Site Planning

Building without plans is never okay. Even a single page requires laying out in careful detail where all the pieces will go. Watching the mounting frustration in someone who is trying to use a poorly planned website will soon convince you that planning is worthwhile. At the ultimate extreme, the visitor will leave and never return.

To start planning is often the hardest part of building a website. Answering the following seven simple questions will give you a good start on the process.

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1. What is the purpose of your website and how does it fit in with your overall marketing strategy?

Getting the purpose down is the most important step you will take in having a successful website.

For example purposes might include:

  • Sell a product or service,
  • Inform about an issue/idea,
  • Persuade people to a particular action,
  • Increase awareness of your organization,
  • Improve your organization's image,
  • Provide a service on-line instead of using traditional methods,
  • Because everyone else has a web site (this can be a valid purpose if the lack of website reflects negatively on your organization).

To make your web site stand out from the competition, find a need in your target audience and provide a solution. Compared to other media, the costs of internet development are low. Most of the time it takes less time and resources than you might expect to give people more. Often you can re-purpose existing information within your organization or at other web sites.

To put your website together with your purpose in mind, you should look at every element of the site. If the element doesn't further the purpose of your site, rework it or leave it out.

2. Who is your target audience?

Your target audience is the people you want to visit your website. Find out as much as you can about them. What are the demographics and psychographics for your audience? What other sites do they frequent? What is their Internet usage style? What are their needs (and how can you provide solutions)? This information about your audience can help you better design your website, and it will help you market your site later.

3. What types of web technology are accessible to your target audience?

Generally, it's best to design a site that is accessible to as many people as possible. Limit use of multimedia (audio or video), javascript, java applets, Flash, Shockwave, Adobe PDF, frames and dynamic html features. Always tests your website in multiple browsers to ensure the compatibility of your website.

4. How will you use the website to interact with your customers? Can you prequalify them? Can you gather basic information that you need to work with them?

This is about giving people what they want. Basic information about your organization is great, but after reading it once, why should they come to your site again? Many organizations put up a website that is really a virtual brochure. While that is a great place to start, there is much more that can be done. People using the Internet expect more.

Trying to sell vacation packages? Offer users a weather forecast for Cancun, snow conditions in Aspen, or articles on the best hiking trails in Alaska.

Or selling a new book? Then offer your users a chapter for free if they give you an email address. Use the email address to follow-up succintly with them to find out if they enjoyed the chapter and if they are interested in purchasing.

Many services require a quote to begin work. Lead customers through the information that you require with the promise of a quote at the end. Keep it simple. If there are tricky parts then offer advice on how to make it simple. Insiders tips if you will.

Other ideas: updated information on an area of interest or concern to the audience, resource/expert information on a particular issue, technical specs for your product, online forms for conducting business, contests and prizes, tools that make their tasks easier (calculators, calendars, response forms, etc.), free stuff (graphics, back issues of your publication, patterns, recipes, etc.).

5. How will you organize your content?

Categorizing the information on your website is often the most difficult decision. Think about the information you want to offer and what you know about your audience, then map out your site structure by categorizing your content into top level categories and subcategories.

Check your categorization with others by trying the note card method. First make a note card for each web page, giving the card a title and brief description. Then give the cards to several different people (ideally people from your target audience) and ask them to group the cards that seem related.

The mapped structure of your site will become your guide for building the navigation for your website.

6. How will you measure success? What constitutes success for your website?

There are many ways to measure success for web sites; choose one that fits with the purpose of your site. Much of the information used to measure success, comes from analyzing the server log files for your website.

Using logs files, you can find out:

  • which sites are linking to you,
  • what words and phrases were used at search engines to find you,
  • what pages visitors looked at,
  • number of new visitors, repeat visitors

Compare these statistics with the number sales/marketing leads generated, actual sales of products or services, number of information requests, visitor feedback, reduced client support calls/expense, contest entries, etc.

7. Who will manage your website project?

Creating a web site can be fun and everyone loves to have input, but someone in your organization should have final authority over content and design. Although you may have a web development team with different individuals having authority over different aspects of the website, someone needs to coordinate the overall development and ensure that project goals are being met.

Have a plan ahead of time to resolve conflicts. Know who will make the final decision if agreement cannot be reached. Generally it's best to bring people into the planning process early, so that they don't reject the basic assumptions your site is built upon after you spent many hours creating content and graphics.

Remember that 70 percent of the cost of a website is in maintaining the site. Have a plan for managing updates to content, analyzing usage for your website, and continually marketing your site.

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