Do you know how hard your online employees are working?  Did you say you don’t have any employees?  If you have a website, blog, Facebook page, eBay store or any other kind of online commercial presence, I suggest you do have online employees, and it would be in your interest to think of them that way.

I was coaching another consultant today who does not have a website but who said she wanted one and knew she needed one.  She’s not super-savvy on web technology, nor does she care to be.  I suggested that she think of building a website/blog as if she were hiring an employee.  Here’s how the logic works…Most businesses of a certain size have a website already.  Larger businesses also employ one or more full-time people to maintain the website and other forms of online presence.  Several years ago I coached a manager who was on the web team for Avaya, the telephone equipment maker.  They had multiple people on the web team, spending multi-millions every year, using all kinds of outside vendors to run analytics on their site and to implement specific projects.  For large enterprises, it makes sense to think of their web team as a business in its own right.

Smaller businesses, and even solo professionals, don’t have the same kind of resources as a large corporation, but if their business has any reason to be online I recommend that they think of their website, blog, online store, Facebook page, or Twitter account as if they are employees.  Adopting that kind of mindset allows them to make better decisions about their online presence.

First, what’s the job to be done?  Employees are usually hired to perform a job–or several jobs if it’s a small business.  I find that far too many employers don’t think enough about defining the job.  Even written job descriptions are usually inadequate at communicating what the job is; they usually are a listing of tasks and basic qualifications.   For an online presence, what is the job that needs to be done?  Is it essentially marketing, or is there also some selling (e-commerce or online store)?  Do you need your website to perform customer service by giving customers an avenue to communicate with you, ask questions, make complaints, get answers or additional information?  Some websites actually deliver a product or service online via training, webinars, surveys or assessments.  What job do you need your online presence to do for you now and in the next year or two?  Define the job first.

Second, conduct a talent search.  Think of a website or blog as an employee.  You could start with an infant (a blank page in an editor), then by using html, css and php you could create the personality and behavior of your kid-employee.  You could dress up your growing teenager with the right colors, design and site structure.  Then you could train your entry-level employee in the basic courtesies of answering questions (through forms) and check their performance monthly through an analytics package.  Do you get the picture?  This is an apparently “cheap” way to go, but it requires massive work and training on your part and lots of hands-on maintenance.

Maybe you’d like to rent-an-employee.  You can do that through Yahoo, GoDaddy, 1and1, Sitebuilder, or any number of online services that promise an easy website within hours for merely $10-20 a month.  You use their templates, and besides the content (words you provide) it all belongs to the webhost.  If you decide their rent-an-employee doesn’t represent your company well or you outgrow them, there’s not much that you can carry with you except your content (if you kept a good backup copy).  You could also get a smart, self-sustaining employee who will easily assume your look, feel, personality and do lots of small mindless but essential chores in the background (because a smart designer wrote it into their code) and pay a lot, if you want lots of interaction and handholding by a human web designer, or pay a little, if you pick one of the newer platforms with a customized theme or design that you manage and fill in with content.

Third and finally, be willing to state your expectations and to make a reasonable up-front investment in your new employee.  You’re going to have to do some amount of work on the front end getting this employee up to speed, providing content, making decisions about how your online presence will work.  Do you want a one page, long copy sales page?  You have to write (or hire someone to write) the copy.  Do you want an interactive, information rich blog/website?  You still have to provide the content and the decisions about what a typical viewer will do on your site (yes, provide links and instructions that show people where to go next or what to do).  Personally, I want a smart, efficient employee who looks like me and who needs a minimum of supervision.  This ultra-low maintenance online employee still needs me to show up occasionally, to provide some new content for the store, to handle those few difficult customers whose needs are not the routine and predictable ones that I’ve anticipated already.  I also want an employee who provides a minimum 5X ROI (return on investment) within the first six months.  If I’m going to spend $500 on this employee, they need to help generate at least $2500 in additional revenue in the first six months.  I don’t consider that unreasonable.  Some people may expect more, some are willing to settle for less, but I suggest you do consider what ROI you are expecting.  It will help you in your decision-making process.

If you’ll think of your online presence as an asset, or better, as an employee, I think you’ll be more realistic and also happier with the results from your online efforts.  And remember, don’t settle for just any employee; aim to attract, hire and develop top talent!

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