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Websites That Work

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Why and how to open an online door for potential clients

By Nancy Wozny

A decade ago, a potential customer’s first impression was made when he walked through a dance studio’s door. Today, that front door could be your school’s website. More and more Web-savvy folks shop online before checking out a studio in person.

But do you really need a website? “Yes, you do,” says Julie Parker, owner of Handwoven Webs in Asheville, NC. “More and more businesses are making their first impression on the Web.” Consider these key reasons for getting online: Your business will operate 24/7 (without you!); posting information online reduces your need for printed materials; and listing your website on all printed materials and advertisements boosts your school’s visibility and thus the power of your advertising. And most important, through the power of visual design, you will offer people a feel for what your school is all about.

Creskill Performing Arts owner Betsy Daly worked closely with designer Jeff Catellano to create a look that suits her school. She chose colors that give the site a soft welcoming look.

Parker, who has been designing websites since 1997, helps people overcome the hurdle of the seemingly monumental task of creating their first site. “People can go into a crisis mode. They wonder, ‘Who am I really? How do I show myself to the world?’ ” says Parker. “That’s why they often don’t follow through.” To ease this daunting task, the designer urges her clients to envision each page of the site as a piece of paper. “Nothing is permanent,” she reminds them. “That fact helps with that deer-in-the-headlights syndrome that comes over [people] when they get started.”

Opening the door
Think of your website’s home page as your front door. “Use an introductory paragraph on the first page. Also, have the most important information on the front page and work down from there. Welcome [visitors] visually with clear and concise information,” says Parker. “That way they can know what you are all about without having to go anywhere.” She is not a huge fan of the splash page, which is usually a dramatic photo that viewers must click on to enter the site. For prospective customers with slow Internet connections, splash pages take a long time to load and may annoy rather than entertain. “They can be pretty and were very popular for a while, but why make people take an extra step to get to you?” Parker says. “Simple is best when it comes to bells and whistles. Some eye-catching and clever animation that’s not too distracting works well.”

A good website is easy to navigate, with the crucial information just one click away; having too many levels is not always a good thing. Readability is also important. For example, a black background may be dramatic, but it comes at the expense of easy reading. Also consider font styles; some typefaces are hard to decipher onscreen due to the thinness of certain characters.

Design: it’s all-important
A website is a visual environment. If you are not a visual person, hire someone who is. Your best bet is to find a Web designer with a graphic arts background. It’s relatively easy to find a designer—most sites have a credit line at the bottom of the home page, so shop around and then contact their creators. Parker believes that websites should be left to professionals, not your brother-in-law or a student’s enthusiastic parent.

Like Parker, Jeff Castellano of DanceWebDesign.com in Waldwick, NJ, specializes in working with people who are developing their first site. “Most of the time people are overwhelmed by the task. We make it easy by using 10 well-designed templates,” says Castellano, who has created 150 sites since 2003. “It helps the client to break down information this way. You don’t need to have everything up on your site.” Castellano thinks it’s best to get a site up and then update it as you go along. He also does a fair amount of redesigns. “Sometimes studio owners have sites they are not happy with,” he says. “I do a lot of repairing of sites designed by well-meaning parents.”

Basics of a good site
Castellano’s basic website structure consists of five pages, including a biographical “about us” page, a class schedule, a photo gallery, an events page, and contact information. Once he lays the material out that way, his clients relax and see that it’s a doable job. For basic websites he charges $250; any modifications to the template cost extra. For those who desire a more elaborate site, Castellano offers custom designs that include Flash (software that allows pictures to move) and start at approximately $1,000. A custom site of about 10 pages, with Flash, streaming video, shopping carts, or content-management options, would cost considerably more. Each added feature increases the price.

For updating information on the site, the designer offers two options, one where he does the work and another where he teaches his clients to do it themselves, with an easy-to-use program called Adobe Contribute.

Castellano’s company also offers a low-cost hosting service, which provides regular maintenance, starting at $24.99 per month with a one-year commitment. When considering a hosting service, don’t forget to ask about security. “Security with online transactions must be done with a secure certificate on the file server that hosts the website. This is known as a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and is an encrypted protocol that provides secure communications on the Internet,” says Castellano. “Sometimes a hosting company will offer SSL and sometimes it does not. When choosing an Internet service provider (ISP), it is important to know this if you plan have a true shopping-cart–based website.”

A website is a visual environment. If you are not a visual person, hire someone who is.

PayPal is another secure option for financial transactions; keep in mind that the company takes a percentage of each transaction for using its service.

Case studies

A professional partnership
Betsy Daly worked closely with Castellano in developing a site for her studio, Cresskill Performing Arts in Cresskill, NJ. “It was a back-and-forth process, a true collaboration,” says Daly. “Jeff was very open to my ideas, such as having the dancers ‘float’ into the pages. I also added extra pages and more information to Jeff’s template. So the design is a combination of his template and my moving additions across the top of the pages, with spotlight photos on the sides and bottom of the pages.”

Before hiring Castellano, Daly did her homework. To find the look she wanted, she visited not only dance studio websites but also those of other organizations that deal with children, like gymnastics and music schools and YMCAs. “I wanted the site to show movement but not be too tricky either,” says Daly. “I wanted it to flow and appeal to parents, and especially parents of young children, who are my bread and butter.” She also specified that it should be easy for parents to navigate. “You don’t need to tell your whole life story on your website,” she says.

Daly selected a soft color palette and included photos of children of various ages and ethnic backgrounds. “I was going for a softer, less edgy look than what I had used before. I think parents can tell right away that we are not a competition studio.” She likes using unposed photos of dance students who look the part, so her site includes shots of them in T-shirts as well as costumes—and, of course, lots of dancing.

Daly believes in going to the pros for design services. “I think it’s a huge mistake to hire parents [of students] to do something as important as a website. It’s a danger zone, no matter how close you are to that parent or child.”

An online lifeline
Jaune Buisson Hebert of Metropolitan Dance Theater in Metairie, LA, didn’t have time to go to the pros after Hurricane Katrina flooded her studio. For Hebert, getting a website up fast was a survival mechanism rather than a marketing strategy. Prior to Katrina, building a website had been on her to-do list, but getting one up and running reached a new level of urgency after the storm, when cell towers came tumbling down along with phone services. The Internet remained the only way to keep in touch with her students, parents, and teachers, who had scattered all over the United States.

“I needed to set something up, and do it quickly,” says Hebert. “It was a lesson in emergency communications.” After the hurricane in August 2005, nothing was left of her studio; the entire block was destroyed. Hebert needed to start from scratch, first finding a new place and then letting her former students know about it. Her website proved invaluable during the months following the storm. Hebert slowly got the word out to her clients through a few working phone numbers. Word spread quickly once people learned that the site was up. Once the lines of communication were restored, students checked in to get the latest news and classes resumed in a temporary location in October.

Luckily for Hebert, Citymax.com was already on her radar as an easy place to set up a website, and at $20 a month, its build-your-own site services were affordable as well. Before the storm Hebert had been on the fence about having an online presence. “I never wanted it to replace a one-on-one visit with a parent or student,” she says. “Now I realize how persuasive a good website can be.”

Hebert did considerable research before arriving at the look she has now. “I went to all kinds of websites, good and bad,” she says. “I especially looked at websites of big dance companies and studios and wrote down what I liked. Even though I couldn’t afford [to hire] a marketing firm, I wanted to see what it looks like when you can.” She liked the clean look of many of those professional sites, especially New York City Ballet’s. “They really know what they are doing,” she says.

As for the design, she wanted her site to reflect her values and her studio’s character. “I have a lot of boys at my studio, so I stayed clear of pink tutus and made sure there was a male presence on the site,” she says. “I wanted potential moms to imagine their children fitting in there. Dancing is about so many different things, and I wanted my website to reflect that.”

Hebert tweaks her site with new photos and information as needed. “I love playing with it. Photos of happy children are the key—keep it natural, and a reflection of your studio, with lots of smiling preschoolers, happy and funky preteens, and beautiful older dancers. Parents want to know that the school will grow and adapt with them.”

Today Hebert finds that her students enjoy staying on top of studio life via her site. She has moved her registration process online, which she says streamlines the process.

In terms of other advantages, “it’s a terrific marketing tool. Plus, my students take an active role in organizing their schedules,” Hebert says. “Now they are reminding their parents about rehearsals and recitals.” She says the site also reduces the volume of paper she sends home with students.

Hebert doesn’t believe in overwhelming online visitors, so her site includes only what they need to know—essentials like faculty bios, directions to the school, and registration and parking information. “I want people to leave the site wanting to know more,” she says. “My website will never replace talking directly to me.”

The power of photos
Photos say a lot about what goes on inside a dance studio, and they make a huge difference in the site’s “wow” factor (see “Digital Photography 101,” page 48). Dance school owners are lucky to work with a very photogenic art form. Play with close-ups, tightly focused shots, and scenes from classes that portray the tone of your studio. Is your dress code casual? Then nix the photos of neatly coiffed girls. And show your students dancing. Those posed group photos may be perfect for sending to relatives, but they are too static for a website.

Ask yourself whether the photos on your site reflect what goes on at your studio. Also consider the audience you want to attract. Photos of reed-thin girls who look fabulous in their leotards may be beautiful, but will they drive parents or potential students with less-than-perfect bodies away from your business? There’s no need to exclude those slender girls, but be sure to balance them with images of children of all sizes and shapes.

Use a photo gallery page to spotlight recital and competition photos, and make sure to update it with new photos at least twice a year. (That goes for information, too—nothing shows that you are not on top of things like a neglected website.) Remember, parents want to see their own children on your site. Video is now an option, either via a YouTube link or by including it on the site.

There are a few technicalities about using photos on a website to keep in mind. Size is important; images should be saved as JPG files, and the resolution should be 72 or 96 dpi. Remember, for the Web you want low-resolution photos, which would look grainy in print. Always size photos before you post them; nothing is worse than making people wait for a huge photo to load. Be careful to maintain the aspect ratio of an image when resizing it. “If you decrease the width by 47 percent, be sure to decrease the height by 47 percent to avoid distortion,” says Parker. “It is amazing how many very thin or very smooshed people you see on the Web because people have not followed this rule in resizing their images.”

Images and graphic elements are powerful and enticing, but you also want to make sure people can find you. That means putting your keywords in the text as well as in images. For example, if you specialize in clogging but that word appears only in a graphic image on your site, your audience might have trouble finding you. “Text in an image format or JPG is essentially a picture of a word, and is not searchable,” warns Parker. “Logos and banners are likely to be graphic image files and that’s fine. But make sure that your keywords are not images.”

Whether you decide to take on the project yourself or hire a pro, know that a website can be a calling card that works nonstop for your business. Potential customers can find out if you are a fit for them before you turn the lights on in the morning. Plus, a well-functioning site frees you to do what you do best: teach dance and run your studio.

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