Even though there’s more free business help on the web than ever before, starting a new product or service, and building a site for it, is not easy. Here are some things to do early on that will save a lot of time later.

1) Take a guess at who your customers are.

Notice that I didn’t say “figure out who your customers are.”

The goal is to put yourself out there with someting plausible so you can start learning, not to commission a multi-million-dollar research project. But you should take an explicit guess, because it will help you make faster, and more consistent, decisions later.

For example, if you’re starting a dollhouse furniture business, maybe you think your customers are moms with daughters. So,

  • When you start doing social media, you’ll want to follow and tweet at all the famous mommy-bloggers.

  • When you build the site, you’ll want to have a design that conveys quality, trust, and nostalgia. (Or maybe the best place to reach this audience is Etsy, and you should forgo the site entirely)

  • Pinterest might be a big promotional channel for you.

  • When you use the demographic tools in Google Analytics, you know what to look for.

And so on.

2) Think about what your visitors want to do, and how you can help them.

Notice that I didn’t say “think about what you want your visitors to do”. The purpose of your product or service is to help people, right? You’ll be in the best position to do that if you figure out what their intent is, and show how what you’re offering matches that intent.

For example, if you’re starting a gluten-free bakery, you want people who can’t eat gluten to buy your baked goods. They come to your site, somehow, or hear your name. How did that happen? What were they trying to do?

  • If they were interested in buying a cake, that’s great, you can show them that offer.

  • If they found you because they want to learn to bake, then maybe they can sign up for your newsletter, which has gluten-free baking tips. (Then later on, when they want to buy a cake, you’re there with that offer in your newsletter.)

  • If they found you because they can eat gluten, but can’t eat sugar, maybe you can refer them to someone who can help them through your blogroll.

  • Or maybe you have a great article on this exact topic - which is where they landed - that they can tweet to their friends, who then come to visit you and buy cakes.

This is the best way to get people engaged. And engagement is the raw material for revenue.

3) Escalate commitment, and provide value at every step.

The holy grail for your lawnmowing business is a $50 / month premium subscription, billed annually.

It is very unlikely that you will sell someone this on their first visit to your site. (In fact, in many cases you won’t sell anything on a visitor’s first visit to your site.)

So, related to (2), ask for something small to start. A email address. A follow on Twitter. Provide a relevant offer in exchange.

For your newsletter, the newsletter is your offer- and you won’t spam them, and here’s a sample of what you’ll receive every month, including lawn care tips if you’re doing it yourself. If they follow you on Twitter, here’s what the feed looks like, and by the way, thanks for joining us, and here’s a direct message with a $5 coupon.

And then you escalate that commitment over time:

  • Special trial lawncare appointment for our newsletter subscribers.

  • Hey, we’ll be at Home Depot this weekend giving a free class on how to weed more efficiently, come on by (and let us show you this product that we sell.)

And so on.

4) Remove all conceivable obstacles to engagement.

The nice thing about (2), is that if you do it right, your visitors should find it valuable to engage with you.

You offer something that they’re looking for, and they’ll welcome the chance to keep receiving valuable information from you, by, for example, giving you their email address.

Unless, of course, your newsletter popup doesn’t display properly on their mobile device. Or they’ve never heard of you, and there’s no evidence on your page that your product or service works as advertised. Or they’re distracted by a typo on your page or bad color choice. Or a million other things.

People are on your site to accomplish a task. For you, it means paying your bills, but for them, the task is one of many things that they’re thinking about, care about, and have to do. It may not even rank very highly. So make it as quick, easy, and low-friction as possible to get that engagement. Don’t raise any questions in their minds. This means:

  • Your design doesn’t have to be amazing, but it should definitely not get in the way. Ideally, it should reinforce your decisions about your identity and make your site more personable and trustworthy.

  • Copy that explains very concisely what is going on, and reminds the user of what they’re doing. A tiny example is that your form fields should have the placeholder text in them (“Enter Email Here”) until they’ve actually been filled out. A bigger example is that your call to action (“Subscribe”,“Join”,“Download”) should stand out and be easy to see and to click.

  • Social proof is important. When you have pictures and testimonials from real people, it creates trust. Stats are helpful too, but if you present them, you have to do it in a way that’s very simple to understand.

5) Take some time to set up your technology and analytics so that they work.

There’s a huge number of truly impressive and high-quality analytics, testing and other services out there today. Almost all of them offer free trials, or are simply free to use. (See Tip 3.)

You should set up Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools as soon as possible. It will not be easy to use this stuff effectively right away, but collecting data starting now will be useful later.

Google Analytics by itself can tell you things like what your most popular content is, how many visitors you get every month, and what percentage are new vs. returning. That means more relevant offers for your visitors, and more people in your database.

Together with Webmaster Tools, you can also get demographic data on your visitors (like age and gender), which might be very helpful for you depending on how your service is targeted.

Consider using other services like Unbounce and Optimizely to help increase the efficiency of your pages when you do get visitors.