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All Dressed Up But Don't Know Where You're Going

Today's web development tools put the majority of web development tasks within reach of everyone but the most fearful of computer users. Put these six exercises to work for you first, and you will dramatically improve the odds that your website will deliver results.

Once upon a time, there was a new medium called the worldwide web. The people who knew how to use it were the same people who had been using the actually-not-so-new medium for some time – researchers, programmers, and tech geeks. When people who did not fit into those three categories developed interest in the worldwide web, they turned to the programmers and tech geeks who knew how to use it. And thus was born a strange world of websites that had little commercial value, websites that were weak (or downright awful) in their design sensibilities, and websites that failed to connect to the non-virtual brands with which they were associated.

Thankfully another category of folk became interested in the web – graphic designers. They became interested in advance of their usual partners-in-crime, the marketing folk. So the web improved visually, but not operationally. Because we all know what happens when designers design without good marketing direction. The result is usually commercial art that looks pretty, but which has no commercial purpose, is disconnected from the customers (what customers??), and goes off on a brand tangent of its own, thereby reducing overall brand value. But still, the web was at least beginning to look better.

Finally everyone got it together. Marketing departments began to include their web designers instead of relegating them to the IT department. They began to develop marketing strategies that included the channel and integrated it to all of their other marketing efforts. At last the web was being treated as an equal in a company's marketing mix – not better, not worse, and requiring of the full range of marketing resources.

With the mainstreaming of the web came the mainstreaming of tools to use the web. Just about anybody who can use a computer can now go to GoDaddy.com, grab a domain name, and using their super-user-friendly tool called WebSite Tonight develop their own web presence. The result? A bunch of poorly designed websites that do not connect to the rest of the business, fail to support the brand, and have little commercial value.

Don't get me wrong – I am a huge fan of GoDaddy, and I appreciate the service they provide – for everyone from sophisticated web developers to day-old novices. But there is a trap that business owners must avoid, and it is the everybody-must-have-a-website philosophy. A website can be an economic benefit, producing sales and increasing visibility for a business. Or it can be an economic blunder, creating operational demands that cannot be fulfilled, presenting an unflattering face to the public, and distracting you (for hours, days, even weeks) from doing the work that actually produces the revenue and profit of your business.

The problem lies in the temptation to get lost in the selection of colors and color templates, font types, pre-selected layout options, and free clipart. Sound like a problem for novices? Not really. Sophisticated graphic designers fall into the same trap – only they're doing it on $4,000 worth of Adobe software rather than freeware or MS Publisher. It's like running on a treadmill without the benefit of weight loss. You go and go and go and when you're all done you realize that you didn't get anywhere.

So before you sit in front of that user-friendly, anyone-can-do-this template designer for instant websites, do yourself a favor. Ask the following questions first:

1.  What is the purpose of this website? What do I want to accomplish? What do I want my customers to do, or know, when they visit? You should be able to answer this question in a one-sentence statement.

2.  How will I know if I am being successful? Will I measure it in dollars? Leads? "Visits" is not a measure of success, unless you are running a business that generates revenue for click-through advertising. Set a measurement that will satisfy your business goals.

3.  What messages must this website convey to achieve the measure of success I have established? These messages should be written before you do any website design – whether you are doing it yourself, or whether you are paying a designer to put your website together for you. A copywriter can make your messages more succinct and elegant if you wish, but they can't determine what the correct messages are. That's your job.

4.  What does this website need to provide my customers? What will motivate my customers to act in such a way that I am able to achieve the measure-of-success goal?

5.  Which tools, resources, information, and services must you provide to facilitate your customer once they have decided to act? For instance, if you want to motivate customers to purchase a product, have you provided a shopping cart, an easy pay method, and a guarantee to alleviate new-customer doubts? If you have only provided an #800, chances are the customer's motivation will disappear, because you've made it difficult for them to act. If you wish to develop sales leads, and you have motivated the customer to request information, have you developed a system that provides you with immediate notification so you can respond quickly to the customer's request?

6.  Now that you know what you want to accomplish, in both descriptive and measurement terms, ask yourself if you have the skills and knowledge to create the entire website experience, or if you need some assistance or training. Once you identify the aspects that are outside your abilities, you can prudently select the resources you require.

I am fond of the internet as a communication channel, and I believe the web can offer distinct business advantages. But failure to properly assess these six questions has damaged businesses small and large. Today's web development tools put the majority of web development tasks within reach of everyone but the most fearful of computer users. Put these six exercises to work for you first, and you will dramatically improve the odds that your website will deliver results.

(c) 2008. Andrea M. Hill

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