A cautionary tale and a catechism for the prospective new web site owner.
T’was the era of the design houses, of the one-man bands, of clever youngsters related to somebody in the company — with code-writing competence and some creative flair, but little (likely, no) marketing expertise. It was a time of clients who, with no better advice available, bought in and blew the bundle on “Hollywood” FX — meanwhile framing content which ran the gamut from disastrous to dull.
The wisdom of the rearview mirror is always 20/20… and so today it’s no surprise that great numbers of the early design-driven sites delivered little or no ROI. What does surprise is that many of the mistakes of that era are still being made today when companies — particularly the small to mid-size businesses — contemplate their first web site.
Given the pervasive presence of the Web as a marketing and information tool today, it’s easy to forget that it’s not so many years since many — perhaps most — small to mid businesses were working without a Net. As little as 7 or 8 years ago, companies approached with trepidation the decision to build a site — in part because the Web was still relatively new and unknown, and in part because it took a leap of faith to commit a hefty bite of the marketing budget to creating something which had, at that time, no established marketing credentials.
We’re older and wiser now. So is the Web itself, and continually evolving. Much has been studied and learned in the intervening years. Surfer and visitor behaviours are now well researched and known. Lessons of visitor-friendly design and copywriting have been absorbed. An entirely new class of Web and marketing savvy professionals has emerged. We have escaped the sins of the fathers. Haven’t we?
Well… no. You’re a surfer. You know what you encounter when you dip beneath the surface of the top-rank sites. You’re still landing on plenty of dead-fish sites and clunkers out there… true? And they’re still coming!
The following, then, is a guided tiptoe through the minefield of avoidable mistakes — intended to help save your site and your sanity as you invest in a new address on the Web. It’s pretty much one size fits all. And pretty much all of it can be done from the comfort of your chair, folks.
Front load the effort.
What you do BEFORE you even think of initiating design will determine the success of your site. I strongly advocate front-loading as much effort, research and time as necessary to build your own, market-specific blueprint of who will come to your site, what they will be coming to learn, and what your site must do to lever conversions or contacts. The size of your business matters not. The more you know, the more finely tuned and effectively targeted the content of your site will be.
Tie your Web to your marketing plan
Keep your website and its budget where they belong — as a key part of your overall marketing plan. If you use other, traditional media in your mix, plan how the media and web will support each other and work together. If the website is treated as a separate temple-building project, it may become seen from within the company as a thing apart, rather than one big gear in your marketing engine.
Spend time defining your target
Define and understand your target audience as accurately and extensively as possible. Define their current beliefs/behaviours vis a vis your company/brand/product/service/industry… establish what their expectations/interests/needs/resistances are… study the demographics. All normal marketing behaviour, but too often ignored in the site-development process.
Study the competition.
Go over their websites with a fine-tooth comb. Go to their sites as a visitor would and evaluate your own information encounter there. Evaluate their sites’ content… core marketing messages… strong and weak points. Do some Web sleuthing, and see how their sites are performing… what keyword strategy they are using (if any).
Assemble what you learn.
Compile the marketing information, and you have an informed, current, clear-eyed view of what you want your Web site to accomplish, and a target-driven map of the communication pathways your content should follow to succeed.
Then, and only then…
…map your own site’s content. Determine what you want the visitor’s experience to be. Define the optimal objective for the visitor encounter… a sale? contact? download? a better-informed consumer? a recruited member? Determine the logical information trails your target visitor will want to follow.
Design/build from the target audience back.
…not from the company or business out. If you think about it, your Web site is as much part of your service to customers and prospects as it is your store window. If you are to have a site that is successful for you, you must first build a site for your visitors.
Write before you build.
It still seems to be a commonplace for the web designer to start the dance… presenting design and navigation structure before any content has been written. Maybe it’s writerly prejudice, but this seems bassackward to me. Better to develop good content and design the site to best deploy and employ it — than to create content to fit an arbitrary design.
SEO and web strategies begin now.
The first step is to develop your keyword/keyphrase list, the terms (including misspellings, abbreviations, slang, etc) that target visitors will type into search engines. Better for your web-writer to work with the keyword list in hand, and blend them naturally into the text — than to try to shoehorn them later into existing copy.
Good keyword web writing is a distinct skill, maybe a talent.
There are good copywriters who don’t have it. Your writer — content developer if you prefer — has to be plugged in across the board. They must be able to understand and write to a marketing strategy… be fully briefed on the target audience… have a sound grasp of your business, marketplace, and competition… be able to present content in information strata, tiered down from prime-encounter pages… and be able to write strong, targeted, keyword-rich, interactive marketing copy in web-friendly style and form, in a “voice” appropriate to you and your company.
It doesn’t matter who you assign to create the content — whether someone in-house, an ad agency or a web-marketing pro — check out their skill set before you start eating budget and lead time with endless rewrites. My bias is obvious. The investment in a pro is value-added. You get the skill set and experience… contracted deliverables give you time, and budget control… and a professional will bring no subjective bias or corporate ego to the content’s development.
Define and rank the information sectors…
…primary, secondary, tertiary, etc… with primary rank being both the information the visitor will most want to find, and the information you most want them to have. I’m likely straining the map analogy here… but you and your visitor are two destinations. You visit each other along roads of information, sought and given, beginning with whatever keywords are typed in the search engine window. The main highways are the key information exchanges. If you have reason to present information that, in terms of visitor interest, belongs up a dirt road far off in Seven-Click Forest, that’s great. But map your content so that visitors move easily to and between their key interest pages… and drill down deeper into your site voluntarily, prompted by the key pages.
A site for content… not content for the site.
Have at least a significant portion of the content in the web-ready form, particularly the key pages, before considering a design to support and enhance the content. In other words… Content Rules! The site design can only be an appropriate environment for the content — structuring, organizing, easing, amplifying, never intruding upon the information encounter.
We’re our own case history (easiest testimonial we’ve ever got).
We applied our methodology to ourselves. This site has, I think, 90-plus pages. At least 70% of the content was complete and web-ready, including all key information pages, before we began considering design. We wanted the site to practice what we preach. The information chains go four clicks deep, but the visitor is never more than one click away from any key page. We wanted the site be information rich, easily traveled, and equally SEO and visitor friendly. And we wanted to speak in plain language — not techie’s tongues. You, patient reader, are free to judge how well we have achieved.
by Bryan Pinn/SitePosition
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