Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Title Report: Is it time to breathe new life into your website?

The overhaul of an existing Web site or launch of a new one is an undertaking that comes with a lengthy checklist of tasks and possibly a substantial price tag.

However, in the world of Web 2.0 technology and mounting expectations from increasingly tech-savvy customers, title companies around the country are exploring the options available to them today. Those options are allowing the smallest to largest businesses to be more easily found through Internet searches and to better serve as a source for everything from fee quotes to consumer-oriented educational tools once their Web sites are discovered.

Nikki Smith, marketing director for Federal Title & Escrow in Washington, D.C., said that when she was hired by the agency in 2009, its Web site was about 10 years old, consisted of entirely static pages and made the company appear outdated.

�Your Web site makes a very strong impression. If your Web site looks stuffy or antiquated, it might make your business look the same way. Your Web site has to make a good first impression,� she said.

Smith began the project of creating a new site for Federal Title and took on the challenge of reaching its heavily consumer-oriented customer base while also providing the tools and information required by lender and Realtor clients.
Targeting desired functionality

Smith said one of the first priorities she addressed was to make the Web site intuitive for users. As a marketing professional from outside the title insurance industry, she said she was able to look at the site with a different set of eyes.

�That gives me a fresh perspective in terms of whether the way something is worded will be clear to the average customer or if it is going to be clear to find on the Web site if you are navigating blindly. You want to make sure that the important material is easy to find as well as to understand,� she said.

Targeting consumers, lenders and Realtors, Federal Title also decided ways in which content could be repackaged to serve those different groups while also figuring out what individual services would best suit them. For example, a lender may seek out the functionality of a fee quote calculator while consumers seek general information about the role of title insurance.

�Its really about trying to identify with the audience and present information in a way they will also identify with,� she said.

At TitleHub Closing Services LLC, which launched in the Needham, Mass., market in January, real estate attorney Richard D. Vetstein said the technology-driven start-up company had several requirements for what it wanted its Web site to offer. Those included integration of his previously launched Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog, the companys e-closing system and its social media network.

�We wanted a user-friendly platform chock-full of great content for buyers and sellers and Realtors and lenders and to have it be easily accessible,� Vetstein said.

A consistent design

When it came time to design the site, Vetstein said the first priority was to develop a logo, which would serve as the foundation for the rest of the site. �Youre talking about the core concepts you want to get across,� he said.

Going through the process with a graphic designer, TitleHubs executives were asked about color, feel, warmth and mood along with what their expectations were for the layout and functionality. Next, the company was taken through the process of deciding on the placement of menus, how to wave out boxes, the location of navigation and search bars and where the companys e-closing system could be accessed.

In order to gain inspiration, the company looked outside the industry to Apple, Dell and Volkswagen.

Rick Grant, principal at public relations firm RGA-Rick Grant & Associates, said that when he works with companies on Web site design, he advises that they duplicate what is already being used in print marketing materials in order to maintain branding. For example, similar colors and fonts should be incorporated.

However, he warned, a companys branding and logo are most likely not what site visitors are hoping to find and should not be overplayed. Instead, content is key.

The build-out

Smith said that once a design is in place and it is time to build the site, title companies will be faced with the additional decision of whether to have someone in-house maintain the site or if that function should instead be outsourced. At Federal Title, Smith pushed for the company to use its own content management system CMS so that any attorney within the company could easily access the back-end of the site from the office in order to update information or make a quick change.

Federal Title operates today on the Joomla CMS, a platform that Smith worked with previously and preferred. Other common systems include Drupal and Wordpress.

�Any of those will do the same things. Its just a matter of preference. Once we decided which management system we wanted to use, it was a question of contacting a host who would then host the URL for us,� Smith said, adding that she chose a local company in the Washington, D.C., area in order to have the ability to visit in person if needed.

Once the host was in place, Smith was left with building the site through Joomla by uploading information onto the server and creating it one piece at a time. By doing it herself, Smith said Federal Title was able to garner a significant savings, having been quoted by developers anywhere from $2,500 for the creation of a bare-bones site to $50,000 for a high-end site.

�We could have spent $50,000 on a site that wouldnt have put us any farther ahead than the site we ended up creating. To me, that was an accomplishment. We saved money and achieved the same goals,� she said, adding that she instead spent less than $1,000 for outsourced graphics, templates and hosting fees.

TitleHub took a different approach by taking the design and layout created by its graphic designer and giving it to a Web development company to create the site.

�We knew that this was of a sufficient complexity that we needed a Web designer, the only issue was whether we went with an all-in-one that did both design and build-out,� Vetstein said. To get what it wanted, TitleHub decided the right decision was to use the two separate providers.

From that point, the site was created with a fair number of tweaks made along the way. �There were a lot of bugs and kinks to work out, like getting the menus right. And, of course, we had to get them all of the content for the pages, so we were doing a lot of writing,� he said.

Making it work for your company

Grant said its important to build a site with a variety of ways for visitors to gather the information they need. He recommended that companies take a prospect through the regular flow of business via the Web site, from the agents role at first contact to closing. What is presented through that approach, he added, is imperative, since oftentimes potential clients are searching the Web for title agents because something went wrong with a provider they were working with previously.

�When something goes wrong, thats probably the vast majority of times youre going to find a lender looking for what you do. Its even more important at that point that you have a Web site that clearly explains your value proposition, that makes it easy to get in touch with the knowledgeable people at your organization,� Grant said. �Make it easy for them to come on, get set up, get the information they need and give them as much as you can teach them before they even pick up the phone.�

While this process doesnt always have an inexpensive price tag, Vetstein said TitleHub had to weigh the benefits of developing a Web site that fit closely with its own business model and make the investment, which has so far been returned by business pulled in through the site.

�Our platform in terms of marketing and sales and getting Realtors and lenders to do business with us is so Web-focused. Were so high on social media and blogging � its part of our business model. We use technology to make the process better and more efficient for our partners,� he said.

Smith advised that a budget be put in place and, if possible, companies should consider having someone in-house who can tackle the project, reducing the cost and increasing the level of accountability to which a company can hold that individual. There are also many materials available online for those thinking of managing the process on their own. �If people are patient and just take a day to read over the overview before they jump into it, its not that hard at all to do it yourself or to hire someone like me to do it for you,� she said.

Finally, determining if a company Web site is effective should not be left to speculation. Smith recommended the use of Google Analytics, which provides breakdowns of site visits, visitor profiles, top entry and exit pages and a wealth of other data that provides insight on what is and is not working.

E-mail comments to

Web site check list

You will need to consider the following factors when redesigning your Web site or launching a new one:

��� * Evaluate your current site to determine what is working and what isnt or decide what functionality you would like to offer in a new site.
��� * Work with an in-house or outsourced designer to formulate how your company brand and logo will be used on the site and establish the overall look and feel.
��� * Decide who will build the site and host it. There are a variety of options to choose from and a number of price ranges, so be sure to do your homework.
��� * Take time to work through the build-out phase, trying different options and filling the site with plenty of audience-specific content.
��� * Keep it fresh and remember the work is never done. Update content through blog posts and track overall performance of the site through Google Analytics.

Are you blogging?

The more regularly Web site content is updated, the more likely it is that potential clients will find a companys site through Google searches. And an essential element to that process is blogging.

�Blogging leaves a signature for you out on the Web somewhere,� said Nikki Smith, marketing director for Federal Title & Escrow in Washington, D.C.

�The work on the Web site is never done. You have to keep it fresh. You have to keep paying attention to it. Thats probably the mistake that a lot of people make, thinking, Okay, the Web site is in place, I can go work on something else. Time passes and the Web site isnt new anymore. Its all stale material. And then Google doesnt care about it. If Google doesnt care about it, nobody else is going to know about it,� she added.

With more regularly updated content, sites begin rising to the top of search results on Google, meaning companies become far more visible than they are without the effort. Smith, however, added that blogs should be hosted by the business site rather than an outside host, such as Googles Blogger, in order to drive Web traffic to the company.

Rick Grant, principal of public relations firm RGA-Rick Grant & Associates, said he is a huge proponent of blogs but also noted some challenges that come with the use of them.

�You have to be serious about keeping it updated. It could look far more stale than an ordinary Web site because there is a date assigned to your post,� he said, adding that if someone within an organization commits to updating it at least three times a week, �The blog is the absolute best platform to have for your Web site, bar none.�

This article first appeared in the Title Report on Monday, May 31 and was written by Jennifer Kovacs.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Now Playing: Closing Costs Explained Visually