Before you start reading this article, let us preemptively state that we know how frustrating learning new web features can be. Some people are all about the latest technology and just love adding new updates to their devices, while others just wish we could still use typewriters, for goodness’ sake! If you’re on this website, we’re going to assume that you at least fall somewhere in the middle.
We’re here to tell you that, while we might cringe every time we get a notification for a software update on our iPhone, we really do believe that keeping up with new available features for our clients’ websites will save everyone time, money and sanity in the long run. And because sifting through the literature on website features can be daunting (and boring), we thought we’d help you out by compiling our 8 favorite (and what we consider indispensable) website features that you really do need to take seriously if you want to see your business grow and prosper in the 21st century.
1. Staging Sites
Have you ever made an update to your WordPress website only to get a big fat error screen? It has happened to us in the past too! This might not be such a big deal if you have a website with very few visitors. Take 1 or 2 hours, fix the bug, and you’re good, right? Well, what if your website has hundreds or thousands of visitors at any given time? How well do you think they’ll respond to your broken site? Probably not very well. Even worse, what if your site has e-commerce functionality and visitors are impaired from checking out and buying your products while your site is down? Not a good situation to be in!
This is where staging sites come in. A staging site is an exact replica of your site, but it’s not live. On this duplicate version of your site, you can test changes to make sure they work with your existing tech stack. Once you’re positive that the change isn’t going to break your site, you can push the changes on the staging version of your site over to the live version.
In 2018 we implemented staging sites on all the sites we manage. Anytime we update a plugin or theme on your site, or even a big content update, we test everything in a staging environment before making the changes on the live site. This has drastically reduced downtime, errors, and given us much greater peace of mind.
2. CRM Integration
For the vast majority of us, the main purpose of our website is going to be lead generation. That is, the goal of the site is to inform more people about our organization, products, and/or services, so that we get more business. Consequently, a good lead-generation website needs to have a clear call-to-action and a lead generation form, at minimum. Take for example my triathlon coaching site. I get form submissions on this page all the time:
But where do all those contact form submissions go? The quick and dirty method is that they go into your email inbox, after which you need to mark those emails and follow up with them later. But when you think about it, this is a “junior varsity” solution at best. There are at least 2 big problems with this method:
Deliverability. There’s a good chance that email sent from your contact form ends up in your spam folder. If you set up your Gmail or Outlook inbox properly, this is much less likely to happen, but it’s still a possibility. This problem is compounded by the fact that most free contact form plugins don’t store the form submission data in your website’s database. If the message gets lost between your website and your inbox it’s gone for good, leaving your lead wondering why the heck you never followed up with them.
Lack of Automation. If the contact-form-to-email method does succeed, then what? Do you have a system in place to make sure no leads get lost in the shuffle? What if you get 50 form submissions a day? It’s highly likely that you’ll forget to follow up with at least a couple of those contacts if you don’t have a rock solid follow-up method in place. Enter the glory of CRM. Using a CRM software tool is just good business practice in our opinion, and one that sets your business/organization up for success from the start.
If you don’t know what a CRM even is – oh boy – prepare for an “ed-macation!” CRM stands for Contact Relationship Management. At minimum, it helps you manage your contact records and segment them into various lists. Beyond that, let’s just say that using a CRM is the second best thing you can do for your small business behind owning your own website. A CRM can:
- Help you project sales and track where various leads are in your sales pipeline.
- Remind you to complete various tasks, such as following up with leads or customers.
- Log activities you completed with customers and leads.
- Integrate your various points of contact. Think emails, phone calls, Facebook messenger, etc.
- Helps sales teams of more than 1 person understand what communication has occurred between a lead/customer and other members of the sales team.
Marketing Automation is the Next Wave
Needless to say, CRM is really, really cool. But, it’s even better when combined with marketing automation. According to Hubspot, “Marketing automation refers to the software that exists with the goal of automating marketing actions. Many marketing departments have to automate repetitive tasks such as emails, social media, and other website actions. The technology of marketing automation makes these tasks easier. ” (source: https://www.hubspot.com/marketing-automation-information).
From my perspective, the value of marketing automation is that it provides a one-platform solution to manage your marketing and sales campaigns together. If you’ve been around digital marketing for a while, you may have an email marketing provider, a social media automation tool, 10-15(!) social media accounts, SEO tools, an e-commerce tool, an invoicing tool, an analytics tool, a live chat tool, a push notification tool, and a CRM. Yes, it becomes a freaking nightmare really quickly! A marketing automation tool is not just necessary to have all these accounts in one place. The real value lies in that it allows all these different pieces of software to talk to each other.
For example, imagine you’re a small business with physical products and your e-commerce platform didn’t talk with your accounting tool. D’oh! You’d probably have no idea how much inventory you have on hand after just a short period of time! Why spend hours trying to reconcile all that when you can have a tool do it for you?
Another example: Let’s say you provide a service and you recently began emailing a lead from Gmail. Later on, you figure out that your lead’s preferred method of communication is Facebook Messenger. So you start another string of messages on Messenger. Let’s also say that you’re the business owner; you get really busy one day and have to pass on the sales process with this lead to one of your employees. How is that employee supposed to know what you’re doing? It only makes sense to house all your contact records within your CRM, so other people involved in sales and marketing can collaborate together.
CRM and Marketing Automation Recommendations
Here are our marketing automation recommendations so far:
Case #1. If you:
- provide a service
- have a website
- directly email and call prospects
- see yourself using email marketing
Use Hubspot. They have a great free CRM with limited marketing automation tools you can get started with. Once you’re successful with their free version, you can always upgrade to a paid plan.
Case #2. If you:
- Have physical products
- Have a brick and mortar business
- Sell online and at your place of business.
- Want your business to grow
Use Square. Square will help you manage your customers, process payments, track orders and inventory, and it integrates with your online sales. On top of all that, you can even do email marketing with Square! Square is kind of like integrating your CRM, payment processing, and POS in one step. A word of caution about Square: Not all Square integrations are created equal. If you’re trying to set up an e-commerce shop, Square provides you with many options. So far, Square does not integrate that well with WooCommerce, which is a popular WordPress e-commerce solution. We’re also not that hot on setting up your website on Weebly, which is Square’s official recommendation at the moment. You really don’t want be stuck with a website on Weebly, which for many will be an insufficient platform as they scale up their business.
As of early 2019, we have two recommended solutions: (1) Use a native Square Checkout page. In this case you’d have your own native website with page, products, buttons, and everything. Then you’d redirect from a page on your site to a checkout page on squareup.com where the customer would then pay and complete their checkout. Check out Square’s documentation on this subject for more information. (2) Integrate Square with ECWID. ECWID is a really simple e-commerce solution because it works great with WordPress and can process payments via Square. It’s also really affordable. All you have to do is set up your online store and products within ECWID, select Square as your payment processor, then integrate ECWID with your website. You can read more about the ECWID and Square integration here: https://squareup.com/us/en/app-marketplace/partners/ecwid.
Case #3, If you :
- Primarily sell online
- Need to send emails in conjunction with certain customer activities (i.e. bought a certain product)
- Want to do a lot of email marketing
Use Infusionsoft. It’s incredibly powerful and allows you to send emails using their visual email campaign builder. You can use all sorts of conditional logic to determine who gets what email.
3. Easy E-Commerce Functionality
You’d think that e-commerce would be a staple feature of every website. Having the ability to add products to a shopping cart then checkout with a credit card is very much a common experience of our everyday life. But the truth is that you probably make purchases on much larger sites than your day-to-day, small business website. Smaller website developers who service smaller business owners typically focus on what is called a “lead generation website.” That is, the goal of the site is to generate leads; actually turning those leads into customers and accepting payment is something that happens later, off the site with a point-of-sale or invoicing/accounting tool.
There’s nothing wrong with lead generation websites because most people are not going to want to deal with the added layer of complexity that E-commerce brings. I can’t blame them. Yes, e-commerce is a pain, it’s expensive, it’s much more difficult to execute than your typical lead gen website. But, we’ve got a solution that’s much easier to implement than your typical e-commerce solution (i.e. Woocommerce). It’s called ECWID. ECWID is great because:
- ECWID is inexpensive. They only charge you an ongoing subscription fee (as low as free, but you’ll likely pay $10/mo), not a percentage of each sale like EVERYONE ELSE (Shopify, Big Commerce, Stripe, etc.). This is important if you have products that cost $500 or more.
- ECWID offloads your shopping cart. This means fewer things that can possibly break on your site, because your shopping cart is hosted externally. ECWID makes it easy to add new products, update existing products, or remove products. Logging in to ECWID is very easy for novice users, especially in comparison to updating your shop within WordPress (as is the case with Woocommerce). This is the major one for us: Woocommerce, Shopify, and other e-commerce solutions severely restrict your design possibilities. That’s why you see product pages that all look the same everywhere on the internet – main image on the left, secondary images underneath, short description on the right, and long description below. With ECWID the only design element that you can’t 100% control is the button. If you want a big, beautiful product page on another solution, you may be out of luck.*
- Because ECWID is not restricted to the WordPress environment, it’s flexible enough to run it on other platforms (specifically as Ebay and Facebook stores). You are not restricted to only selling on your website. What’s more, your store can sync between several online platforms all at the same time. No need to try to reconcile inventory by hand later.
- Awesome Mobile App. Want to manage your online store on the go? ECWID has a fully functional mobile app, while the Woocommerce app is still in beta.
* Note that the ability to edit Woocommerce pages with some page builders was recently added. However, you can still only customize certain Woocommerce specific elements even with the page builders. You cannot add absolutely whatever you want. See the Elementor and Divi releases on the subject.
4. Off-Site Cloud Backups
If you’ve owned your own website for a while you probably know that you need to run backups consistently in case anything ever happens to your site. In fact, before I had staging sites, I had to revert to a backup on tritheos.com several times. Fortunately, our preferred host, Flywheel, creates a back up of your site every day, so you’ll never be left hanging. But let’s say disaster strikes and all of your host’s servers go down…for good! Or worse yet, what if your website host went off the rails and locked down access to your site completely? Well, they’d take your live site AND your backups with them. What are you going to do then? It’s just good practice to have someone besides your host also take backups of your site. In 2018 we added a service that allows us to make daily off-site backups of your site. Anything short of a nuclear war will not stop us from getting your site back!
5. Media Library Folders
If you’ve ever logged into the back end of WordPress to make web pages or write blog posts, you’ve probably noticed how limited the media library is. In fact, the core WordPress software does not even provide the ability to create folders within your media library! This is what my site looks like with no library folders:
You basically have to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, and maybe…hopefully…you’ll find the image you were looking for. You can imagine the headache and clutter this is going to cause. I consider the lack of media library folders to be the greatest drawback of WordPress. That’s why Media Library Folders is probably my favorite feature addition in 2018.
Now all of our library folders look like this:
The advantage is evident. There’s no need to sift through hundreds or thousands or uncategorized media items. You can easily drop all your images, pdfs, logos, and other media items into folders of your choosing. With the media library folder solution we provide, you can even upload files directly from Google Drive or Microsoft Onedrive. This means you don’t have to download files to your hard drive and then re-upload them to WordPress! Pretty cool.
6. Live Chat Integration
I’ll admit that I’m pretty resistant to change, so when I first saw live chat starting to pop up on other websites, I thought to myself, “what a stupid concept; why would I ever use this?!” Of course, I also said that about texting and smartphones (both of which are still stupid for the most part but have their place, by the way). Calling customer support still seemed like a better option to me at the time. It took me a few months, but now I love the live chat feature you can find on many websites today. Here are a couple of reasons why:
- People can communicate the specific questions they have at the exact time they are browsing your website. For instance, I’ll often ask company reps on live chat about a feature I couldn’t find information about, or if I misunderstand their user-interface, they can direct me to the pages I need to find information about.
- From a marketer and designer’s perspective, when people have questions they couldn’t easily find on one of my websites, this means I probably need to make changes to my website and potentially add more information. It’s like free website usability testing and conversion optimization.
- Live chat is less of a commitment than calling or emailing sales or support.
According to SuperOffice.com, over half of customers now prefer using live chat over phone support. In addition, live chat is now the leading digital communication method as well. “J.D. Power found that live chat has become the leading digital contact method for online customers, as a staggering 42% of customers prefer live chat compared to just 23% for email, and 16% for social media or forums.” (source: https://www.superoffice.com/blog/live-chat-statistics/) I can’t say if live chat is right for you and your business. It does take commitment in that, generally, someone needs to be available to operate your live chat during the hours you choose. Still, it is an extremely easy way to help your leads move further down the sales funnel, as well as provide better customer service.
7. Custom Headers and Footers
We love developing sites in WordPress, but to be honest, manipulating headers and footers has never been an easy thing. These areas of your site are typically controlled by your WordPress theme, and oftentimes there is not much control over the design and ability to customize your header or footer. Why would you even want to customize your header or footer? My thoughts on this typically go back to your website user and being able to answer their questions as quickly as possible.
For instance, sometimes adding a phone number and email address up above your primary navigation can be a good way to make it easy for people to reach out to you. Similarly, if someone can’t find what they’re looking for in your primary navigation, they will often look for the link in your footer menu (I do this all the time!). Another reason would be to achieve all of the above, without sacrificing consistency with the rest of your site’s design. Using our site builder of choice – Divi – we now have 100% design control over headers and footers. Here’s an example of a footer we recently built that includes a slick email opt-in.
This is a feature we don’t want to abuse, however. Following some tradition when creating headers and footers is a good thing. If your header is more a piece of modern art than a functional element of your website, what good is that?
8. AMP Version for Better SEO Results
There are few shortcuts in SEO, but it’s wrong to say that there are none. One big shortcut to getting better rankings in Google is to provide an AMP version of your blog posts. AMP is short for “accelerated mobile pages.” It’s basically a stripped down version of a page on your site, with the absolute minimum in design applied to the page. This means that the page can also load super quickly. Before you freak out about putting an ugly page of your site onto the internet, remember that these pages will only be served to mobile users. Most of the time mobile design consists of a simple, one-column format anyway. So what kind of results can you expect from creating an AMP version of your site? Here’s a screenshot of the amount of clicks I received to my AMP pages from my triathlon coaching site.
All told, I received 635 clicks from my AMP pages over a 3 month period. That’s pretty good for a one-man site! The point of having AMP pages is: If your page loads faster, Google will prefer that page because Google values speed. Consequently, Google will reward you with higher rankings. Search Engine Journal explains, “AMP articles are even more special because they are favored by Google. Not only does AMP content appear in organic results, they even have their own top stories carousel at the top of organic searches to encourage more publishers to use AMP. This amounts to an increased SERP real estate for high ranking webpages and can dramatically increase your organic search CTR.” Source: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-amp-review-seo/209324/
The next time you’re thinking of hiring a WordPress designer/developer or hosting provider, make sure to ask them:
- Do you offer staging sites so that when you are updating my site we can both be assured that it doesn’t break?
- Do you offer CRM integration, so I can get marketing and sales results from the site?
- Can you get e-commerce functionality without me having to spend $20k?
- Are you doing off-site cloud backups so that if something should happen to my host’s servers, we can always retrieve a backup of my site?
- Do you have media library folders so that I don’t have to sift through media items from 2015 in order to update my site?
- Can you get a live chat feature on my site?
- Can you make my header and footer look exactly the way I want it? Really?
- If I really need SEO results, are you willing to go the extra mile and install additional code I might need to succeed?
We think the features we added in 2018 are pretty cool, but on their own they do pale in comparison to what we have always offered: a website marketing and content strategy to ensure your site gets results, local SEO so you can rank higher in Google and get traffic to your site, SEO copywriting services to clearly demonstrate the benefits of your products/services to your target audience, results-driven web design where we optimize your site for business results first and aesthetics second, and ongoing marketing services such as email marketing, social media, content (blog) writing, and SEO campaigns. While we always strive to provide the latest and greatest features to our clients, out core offerings will never change.