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Indiana Jones and the Website from H*ll

March 10, 2010

“I need a website to sell my stuff!” or “Why aren’t very many people visiting my site?” or “What do you mean, ‘the Bounce Rate is really high’?” These are but a few comments I hear from my clients with either an established website or one in the early planning stages. In general, I’d have to say both prospective clients and existing ones find just about everything to do with their website to be an utter and complete mystery – even years after establishing one. This general (or even substantial) confusion can be attributed to a lot of factors. Let’s start with the logical ones:

  1. My clients are experts at making or selling terrific things or providing a great service. Therefore, understanding the internet and the intricacies of website development (or fine tuning year after year) is like trying to grasp the details of tax law (and they’re not attorneys or CPAs). It’s not their area of comfort. It’s a completely foreign language.
  2. The internet has and continues to develop so rapidly that even the “experts” have difficulty keeping up with all the improvements. How is the layperson supposed to stay on top of new developments?
  3. Having a website has become as necessary as a business card. My clients understand this, but they’re not always sure why it is important. (And this is key to understanding how it can and should fit into their business plans.)
  4. They have a general sense that a website could bring them new customers, but they don’t exactly know how this happens. There is a general sense of “if I build it, they will come.” What they often don’t realize is that this statement is a myth. It doesn’t work like it did in the Kevin Costner movie.
  5. There is often a misconception that having a website will be a panacea for their business plan. (“If I just put up a website, the cash will flow in faster than I can collect it!”) This is also a myth. You may build it; but if it is poorly designed; fails to deliver key information; targets the wrong market; and/or is just plain difficult to navigate or missing essential content, the site can be a failure.

How is a business owner to avoid these pitfalls? It sounds not unlike the traps and hazards portrayed in the many Indiana Jones movies replete with darts, trap doors, icky insects or reptiles around every corner. Yikes!

Most business owners conclude their best course of action is to hire a web designer. But here’s the kicker: web designers come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, with expertise in a variety of software programs. Some are fabulous writing code – the stuff that makes the page change when you click on “About Us” (to draw a very simple analogy). Some make beautiful-looking sites; and these can be perfect matches when all a business owner needs is his or her print brochure transferred to the internet. (But this, too, has its pitfalls, which I’ll get to a bit later.) Some web designers specialize in developing the “shopping cart” and e-commerce utilities on a site; others are marvelous with “Flash” – software that makes very pretty, moving and interactive components on a site. This is only the tip of the iceberg in web design. And at this point, most business owners would think, “This is waaaaay too much information for me to digest!”

This is where I often come into the picture. The details of website development, promotion, SEO (search engine optimization) and more, are often overwhelming for the small business owner who simply wanted to “sell my stuff.” Are you feeling overwhelmed by too many choices? Are you at a loss to determine what direction to take with your would-be website? Are you sure that it’s just too easy to make the wrong choice in choosing a web designer or the right direction to take your site?

What I do is bridge the gap between business owner and web designer. First and foremost, I ask clients a multitude of questions about their goals and objectives: What are your hopes for what the site will accomplish? Are you expecting the site to be the primary source of your revenue stream from your business plan? Are you merely looking for a barebones web presence so folks know where to find you? Or: Do you envision this site being the centerpiece of your business—your primary portal to your clients? (And what is your budget for this project?)

The answers to these questions guide me, as your marketing consultant, in finding the best solution for your web needs, as a website is usually only one piece of the overall marketing strategy and plan. This is where web designers either love my participation in guiding the project or believe that I am a meddling consultant who has no business guiding the client’s internet presence. (More often than not, the reaction is the former and not the latter, but there are always exceptions!)

I don’t write code. Can’t do it. Readily admit it. What I do well is ensure a site does what a client needs. …And the clients most often do not know what they need—only that they’re supposed to have a site. This isn’t a put down. Just look at my list above for explanation. For some, this means they want to spend as little as possible and are very comfortable with not having a fully custom site. Translation: This client may be best served by using one of the templated design service firms on the internet. Simply choose the design closest to your overall graphic look and drop in your text and photos. It’s as easy editing a Word document.

Other clients definitely need e-commerce capabilities, but are happy with a canned shopping cart utility and mostly template designs. This also helps keep costs down. Professional web designers often loathe when I make these suggestions. But you know what? I’m looking out for the client’s best interests. They should know all the options available to them. These first two options vastly reduce the cost of website development in comparison to a fully-customized site. But if the budget simply isn’t there, or if the client is ultimately more comfortable with a service providing web page templates, then that option should be made available to them.

Yes, custom websites best reflect a client’s “100% custom” graphic look. If design standards have been carefully developed and maintained, a fully custom site may be the best choice if the customer base is used to seeing all the company collateral look a certain way. But if this hasn’t been the case historically, a fully-custom site may not be required.

Since I can’t write code, why else would you hire me to help with site development? Most of my clients are thoroughly overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out what content actually belongs on their website. This is where I am of greatest assistance: I am an information designer. This includes both visuals (graphics) and the words. One of the key elements to a successful website is making sure ALL the information that may be needed by a customer is readily accessible; organized in a logical manner (where the eye goes); and easily found within the site’s navigation. This is where some clients are often tripped up. (Sure, everyone knows there’s supposed to be a logo, company name, products and services, about us, contact us, and buy stuff web pages. But these are all pretty much cookie-cutter ideas. Anyone can come up with that list and they have!)

Besides ensuring that all the actual data gets onto the right pages on the site (an administrative function), I am looking at a much bigger picture. (Just ‘cuz we build it, doesn’t mean the customers will show up in droves!) I am looking at what will drive visitor traffic. What will make them want to visit your site in the first place—the unique selling proposition (USP)? What will make customers want to return over and over? This is a much broader perspective, and it’s one for which I gently nudge “web designers” to consider in its broader context. Generally my clients cannot answer these questions because this is not their area of expertise.

More often than not, what I hear from designers (those who code) is that they just want to know what the client wants: How do they want the shopping cart utility to function? Do they want auto-generating meta descriptions? Do they want a blog? Do they need to update content frequently? CSS? CMS? What about SEO? The list goes on getting more and more technical. And what does the client usually have to say? “Just get it done. Get the most traffic driven to my site. And get the best Google results possible.” They don’t know what all the acronyms stand for and don’t want to know. They just want to sell their stuff. So this is where I fit in, providing translation from geek-speak to what makes sense to the client.

I manage the flow of information between the web designers and owners so that they’re not overwhelmed. I ensure the technical geek-y stuff is completed without bothering the client about keywords and meta tag descriptions. I make sure there’s a system in place for updating page content by the client without having to wait for the web designer to be available for minor text or photo updates—even when the client doesn’t know he needs it. I know he does. I ensure the site’s content is geared for visitors returning over and over and that the site remains organic with regular updates, guaranteeing better search engine results.

All in all, website development, design and maintenance is a lot of work—a lot more than most business owners ever want to consider. And usually it’s work that the client doesn’t want to do him/herself. The project is often perceived as a huge headache. I’m there to make sure it’s completed as planned, with all the myriad details attended to, so that the client can focus on his or her products and services.

I won’t try to tell the web designer how to set up the navigation or the shopping cart. I will collaborate with the web designer on whether or not their recommended navigation matches how the client has prioritized his or her products or services. AND I’ll advise the client if s/he isn’t giving appropriate focus to their best-selling products or services. It goes both ways. I’m there to ensure a consistent message is delivered across all channels. But I don’t write code.

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