We may be heading into recession, but it takes a lot to bring an entrepreneur down. All this talk of a looming financial crisis has probably just inspired you to work harder to prove everyone wrong.

But to keep on top of the game at a time like this, it's vital to work smarter too. As well as capturing people's attention you need to show that you're more responsive to the market and the needs of your current and potential customers than your competitors. By far the most effective (and cost-effective) way of achieving this is through the website. So how can you make your website work harder for you?

Getting to potential customers
To raise the profile of your business in the past you might have placed adverts in relevant publications and paid for enhanced listings in paper directories. You'd probably have produced a brochure or distributed leaflets and posters. The more money you threw at these approaches, the more people you would have reached.

However in the age of the internet, most people search online and come up with a list of providers of the products and services they want. So the best way to put yourself in front of the maximum number of potential clients is to harness the power of search engines.

Think of your website as a worldwide shop window. If someone's walking down a high street, they'll only be drawn into the shops that display the sort of things they're looking for or that present their wares in an enticing way

Selling what you do
Imagine if you only paid a publication for the leads generated by the advert you placed. How much cheaper would that be?

Well, that's the beauty of pay-per-click advertising. It's also highly targetable: your ad will only come up when someone puts in directly relevant search terms. You can also track conversion rates in real-time and turn your ad on or off at will.

Other types of online advertising use clever programming to bring your ad up on the screen next to directly relevant content. The choice of online advertising that will be most effective for your business depends on several factors, but we'd generally recommend a good mix of pay-per-click and banner adverts.

Unlike a newspaper, the internet has a global reach, bringing your business to the attention of those little pockets of potential customers all over the world. And don't forget that some of the best methods of promoting your business online are often free, such as:

  • optimising the content of your website so it comes up high in search results
  • writing a regular blog (this can help with optimisation too)
  • listing your business in online directories
  • publishing articles in relevant e-zines

With traditional print-based promotional methods the onus was on the potential customer to get in touch with you to find out more. But your website can do all the talking for you. For instance, if your site is well optimised, they can land directly on the page that will be of most interest to them.

Calling your audience to action
So, you've got lots of potential clients coming to your website. But how many of them will actually convert to customers?

Now it's time to work out if your website is really showcasing your company effectively. Think of it as a worldwide shop window. If someone's walking down a high street, they'll only be drawn into the shops that display the sort of things they're looking for or that present their wares in an enticing way.

Is your website presenting your company in the best light? Or are you in danger of people passing you over in favour of your competitors?

Changing your messages
One of the biggest advantages of a website over printed media is that you can make changes very quickly and at minimal expense.

If you introduce a new product or service you can add it to your site immediately. You can even try out different straplines and offers and monitor the response. If something's not working, you can change it straight away.

Delivering a better service
When times are hard you need to maximise your resources. So why not let your website take some of the strain? Think of the reasons people might call you at the moment:

  • to ask for a quote
  • to ask a salesperson what your company actually does
  • to find out how their order is progressing
  • or to ask about your terms of business

Your website could handle all those queries for you if you just added some intelligent navigation and clever functionality like a quotation engine, a secure client area or a search facility. Once you've invested in setting these up you'll keep on reaping the rewards indefinitely. Short-term pain equals long-term gain.

Not only will you be freeing up time to spend more profitably, you'll also be making life easier for your customers, a sure-fire way to go up in their estimation.

So as everyone's starting to tighten their belts and competition's hotting up, don't forget that your website is your best and most cost-effective sales and marketing tool.

Rebecca Jones is managing director at Proteus Virtual. For more information visit www.proteusvirtual.com