Without question, a new website is a big investment in effort and money. If you want to kick the project off in the best way, here are eight questions you should already be able to answer at the initial meeting with your web designer.
1. Why are you building this website?
All too often a web redesign is planned because the site “just feels old” or “it’s not working as well it should for us.” But what do you mean by that? Why are you really going to all this effort? How does your web strategy align with your overall business goals?
Possible answers might include:
- We want to grow advertising revenue, so we need to increase our page views.
- As a not-for-profit, we rely on donations. We want to increase the number and size of donations we receive online.
- The site should become a “lead generation machine” for our business, and should also help convert leads into customers.
- Our mission is to raise awareness about the issues that are important to us, so our primary online goal is to increase the influence and reach of our organization.
Your answer(s) will directly affect your website’s design strategy.
2. Who will use the website?
Your web design company will likely spend time reviewing the kinds of people who come to your site, so as to better understand your visitors’ needs and habits. It’s very important to structure your website to entice your visitors to take the specific actions you want them to take.
One method is to create user personas, which represent the types of people you’ve identified as having some specific interest in your organization. Before your web design kickoff meeting, segment your site visitors into representative “types”:
- What are their goals and aspirations? Their key issues?
- What media do they read, watch and listen to (magazines, TV, music, books, websites, blogs)?
- Is it possible to segment your site visitors by gender? Age? Income? Geography? Education level?
- Are your visitors technologically sophisticated? Are they early adopters?
- Are they on social networks like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn? Are there other more targeted communities (online or offline) where your visitors can be found?
- What words or phrases (lingo) do they tend to use? What sorts of imagery or language appeals to them?
3. Where is the content?
As web standards maven Jeffrey Zeldman quipped, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
Is your content ready? In part? If not, who will create it? How quickly and frequently can new content be developed?
Do you have a “content matrix”, which can simply be a spreadsheet that lists every piece of potential content on your site, along with where it will be located and who will be its owner?
You may consider developing content specific for each of your user personas.
Beyond just text, do you also have photos or video you want to include? Are there “non-web page” elements you might think to include, like white papers, e-books or webinars?
In their best-selling book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die“, Chip and Dan Heath describe six attributes that make for great (online) content:
- Simplicity — Prioritize what ideas you want to get across. By trying to prioritize everything, nothing is a priority.
- Unexpectedness — Use surprise to grab people’s attention.
- Concreteness — Avoid speaking in abstractions.
- Credibility — Is your content believable?
- Emotions — Tap into emotion rather than just intellect.
- Stories — We get people to act on our ideas by telling stories.
4. Which keywords are important for search engine optimization?
We all want to show up #1 in Google search results for relevant search terms. Before you start writing your content, it’s critical to identify the keywords you want to optimize your site for.
Good search engine optimization starts by putting yourself in the shoes of somebody actually looking for the kinds of products or services you are selling. Brainstorm the keywords that you think would bring you the best traffic, not necessarily the most traffic. If you are an attorney, trying to optimize on the keyword “lawyer” is pretty pointless. Currently, that keyword brings back 404,000,000 results. Anybody who promises you they can get you a first page ranking for such a generic term is going to have some trouble delivering without resorting to black magic and legal grey areas.
It’s much more relevant to optimize for something like “real estate attorney new york city” (assuming you are a real estate attorney in New York City). Also, any traffic you get on that term is much more likely to actually become a paying client, since clearly this was a visitor searching for something quite specific.
Your web designer should be able to help you create a more robust keyword plan, but it’s enormously helpful to start the process having already brainstormed a dozen or so relevant keyword phrases.
5. Do you have an established brand identity?
Some organizations have done a tremendous job of creating a brand identity and visual identity system. A website design for such organizations is a relatively straightforward process.
However, without a strong grounding in an established brand identity, web design becomes more ad hoc, frequently resulting in extra guesswork, increased cost, and poorer results.
Sometimes when we’re first starting with a new client, they tell us that they are going to be a fantastic client because “the sky’s the limit.” They tell us that they have no preconceived notions about how the design might go. There are few constraints.
We quickly explain that, while exciting, this provides a larger challenge. First, before we start doing any actual web design, we first have to engage in, at the very least, a short branding exercise to develop a design palette. Without the constraints of an agreed-upon design palette there is just too much uncertainty, and getting to any kind of consensus on the final design becomes much more difficult. In addition, creating a “Brand Book” (a document that defines the guidelines for all design work for the organization) enforces a design consistency throughout all marketing materials.
If you don’t have an established Brand Book, Creative Brief, or similar document, at the very least it’s helpful to walk into the kickoff meeting knowing your:
- Logo and tagline – Do you have a final one that you’re happy with? Does it need any change?
- Color palette – What is your primary color? Do you know its Pantone or hex value? What are your secondary or accent colors?
- Fonts – Do you have a set of standard fonts? There are best practices for web fonts that are not always entirely in sync with standard corporate fonts (for example, conventional wisdom would suggest that body text is preferably sans-serif). Will this be a big problem?
Your web designer will walk you through all of this, plus a number of more advanced design issues. However, your project will get off to a smoother start if you already have some of these answers ready.
6. Are you prepared to invest in the site post-launch?
Even as you first get started, it’s important to understand that there will be lots to do post-launch, including:
- Create and post new content
- Analyze what’s working and not working
- Testing (A/B)
- Optimize the site based on what you learn
- Add new features
- Participate in social media
- Build inbound links
- Support promotions and offers
- Distribute email newsletters
- Etc., etc., etc.
We addressed this in a former blog post, “A Website Is a Process, Not a Project“:
“It’s fine for a company to fund an initial web build-out in a capital budget, but companies are really sabotaging their web investments if they don’t put together significant operational budgets for the constant changes and improvements that a compelling and effective website requires.”
7. What is your competition doing?
Make a list of your competition, or others that do something similar to you. Check out their websites.
What do you like about them? Hate?
What features would you like to mimic?
Does every single one of your competitors use some shade of blue as a primary color? Do you want to do the same? Or would you prefer to differentiate yourself?
If you’re a bit more technologically inclined, it’s also useful to create a spreadsheet of your competition, tracking metrics such as their Alexa ranking, their blog URL, the number of pages in Google’s index, the keywords they’ve optimized for (if any), and the number of inbound links to their websites.
If you’re unsure how to do this, your web designer should be able to get this information for you.
8. Have you reviewed your analytics?
Google Analytics is a free website analytics package that seems to be ubiquitous. Most of our clients use it as a way to track important information about their website traffic. As a starting point for your web design kickoff meeting, at the very least you should know:
- Where is current traffic coming from? (Social Media? Ads? Google? Blogs?)
- Which content is the most popular?
- Are your site visitors sophisticated technologically? You can get a sense of this by looking at metrics such as browser version and screen resolution. For example, if a significant percentage of your website audience is still using Internet Explorer 6.0, you do not have a technologically sophisticated audience.
If you have each of these eight items ready to go, you are way ahead of most companies. And if your next step is to find the right web designer, give us a call — we’d especially love to work with you!