So you've got a website? Congratulations. But is it doing you any good?
At the end of the last century a lot of pubs suddenly decided they ought to have an online presence. There was invariably a regular whose brother-in-law was a web designer, an initiate in the mysterious lore of the internet, who would do them a favour, and lo! There it was!
It looked smashing. A nice picture of the pub, mine hosts perhaps, a bit of history, something about the foaming ales and the nourishing grub, some directions, local gossip when you get the time to put it up there. Soon folk from far and wide would be flooding through the doors.
But they didn't, and in time the website fell out of Google to join the many millions of forgotten sites, lost in cyberspace.
No-one was to blame. We have only recently got to grips with how the internet works, from a commercial point of view. There were countless casualties before we reached the position where, in the run-up to last Christmas, 10 per cent of all purchases were made online, and the web has gained a momentum that will see it grow irresistibly in importance.
Where do pubs stand in this? There are a few that are able to turn the global scope of the internet to their advantage, using it as a marketing tool to attract tourists. But for the vast majority, online success is a more local affair.
The trick is to maximise the potential of 'web communities', less a far-flung collection of surfers who happen to wash up on your site than a relatively small group of people bound together by common interests - interests in what's going on in your pub, to be precise.
Most of them will not be potential new customers but people who already use the pub - and with a bit of encouragement will use it more. It's the old game of developing customer loyalty given an online dimension.
One man who has realised this, and has now set about helping licensees have an effective internet presence, is Steve Neale. Importantly, Steve comes at the problem not from the point of view of the web geek but as a businessman who knows the pub trade well. Between 1990 and 1998 he ran a thriving karaoke service before venturing into IT.
His family-run web design firm, IDM Systems, has spent the last 18 months developing a new system that's aimed exclusively at pubs and bars: Smarterpubs.co.uk.
"Smarterpubs came about after a client contacted me wanting to get their website up to date," explains Steve. "After a while it was apparent that the website was more important to the business than they first thought. We took it from there."
Steve is critical of most websites. "Many are all gloss and no substance, and others are just plain awful," he says. "In today's busy lifestyle, people go to the internet for information and they want it quick. If they have to battle through trendy design concepts to get what they need, they give up and usually never return."
So the first rule is simplicity. The next is that a website isn't just there to look pretty.
"When your website actually starts to positively affect your business, that is when you know you have got it right," says Steve. "By the time we did our fourth bar with this system the third was already attracting huge interest and the owner was getting feedback, bookings and increased trade."
A Smarterpubs site aims to achieve that with certain standard features:
- a 'what's on' calendar
- online food ordering
- customer registration
- photo gallery
- music/entertainments guide
- job vacancies
- email newsletters.
"Publicans have very little spare time so the system has to be as easy to maintain as possible and in a language they can understand," says Steve. "It must be simple to use, both for the licensee to update and for the customer to get the information they need."
For example, the what's on guide automatically updates the home page so as soon as they go on the site customers are told what events are coming up over the next week.
"In fact the what's on pages have helped reduce the number of phone calls to bars asking for details," says Steve. "The site even has a music guide where we can add audio previews of acts so customers can listen to what they sound like first."
The customer registration system has also proved immensely powerful. By getting customers to register on the site you can offer them personalised discount vouchers - which are also built into the Smarterpubs system - and they can subscribe to an automated newsletter that comes out weekly or monthly summarising events coming up as well as news items that can be added by the licensee. The site can also collect comments and general feedback which you can act on if you want to.
"This sort of system is the way forward without a doubt," says Steve. "You can reward loyalty and regular customers by using the voucher system, and you can experiment with discount ideas at little cost because the customer prints out the voucher. "Registered customers can also submit their own reviews which you can choose to include in the website if you like it. Features like this encourage greater loyalty."
An add-on module enables publicans to link the system to the pub's TV screens. Steve is about to roll out a free feature in which registered customers will be able to create their own announcements such as 'happy birthday' and Valentine's messages to appear on a set date on the website and screens.
Online food ordering is a potential minefield. Steve recommends a 'back to basics' approach.
"What is the purpose of such a system? To get customers to come to you. If you make it complex it becomes unusable so it has to be simple," he says. "It can't be all things to all people but it can do 90 per cent of the job. All the licensee needs to do is confirm the order by telephone, take a deposit and ask any necessary questions to fill in what the system can't do."
Having a proper website that can retain customers and reduce costs - rather than one done by a mate for a few pints - must be worth serious consideration by licensees, Steve believes.
"The pub trade is full of hardworking people under huge pressure to keep customers and find new ones," he says. "A website that can do that is now a distinct reality."
For more information on Smarterpubs visit www.smarterpubs.co.uk