It’s common – and unfortunate – practice to start building a website based on a conference call and a couple of notes about colors, pages and content. With so many DIY web tools that make the process sound as simple as a drag here and a drop there, many businesses fail to recognize the power of planning. And we’ve all heard those words of wisdom that assure us that, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Cliché, maybe, but no less true for it.
So what’s a busy person to do? Instead of dragging and dropping your way to mediocrity, stop for a moment and follow this 5-step plan for building your way to success.
Step 1: Talk
You already had a conference call, so what’s to talk about? Plenty! Do you really think you could explain the nuances of your business process, your goals and values, the needs of your customers and the benefits of your entire product or service line in one phone call? (Note to self: if you can, then either you’ve got some serious business planning problems or that was one really, really long call.)
Talk About Your Business
In the beginning, it’s your job to talk and your developer/consultant’s job to listen. The better your can articulate the way your business works, the customers you service and your goals in general, the more likely you’ll be to end up with a web site that works.
This should be the easy part. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, and in a way, your business is a part of you – your brainchild, a little piece of the universe that you get to nurture and watch grow.
But just in case you’re having brain freeze and don’t know what to say besides, “I like yellow,” here are a few things to think (and speak) about:
- Who are your customers? Is your business corporate? Creative? Do you have a younger or older audience? It’s important to know who you’re targeting so your design and copy can speak to that audience.
- What is your business model? This is especially important for service-oriented businesses because you’ll want to let visitors know what to expect when they do business with you.
- What is your business process? A web site is an extension of how you do business. If you have a certain way of taking orders or processing requests, either integrate your process with your web site, or find a way to improve it through the wonders of technology. Don’t be afraid to explore the opportunities for change that doing business online can offer.
- What are the benefits of your products or services? Benefits are different from features. A feature is “storage boxes made from transparent plastic”. But a benefit is “find your shoes quickly in a crowded closet”.
- What makes your business different than your competitors’ businesses? Lots of businesses can lay claim to the same benefits. You need to figure out what differentiates you from so many others.
- Why do you want a web site? No, it’s not a stupid question. There’s got to be a reason, a goal, something you can put into practice that you wouldn’t be able to do without a web site. Unless you’ve achieved some unheard of state of super-zen, your web site isn’t there just to be there.
- What do you want your web site to do? Depending on why you want it, you then need to figure out what you want it to accomplish. If you’re selling teacups then the purpose of your site is to sell teacups. It’s also to make sure customers know that yours are the best teacups around and that your company is the best one to buy them from. But there are other things your web site can do. You can generate a mailing list. Invite people to sign up for your newsletter or read your blog. Make it easier for your customer service department to handle requests (yes, your web site can even help perform or offset internal functions). Build your wish list now, even if you plan to wait before tackling it.
There are way too many questions and things to consider and discuss that it would be crazy to try to put them here. Much of the conversation will depend on your business anyway. But at least this will get you talking, and once you start, it’ll probably be hard to stop.
Talk About The Possibilities
A good developer will be able to bring some ideas to the table and help you explore the ways that your web site can work for your business.
Before a single graphic is designed or a single line of code written, spend some time brainstorming ways that you can use your web site to save time, save money, improve your processes and build your customer relationships. And there’s more to that than colors and pages.
Do a little bit of dreaming. Come up with a list of, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if…” Stop thinking about your web site as a few pages of online copy with maybe a shopping cart and a “join now” button and start exploring ways that you can create a great experience for your visitors and a great tool for your marketing.
How about video? Animation or motion? Social media integration? Customer interaction? How about a customer service portal? Account management? Document sharing?
Yes, some ideas will cost more than others, some are more technologically feasible and some will take a lot more time and planning to execute. But dreaming is free. You’ll never have an ideal to aim for if you’re stuck in mundane thinking.
Besides, if you dream and plan now, you can always invest and execute later.
Talk About The Limitations
Now that you’re dreaming big, make sure to save time for a reality check. Beyond cost and time, there are plenty of things to consider that can derail your plans. If you know the limitations, you can plan workarounds and alternatives before you start building the site – a much better alternative to building now and repenting later.
Let’s say your customer base is, for some god-awful and undetermined reason, using an IE6 browser. Will that ever change your plans! As much as we web developers may want IE6 to die already, there are still companies out there who are married to it out of fear, convenience or necessity.
If that’s your target audience, you’d better make sure your web site is compatible.
Or what if you’re targeting a younger, more mobile audience? Better make sure your site is functional on mobile browsers, and that includes iPhones, where Flash sites are literally invisible (this means you, all you restaurants with your fancy splash pages!) You may envision a beautifully architected Flash site but good luck reaching those iPhone lovers.
If that’s your audience, it’s best to reconsider your plans.
Talk About The Particulars
This is definitely not the fun part. But once you’re done explaining, dreaming and brainstorming, it’s time to sit down and get into the mundane details. There are tons of those, so here is a short list of some things you should be discussing:
- The navigational structure – what pages are going on your site and how will they interconnect?
- The navigational structure – will it make sense to your customers and get them quickly and easily to where they need to go?
- The navigational structure (do you see a theme developing here?) – how will it affect how search engines see your site?
- The content – what will it say and who will be writing it?
- The content – how will you optimize it for readers and search engines?
- The technology – will it be compatible with browsers and operating systems?
- The technology – do you need to buy a subscription, license or piece of software?
- The hosting – do you know where you’ll be hosting the site?
- The hosting – do you have access to your domain account so that your developer can make any DNS changes? (Please don’t wait until launch day to wonder where your domain is registered.)
- The maintenance – who will do it and how will it be done (outsourced or content managed in-house?)
Yes, you should even be thinking about post-launch issues before you build your site. You should be thinking about every little boring detail because when it comes down to it, you’d notice if the steering wheel were missing from your car, but you might not notice if there’s a short somewhere deep under the hood until the engine dies in the middle of a busy highway and causes a pileup.
Same for your web site – it’s easy to talk pretty colors, but not so easy to decide exactly what will happen when a customer adds a product to their cart and it’s out of stock.
Plan now and you won’t have to repent later. And start planning by sitting down with your development team, your marketing department, your project leaders and even your customers, and talk talk talk about how to make your website work. Do it over coffee, do it over beers, do it on the train or in the car or on the deck of your boat.
Just make sure you’re talking, and make sure whoever is listening is taking some serious notes because they will be the foundation for the rest of your planning steps.
How long do you expect to spend talking about and planning your website before building it?