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So you want to be an ISP ?

August 22, 2011

This is going to be a multi-part series, covering the very basics of getting into the ISP business.

I'm going to start from what might appear to some to be the "last" step, however: The ISP website.

There is no such thing as a "irreplaceable" component to being an ISP (or a business, for that matter): We've all heard the arguments that sales is vital, without which the ISP fails. Or tech support is vital, without which failure occurs; Or server admins, or accounting or marketing, ad infinitum.

The truth is, they're all vital. Without any one of them, the business falls down.

The website for an ISP is often the very first impression a potential customer has of the business; In todays' wired world, more people are using the Internet to find an ISP than the phone book. Even on recommendation from a friend or colleague, the first step is to look up the ISP online, be that from work, a friends' place or the library.

Just like any other website striving for success, your ISP home or main page has just thirty seconds to persuade the visitor to make another click - And that click is vital - It doesn't necessarily have to be to the sign up form, but getting the first click means you've engaged the visitor at least into looking for more information.

Your main page says a lot about you: If it is shoddily designed, the subconscious message is that the service is the same: Amateur and half-hearted. If the wording is poor, be that spelling or grammar mistakes, use of Text Speak or jargon-heavy terms, it tells many a visitor they will not be able to communicate with you.

If you are offering service across the nation, or across an entire province or state, but the home page focuses on 'Home town pride' - You tell visitors from outside of your head office location that they're not your focus, so they won't buy.

Ideally: Your main page must say (at least) 4 things:

  1. Who you are
  2. What you offer (DSL, Cable, Wireless, VoIP, etc)
  3. Why you're the choice (best price, best addons, best support, broadest coverage, etc)
  4. Why they should make another click.

There are two other, critical, considerations:

  1. You have ONE screen in which to state this message. That "one" screen must fit within the broadest possible number of monitors and resolutions. To test this, drop your monitor resolution down to 1280 x 1020 and go to your home page. What you see, before any scrolling, is the message a first time visitor sees and bases their decision on for the next click.
  2. Make sure what your marketing message(s) are saying matches what they see on the main page. If your focus is on unlimited/no cap accounts, the last thing you want focused on your home page are your accounts with transfer limits. (This holds true with any business: If your marketing message focuses on price, but the home page explains high quality = high price, you're turning away visitors by the thousands, all without making a second click to find your low price deals)

You must have other content on your site other than your price list and a sign up sheet. A first time visitor is there to determine if they should sign up with you in the first place:

  • You should be showing off your technical savvy by having a detailed FAQ on common issues faced by customers: This list should be added to as your tech support people run into things. It shows the customer you're able to handle any issues that show up.
  • You should have a comparison page with all your account types at a glance WITH PRICES. The tired old horse of "call us for a price" turns a lot of people off: If you're not willing to put at least baseline prices online, your competitors absolutely are.
  • You should have an "About us" / brag page: Who makes up your ISP ? Why are you the best people to be running the business you do ? What has your company done to make it stand out in the community or industry ?
  • You need to have a clearly laid out Contact page. Potential customers want to know how easy it is to get in touch with you, and not just your sales lines. If you have specific hours of operation, this needs to be laid out. If you've got specific contact policies, such as paid support or premium support, this needs to be laid out, as well. One thing you do not want to do is restrict contact to email only. While this is hugely tempting and a lot more efficient, when dealing with the general public, there are is a large segment of the market who wants to talk to an actual human being before making a buying decision. Restrict voice contact at your peril.
  • Ideally, you should have a news or events section. While this isn't strictly necessary to make new sales, it does show that you're more involved than just taking money and providing connections. If you are active in the advocacy for fair Internet access, if you're involved in CRTC/FCC petitions, if you offer classes or workshops, if you've got customers with news items - These should be highlighted on your news page.

Finally, your site must be realistically navigable by someone who is completely unfamiliar with your industry. While some think of this step as too much effort, the best method to determine if you've achieved this is to as a couple of friends, family members or neighbours who are not technically savvy to sit in front of your website and sign up for an Internet account. Can they actually find the sign up form ? Does it make sense ? Do they know what they are committing to ? Do they understand all the words and terminology being used ? Believe it or not, there are more than a few ISPs where not all of these questions are true (There are even some where all are answered "no" !)

There will be another article on using your site for public and customer relations in the future, as well. The above are the very basics of a good ISP site. At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself this: Can I, or my staff, design a site like the above ? If the answer is no, hire a professional to do it for you. I did exactly this for both and because my design skills are non-existent. If you fall into this category, like so many do, hire a professional: It pays off in spades.

Marc Bissonnette, Ontario, Canada

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