The beauty — and the fallacy — of the web is that it is a completely dynamic and interactive medium. You can iterate something today, tweak it the next day and completely revise it the day after that. Because of this pliable nature many web projects become victims of shortsighted planning. And, a lack of effective planning can plague a firm’s website performance for years to come.
“Let’s just get something built…we’ll see what works…and, then we’ll revise.” Can you imagine if an A/E/C firm took this approach to a building? Ah…forget about planning. Let’s schedule some brainstorm sessions, we’ll sketch out some rough blueprints, then start building the thing in two week iterations — we’ll modify as we go. Once it’s built, we’ll see what’s working and renovate accordingly. Seriously, would you buy that building? Maybe the wizards at Goldman Sachs could help you “short sell” that building….I think that would be the better option.
Why Planning Matters
The reality is that in today’s professional services firm, the corporate website is as much an infrastructure investment as a headquarters facility. The typical website project — when planned, designed and developed correctly — should take about 6 months to complete. Done right, your next website should have a 3-5 year usable life. But, that’s only going to happen if you plan it accordingly.
Ultimately, I think there are 6 things you need to spend some time thinking about and understanding before you begin wireframing or prototyping anything.
1. Business Objectives
It’s sometimes hard to believe it based on the state of some firm websites, but at its core, your site is fundamentally a piece of commerce. Your site should have a clear and defined purpose in the context of your business objectives. And no, “building brand awareness” or “demonstrating your experience” are not effective purposes for your site.
You need to be clear about your desired outcomes if you hope to achieve them. Ultimately, these are some of the questions you should be asking yourself about your site within the context of your business:
- How has your business changed since the last iteration of your site? What needs to change for your site to catch up?
- How do you envision your business changing in the next 4 years? How will, or might, your site need to change to respond?
- What specific business outcomes would you really like to realize from your site?
- How many monthly leads does your site generate for your business now? How many do you wish it would generate?
- What percentage of your annual revenue originally derived from your website (meaning the client’s first interaction with your firm began at your site)? What would you like it to be?
- How does your site fit into your overall marketing and business development efforts? Is it a useful resource for clients both during the early and late stages of their buying process?
- Would you like it to be?
The business objectives you hope to achieve from your site should drive all aspects of your design and development process. A clear understanding of business objectives will drive the decisions you make on what systems to use, what types of content to develop and the overall information architecture of your site.
2. Analytics Review
Once you’ve established a clear set of desired business outcomes it makes sense to look more closely at your existing data. Assuming you have Google Analytics, or another similar system, in place you’ll want to take a close look at your existing data in the following areas:
- Traffic Sources – Where are referrals coming from? What types of content (both topics and formats) are referring sites directing visitors towards?
- Pages – What conceptual topics serve as your key points of entry? Which pages perform best in “non-branded” search? Which search phrases are performing best? Which are performing worst? Why do you think that is?
- Devices – What devices (desktop, mobile and tablet) are users using now to access your site? Why do you think that is? What do you think users of different devices expect from your site? How do you envision these things changing in the next 3 years?
- Conversions – Of the goals you have set up in Google now (you do have them right?), which ones generate the most completions? Which ones generate the least? Do certain traffic sources convert differently?
A thorough analysis of these 4 areas will prove hugely valuable as you work through your new site’s information architecture, content strategy and calls-to-action.
3. Client and Audience Personas
As much as you might like it to be, your site can’t be a resource for everyone. I’ve spoken and written in the past about the merits of identifying your ideal client and using that to derive a small, subset of client personas to inform all aspects of your marketing process (including content development and website architecture). Here are some things you should think about when doing this:
- Who are the 3-5 ideal types of clients you’d like to attract to your site?
- What are their most pressing issues right now that we can solve? What will they be in 3-4 years?
- Do we have solutions that can be clearly mapped against those issues?
- How do they prefer to consume content (what formats work best for them — this decision should combine both data-driven insights from your analytics review and your own intuition)?
- What do they need to feel about your firm in order to hire you?
- How can you bring those “feel factors” to life in your site design?
- Is talent a critical audience for you? I’ve heard recently from a number of A/E firms that finding and hiring mid-level and seasoned project managers and engineers is becoming increasingly difficult. If your firm is experiencing this challenge, you should think about developing personas around the key talent you’d like to attract to inform the design decisions your team makes within the careers section of your site.
4. Content Inventory
Okay, developing a content inventory is about as exciting as stripping wallpaper in that tiny little half bath under the stairs. But, assessing what content you already have and reconciling it with what content you need is a hugely critical step in the planning process. Generally, I suggest organizing your existing content into a few buckets:
- Relevancy — How does the content fit with where your business is going and the types of clients you hope to attract. Organize content into topical themes, then into groups as “Keep, revise, discard.” Look for gaps — what’s missing? This will inform your content strategy now and post-launch.
- Buying Stage — What content exists to aid clients at the various stages of the buying process? Do we have enough content for early stage researchers, middle stage evaluators, and late stage buyers? Is it the right content? What’s missing? What logical calls-to-action might make sense to visitors at varying stages of the buying process?
5. Brand Assets
It’s extremely helpful when you engage a web partner to come to the table with a comprehensive understanding of what you already have and what you know you’ll need. Questions you might want to ask youself:
- Are your leadership and team photography up to date?
- If yours is an A/E/C firm, is your project photography high quality? Is it current? What needs shot? What time of year would we need to do it?
- How do you feel about the overall design and aesthetic of your current site? Does it fit with your business today? Will it fit with your business tomorrow?
Chances are that you won’t have the answer about what systems you need prior to engaging an agency, but you should have a solid understanding of what systems you have and what gaps exist in the ability of those systems to deliver the useful information you need to make good marketing and business development decisions. Generally, the systems we speak of are CRM, CMS and marketing automation. Some of the things you might want to be thinking about in order to make good decisions about what systems will work for you:
- How big is your firm?
- How many people are involved in marketing and selling? Are these largely the same people or are marketers separate from business development?
- How do you see this changing in the next 3-4 years.
- Is your CRM working for you now? Do you even have one? Are people using it? If so, great, what would make it more valuable to them? If not, why not? What functionality would you like to see from your CRM that you don’t have now?
- Is your CMS working for you now? Why or why not? What functionality would you like to see from your CMS that you don’t have now?
- Is your email marketing working for you now? Is it giving you relevant data? Does it integrate nicely with your CRM?
- What types of analytics would you like from your site? Are the macro analytics you’re getting from Google enough? Would you like to be getting more individual user data — micro analytics that comes from a marketing automation solution?
- How else are you marketing your business online? PPC advertising? Online media? Social media?
- Are you making substantial investments in these areas? Can you easily visualize the results of these programs?
- What level of investment are you comfortable making on a monthly basis into your site and its systems? While cost should probably not be the sole driver of the decisions you make on the systems you use, we need to be realistic about what solutions we can afford.
I promise that if you take the time to think about your site in these six areas before you begin wireframing or prototyping, you’ll make better decisions on your new site build and will extend the useful life of your new site design.
Your new website will become a tangible piece of intellectual property that is valued as a meaningful asset to your firm — not just another marketing expense.