Going online is a vital extension of your company's image, so you must get it right.

The internet has revolutionised the way that we communicate, gather and share information. Whether you're an early adopter, eager to embrace it, or a reluctant traditionalist, being pulled along in the slipstream, there is no denying the impact that technology has had on our business and personal lives. This breadth of accessibility and depth of information on the internet presents a fantastic opportunity for business. As a 24-hour shop window, your website can be your company's most cost-effective employee. It can deliver reliable information on your company's products, open a dialogue with people and reinforce your expertise. The starting position for developing a website is to be clear as to exactly what you want it to do. Some firms just want their site to be an online version of their printed material. Here, its role is simply to give the company a web presence and online contact point.But, even a basic website conveys an image about the company it represents so, regardless of size, it is crucial that you invest time in developing the tone of language, images and designs that will be used. Your website could well be someone's first introduction to your company. Be clear on how you want them to feel about you when they've left it.If you want your website to work harder for you, you can give it a more prominent role in your marketing strategy. By encouraging online registration, your site can generate a database which, if done within the guidelines of the Data Protection Act, can provide you with a valuable list of potential clients to market to.To keep reinforcing your brand in people's minds, you should your make your site interesting enough to keep people returning. The two main ways to do this are to include something that people will want to keep referring back to, or to regularly update the site with new information.The creation of an online library, or even useful weblinks to other organisations, can turn your website, and thus your firm, into an invaluable resource, while also increasing your standing as an expert. Similarly, integrating useful tools, such as an insurance premium calculator, can give people a reason to bookmark your website and come back.To ensure your website is constantly involving and never out of date, it is useful to take control of its day-to-day maintenance, using a content management system. This will give you the technical infrastructure to maintain the site in-house - enabling you to upload everything from company news to briefing documents.Use all the tools available. Search engines, such as Google or Ask Jeeves, can do wonders for your business by ensuring that your name is found immediately. Be sure to plan the site's layout, or information architecture, in advance so you can clearly see how the pages will link together to ensure that information can be found easily. Navigation should be intuitive, and this is a necessity. Under the recently introduced Disability Discrimination Act, companies can now be fined if their websites are not 'accessible'. This means that it has to be easy to use by everyone, including those who are visually or aurally impaired.Finally, develop a plan to launch your website. After all your hard work, you need to ensure that people know that it's there and visit. it' Angel Brown is technical director at integrated communications agency Box

The Dos and Don'ts of developing a websiteDo consider adding keywords to allow your search engine to work more intelligentlyDo give people reasons to contact you, to help you develop a database of potential clients Do ensure the email address on the site is checked regularlyDo use a clear typeface - sans serif typefaces tend to work best Do ensure the language and tone that you use reinforce your brand and sense of identityDon't use big background images as this makes pages slower to downloadDon't allocate your entire budget in the planning stage and always allow more time than you think you need Don't overcrowd pages with information as that makes them difficult to read and uninviting Don't fall foul of the Data Protection or Disability Discrimination Acts. Don't forget to leave some money for marketing.

Q&AQ: We are a small insurance broker and our website is not updated very often due to the inconvenience of going back to our web designers every time we want to change something. We're thinking of buying a content management system (CMS) so that we can simply update it ourselves. We've seen off the shelf ones ranging from £200 to £5,000. How do we decide which one to buy?A: You need to define your needs clearly. Consider the skills of your in-house IT team and their vision of what they want to achieve, realistically. Ideally, you want a CMS system that can integrate into your firm's technology smoothly, to enable information to be transferred without creating additional work for anyone. If you're a Microsoft-based office, it is likely that you will want a CMS that uses a 'net'-based language. However, many financial systems use Java-based systems, to integrate with Unix, as some people feel it is more secure. Ultimately, there is a host of CMS on the market and they are all constantly being updated.Therefore, I'd be careful not to overspend as in a couple of year's time, you might find that both your needs and the technology have changed, and it's time for an upgrade. As a guideline, for a small company, £5,000 is probably about the right amount to spend. Larger companies can expect to pay up to £20,000.