So you have a website and think you are ready for business. But are you sure? Just as our coffee shop owner in the first post of this series didn’t open for business until everything was ready– and checked and rechecked, you shouldn’t start marketing and spending your time and money on promoting and attracting visitors until you are sure that your own silver is polished and everything is ready for business.
For a long time we had a sign hanging in our office that read “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Or, as the quote I like better says:
Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. - Sir John Harvey-Jones
This quote is especially fitting as Sir Harvey-Jones was perhaps most famous for assisting struggling businesses on the BBC’s television show Troubleshooter, and if anyone is struggling and on the verge of a “complete surprise”, its the new website owner without a marketing plan!
Returning to our coffee shop for a moment, if you attended their Grand Opening only to discover their windows were cracked and broken, the cake platters had little signs saying “Not here yet”, there was no sugar or cream for the coffee, and you could only pay for your order by mailing a check to their mailing address, would you return? The same thing applies to your website: the last thing a first time customer wants to see when they come to your site are broken links, a “coming soon” sign, or hastily tossed out content … and if you have an online store, the customer should be able to complete their order online.
The rules don’t change just because something is online; people judge you on the appearance and operation of your site in the same exact way they’d judge the appearance and operation of your store front. Therefore, first appearances matter. Customer service matters. Follow-through matters. Advertising matters. Updating your products, marketing materials, and training matters. Keeping up with your competition matters.
Therefore, before you invest your time, money, and energy in building traffic to your site, you should first do a walk through of your website and ensure its ready for the public. Go through every area of your site, clicking each link, reading and re-reading your content, evaluating how you are presenting your business/story/product. You should be your own worst critic, but you shouldn’t be your only one: send a link to your site to trusted friends, relatives, advisors, and ask them to do the same. Be upfront with them, and tell them you want criticism. You want them to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Where you lose them and what excited them about your site. If you can’t “sell” this group on your vision… can’t hook them and excite them about what you are doing on the web, the chances are pretty good that you aren’t going to reach anyone else, either. After all, these are the people who care about you and want to see you succeed, so they are already biased in your favor… if this group leaves your site without being moved and called to some sort of action on your behalf, why would you expect a total stranger to react differently?
To help you through this process, here is our quick and dirty “Website Final Walk Through” that anyone launching a site should do before going public:
- Header: Does your header clearly indicate what the name of your website is? (Imagine walking into a store without any signage… disconcerting, yes?) Are other elements in the header (tag line/motto, navigation, etc.) clearly presented? Does the header set the right tone for your site?
- Navigation: Whether within the header, horizontally above or below the header, or aligned vertically on the left or right side of the website, is it easy to find? Intuitive? Does someone coming to your site know where they are within your site even if they link to a sub-sub-subpage? Would they still know what your site was about?
- Content/Body: This is your meat and potatoes of a website; no one comes to your site because it looks pretty or they just want to click links… its all about the content. Therefore, how is your content? Is it easy to read? Spell checked? Informative/entertaining?
- Attractiveness: Despite a lifetime of being told not to judge a book by its cover, most people do, anyway. So judge your site accordingly: what is your first thought upon seeing your site design? How does it compare with other sites you’ve seen? Are you using colors effectively? Photos/graphics?Is the experience cohesive? Pleasant?
- Message clarity: Avoid information overload, an abundance of flashing images/widgets, etc. Studies have repeatedly shown that whitespace is more effective at calling attention to something than flashing arrows. Develop focal points throughout your site to call attention to what’s important.
Home Page: While you can’t assume that everyone coming to your site will go through your home page first, you can assume that a bad home page will prevent them from going any further. Ensure you are meeting the 5 steps to a great home page:
- It keeps your visitors awake (only interesting stuff on the home page)
- It is short and sweet (bulleted lists, clearly define sections, use columns (not more than 3), short paragraphs)
- It tells your visitor where to go (accessible navigation, search function, site map in footer)
- It earns your visitor’s trust (company name, address, phone number, e-mail address, customer ratings, testimonials); this depends on the type of website
- Its error-free, clean, intriguing (in one way or another), and just plain awesome
- Does it grab your visitor’s attention? Does the title/headline and very first sentence of each page or post grab the reader’s attention and make them want to keep exploring?
- Exposes a need and demonstrates importance? Did you explain to your reader what their need is for your product or service? (Or, if you are a charity/non-profit, what your need is from them?)
- Ties need to benefits? Did you remember to write about the benefits the readers gets from your solution? (Or, for charities, the benefit to the recipient?)
- Has a clear call to action? Don’t assume the reader knows what to do next; provide a clear call to action (”Donate Now” or “Add to Cart and Checkout”) to compel the reader forward. Readers like hand holding; don’t let them wander around without a guide.
- Gets to the best stuff quickly? On the web you have only seconds to “hook” someone and draw them in. Therefore, don’t listen to the old addage of “saving the best for last”– hook them and set the hook as soon as you get a nibble.
- Targets your target? Write for your reader’s likely reading level; don’t use technobabble if you are trying to reach non-geeks. Don’t sound like a college professor if you want to approach the everyman on the street. But just as importantly, don’t assume your visitor is stupid and talk down to them. Write to them the same way you’d speak to them if they were sitting in front of you. Stay focused on meeting your reader’s wants and needs; regardless of whether you are selling a product or soliciting donations, in the end, it needs to be about them, not you.
- Is both consistent and honest? Did you use a uniform, consistent, “voice” throughout your site? Don’t change how you refer to certain things. Don’t make claims you cannot prove. Whenever possible, back up your claims by linking to third party sources.
- Eliminates superfluous text? Even better: “eliminate text”. In other words, remove anything that doesn’t assist in getting your message across. Don’t be wordy for the sake of writing words. Shorter is better. As a great example, this entire item could have just said “Be concise.”
- Home Page: This page is so important, we’re discussing it again! Does it clearly state the purpose of your site, give them instruction, and call them to action? (Here’s a huge hint: if you have a website splash page, it does not do any of these things.)
- About Us: Does the page adequately describe you/your company? The purpose of this section is to convince your reader that you are trustworthy, knowledgeable, and stable. Talk about your mission statement. Give bios of all your key employees/team members. Ensure the information is current and continually up to date. Provides links and information on associations, certifications & awards. Basically, sell yourself and toot your own horn.
- Contact Us: Its simply amazing how many times a company gets this wrong. Don’t be that company. Your contact page should be easy to find; have multiple contact options (phone, FAX, email, webform, online chat, street map/directions, etc.); list your hours of operation; if applicable, provide links for various departments (i.e., customer service, tech support, general inquiries, billing, job applications, management, etc.); contain a final call to action; require only the most essential information to submit any webforms; and most importantly, be friendly, and as clear as possible.
If you think this is an absurdly long list, keep in mind that this is the quick and dirty list. This is the bare expectation that anyone coming to your site will have in the back of their mind, whether they realize it or not. Failing to meet these expectations will, at best, make your eventual sell much harder to close, and at worst, lose them as a potential customer/donator/client/return visitor forever. If you are really serious about forming a plan for your site, we recommend this resource as a starting point– but be forewarned: it consists of over 400 items covering 23 topics!