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9 Steps to a Better Website
By Marc S. Levitt, principal and creative director, MSLK

Websites have become the most essential marketing tool for businesses. One click from a customer is a valuable opportunity that can make all the difference. If created properly, a Website should instinctively lead visitors where you want them to follow.

In spite of the known value a good Website can bring, take a moment and think about just how many poor Websites you encounter every day. While not every business needs their site to be a high-budget multimedia extravaganza, every site should be effective, and properly targeted to a company’s audience.

Too many times people rush into putting up a quick site, thinking this will hold them over until they get around to the big launch. This is a fallacy—it is almost always far more difficult to rebrand an existing Website than to start with a good one.

In many industries there seems to be a huge gap between resources devoted to “old-world” marketing strategies and newer forms of media. Great Websites result from an ideal combination of marketing, branding, fresh content, and matching the right technology to the right design.

The biggest—and most common—mistake we see is that people begin their redesign without clear goals for the initiative. Most sites are redesigned for purely cosmetic reasons, overlooking the more crucial content, navigational, and marketing challenges that lie underneath.

Here are nine tips that can help ensure that the site you design today will be an effective investment for years to come.

1. Start with a plan. Just like blueprints in architecture, a properly executed wireframe shows you how the new site will function before it’s built. As you know, it is far easier to move a wall during the planning stage, as opposed to an actual wall during the construction phase.

Those same principles apply to Websites. Intense focus should be placed on a site’s functionality and content before the more subjective design phase begins.

2. Don’t be seduced by technology. A Website that is well thought-out and easily navigable will always outperform the latest technology in the long run. Hot technology features should be integrated only if they serve the needs of the site.

Don’t feel that you need to include the latest feature du jour just because everyone else is doing it. Forget about dancing babies and dazzling light shows. In the end, it’s the clarity and overall “stickiness” of the content and ease-of-use that will make the best impressions.

3. Get buy-in from all stakeholders. Too often we see one person or division within an organization pushing for a Website overhaul without seeking a buy-in from their colleagues.
Website redesigns are an enormous investment of time, and the late entry of a key decision maker almost always undermines the intentions of the group. Anyone worth getting feedback from at all should be involved during the planning stage.

4. Consider the writing on the wall. This is no time to go it alone, and certainly not the time to rely on gut instinct. Take a look at the statistics on your current site traffic. What pages are visited most frequently? Where are visitors becoming disengaged and exiting?
Seek feedback from your audience about what is and is not working on your existing site. Send out a questionnaire, conduct a phone interview, or form a focus group--whatever it takes. You need to hear what the people who use the site are saying, even if it’s not what you want to hear. Again, it’s far better to know this now, rather than after a costly overhaul.

5. Guarantee freshness. One of the biggest challenges with any Website is to keep the content fresh and encourage repeat visitors. Plan specific areas on the site that will be updated regularly, along with designated areas that can be freshened-up seasonally. This flexibility will allow your site to evolve naturally over time without changing its fundamental structure.

This can tie into larger marketing plans as well. When refreshing your messaging to match current trends, your Website will be able to round-out campaigns, and connect the dots.

6. Be memorable. Our philosophy is that Websites should give something back, rewarding the visitor with every click. That means turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. In the online world, it’s all about first impressions. In the minds of Web users, a better impression translates into a better reputation.

Be aware of this notion and strive to stand out. This can be an interesting navigational element, an engaging feature to set the tone, or simply the way the content is written with soft sell techniques. If people are looking at your site, they’re probably also looking at your competitor’s. Be better.

7. Plan to promote from the beginning. If you don’t tell people about your new site, trust me, no one will ever hear about it! We have seen others invest significant funds to launch a great Website, only to see no results.

A detailed marketing plan will enable you to create innovative promotions, online and off, that will drive traffic towards the new site. A Website is the mere beginning to a chain of marketing tactics and while engaging features on your site will spread the word, marketing in other medias will help drive them to your site in the first place.

8. Search and succeed. These days we search online for information about anything and everything under the sun. That’s why your site needs to be in the top 10 when people are searching for you. The best Websites are ones making effective use of search engine optimization practices.

The Internet has a plethora of information out there, and the higher ranking you have on a search engine, the easier it is to get noticed. Scoring higher rankings on search engines is an elusive art, although there are standard practices which should be considered from the outset, as it can affect the site’s very content.

9. Hire a professional. Your Website will likely become your most important marketing tool. So why would you hire your nephew, ask an intern to learn HTML, or in general trust your success to anyone other than the very best?

Websites are very complex pieces of software requiring an ever-increasing level of expertise to build. That’s why you should interview qualified teams to lead this initiative. The best way to evaluate their work is to see examples of their sites, and speak to their previous clients. Search for someone who best suits your needs and personality. The time it takes to find the right fit will pay off in the long run.

Following these steps will ensure that your investment of time and money is successful, generating income for you, and interest for your audience. Your Website is the greatest opportunity to engage and educate consumers about your products and services. Now, more than ever, you cannot let poor Web design and navigation cost you sales.

---Source: i-merchant Feb 23, 2009 newsletter (www.multichannelmerchant.com). Marc S. Levitt is principal and creative director at MSLK (www.mslk.com).


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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