Microsoft Office Live Makes Small Business Website Design a Breeze

Who wouldn

It was a flash of marketing genius: Brenda Darrow of the Sequoia Lodge took a digital picture of a guest who had landed a six-pound rainbow trout. Then she posted it on the lodge’s website as “The Catch to Beat.” Naturally, this drove other fishing mavens wild. And now, when they come to the resort motel in Kernville, Calif., they make sure to get Darrow to photograph them with their whoppers and put them on the website as well.

“Over the course of a couple of months, it became sort of a contest,” says Darrow, who manages the resort on the Kern River at the gateway to California’s redwood forests. “Now, everyone can come to the website and see what the best catch is. And there’s nothing that fishermen love to do more than brag about getting one bigger than the next guy.”

Microsoft’s Office Live product is what allowed her to turn the lodge’s website into a dynamic marketing tool, Darrow says. Sequoia Lodge previously had a website, but the webmaster rarely updated it in the five years that it had existed; and Darrow herself didn’t understand the technology. So she took Microsoft’s invitation to join its Office Live beta test, and now lodge guests and wanna-bes are flocking to the lodge’s website.

If you’re asking yourself, “What IS Microsoft Office Live?”, we’ve got the answer.  Microsoft Office Live (a sponsor of StartupNation), is an internet-based service that helps small businesses build their own websites.  The Basics version of Microsoft Office Live is free, and includes a domain name, five web email accounts, an easy-to-use website design tool, and website traffic reporting to help you analyze your website’s performance.

Upgrading to Microsoft Office Live Collaboration, entrepreneurs get everything included in Basics, plus access to security-enhanced websites (or “Shared Sites”) for collaborating with internal employees, external customers, suppliers and vendors. Collaboration also includes twenty web-hosted applications to help small business owners run their businesses, such as programs to handle customer and project management, sales and marketing, and human resources.  All of the applications are web-based and easy-to-use.

The Microsoft Office Live Essentials package offers everything included in the Collaboration package, plus fifty email accounts and search engine (keyword) reporting. 

To Troy Taylor, a real estate broker in New York City, the Office Live beta has offered a new way to prospect effectively and inexpensively for new tenants and homebuyers. Office Live allowed him to construct a web showcase for himself and his interests, so that he can make more of a connection with potential clients. Working with Office Live Essentials, Taylor is able to obtain and utilize customized information from each of his contacts, such as their preferred price range and number of bedrooms.

Even though he has barely tapped the capabilities of Office Live, Taylor says, he knows it won’t be a hassle for him to expand and maintain his website and content. “It’s so easy with this tool to put together a site and change it because Office Live gives you templates for all the important tasks,” says the 32-year-old Taylor. “It gives you the freedom to be creative.”

Michael Stout, a mortgage broker in Everett, Wash., believes Office Live was a godsend. Referrals are the lifeblood of his highly competitive business, so a hard-working website can be a tremendous asset. Given the importance of marketing in his business, the 48-year-old Stout especially likes the feature that tells him where customers saw his advertisement. He lists a different page on his site in each print-advertising vehicle.

“Office Live tells me where each hit came from so that I can track which of my ads are bringing business back to me,” he explains. “Print media costs a lot of money, so I need to know which ads are working and which aren’t.”

Stout also raves about other Office Live Essentials tools. His six employees all use the project-management feature from their scattered, remote locations so that the entire team can get the real-time status of everything the company has in the works. They also use the customer-tracking and database features, which Stout calls “probably my favorite” aspect of Office Live Essentials.

Some beta testers have told Microsoft that Office Live poses compatibility problems with some browsers, especially Macintosh. And many in the Office Live beta community are looking forward to when Microsoft adds search-engine marketing and e-commerce functionality, which the company says are coming in the next release of the product late this year. (NOTE: On November 15, 2006, the next release of the product was issued, visit the Office Live website for the latest information on new features.)

Elizabeth Becker, however, is more than willing to overlook the rough spots that Microsoft is still massaging with Office Live. She used to work with Microsoft FrontPage to design and tinker with her own website. But the Port Townsend, Wash.-based freelance photographer and writer says the software was so bulky that “I found myself procrastinating in updating my website; I would always want to do it tomorrow.”

Office Live’s beta enabled Becker to get her breathtaking nautical photographs up and accessible on her Seaport Photography website with total ease, and she can update the site anxiety-free. More than that, as sailors in racing leagues began seeing their own boats on the site, it became a virtual gathering place for them. And now Becker uses Office Live’s table-making features to list race results and league standings.

“This has been huge for me,” says the 49-year-old Becker, “because Office Live just helps me keep coming up with ways to get people back to my site.”

 

An estimated half of small-business owners with fewer than 10 employees still don’t have a website. Considering how that marketplace is reacting to Office Live, expect that proportion to drop dramatically in the months ahead.

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