Do you need a website?
Do you really need a Web site? It might sound like a strange question to ask in a column dedicated to help you build Web sites, but it's obvious if you look at many of the big company sites that their owners didn't start by asking this most fundamental of questions. It isn't a question which demands a straight yes/no answer, as even trying to answer it will involve you in a process that will determine not just whether you should be on the Net at all, but will also steer you towards the most appropriate design and content. So let's see how this process should go, step by step.
- Step 1 Sit down with the people responsible for comms in your company/brand/charity/organisation who will ultimately own the site. For a one-man band this may simply be yourself - which will save a few arguments - but for most sites this will be a team effort.
- Step 2 As a team, examine your current public image (if you have one), your comms strategy and your business plans: Where are you now? Where do you want to be? How will creating a Web site help to get you there?
- Step 3 Examine the correlation between Internet users and your target market or audience. This can be in terms of age, social class, location, interest or lifestyle. For example, here in the UK there are currently only two major groups of Internet users: 1) young, affluent professionals, mainly male, biased towards the South-East, and 2) students. How does that fit with your target audience?
However, don't be ruled only by the current data; examine the trends, as they're far more important. Trend data shows that the dominance of these two classic Net user profiles is decreasing rapidly, and the Web is becoming much more mainstream. If you're developing a site for a large brand or organisation, ask the marketing department whether they have any relevant Target Group Index (TGI) data.
TGI is a survey based on a sample population of 24,000 people who report their use of over 4,000 brands in more than 500 product areas, and also their use of financial and other services, leisure activities, media habits, demographics, lifestyle and attitudinal characteristics. If TGI shows, for example, that customers are passionate about football, all you have to do is check Yahoo and the search engines to see whether football is popular on the Net. It is. Bingo, you have an idea for suitable content.
- Step 4 Determine what (if anything) Web communication can achieve for you, above and beyond the traditional media. This one may involve some head scratching, but the answer may be important in the design and layout of your site. If, for example, your company sells car insurance, then you may be able to post your application forms on your Web site, to take direct business. Remember that Web pages, unlike printed brochures or catalogues, can be changed instantly, which may give you an edge over competitors.
- Step 5 As with any project, you need to set some success criteria for your site, then put in place a frequent evaluation process to measure the site's performance against these objectives. Success criteria might be based on user data (hits, visitors or visits), number of entries/registrations for promotions, press coverage (local, national or Internet/PC specialist) or even Web design awards won. Make sure these targets are realistic: while you're standing in the boardroom explaining that you expect the site to attract four million visitors, remember you'll have to stand in the same place next year and present the actual hit figures.
- Step 6 Think about the resources needed to handle interactivity. As soon as your site goes live you'll be buried under an avalanche of email, most of which is probably junk. Top ten topics shows the ten most common subjects for email sent in response to the sites we host; these should look familiar to most Web masters.
While you may consider some (or all) of the queries junk, they'll all need answering. The real danger is that hidden among these routine enquiries there might be a 'Dear Sir, I've just found a dead rat in my carton of Product X and unless I hear from you within two hours I'll start calling the tabloid newspapers'. Response times for answering email are critical. If someone writes a letter to your company on an important matter, they might reasonably expect a reply within a few days; if someone sends you an important email, they'll expect a reply within a few hours or even a few minutes. You must ensure you have sufficient manpower resource available to handle this.
- Step 7 Try to establish how the Web site will fit into your overall comms strategy. Will the site be a standalone project or will it be designed to work alongside other brand communication? For example, if your company is currently running a press advertising campaign, should the Web site support that campaign or enhance it? You might like to use the site to explore the boundaries of the brand advertising: how far can you push it, what will consumers expect, what can you get away with?
- Step 8 How are you going to promote the site? If there's something unique about your site you may be able to use a PR agency to spread the word, but if not you'll need to promote its URL by other means. Such promotion should happen both on and off the Internet. To promote on the Net you'll need to register with search engines and establish links from other like-minded sites. Off the Net you should promote your URL wherever you can: on your stationery, your packaging, your print and poster advertising and so on. A good rule is: treat your URL as a partner to your logo: wherever the logo is printed, the URL should be there, too. Oh, and if you have a nice logo, don't spoil it by plonking a naff URL alongside it. If you're called Whittlesworth Arbuthnot and Greenacres Co, there's a good chance your clients already think of you as WAG, so wag.co.uk would be much more appropriate than using the full company name. At the time of writing, wag.co.uk is still available, but if it had been already taken you'd consider things like wagnet and wagco.
- Step 9 Have you thought about updating the site? To attract repeat visits you need to add new content to your site on a regular basis. One of the worst mistakes on the Internet is made by those big budget sites that launch in a blaze of publicity, then just sit there unchanged for six months. It's as if Granada were to show the same episode of Coronation Street every night - viewers simply wouldn't watch. A good rule is that if your site is going to cost £x,000 to develop, you should allow the same amount again for the first year's updates, probably increasing this figure by between 20 to 50 per cent for each year thereafter.
- Step 10 Create a business plan for your site. Include costings for design, development, programming, authoring, content purchase, equipment, software, Net connectivity, disaster recovery, site monitoring, maintenance, manpower, ongoing updates, and so on. Try to produce a chart showing the timescale, from getting a 'yes' from those who control the purse strings, through to the site going live and beyond.
These steps should let you determine the most appropriate content for a site targeted at your customers and enable you to balance the costs, possible revenue and other benefits the site may bring. Like everything in these cost-conscious days, a Web site needs to be justified in terms of some positive effect on the bottom line of the balance sheet. If your Web site is going to eat up budgets for little or no reward, then you shouldn't have one. But most firms - if they think about the above steps - should be able to create a well-planned site that will have a positive and beneficial effect on their business.
- Would you like us to promote your Web site?
- Please send me a free sample of product X.
- Would you like to buy a list of email addresses? ;
- I'm trying to locate the email address of someone who works for company X.
- Please send me a catalogue.
- Would you like to advertise product X on our site?
- Do you have any job vacancies?
- I'm a student doing a thesis on your industry and I need lots of information.
- Where can I buy product X in my country.
- Please send me a copy of your annual report.
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