Your website represents you 24/7 and needs to convince visitors (and search engines) that: 1) you are an authority in the industry and 2) your business is a worthwhile provider to meet their needs. You build trust by looking professional and sharing accurate and compelling content.
But developing or improving a website for your business can be daunting and overwhelming for even the most digitally-savvy marketers; resulting in delays, increased costs, panic and even (gasp!) paralysis!
Because Affinity Express helps hundreds of small- to medium-sized businesses establish or redesign their websites every year, I decided to get some advice from Patrick Mullen, our vice president of interactive operations and product development.* He has been integral in building our website offering, which our publishing and other clients market to small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
Here are five tips Patrick shared to help you formulate your website plan and understand the project scope. As he notes, a solid plan defined early makes for a simpler process that will achieve the desired outcomes.
1. Build a complete plan
Identify the key stakeholders. For Affinity Express, this includes sales, marketing, customer service and human resources. Document their goals (e.g., human resources wants an attractive job posting page that communicates company culture but is easy and fast to update without a lot of training). Understand their needs and come to simple and acceptable solutions. Remember that requirements are not necessarily the same as preferences.
An important point to keep in mind that simplicity is the new paradigm for website design because it is the only way we have to make content accessible and readable on the greatest possible number of devices with the best user experiences.
Review all of the stakeholder input and then determine:
- What has been missed? Is there anything major that needs to be reconsidered?
- What are resources available to build the website? When it comes to maintenance, do you have the bandwidth to keep each of the website sections active and current? If not, can you hire help (One of the biggest problems with business websites is that they are not maintained)?
- Does each of requirements help to deliver a better site overall? If not, what can be chopped or scaled back?
- Is possible to retrofit the new requests into the existing site or is a new build required?
- Does the plan meet the goals of the stakeholders?
2. Evaluate technology and costs
Determine the cost associated with completing your project and any other costs or projects the new website may impact (e.g., a new URL means reprinting business cards, updating online listings, etc.). Weigh the costs against the revenue impact of meeting the stated goals. Measuring the return on investment for website design is extremely difficult but some measurements you can consider are:
- Longer visits. When clicking on a website, people decide the credibility of a company in as little as 1/20th of a second. But the longer people are in a store, the likelier they are to buy. How many more leads would you have at the end of a month if ten percent more of visitors read your site instead of leaving right away?
- Optimization for business objectives. Don't waste time on fancy applications, superfluous animation or other mechanisms. Your design should serve business objectives or enhance usability—everything else is useless. You can measure by calculating how much your costs decrease and traffic increases when you eliminate unnecessary design elements.
- Shopping cart abandonment. The average shopping cart abandonment rate is 59.8%. Think about investing in a better shopping cart. If you average $100 per sale, imagine what your ROI would be if completed checkouts were increased by 10%.
3. Map out the process
Start by translating your plan into a wireframe, which is a simple layout of your site without any design elements. Once agreed upon, transform this blueprint into a design. Be careful to keep the design clean and simple, and have it reviewed early and often by your developer. Incorporate some room for the errors and obstacles that will invariably arise.
Some good advice from Site Ninja is:
- Put content first. Create efficient, searchable, accessible, multi-platform content and make sure it reaches users through the best interactive experience possible.
- Talk about the needs of your clients, not your services. It's not your services but your willingness to engage your visitors to find out what they need that is compelling. Instead of a dentist talking about all the procedures offered, he or she could think more about the patients' perspective: "Are you worried that dental work will hurt? Our clients rave about their pain-free experiences".
- Don't overwhelm with content on the homepage. You don't need to provide full descriptions of every product and service. Rather, you should welcome visitors into the site explore further. One solid rule of thumb is to feature only those products or services that represent the bulk of your business on the homepage.
- Create a call to action. Provide an incentive why potential clients should reach out and start building a relationship with you. You could offer a free study or white paper in exchange for an email address or ask a different thought-provoking question each week that you can write about in your blog, social media or newsletters. Then you could distribute the content to the respondents.
- Don't forget onsite SEO. Structure each page of your content so that there is a single focus and include these critical items for search engines so you appear high in results related to your products and services.
- Page title
- Keywords in the URL
- H1 heading titles in the body of the page
- Additional heading titles on the page
- Images with alt text
- Bold and italic words
- Links between pages of your website
- Links to high "domain authority" websites
4. Incorporate Google Webmaster Tools and Analytics
Set up your free account and be sure to integrate these tools into your site. Spend as much time analyzing your data as you can. This information validates your initial vision and informs many of your future decisions. It can also show weakness in your logic, which will allow you to devise corrective methods.
Recently, Kriti Adlakha wrote about Google Analytics and offered some suggestions how to track website performance with this free tool.
One caution is that you should not go overboard with analytics-based goals. It is very difficult to make meaningful progress on more than one analytics goal at a time. Give each goal its own two-month time period.
5. Market, Market, Market
Develop your marketing plan so you launch with a splash. SEO is one of the best sources of consistent traffic to any website but, if your site is new, you won't get any traffic this way. That means you'll have to rely on referrals and other methods.
- Influencers. Partner with people who influence the communities of your target audience (e.g., journalists, niche bloggers, related businesses, etc.). This will take weeks or even months to pay off, so start in advance when you initiate the website project.
- Content syndication. Create videos and submit them to media sites, asking for links back to your site. Write guest posts and distribute them on larger sites.
- Advertising. There are numerous options, including Google AdWords, product/service/site reviews, social media advertising and more. But whatever you choose, have a purpose such as getting viewers to sign up, subscribe or purchase, rather than sending them to your home page or other random places.
- Social Media. Create two or three social media profiles on some of the big sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ to keep people updated on your recent events and alert them to the new website.
- Yahoo! Answers. Sign up free for this Q&A network and answer questions. After amassing 250 points, you can include a link in your responses and get some major backlinks on Yahoo!.
When marketing the new site, be sure to leverage all your other online and offline assets: email lists, employee meetings, internal newsletters, media lists and more to create a buzz around your website launch. Have you recently launched a website for your business? If so, what did you learn that was unexpected? What would you do differently next time?
* Patrick Mullen has more than ten years of experience in interactive marketing and production operations and is responsible for defining, positioning, packaging and pricing Affinity Express digital solutions. Previously, he was the director of interactive marketing services at Dow Jones Media Group, where he spearheaded the start-up of their digital agency and led the local and offshore account management and production teams for all digital products.