For private counselors: how to build a (better) website

If you're a private counselor hoping to grow your business, you've probably thought about building (or have already built) a website.  The good news is that the rules for making good websites for small businesses have changed.  You don't need to
spend thousands of dollars to build a one  You don't need flash
animation.  You don't even need to be fancy (Google is the most popular
website in the universe and it has a ridiculously simple
homepage). 

But the bad news is that it if you don't give people exactly what information they came to find, and make it easy for them to find it, you're going to lose them.  Today's web surfers have short attention spans, and most people aren't going to spend ten minutes on your site trying to find what they need to know.  They'll spend maybe a minute and then move on.  So if you're looking to build, or improve, your website, make sure you make it easy
for people to find the answers to these five questions:

1.  Who are
you?

It's surprising how many private counselors have websites
that continuously use words like "we" or "us" but never come right out and say who's actually helping the kids.  Instead, they say things like, "Our expert advisers have a wealth of experience and have
guided countless students to admission to the nation's finest
universities."  What does that even mean?  Who are you?  If I enroll my kid, who is he going to be working with? 

If you
don't feel comfortable putting your name and a real bio on your website, you might consider not having a website at all.  Instead tell people who you really are.  Be proud of your background, even if you're still relatively new to this profession.  And don't say "We" if you
really mean "Me."  There's no shame in working by yourself especially if you're
good.  Families don't care if you're a big company or a one-person shop. 
They just want the right counselor for their kid.   

2.  What
do you do?

Be clear about what services you offer and what kind of student tends to match well with you.  Are you good with kids who have learning disabilities?  Do you know a lot about athletic recruiting?  Are you particularly knowledgeable about a few specific colleges?  Don't try to sound like you can help everybody (none of us can).  Instead, come right out and tell people what they can hire you to help with, what you do well, and maybe even what you don't do. 

3.  Where are
you located?

We got this one wrong on our own website for years.  We made people navigate all the way to the "contact us" portion of our website to find out where our offices were.  Big mistake.  Put your office location(s) on your homepage. Tell people right away where they'll need to go to work with you.  Don't worry about losing customers because of geography.  If that's going to be an issue for a family, you might as well tell them upfront; don't make them call you to find out what "Greater Los Angeles area" means.          

4.  How do I contact you?

Do you have an office phone
number?  An email address?  Do you care which one people use?  Don't
make people sift through your website to figure out how to get in touch
with you.  Make your contact information blatant and easy to find.  Put
it (or a link to it) on every page. 

5.  What do I do next if
I'm interested?

Don't put your prospective customer in the awkward position of having to contact you to ask what the next step is.  Come right out and tell them what you want them to do.  Do you offer an introductory consultation?  How do they schedule one?  And don't make the visitor fill out a long online form to request an appointment.  That's like forcing potential suitors to complete a long questionnaire before they can even ask you what your name is.  If the information really is important to you, have them fill it out after they've scheduled the appointment.        

Everything else on a website is secondary and probably more important to you than it is to your potential customer.  You can always add more pages and information later if you get repeated questions about testimonials, a newsletter or whether or not you have a blog.  Give your visitors what they’re looking for when they first find your section of cyberspace, and more of them will become your customers later.  

PS:  I've
learned a lot about websites and marketing from Seth Godin.  If you
want to have an effective website up as soon as possible for very little
money, check out his blog post here.  If you've built a website and want to make
it better, check out his book "The Big Red Fez."

PPS:  Our own website could do an even better job of making it easy for our visitors to find the information they want.  So we're making those changes now.  I'll share them here later next month when we're finished.