Why a Website is Not a Strategy
"We need a new website."
You’ve made the decision. Great! But do you know WHY you need a new website?
When the RFP goes out, will it have a clear vision of what you want a new website to accomplish, or will it instead consist of a list of all the things that your staff hates about the current website? Will it clearly articulate design and content challenges, or be filled with fuzzy phrases like "the site should be clean and modern" and "easy to navigate?”
We can all agree that no one is looking to buy "cluttered and outdated" and "hard to find anything," so let's eliminate that kind of vagueness from the goals. And don't waste valuable time and energy defining solutions before defining your needs and discovering your options.
When determining WHY you need a new website, you must get specific, get measurable, and get strategic.
Let's start at a 30,000 ft. view.
Defining audiences and outcomes: Who does your website serve and to what end?
Ask yourself, what is your audience missing out on because of your old, outdated, or hard to navigate website? Do you have a clear understanding of who your audience is?
The answer can’t be "everyone." If you targeted everyone in the past, this is your chance to redeem yourself with your true audience!
Consider the specific activities, goals, or outcomes you want a visitor to accomplish while on your site. Using a "Mad Lib"-like approach can be a helpful way to narrow in on your audience:
(Group) who (Segment of Group) are (Need or Problem) and can (Solution or Outcome) through our website.
Example: Working Professionals who Have Young Children are Confused About Healthcare Options and can Find Insurers through our website.
Example: Teenage Mothers who Don't Have a College Education are Motivated to Earn a Degree and can Be Referred to Financial Counselors through our website.
Do you know what you need to communicate to your audience? Here again, the answer shouldn’t be "everything we do."
Be cautious of burying useful information under an avalanche of words and wonky concepts. Make it easy, reduce barriers, and let go of internal biases or preconceptions. You are not your user, so for this exercise do your best to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and see if your language makes sense to them—then get everything else out of the way.
If you had one thing to tell your audience right now, in seven seconds, what would it be? Start from there and add sparingly.
You’ll also need to know what you need from your audiences to make the site valuable for you. Do you need them to sign up for volunteer activities? Donate money? Make an appointment? Or, is brand awareness the main goal? Don’t overlook the two-way transactional opportunities.
Now, we can begin our initial descent down to 20,000 feet.
Committing to a Content Strategy: What about your content, today and forever?
“The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.” — The Discipline of Content Strategy
Simply put, even if your new site is really pretty or has tons of the coolest widgets, with poorly planned or ill-governed content, your site is likely to not be useful for your users.
Review your web-based communications needs and content strategy from the perspective of your internal capacity. If you build it, you need to make sure you can maintain it. Here are a few questions to consider when building your content strategy:
- Who will be responsible for content governance and workflow?
- If you "need" a blog, news feed, events calendar, and other functional content elements that require regular updates, are you going to have to rely on a series of volunteers or interns to maintain it?
- Who will manage your editorial calendar and cull old/outdated information?
- Who is empowered to speak for your organization through the content on your website, and will that person need someone else to oversee that work?
Failure to fully consider why you need to create specific content, or not planning for its long-term management, is a root cause of many "we hate our website" overhauls. An ounce of prevention (aka: planning) can be worth a pound of cure.
Now we're cruising down to 10,000 feet.
Identifying Requirements: The time to say, "Our CEO needs to be able to..."
Start first by defining what the website needs to allow you to do, not how you think it needs to be done.
If you start the website rebuild process with the end products in mind (i.e. "we must have a password-protected forum"), you may find out only after a lot of time, energy, and money has already been spent that a forum doesn’t serve your audience or your objective(s).
Be open to the possibility that there is a better solution. Make sure the team building your site is aware of the problem you are trying to solve, consider multiple solutions, and save yourself regret later.
Ground zero—let the build begin!
Build a web presence that is useful, usable, and beautiful, in that order.
Defining the strategic needs for your website can sometimes feel redundant—haven't you been talking about this internally forever? But if you don't take the time to get collective agreement on the goals and objectives up front, your site may have a higher chance of quickly becoming irrelevant or "hard to navigate" again.
Once you’ve defined audiences, committed to a sustainable content strategy, and identified functional requirements, you have the fundamentals of a website strategy in place. Now you can define, design, and build the technical solutions armed with the right reasons.
May your website live long and prosper.