Custom web design, web design templates, open source content management systems, software as a service…how do you choose?

One of the most confusing aspects for a new business building their first website is determining what level of customization is ideal. Prices vary wildly—from free to hundreds of dollars per month. Systems touted as “user-friendly” still have a steep learning curve if you’ve never done anything like it before. Deciding on the merits of various web hosting accounts can be baffling when you have no idea if you will ever need cron jobs or php.ini access or custom style sheets. Determining the value of extra perks such as $100 worth of free Google ads is difficult when you don’t have anything to advertise yet.

The first step in determining how to build your website is to determine your website goals. Whatever your goal—lead generation, ecommerce, fundraising—there are likely to be open source modules designed for your type of business, specialized services that can build websites precisely suited to your needs, and online marketing firms that can not only build your website but also provide strategy and support so that your website is constantly optimized to meet your business goals.

The second step is determining your budgets. And yes, I mean that to be plural. You need to determine not only your financial budget, but your budget in terms of the time you want to devote to your website. Many business owners are more than willing to have someone else design and build their website, but assume that they will be responsible for ongoing copy writing and other updates. What often happens is that the website is never updated, and becomes a public sign of neglect rather than the engine of business growth it is meant to be.

Many business owners never consider their budget past building the website, and figuring in the cost of web hosting and domain registration. But a Software as a Service (SaaS) system, although more expensive per month, may save you hours of headaches and enable you to build a more powerful website than you could do otherwise. Being found via search engines is also not a one time expense: you will want to monitor and tweak your search engine optimization on a regular basis. So you don’t want to only think about the cost of building the website, but the investment you will make in growing your website as a critical part of your marketing strategy.

It’s also important to remember that your website doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What is your social media strategy? Will you be incorporating email marketing? Will direct mail or other offline advertising be driving traffic to your website?

In the next few posts I will be looking more closely at the pros and cons of various web building strategies, including web design templates, open source content management systems, custom content management systems, Software as a Service, and custom web development.

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Goal-driven web design

I wrote earlier about the importance of determining your business goals before embarking on a web design (or web redesign) project. What you are trying to accomplish—find leads, sell products, provide a service, raise funds, sell advertising, etc.—will influence everything from what platform you choose to how much you need to budget.

Imagine that you’re buying a car rather than building a website. Do you need to take half the soccer team to matches? Do you commute by yourself 70 miles every day? Are you a real estate agent taking clients to gated communities? Do you want to haul your fishing boat to the lake every weekend? The goal you’re trying to accomplish with your vehicle will determine whether you are looking for a minivan, compact, luxury sedan or SUV. Once you’ve figured out your goal, then you can look at dealers, options and pricing. If you shop on price alone, you may end up trying to haul the boat or impress the clients or cram seven kids into a vehicle that won’t accomplish any of those goals. You won’t have saved money—you’ll have wasted it.

When you are setting the goal for your website, the first factor that comes to mind will usually be the personal desire that’s driving you to build a website, such as

  • I need more customers.
  • I need people to donate money.
  • I want to sell my products.
  • I want people to vote for me.
  • I want to sell ads.

The first challenge is to turn that idea on its head and think of it from the point of view of the person coming to your website. Why is he or she at your website in the first place?

  • I have a problem and I’m on the web looking for a way to solve it.
  • I am concerned about an issue and would like to know more about it.
  • I’m looking for a certain product and want to find the best one that will suit my needs.
  • I am trying to figure out who to vote for in November.
  • I am amusing/informing/educating myself.

The next step is to bring you and your visitors together: they have come to your website for some reason of their own. Now that they are there, what do you want them to do?

  • I want them to contact me to set up an appointment.
  • I want them to click on the “donate now” button and send us money.
  • I want them to click on the “buy now” button and buy a product.
  • I don’t care what they do at my website as long as they vote for me in November.
  • I want them to spend time at my website, return to my website, tell their friends about my website, comment on things on my website, and click on the ads on my website.

Now we’re getting somewhere that can begin to translate into the design, content and functionality of your website. But how do you know when you’re successful? If one person comes to your site and sets up an appointment, that hardly justifies the time and expense of building a website. You need to put some numbers to those goals, otherwise they’re not goals but desires.

  • I want to have 60 people per month fill out the contact form requesting an appointment.
  • I want to have $2,500 per month in donations through the website.
  • I want to sell $40,000 worth of products on our website each month.
  • I want 25 people every day to click on the “Yes! I’ll vote for you in November!” button.
  • I want $12,000 in ad revenues each month.

Now you have some real goals for your website. Working with the end in mind, you can begin to build, promote, and measure the effectiveness of your website.

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What has your website done for you lately?

Is your website working for you? If not, why not?

I get a number of emails from people saying “I need a website. Can you send me a proposal?” or, “I need a website. How much do you charge?”

Why do you need a website?

The answer may seem obvious—”You just gotta have a website these days!” but if you don’t have a clear idea of what you expect your website to accomplish for you, then the technical and aesthetic details are irrelevant. And no matter what the price, the money won’t be well spent if you don’t know what goal you’re trying to accomplish.

One of the key distinctions is whether the website is the business or whether the website promotes the business. If the website is the business, are you selling products, services, or advertising? Or do you have a non-profit, and if so, are you looking to educate? Raise funds? Recruit volunteers?

If you have an e-commerce site, security will be critical. You’ll be needing integration with Paypal or Amazon payments. Usability will be much more important—you don’t want users to abandon a shopping cart because they can’t find the “Check Out Now” button. It might be worth including usability testing in your budget. Likewise, if you have an online service—let’s say a job board—usability testing will be critical to make sure that it’s a smooth process for people to post or reply to jobs.

If your business model is to create a site that attracts so much traffic that you can sell advertising, then content creation, online community creation and social media integration become much more of a focus. And if you are inviting people to join or post, then you will need to consider both spam control and community moderation.

For a non-profit website, making it easy for people to donate funds is often the critical purpose. Similar to e-commerce, you need to be concerned about security and usability. Political and advocacy sites may want website visitors to stay in touch and get instant alerts via email, twitter or facebook.

Websites that promote a business are often looked at as online brochures, but they can be much more. For most businesses, the point of getting someone to their website is to get leads. If the website can’t be found, and there is no compelling reason for a visitor to stay, return or contact you, then a website has no more value than a billboard. Search engine optimization (SEO)—getting found via google—is critical. But what happens once someone finds the website via google is just as important. A lead generation strategy implemented through the website will drive more business than just a 5-page brochure website with a contact page.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be going into more detail on all of these topics, and discussing different strategies and solutions for different business goals.

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