Websites and social media profiles benefit businesses differently. Take a deeper look at the advantages of both to decide which one best fits your brand.
In the digital age, conventional wisdom teaches that to run a successful small business, you must have a website. Everybody from window cleaners to lawyers have filled the World Wide Web with the digital equivalent of their shopfront. The migration online became so prolific, analysts started to predict the death of the main street. Entire industries sprouted to help businesses increase their online exposure. And now, more than ever, eyes are online.
That was, of course, until social media came along, and the rules changed again. With more and more screen time diverted to social media, you might start to wonder — do you even need a website anymore?
In this article, we explore the pros and cons of websites. We’ll look at the purpose that websites play, and explore whether these purposes can be served via alternative means, like social media.
What are the Alternatives to a Website?
Most marketers will tell you that a website is essential because it acts as a storefront in the same way as the window of a brick-and-mortar store. You can show off your products or services quickly and easily, along with seasonal offerings and promotions.
With the advent of social media, especially visual platforms such as Instagram, you can create a constantly changing storefront of sorts through social posts in your feed. On top of that, you can provide even more access to you and your brand through candid Instagram Stories and other quick-touch social media methods. LinkedIn blogs or Medium posts can replace cornerstone content related to your brand. Pinterest, Etsy, and many other services can showcase large inventories of products in elegant and compelling ways.
But there’s a downside to the social media storefront: it’s scattered. If you use a few social platforms for different purposes, there’s no definitive destination you can share with customers to get brand info, product updates, and shopping. If you choose to focus on a single platform, you can offset this issue, but you’ll also limit the discoverability of your brand.
Selling Products or Services
Being able to sell your products or services is vital to every business, and the creation of e-commerce made this process incredibly simple and cheap. Just take a photo of your products, load them onto your website, add a description, hook up to an e-commerce platform, and away you go. At this point, many customers expect online shopping as part of their interaction with a brand.
In the last few years, social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have premiered shopping features that allow customers to browse your products in their social feed. However, shop owners still need to link their social shopping account to a website, and in most markets, customers will have to visit your website to complete a transaction. There’s no complete social replacement for an ecommerce website at this time.
Keep an eye on this space, though. With the affinity between social media and online shopping, the big social platforms are sure to make considerable advancements in the coming years. Instagram Checkout and Facebook Pay are already paving the way.
Customers commit to buying from a small business after they’re certain about the company’s products and services. They want to know how your business will solve their problems, and the level of expertise you have to do so effectively. Websites are a great way of sharing knowledge through blog posts, knowledge bases, or FAQ pages.
The simple reason why is that websites have space. These cornerstone pieces that describe what you do, how you do it, and why you do it are integral to building trust with customers, and they can run up the word count quickly.
There can be richer ways of demonstrating knowledge and expertise than text-heavy blog posts on your website. Webinars are a great way of talking directly to your customers, and you can easily set up services through places such as Eventbrite.
Podcasts are also a booming trend, giving you the ability to regularly talk to your customers, answer their questions, and develop a rapport or feeling that the customer knows you. You can start yours with a cheap microphone and a small monthly subscription to a podcast host.
Some small business owners have even built entire followings around no more than the humble email newsletter, sending regular, value-adding content directly in the inbox of thousands of potential customers. These methods lend themselves to word-of-mouth marketing; how many times has somebody told you about an awesome new podcast they’re listening to? Now ask yourself how many times recently somebody has directed you to an amazing new website.
Getting in Touch
At the heart of any website is the ability to get in touch with the company. Almost every business website features a “contact us” or “get in touch” page that includes the physical address, a phone number, and an email point of contact. These pages sometimes contain a form. Recently, businesses have rolled out live chat functionality to communicate quickly with their online customers.
There are some alternatives that we could argue work better, and don’t require a website at all. First and foremost is a Google business listing. If you’re a small business with a brick and mortar presence, you can list your phone number and location on Google to capture any searches relevant to your business. Even if you don’t have a physical shop, a Google listing can help drive local traffic to your services.
Facebook Messenger is another easy and powerful contact tool. With a Facebook business page, Messenger can act as a customer triage service, even starting the conversation for you with context-dependent questions, allowing technology to do the heavy lifting. Some small business owners are now setting up WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Slack channels to act as new-age forums. These allow their customers to talk to each other, solve issues among themselves or with business owners, suggest improvements or upgrades to a service or product, or find help and advice. Meanwhile these channels also build a tight-knit community of individuals who champion your business.
The Benefits of a Website
So, having read this, it’s safe to say that websites are dead, right? Well, it’s not that simple. You see, as good as technology has become at providing many alternatives to the traditional website, it really does depend on what kind of experience you wish to give your customers.
Here are a few reasons why websites out-compete social media and other third-party players. If these factors are important to you, consider sticking to a website as your digital destination.
Websites Can be Extensively Branded
Allowing your entire company to exist solely on third-party platforms means that you don’t actually control any of your narrative. Whereas with a website you can control every aspect of your customer journey—story, colors, aesthetic, tone of voice, mood—on social media in particular, although you can create some of these things some of the time, your profile is still essentially the same as every other profile on the platform; with that comes a removal of creating an immersive experience for your customers.
Equally, as social media platforms operate via a continual feed, you have to think about how to retell your story over and over and over again as you post more and more. A customer arriving at your profile today will get an entirely different experience to one who arrived three days ago, and it will be different again to somebody who arrives in a week. This inconsistency does not lend itself well to ensuring you guide your customers on a perfectly crafted journey.
Websites are Exclusive to Your Brand
Although getting customers to your website can take some work, once they’re there, you have their sole attention. In the hustle and bustle of social media, it only takes one pertinent ad from a competitor to pop up at just the wrong time, and you could lose that customer to somebody else. On your website, the choice for the customer is between which of your products they should buy, not whether they should buy your product versus somebody else’s.
Websites are Detail-Oriented
Although most customers don’t think they want to spend a lot of time trying to find a solution to their problem, the truth is most will do a vast amount of research before committing to a purchase, especially if that purchase is online. When that time comes, they’re going to want to know much more than what social media or an episode of a podcast can provide—what’s your returns policy, how do they get to your physical store, can I use this product in tandem with this other product, are these suitable for vegans—all questions that it’s simple and easy to answer on a webpage.
Websites Provide Business Continuity
Finally, although perhaps less glamorous, but just as important, is the future-proofing of your business. By placing your entire livelihood on third-party services, you run the risk of a fairly significant part of your business disappearing overnight if something were to happen to that service. Social media platforms come and go. Security breaches happen. If your entire sales funnel is through Instagram, what happens if you woke up tomorrow and it no longer existed? Or it was offline for half a day (which does happen more often than you’d think)? Owning your own website is like owning your own house—nobody can evict you or move you on so long as the mortgage is paid.
Who Needs a Website?
So now you’ve seen the pros and cons to running your business website-free. Both routes are entirely viable, and businesses are making both work for them.
There are some industries where it could be argued a website will have minimal impact on sales. For example, when was the last time you visited the website of your local Chinese takeout or your favorite restaurant? Have you ever visited your favorite author’s website? What about your local healthcare provider? What does the website of the laundromat across the street look like?
The truth is however, that the best solution for most small businesses is likely to be a bit of column A and a bit of column B.
Think about when you walk into a physical store and the assistant jumps on you right out of the gate—it can be off-putting and a little intrusive. But later, once you’ve browsed and worked out the lay of the land, then you may want somebody to give you some more insight or to answer a question you may have. Or you might have already made up your mind and want to skip the in-depth conversation entirely and head straight to the register.
This works the same online: in the beginning, let social media do the intros, with its brevity and capacity to intrigue, warming up the customer and getting them used to how you do things. Once they’ve become suitably interested, offer them purchase options on social media directly. Or, if they’re still unsure, lead them to the website where they can explore every aspect of your business and what you offer, finding out as much detail as they need to feel comfortable to proceed.
The holistic, all-in-one role of the humble website may no longer apply. However, it still plays an integral part in ensuring customers get the information they want at a time that they want it.
Cover image by Roman Samborskyi.
Find more tips and resources for growing your online presence with these articles: