It may be surprising, but knitters are an Internet-savvy bunch.

Yes, we're talking about knitters, the ones that bind-off, cast-on, purr over patterns and ogle the latest yarns.

So for one cozy yarn and needle nook in Verona that also serves a strong cup of coffee, tapping into the world of the Web was probably one of the best business decisions they've ever made.

The Sow's Ear, a yarn store and cafe opened in 2000 by business partners and knitters Amy Armstrong and Melissa Brown, went online shortly after opening.

In the beginning, Armstrong said, the site was just a simple advertising tool, a spot in the ether that would tell customers their location and hours. But over time, the still-quaint site has evolved into something more -- a dynamic Web tool with class calendars, newsletters and a dash of upcoming e-commerce.

Spoke on the wheel

A Web site is a "spoke on the communications and branding wheel," said Madison online marketing strategy developer Christopher Parr. Parr, who's been in the business since 1995, has worked at creating an Internet presence for companies such as Rayovac and John Deere along with smaller companies like Supranet, the State Capitol Credit Union, Flad & Assocociates and Mid-Plains Communications.

"It helps to convey a message, alongside of TV, print, cell, point-of-purchase and e-newsletters," Parr said. "An effective company utilizes all of these mediums to their advantage. Consumers have many options these days so you can't just rely on TV or the Web to get your message out. A Web site helps complete the picture and capture your audience."

Parr called Web sites the most "engaging" medium. He said TV and radio are both "passive" -- they're places where customers can only stare at a screen or hear a pitch.

Likewise, "a business can't tell their whole story with a print ad," Parr said. "Print is great for grabbing attention, but you need to learn more. With a Web site, on the other hand, consumers can delve further. It's interactive, they control where they want to go, where they want to learn."

A way to differentiate

Lisa Lathrop started her Wisconsin Cheesecakery company in 2001. A former state bureaucrat who had plenty of experience with the Internet and a desperate desire to bake unique cheesecakes, Lathrop created her own site from scratch.

"It was more of an informational piece, an easy-access resource for people to make decisions," said Lathrop, whose bakery is housed in a small-business incubator building in Madison. "Before the Web site, one of the first questions out of callers' mouths was 'how much?' This site has helped us eliminate the sticker shock, and it's helped people understand we're different, we're not a mass-produced cheesecake because everything is made to order.

"For the most part now (that people have already seen the Web site before calling), they've made their choices," she continued. "It became like an electronic brochure."

The Web, as it does for many other companies, really helped Lathrop cut down on advertising costs.

"It was a tremendous savings for us," she said. "Very few people don't have Internet access now."

Like Lathrop's high-end cheesecake operation with its "electronic brochure" Web site, different kinds of sites are going to fit for different businesses.

According to Gorchels, a small retailer relying on walk-in counter sales (like a cafe), may emphasize basic information on its site and build loyalty through an opt-in newsletter for clientele. A large corporation may want to build its brand through the site, and include retail or distributor locators to help customers figure out where they can buy their products.

Oops

Experts say there are some very common blunders to watch for when creating a site for the Web.

"One of the mistakes I frequently see is that people sometimes err on the side of creative, even at the expense of making it difficult for their first-time customers to navigate the site," Gorchels said. "Similarly, overly flashy sites can take longer to download, especially for customers with dial-up connections. When this creativity makes it harder for customers to get answers to their questions (on an information-only site) or to purchase your product (on an E-commerce site), you haven't accomplished your primary objectives."

Parr agreed, and suggested that anything slowing down a site could be a curse.

"Speed is an issue . . . creating a slow site will make your customers quickly click away," he said. "Many print designers create all graphic sites that uniformly fail. While they can design fantastic brochures, the Web is a totally different medium. Spend time on usability and how people access information. It's the flow of the information . . . hold the hand of your customer and guide them through your Web site. Don't make it a mystery."

Gorchels said another mistake she often sees is that companies work on their Web tactics separately from their overall business strategy. Instead, she said a company's online and offline brands need to stay consistent.

Parr also advised that businesses should make sure their Web site content comes across as adding "value" to the consumer or client's life.

"Make it worth my time," he said. "Even local companies can get into the game. Great examples include Milio's (Sandwiches) and Klinke Cleaners."

Parr said that on the Milio's site customers can easily order their sandwiches online, while Klinke's clients can download coupons and be alerted through e-mail when their garments are ready for pick-up.

Klinke's advice

Steve Klinke, one of the owners of the Madison dry cleaning company, said easy customer accessibility was exactly what they intended.

"We built a very static site back in late 1998," Kinke said. "The site was fine but it was only informational. It really offered no content that provided any added value to our customers."

"Then, in 2001, we re-built our site and we did it in-house . . . I actually built it myself," Klinke said. "The site worked fine; it was still informational, but I added extra features such as e-mail coupons and online registration for our free 'Express' program."

For other businesses that plan to create their site in-house, Klinke said they may want to think twice. He suggested outsourcing the project to a reputable Web designer and then learning to update the site in-house.

"There are always glitches and bugs to be worked out," he said. "Plus, a good Web developer knows the latest innovations in Web site design and they typically have a better eye for the aesthetic."

Klinke explained that their latest site was released this past spring and was designed by a Web group called Second Platform. The cost for the site, he said, was less than $2,000.

"Although our new site was built by a Web designer, I personally handle most of the tweaks and updates," he said. "It's easy to do and it saves money. I recommend Dreamweaver as the Web editor and one can attend classes at MATC, New Horizons or from the DoIT classes offered via the UW. Individual classes tend to run only a few hundred dollars. That might sound like quite a bit, but Web updates via a Web developer can be just as costly."

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