Business Goals First
How do you pick the right SaaS provider for your business website? I’m a US based designer-developer who works with small businesses and non-profits that don't have the resources to build a website in-house. These clients want to move away from self-hosting and WordPress for many of the reasons I've outlined in my previous post. They often have SaaS product in mind and ask me whether it's a good fit?
I’m going to outline a very pragmatic approach that I take to narrow the field into a manageable shortlist for my clients and the criteria that I use to find the best match for their needs.
I’ll cut to the chase. Start from the inside out with your business goals. Ideally your website choices will help your business in one of these 2 areas:
- Increase cash flow
- Reduce your operations expenses
However, not all business goals are so cut and dry. Another two areas worth considering are:
- The cost of doing nothing
- Making your life easier
I found that website related business needs fall into these categories:
- Online Transactions: A Shopping Cart to sell products. Scheduling a service. Booking a hotel room.
- Internal Processes: Tools that streamline the internal processes that keep your business effective and efficient.
- Active Marketing: Outreach and Measuring Results. Paid material designed to attract people back to a website landing page with tracking of the outcome.
- Passive Marketing: Online Location, Location, Location. A brochure site and directory listings provide information where your customers are browsing.
Prioritize What Makes You Different
What business doesn’t need all of the above? Research competitor websites and industry specific templates and you'll find recurring patterns. Take these as a rear-view snapshot of where your industry was two years ago.
Don't get distracted by flashy templates and long feature lists. Take notes about why you liked a particular website or template, which features turned your head, which needs you think they address.
To avoid getting stuck with a bloated feature list, start with one business scenario where your approach to one of the 4 categories separates you from your competition. Let this critical scenario be your test case.
Try Before Buying
Evaluate whether a service’s features meet your critical needs during the trial period. Most SaaS products offer a limited time or a constrained feature trial period. It's a good opportunity to test a critical scenario with sample content. Step through the scenario as both a site visitor and as an owner admin.
Ignore Minor Issues
There's rarely a perfect match between a single product and all your needs:
- Missing Features Some feature might be missing or be poorly implemented.
- Rigid Workflow. The product locks you into a workflow that's not right for you.
- Poor Customization. There's no way for power-users to customize the tools.
- Complicated Interface. Too many features will overwhelm your staff's technical ability.
- No Feature Roadmap. Your needs might change, and you don't know if the product will grow with you.
Don't let perfection prevent you from getting things done. Circumstances and technology can change fast. Two questions worth keeping in mind are:
- Is it good enough right now?
- How hard would it be to export your setup?
Mix & Match Products
It's relatively easy to integrate several services into one cohesive customer experience. A general website-builder like Squarespace might satisfy 60% of your needs now. One or more specialized SaaS providers might satisfy the other 40%.
Avoid Big Platforms
I would steer you away from the alternative to multiple products: a single platform. Platforms are often created by a large company acquiring several small products. A telltale sign of a poor integration of new products are modes that feel like completely different experiences from other parts of the platform.
Another argument for sticking with several small product focused providers is avoiding data lock-in. Large companies can drop a product in a heartbeat if it doesn’t meet their portfolio's bottom line. Smaller companies can go bust but their singular focus on one area will get you better quality of service for a longer period of time.
There's no Free Lunch
Avoid bundled free services for critical parts of your website. These are usually offered as part of partnership between two companies and the integration becomes neglected when the business relationship between the 2 companies changes. Visible signs are that the latest features are not supported in the integration. Two examples I have to flag are:
- Name Hosting from Website Builders. For your primary domain, pay $12+/year and deal directly with either a name hosting service instead of using the free hosting offered by a website service.
- Websites Builders from Name Hosters: You'll getting more value directly from a website provider than using free website builder from a search engine company or name hosting company
Control the Connections
Integrations, code blocks, widgets and plugins are terms used to describe different types of connections between multiple SaaS products. You have several options. Here's how they differ and what technical knowledge is required to set up and maintain the connection.
Buttons or Links are the simplest connection from your main site to another service. There's no chance of crosstalk between them. There's the possibility of some visual dissonance if their appearance doesn't match perfectly and the URLs are slightly different.
Supported Integrations usually require no coding knowledge. Adding a password and account info lets you access one service within another.
Widgets usually work by manually pasting code from one service into a code block interface on the host site. Some CSS fine-tuning might be needed to match the widget's appearance perfectly with the host site. There can be gotchas with how the widget is appears on different browsers. Some knowledge of HTML and CSS comes in handy.
Plug-ins have the deepest connection into the host site’s back-end infrastructure. They might not require any coding knowledge to install but things get more complicated with multiple plug-ins. Conflicts can come up in their interaction with each other and the host site. A developer's involvement is recommended.
What follows is a survey of typical basic, upgrade and advanced features that show up in services targeted to the 4 business categories I described earlier.
E-Commerce transactions have the most restrictions out of the 4 categories. If you are even remotely considering some form of online transactions it worth planning ahead and avoiding the pain of switching services. Shopping carts and other transaction mechanisms are often the least customizable part of a SaaS product. The provider is responsible for confidential customer payment information so they are very guarded about what parts of the checkout experience can be modified. You’ll need programming knowledge, potentially a paid plugin, and/or a higher service tier to unlock access make minor modifications to:
- Checkout language
- Checkout steps
- Customer information collection
Tip: E-Commerce Dealbreakers
Given the restrictions I described, here are some items to evaluate and prioritize as must haves:
- Right Payment Methods: Identify if the service supports the payment method that works for both your customers and you. Paypal, Credit card, debit card, Apple Pay, e-check, 15-30-60-90 net.). If it doesn't, move on.
- Sales Location, Online and/or In-Person: If you sell in person spare yourself a big headache by going with a shopping cart that includes a Point-of Sale (POS) solution and integrates inventory management for both physical and online sales. A PoS solution could be a card swiper dongle or a full terminal.
- Local Tax Calculation: US state and local taxes can get complicated if you have a physical presence in the state you're selling in. If you deal with wholesale or tax-exempt sales for certain customers verify that the service lets you set different rates by zip code, product type, and customer.
E-Commerce Upgrade Features
If the shopping cart satisfies the first 3 deal breakers some common upgrade features to evaluate include:
- Auto-Calculate Shipping: Calculate shipping rates with supported carriers from the volume of all products in a cart. This uses merchant provided dimensions and weights of each product.
- Custom Customer Info Collection: Let’s you collect different customer information for different products. Useful for customizing products with a Customer’s name or generating gift messages.
- Analytics & Reporting: Tracking ad campaigns, shopping cart process & abandonment
- Inventory: Multiple Product Management, Exports, and Imports of product data,
These like-to-have features are often gated behind higher service tiers or as extra paid plug-ins. If you can’t test them, explore user forums to get an impression of potential issues and limitations.
Advanced Features & Providers
Some features are rarely implemented out of the box with a generalist website builder like Squarespace or Wix. It's better to evaluate a specialized service, bundled integrations, or specific plugins if you need these features:
- Gated Content like Video, Downloads, Courses
- Drip Content paid online classes.
- Recurring Payments subscription driven content.
- Scheduling Booking Appointments or Classes
- Booking Property Management
- Surveys with Conditional Logic
Actively attracting visitors to a website through emails, social media and PPC ads usually requires at a minimum, a focused landing pages and measurement of the visitor activity on these pages. I’ll outline minimal features, common upgrades and advanced products.
At the simplest level you require:
- Unique Landing Pages The better SaaS website builders let you design unique landing pages without the distraction of normal page navigation.
- Accurate Visitor Tracking Many services integrate Google analytics. Entering an account number into a field activates the tracking code. Unfortunately, Google has several free analytics products and SaaS providers struggle to keep up with Google latest and support legacy customers and older products.
- Code Blocks for Customized Analytics Integration The better products provide code blocks or inputs for power-users. This lets you add code to the page templates and to individual pages so you can build your own analytics integration and get the best measurements of your marketing activity.
At the upper end, more specialized services focus purely on landing page optimization. Some key features to look out for include:
- A/B testing Rapidly try different variations of variations or text and copy
- Marketing automation Pull in leads into a CRM system instead of a Google spreadsheet or an email list.
- Logical branching Tailor questions in forms, surveys to previous responses or specific audiences.
Managing the information that comes in through your website or the process to publish new content is a landscape of acronyms related to specific markets.
If your business handles sensitive customer data you likely have to comply with various directives regulating user permissions, access, sharing, data retention, retrieval and deletion.
At the most basic level there’s shared access to simple file storage though Dropbox, Google, Box, Microsoft, iCloud are probably familiar to you as a consumer. If the data stays within one service, it might be possible to work with a basic file storage provider and granular user permissions.
If the customer data will be shared with other partners, the benefits of using a service that delivers an end to end solution for managing sensitive data in your industry’s business context, probably outweighs any cost saving incurred by customizing a existing consumer file storage product.
CRM's (Customer Relation Marketing) tied to lead generation and marketing automation are a basic example. Online portals tied to medical billing and patient records are another example.
The latest evolution of file storage is Content as a Service /CaaS or headless CMS providers that let you access your content through an API. You are completely free to customize the input process, the structure of your content and how you want to distribute it across different media.
I left the most basic functions of a website for last. Presenting information about yourself touches on design, copywriting and SEO.
You have an enormous range of action that dependent on your budget and your market position. It’s hard to quantify a direct return on investment for passive marketing. At best you should consider the cost of doing business vs doing nothing.
You want to be where your customers are and differentiate yourself from your competition in these two places:
- Organic Search: Type in Your name or your business name and a search engine should return your basic information in the top 3 results. Ideally information from your own website should come before an anonymous rating or review.
- Directories: In a competitive space you need to claim a listing on directory sites where potential clients will look for help. These are marketplaces for your services, and you might have to pay better visibility to mitigate the risk being outranked by competitor ratings.
Most website builders offer these basic avenues for customizing a website's appearance:
- Layout Themes/templates or flexible blocks within a template for organizing content elements.
- Free fonts. Google or Typekit fonts as part of the subscription fees.
- Stock Images. Many website builders may offer discounted access to basic stock image libraries.
- Mobile Sites. Better website builders allow fine-tuned controls of Mobile & Desktop Breakpoints to control the appearance of your site on different sized devices
- Code Access or Inputs. Code Blocks offer to work around a product's limitations. Basic knowledge of HTML and CSS is needed.
General website builders like Wix and Squarespace reach their limits when the content becomes more complicated:
- Nested Menus. Complex content with a several layers of categories
- Dynamic Content & Databases. Content that’s reused in several places; publish once, display in many.
It's difficult to manage content presentation and internal content management with the same interface but this space is evolving. Wix has a dynamic content setup that’s currently in beta. Research differentiating features and use a free trial to try before you buy. Look for ease of control, backups, error checking during data entry.
Thank you for reading this far. I am well aware that you have options and I appreciate the valuable time you are spending reading this post.
I outlined the thought process, some criteria, and workflow for good results. Consider whether you want to go it alone? There’s plenty of resources online, it a matter of time spend to finding current ones when the technology changes and understanding the technical jargon to find the right solution. Or hire a pro to get your business online.
If you feel that I can help you improve your online presence let's talk.