewland, how many more manufacturers limp along with second-best? More than a few, it seems.