Developing Your Farm’s Web Site

Have you been curious about building a web site for your farm?  Are you ready to jump into the 21st century and join those of us who believe a web site is an integral and crucial part of our marketing efforts?  If so, please read on and hopefully I can tickle that curiosity and assuage your anxiety.  After all, what better pastime can you imagine in the off-season?
    
By now, as we come to the end of 2008, there are few of us who don’t see the benefits of a web site as a part of our marketing plan.  It’s crystal clear that a web site is a proven, inexpensive tool to get your farm business noticed.  
    
It’s a great way to show our flowers to the world whether we direct market locally, sell to florists from our truck, wholesale, or sell online.  In short, our web site is our storefront without the bricks and mortar and a big, expensive lease.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, a web site is a very effective way to inform your customers and potential customers (florists, farmers’ market customers, wholesale buyers, wedding planners) of the many details of your business. That can include: up-to-date flower availability, weddings and events information, events on your farm, the location of your farm (for cut-your-own), contact information (telephone and email). Web sites give our customers a sense of what our farms look and feel like, and as I like to say, it continues the relationship with our customer after the sale has been made.
    
Think about it.  When we want to learn more about a business, a person, or a place, we do an Internet search —we “Google” it.  And, if the company has done its best to communicate its brand, then your web site address will be on virtually every piece of collateral: business cards, the banner strung across a market tent, all signage, the label on wrapped bouquets, the logo on the van, hats, tee shirts, everything.  And, hopefully, if we’ve done our job correctly, our happy customers will want to know more about us.  So they’ll look us up on the web. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an email asking me about flowers for a wedding or an event they’re planning.  Charlotte’s Garden is known for “locally grown” cut flowers.  When asked how that person found us (and I always ask), they tell me they Googled us using the words, “local flowers”, “Charlottesville”, or “Virginia.”  Or, they saw our van driving through town and saw our web address on its signage.  So it works.  
    
But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before anything happens, before anybody Googles you, you’ll need to get your ducks in a row.  So, here’s an overview of what is needed —start to finish— to get your web site up and running.

Giving Your Web Site a Good Home

Your web site is going to need a home.  Before you do anything, you’ll need to decide where to host your web site.  A web host is a company that provides server space (very large hard drives that are accessed through your browsers, the software you use to look at web sites.) that store all of the pages, documents, photos and graphic images that make up your site.   
    
There are endless web hosting services out there.  The best ways to find the web host that is right for your business can be by word of mouth, or simply by doing web search for “Web Hosting.”  
    
The pricing can vary.  I’ve seen monthly web hosting fees as low as $3.95 per month, and as high as $17 for what appeared on the surface to be the same services.  While I like to get a good deal on whatever I’m buying, I’m also a big believer in you get what you pay for.  Shop around.  Some hosting services require a one-year commitment, while others allow you to renew every three months.  Before buying, compare services.  How much server space do you get for that fee?  How many mailboxes do they allow?  Can your server expand their services to provide “e-commerce”, the ability to sell your product and take money by credit card through your web site?  If you plan to build your own web site using templates (pre-designed web pages that do-it-yourselfers can drop images and text into for a virtually instant web site), does this server provide that?  If you know people with web sites, ask about their web hosting.  Are they happy with what they have?  Does the price fit within your budget?  If it all adds up, sign up so you can get your web site underway.

Naming the Baby

Your web site needs a name.  What you name it up to you.  Obviously, the best name for your site is the name of your business or something about your business, but that’s not always possible.  When we built our web site, we wanted it to be called “charlottesgarden.com, but it was taken by a punk rock band in England.  Imagine that!  We were willing to take “charlottesgarden.net”, but a gardener on Martha’s Vineyard took it before us. Who knew it was such a popular name?  We finally settled on “virginiaflowers.net”.  It was easy to remember and we felt it communicated what we do and where we do it.  Later “charlottesgarden.com” did become available and we scooped it using both addresses by way of what is called a “redirect”.  A redirect is easily accomplished through your web hosting service.
    
The next step is to register your URL.  My UR what?  Your URL or “uniform resource locator.”  It’s your www, as in, www.myhappyflowerfarm.com. URL registration can be done with whomever you’ve chosen to host your site, or through a large registration service, such as Network Solutions.  Typically, registration rates range from $5.95 per year to $19.95 and more.  One thing to keep in mind is the lower-priced rates may require that you allow that registration company to place advertising banners at the bottom of your web site.  If this is something that doesn’t bother you, great, if it does, than be sure you’re getting what you really want.  Even at $19.95 per year, that breaks down to only $1.66 per month, or a little less than $0.06 (six cents) per day.

To Code or Not to Code?
    
Now that you’re ready to put your ideas into a web site, you’ll need to need to know how to write a code, HTML, for example: Hyper Text Markup Language.  Most of us don’t know how to write HTML, but thankfully it’s much easier than that.  Here are a few of your options:  If you don’t know how to write HTML code, no problem.  There is a lot of software out there that can make your life easier as you design your web site.  Once you buy and load the software on your computer, you can begin to design your site.  One caveat, however, when using a web design software program is, you have to learn it, and there’s a leaning curve.  It can also be expensive, up to $500 depending on what you decide to use.  Using this type of software is going to take a little time to master before you can get your web site up and running.  Some programs such as Apple’s iWeb, or Microsoft’s Front Page are fairly easy to learn and inexpensive, but they have limits, too, in regard to your design options.  But, if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you’ll probably have a good time, along with planning your growing season, paying taxes, ordering plugs, seeds, and other supplies, and trying to rejuvenate your body during the off season.
    
One alternative to the DIY approach is getting someone to do it for you.  Do you have a kid, or a nephew, a niece, or a neighbor’s kid who is a whiz at this stuff?  Great!  But you could also hire a professional.  It is money well spent.  When you consider the cost of software, the learning curve, and the time it takes to get your site up and running, a professional isn’t as expensive as you’d think.  And besides, it’s your input that will make your site your own.  The web site designer is just the mechanic in this scenario.
    
Another alternative is using online resources, such as GoDaddy, Google, and Yahoo, who, among many others, have web site templates available online for developing your web site.  I’ve looked at these and they’re impressive for what they are.  You are guided through the process to add text here and photos there.  URL’s are registered and hosted by those services.  Fees are reasonable, too.  The caveat here is, everybody starts looking the same.
    
What’s next?  Now that you’ve got your URL registered and you’ve found a home for your web site, and you know how to build it or know someone who will build it for you, it’s time to get start building the beast.  

It’s All About Content

If software is the skeleton of your web site, then content is its flesh.  This is the stuff that will set you apart from the pack.  It’s your graphic images, photos, and copy, the stuff that tells your story.  
    
Here’s the thing: this is the toughest bit about web design.  Any monkey can use a computer, and plenty of monkeys can make a web site, but the important skills required to make an effective web site are having a fairly good sense of marketing, a good photographic eye, and the ability to write compellingly.
    
What is it that you want to tell your customers about your farm and your flowers?  What is the “feel” that you want your web site to convey?  Some sites are very technical and are seen as “no nonsense”, just the flowers.  Others like to show more of the lifestyle of flower farm living, creating a deeper connection between the farmer and customer.  
    
Photos are a great way to tell your story, but they often need to be edited: cropped, color adjusted, sized properly.  A very common mistake when posting photos to a web site is leaving them at their original size.  Digital cameras with resolution of 3 megapixels and higher take very large digital images.  A megapixel equals 1000 pixels (a pixel is a unit of digital measurement).  It is not uncommon for a digital camera to have a resolution of 8 megapixels.  That’s huge.  8000 pixels equal an image approximately 16 by 20 inches if it was to be printed.  If you were putting these photos in your photo album, obviously they wouldn’t fit.  You would need to reduce or resize that image.   Resizing those images can be done with the software that comes with your camera or with other software such as Adobe Photoshop.  Generally, images should be no more than 500 pixels for any one dimension, and 72 DPI (dots per inch). The larger an image is, the longer it takes to load from your site to the viewer’s computer.  Which reminds me to mention, not everyone has a high-speed Internet service, especially those of us who live in rural areas.  Reducing the size of your images will see to it that your site loads quickly.  Slow loading web sites frustrate the viewer and often they’ll quit before ever getting to see your beautiful flowers.
    
Your web site is going to be one of hardest working tools in your marketing toolbox.  Before beginning your web site decide in what direction you want it pointed.  What I mean by pointing your web site is, to whom are you talking?  Is it your farmers’ market customer, wedding clients, florists or wholesale buyers?  Marketing is about building a relationship with someone who is potentially going to give you money for your flowers and floral services.  Because this is about your business, it is your job to show your customers what you do.  Other than through photos, the tone of how you write copy will dictate the ultimate feel of your web site.  
    
On my own web site, virginiaflowers.net (and charlottesgarden.com), I naturally wanted to show the flowers we grow with vividly colorful photos.  After all, as Frank Arnosky says, “We are in the business of color.” (The Arnosky’s website, by the way, is texascolor.com)   I also wanted to show the farm equipment, our dogs, and scenes of us working, to give our customers a sense of our lifestyle and place; that the flowers they are buying week after week come from a real farm.
    
What you put on your web site is up to you.  A thoughtful web site is something that will grow as your business grows and evolves.  Anything on your site can be changed as needed.  And there’s another great benefit of a web site: it can be updated almost instantly.
    
Lastly, once you’ve gotten all of your “content” assembled, it’s time to upload that in-formation to your web host’s server.  This process is called, FTP, or File Transfer Protocol.  

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

The FTP process is fairly simple, depending on the type of software you choose.  Obviously, if you’re using a web site designer to do the heavy lifting for you, you simply forward your content to them and they perform this FTP function.  An online template package will have a simple function to change and edited pages.  If you’re doing it yourself, your software will provide what is called a FTP browser.  
    
Keep in mind that everything that is to appear on your web site must, must, MUST be FTP’d to your web host’s server.  Imagine you’ve created a page, written beautiful copy, prepared your images flawlessly, your graphics, perfect, but you forget to FTP a photo.   It will not appear on your web site when you go to view it online.  This is a common oversight.  You’ve all been to a web site and seen an icon of a broken image on the page where you know a photo should be.  That image never made it to the server.  So, I make a checklist and double check that everything is where it is supposed to be.
    
Developing a web site is that easy, that complex and complicated, that hair pulling, and ultimately, that satisfying when you’re finally up and running.  How you decide to proceed is up to you, we all have our own unique creative process.  What’s most important is deciding to create a web site for your flower farm: it is something that is increasing difficult to run a business without, and I believe it’s truly that important.
    
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about creating your farm’s own web site.  Email me at [email protected]

Joe Caputi is a cut flower grower specializing in woody cuts, such as hydrangea, viburnum, and lilac. He has also designed web sites for many cut flower growers and businesses across the county.