By Jared Wade

There was a time when having a physical location was the easiest way to sell goods and services. Those days are long gone, and the modern landscape is all about one thing: digital. If you don’t have a striking presence online, and preferably across several social media channels, you may as well not exist. If you can’t be found on Google and stand out with a professional, vibrant website, the road to success is an uphill battle you’re unlikely to win.

Fortunately, web designers and even the top plug-and-play site-creation platforms make it easier than ever to design a sharp-looking web page that will show all comers what differentiates you from the competition. The following four factors are things that you must consider to keep it cool—and keep customers coming back.

Images and Visuals

Nobody wants to read reams of text on a computer screen. Of course you must list the services and key facts about the company in an engaging way, but everything should be based upon visuals. This is the crux of modern web design. Large, flashy imagery must be prominent and eye-catching to anyone who enters the page. A good tip is to look to tech startups for ideas. Most have sites that feature small islands of tightly written text beside larger images that pop. Illustrations can be particularly well received in this combination when done right.

For many companies, such flair will be restricted to photos, logos and simple graphics. This is OK—not everyone has the budget of Apple or IBM. But don’t forget to experiment with video if you have the resources and expertise. Even a short, 30-second clip can give clients a better idea about the organizational outlook on the world. The right tone can sometimes better encapsulate the brand than any text-based marketing material, and don’t be overly concerned about having an Oscar-quality production. Rough DIY-stylized content that feels more down to earth can play very well for a wide variety of companies.

And don’t be afraid to go a little bit longer. Steer clear of extended cuts, but a video that lasts for a few minutes can work well. Better still, this can make for good marketing if you cut it up into smaller, more digestible chunks to share later on social media.

Social Presence

For some companies, social media is now as important—or even more so—than their overall website. In terms of branding and marketing, especially in retail segments that target younger demographics, being scene on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter is a must. While these accounts have to be operated externally on the respective sites, there should be visible badges that make it easy for potential customers to follow you. Place these prominently so they cannot be missed.

Depending upon the business—think services—it might also be advisable to embed a Twitter feed or recent Facebook post widget somewhere on the website. For consultants, advisors, or even those in creative fields, like stylists or publishers, having a window into the firm’s real-time thoughts can help show the company’s human side.

Because that’s what today’s customers want and social media is how you show off your personality. It is where you can attract new eyeballs and turn passive onlookers into buyers. Be creative and try to walk the line between portraying the company image on casual Friday vs. at the annual meeting. Think professional but not buttoned-up. Interactive but not overly familiar.

Whatever the tone, embrace the fundamental makeup of the firm and then try to capture that essence in all aspects of the website, from fonts and colors to the type of buttons and graphics present. When you can create consistency across various platforms, that is when real branding can take hold in the customer mindspace.

Website Navigation

Another absolutely fundamental factor to website—navigation—is often overlooked in an attempt to add too many unnecessary bells and whistles. Yes, the fancy stuff is simply more fun, but it won’t do you any favors if the user has to search up and down the page to figure out how to get around.

That’s the lesson here: Nail the basics before chasing coolness. A car relies on its engine and brake pads much more than its spoiler and racing stripe. And the same goes for your website. Don’t race beyond the core functionality only to realize you have no way to slow down when it’s time to take the Sales Offramp.

A simple, clearly demarcated menu is essential to allowing users to view all the site elements with ease. And have no fear: It doesn’t have to be boring. Today, it’s simple to add drop-down features, “mega-menus,” and even images that show when the cursor hovers over a menu item. Don’t get carried away, but feel free to add a bit of pizzazz—as long as it doesn’t bog down the ability to navigate.

Reaching Out

What is the point of a web presence if it doesn’t lead to more business? For that exact reason, every site should have a clear, obvious way for users to contact the company. This includes requests related to general information, sales, or press. Put this somewhere that it simply cannot be missed.

While including too many email addresses or contact forms can be confusing, the key is ensuring that a real employee on the backend receives any inquiries directly and has the primary responsibility to respond quickly. Don’t leave people waiting.

This info should not be limited to merely a contact form, however. That is an increasing trend, and it can help route messages through a system more easily. But at the very least, a phone number and physical location should be listed somewhere. Having a general email address, such as “[email protected]” or “[email protected]” can also be beneficial in terms of assuring people that someone will actually see their inquiry and it also lets them follow up more easily if something falls through the cracks.

The Whole Package

Ultimately, designing a good, cool, engaging website is not as hard as it looks. You need to have a good plan of attack and focus first on the basics: multimedia imagery, navigation and making yourself available to potential customers. Then comes the secondary factors, including how the page interplays with social media and what types of colors and fonts to use.

With good judgment, a lot of that stuff will work itself out. Keep it simple, add some personality, and always consider how the website reflects on the brand. If all that remains front and center on your mind as you work — and you have some quality assistance in putting everything together — then the result will shine.

Jared Wade is a journalist who has been covering business, sports, Latin America, and more for nearly 15 years. He is currently living in Colombia, concentrating on economics, the financial sector, and the nation’s ongoing peace process.