Blog | Hugh Kennedy 01.18.18

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Building a New Website

Building a website in 2018? If so, why hire an agency? Hasn’t the website concept been fully democratized and commodified, so you just log onto a site like Wix, drop in a few photos and copy to fill your seven key pages, pay your $39.99, and set it loose.

That depends. If you’re promoting your hand-knit baby throws or selling your 20-copy rare book collection as a side hustle, a fully contained option like Wix can be ideal. But if you’re positioning your suite of healthcare solutions for advanced genetic analysis to six different healthcare audiences in three different geographies with wildly varying and constantly changing regulatory and payer realities, there are likely to be a few more moving parts involved.

The gap between DIY, pre-templated content management sites and robust corporate sites containing tens of thousands of pages is no doubt why research agency IBIS World predicted that the “web design” industry in the U.S. would surpass $25 billion in revenue this year.

That’s an impressive statistic and speaks to the need for highly skilled, professional talent. Still, it’s naïve for agencies to think that the mass marketing of low-cost websites hasn’t infiltrated the marketing world. More clients these days ask, “Why is my website still a six- (or seven)-figure project?” Or one of my favorites: “I have a proposal from someone who can do this for less than half the budget you’re proposing. Why can’t you?”

So, yes. Let’s admit it. For the fully prepared, technically resourced client, it may be possible to pull off a new website within your initial budget guesstimate. To do that, however, several key questions need to be fully answered before starting a site build. If they go unanswered or even unasked, budgets and timelines inevitably start to balloon.  
Based on a few of the websites we built in 2017, here are five questions every company should ask themselves before jumping in:

1. Is everyone in agreement on your business strategy?

This is a crucial question, especially for startups and companies entering new markets with potentially disruptive solutions. If you haven’t finalized your business strategy and go-to-market plan, a website implementation is an extremely expensive way to work through the details. It’s like figuring out your marketing strategy by asking for ten rounds of creative work until you see something that matches the idea in your head. Long story short: it’s always worth getting strategic consensus on paper before you move to pixels. Or to quote one of our Account Service experts, “The strategy behind what your website is intended to do is directly linked to how we structure that site and set it up functionally. If this changes, it’s almost like starting again.”

2. Have you defined and agreed upon all your audiences?

Websites are less like games of checkers than 3D chess. Each dependency you establish on a site between audience X and solution Y and Z is crucial to a personalized customer experience, so if you decide midstream that you want to add or drop an audience or message to them in a different way, the implications often spill through to dozens of pages and require a redo of the site map. Slices and sections of pages that house content relative to a specific topic often repeat in multiple different places across the site – and all connect back to the content management system. Remove an audience page, and you might have to replace a slice of content that populated across six or 16 pages. And if you remove or replace audiences after the search term work has been done, even more effort is required to optimize the site against new pain points your audiences may search against when they go online.

The importance of establishing a blueprint before construction is why tools like Vizio were invented to create site maps before design, writing and programming begin. I like to compare it to starting out on a French Riviera vacation with your mate and three children, and then deciding at the airport to head to Beijing instead. You need new tickets, different clothing, and probably five new visas. It’s not a small change.  

3. Are you tweaking an off-the-shelf-template or blowing it up?

There’s no question that pre-coded front-end and back-end web templates are great – on a recent site we made significant use of a template that cost us all of $27 – but remember that every template comes with built-in limitations on how customized your user experience can be. WordPress may “power 29% of the Internet,” but it was designed for blogs, not for six-slice pages with imagery and list blocks and YouTube widgets and column layouts and graphic fade-ins. If you immediately start piling on changes to a template, you will need a page builder plug-in which, while powerful, can do more harm than good unless deployed by an experienced user interface designer.

4. Does everything really need to be perfect the first hour the site goes live?

Back in the pre-Internet days, when a box of sample brochures arrived from the printer, our team would close-read every line, scan every image, then breathe a huge sigh of relief when there were no typos or photo registration snafus. In software development terms, that was the waterfall method: get it perfect, then engrave it in paper. Today we live in a digital, agile, rapid prototyping world of multiple versions that get better quickly. Recently I learned of a dropped word in an online article via a colleague’s text in line at my local grocery store, and had it fixed before my order was bagged. So if you need to get your site up for a coming trade show or event and it’s not 105% perfect, consider that it’s probably better to have something up there, a Version 1.0, that’s on message rather than an old site that is actively marketing against you. 

5. Do you have a full understanding of what it takes to build and maintain a corporate website?

Just as a site isn’t one and done, clients need to be staffed for a website build and ongoing website management. If you don’t have staff who can devote 85 to 90 percent of their time to managing your corporate site after it launches, expect to pay a monthly retainer to a website maintenance shop that can do the work for you. Technical and project management staff should be part of your website plan, whether they work within your company or via contract. If you only have non-technical people on your website team, expect your budget to increase. “I’m not a Web developer” is a not a cost-effective fallback position when you request five changes that require a revisit of the site map 75 percent of the way through the project.   

In closing, user experience for a website is everything these days. That puts a new onus on websites to be extremely purposeful in what they accomplish. The earlier you can establish the position you want your brand to own, for which audiences, and how those audiences map to all your solutions, the faster, more cost-effective – and most importantly, powerful – your site will be.

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