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Channel partners call in help with responsive design websites

When faced with redoing the company website, many channel firms may not have the in-house expertise they need, leading some to seek third-party help.

Years ago, it was fairly simple for a channel partner to hang out its digital shingle. All a company had to do was build a website that displayed a list of services and contact information.

The task isn't quite that easy these days. Companies need to take into account the range of devices potential customers may use to access the site. Additionally, a site may require a fair amount of tweaking to get it to perform well on search engines. There's also coordination with different social media outlets to consider.

When building websites that suit the needs of today's Web users, even the tech-savvy encounter challenges. Take the case of Privatis Technology Corp., which embarked about a year ago on a website reboot as part of a company rebranding effort. The Vancouver, B.C., company provides solutions for online classified sites such as AutoTrader.com and offers Privacy Shield, a product the company says protects users of online classified sites from fraudsters and telemarketers.

[Rebuilding the company website] was not an easy task, and I happen to own a technology company.

Steve McAuley,
founder and CEO, Privatis

Privatis aimed to create a site using the responsive design approach, which lets Web properties flexibly accommodate users accessing the site from devices ranging from PCs to smartphones. Steve McAuley, founder and CEO of Privatis, noted the difficulties presented by the existence of multiple devices, multiple browsers and multiple versions of individual browsers. Then there's the need to navigate the various technical components of responsive design websites, such as Bootstrap, Javascript and CSS. In addition to creating a responsively designed website, Privatis sought to integrate the website with social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter.

"It was not an easy task, and I happen to own a technology company," McAuley said of the site-building initiative.

Privatis brought in outside help that had experience with responsive design websites to make the job easier to manage. McAuley noted that Privatis hired a third-party developer to assist with its responsive website project. He said a WordPress template was used to kick off the design process and keep costs under control. The site is now running, and McAuley said he is happy with the result.

"It was still very time-consuming and still very expensive, and the management time involved was significant," he said.

Building a better site

Solutions providers and IT services firms find themselves retooling websites from time to time. The responsive Web trend and a rebranding initiative fueled Privatis' website reboot and also drove the site redos at Consuro Managed Technology, a managed service provider (MSP), and its sister company Enterhost, a Windows-only hosting company. The businesses share in-house marketing and public relations departments that are responsible for the design, written content and launch of the corporate websites, according to Lauren Cockerell, director of PR for both companies.

In March, Consuro launched a new site, which Cockerell said is built on a "fully responsive Web platform to accommodate visitors who view our site on their mobile and tablet devices."

The need to bring Consuro's virtual corporate image up to speed and align that image with its marketing materials and social media accounts also motivated the site's creation, Cockerell noted. In addition, the company introduced a blog platform and an easy-to-use content management system (CMS) to help the in-house team add or edit Web content, she explained. As part of the overhaul, the company also revised the sitemap and corresponding content.

Enterhost, meanwhile, pursued a two-step rebranding and site redesign project, which also involved responsive Web design and an improved CMS and blog platform.

In July 2013, the company launched the first phase of its rebranding effort, which involved retooling Enterhost's website and product offerings. Enterhost established a new focus on Microsoft's unified communications platform: Microsoft Lync 2013 Enterprise Voice, Exchange 2013 and SharePoint 2013. This repositioning opened the company's IT solutions to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), which typically have limited internal IT expertise. So, the phase-one site rollout was geared toward business owners and other non-technical personnel, Cockerell said.

The second phase of the rebranding effort kicked off in November 2013 and targeted enterprise-level customers with Enterhost's expanded services and solutions. The company's enterprise site aimed to reach technical experts within larger organizations who need supplemental IT resources.

On the Enterhost homepage today, site visitors may select whether they are an SMB or an enterprise and go to the Enterhost site that suits their needs, Cockerell said.

Privatis' Web presence also addresses the challenge of designing a website that will reach different types of site visitors. The company aims to appeal to both enterprise decision makers, its traditional customer base and an emerging consumer market. The site's dual purpose, however, led to a timing challenge. Privatis' direct-to-consumer offering -- a mobile app -- was not yet ready when the company sought to launch its new website. So, the company decided to begin with the enterprise side of the site and then phase in the consumer aspect.

"I did not want to hold up the launch of the new Privatis website with our new branding just because we weren't fully ready to launch the consumer-facing mobile app," McAuley said. "It, therefore, was appropriate to launch in phases. And since our initial focus was on enterprise customers, we felt our brand message had to speak to that audience first."

Seeking help and lending advice

Channel companies, even those with in-house Web expertise, may require outside help to rebuild their websites.

Pronto Marketing, which helps small companies develop an Internet presence, has built a business around that need. Pronto has more than 1,000 clients, about 750 of which are IT services companies.

"Our initial and still primary focus is the IT services companies," said Derek Brown, co-founder and managing director of Pronto.

Prior to his role at Pronto, Brown worked at Microsoft and, at one point, was director of product marketing for Windows Small Business Server.

"In this role, I got to know the IT services providers around the world very well," he said. "One thing I learned working with them were the challenges they had in marketing."

Accordingly, Pronto, which has offices in Seattle, Bangkok and Hong Kong, offers a suite of online marketing services to IT service providers and MSPs, among other customers.

Insufficient resources with respect to both time and personnel bring companies to Pronto.

"The number-one challenge every small business owner and manager faces -- IT services companies or otherwise -- is time," Brown said. "They are pulled in a hundred directions..."

On the human resources side, most Pronto customers have "something between zero and one marketing person," Brown noted. "If they have someone doing marketing, it's likely they are wearing a few hats and don't have deep Web experience."

Brown said the clients that do have in-house Web development skills work with Pronto so they can focus on their customers.

The multifaceted expertise needed to build a modern website is something his customers lacked, Brown suggested.

"When you think about Internet presence today, it's so much more than a website with some graphics and HTML," he explained. "It's SEO [search engine optimization], social media, copywriting, content development, thinking about conversion strategies, integration with campaigns and more."

But some solutions providers are using their in-house Web design experiences to help their customers build sites. At Privatis, for example, the company's site design struggles and the discovery of a development tool led to a new line of business.

McAuley said he came across Moboom Ltd.'s Web development tool late last year after the rollout of the Privatis site. He said the Moboom offering, which combines CMS and a responsive design platform, addressed the complexities of creating responsive design websites and created a service opportunity: Use Moboom to help customers build sites.

"I can help other businesses and other enterprises -- small, medium and large -- deal with these challenges, and I can speak to it on a firsthand basis," he said.

Other channel partners may be taking a similar approach. In March, Moboom launched the Moboom Reseller Network, a channel program. The company's goal is to sign 100 resellers by the end of the year, said Jef Rice, Moboom's chief operating officer. He said Moboom includes five free sites when resellers sign up for the program. Rice said he believes many of the companies joining the reseller network will use one of those sites to rebuild their Web presence. From there, they can market the technology to customers.

McAuley said Privatis' site-building struggles suggest there could be many companies in need of help.

"If I am having this kind of a challenge ... to work through this, [it] shows me that there is a large market to serve," he said.

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How important do you think it is that an IT solution provider integrates its website with social media platforms, such Facebook and Twitter?
I think it really depends on why you want that integration, what you're using it for, and who your audience is. Is it for commenting? Sharing content? If you're just including it because you think you should, without any real understanding of whether your users will want to use it or whether it will fit with the content you have to offer, then it may not be worth the development effort. Typically there's going to be some value, but thinking ahead is important.
I don't think it should be surprising that a tech services provider might look to outside help when relaunching a site, even if that's what the organization provides to others. In addition to helping with stretched resources, it can also be very useful to have an external perspective when deciding what information is most important and what features you really need. Internal stakeholders sometimes have too many biases to see things clearly.