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You say you want a Website… (Part 1)

Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

One of the first tasks people tackle when starting a new business is to set up a web presence, but this is just one of many efforts, like writing a business plan, developing your branding, and networking to get the word out. If you’re not careful, you can spend precious time and resources on your website that should be devoted elsewhere. Before you dive in, ask yourself these questions:

What are you communicating?

This can be anything from your contact information to products that you’re selling. The types of information you want your target audience to consume are the initial driver of the technology you need in place to deliver that content. Consider the following:

  • Media

    What form will your content take? This can be text, photos, diagrams or other graphic elements, video, sound files like podcasts, or even web applications.

  • Layouts

    How many different ways does your content need to be arranged? The actual layouts are not as important since today’s technology can handle any conceivable design. What’s important is how dynamic you need those layouts to be. This will drive you towards either a powerful tool that can handle the dynamism and/or hiring a staff that can code on the fly.

  • Volume

    How many pieces of content do you intend to deliver? Dozens, thousands, millions? The amount of content will drive your demand for automation of the content creation process and/or your need to syndicate content from 3rd parties.

  • Frequency

    How often will you want to produce new content? Rarely, monthly, by the minute? Like volume, this will determine your need for automation, but also your level of staffing. The combination with volume will define your requirements for bandwidth and the muscle of your server.

  • Accuracy

    How important is it that your content is accurate? Nobody wants to produce inaccurate information, but if a mistake can lead to serious consequences like death or bankruptcy, then you need to design a robust workflow into your system. Likewise, think how easy would it be to fix a mistake. It’s one thing to correct the phone number on your About Us page, another to correct a mistake that has already made its way through your social media network.

To whom are you sending your message?

Presumably, you’ve already researched your target audience as part of your business plan. You will need to build on that in order to inform your website plans. Consider the following:

  • Do they know you?

    It would be great if they already knew WHO you are, but we’re more concerned here with how much education they will need to understand WHAT you are. A real estate agent will know what a house inspector does and what to look for, a first-time home-buyer may not. You need to define what your target audience’s expectations are and how to address them.

  • What is their language?

    Your website must speak in terms your target audience understands. Use the words that they use, apply a metaphor that they will intuitively understand. Look enough like what they expect and they will give you a try. This will drive your look and feel and, also, uncover potential problems when you have audiences with conflicting needs.

  • How frequently will they interact with your content?

    How often will members of your target audience access your website? Only occasionally or will they have it up all day long, every day? This will determine the level of hand-holding your site will need and, in cases where you may have expert users, when to stay out of their way. This is also a key component in your demand for reliability.

  • How can you leverage them?

    What can you do to get your audience to spread the word and/or make your content richer? Where do they congregate in the social media world? How do they share content and with whom? Are they willing to review content, provide feedback or comments?

When do you need this?

Do you have a hard deadline, such as a convention or regulatory requirement? This may limit what you can do, so you must focus on what is the minimum you need prior to launch.

If you don’t have a hard deadline, you should create a soft one in order to ensure a launch before you spend too many resources on the effort.

Revisit these questions regularly

Ultimately, what you want is a framework to formalize the gathering and ongoing analysis of these answers. This could be part of an explicit Product Planning exercise or less formerly through regularly scheduled assessments. The key is that your first pass will likely result in the realization that you don’t fully know all of the answers. Rather than letting this act as a roadblock, you can plan features that allow you to release a minimally viable website that also lets you gather analytics to better inform you.

In Part 2, we will map out a plan for building your website based on your answers (or lack thereof). The key is to realize you may encounter situations where your answers drive you towards an expensive implementation that may not be warranted. Revisiting your answers will help you figure out if you really need those features. Can you get by with less?

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