Planning is the single most important step that impacts the success of a website project. Unfortunately, it’s the one far too many businesses
Since I know how busy most business owners are, this chapter assumes you’re working with a professional web designer and looking for simple steps to get started.
Don’t have time to read? Watch this short video summary for the highlights:
Building a website is like building a house. You wouldn’t just call up a contractor and say, “I’d like a house. How much will that cost, and how soon can you have it done?” Before you can start building, you need land, permits, financing, floor plans, and architectural drawings.
Building a website is much the same. Before your web designer can write a single line of code, they need to know your goals and expectations for your website and have a detailed plan and sitemap in hand. Unfortunately, too many businesses focus on the wrong things when planning a website. They get hung up on design elements or some cool feature that they want. That’s like picking out the curtains for your house before you even have a foundation.
Construct solid groundwork for your website by starting with goals. What do you want your website to do? Answering this first gives you a basis for all your other decisions about your website.
Your website goals might be things like:
What if you want your website to do all of these things? Try to identify one primary goal, and prioritize secondary goals in order of importance. Websites that try to be all things to all people all at once often end up confusing visitors, because they aren’t sure what to do next.
Once you determine your general goals, make them S.M.A.R.T by finding ways to track and measure them. This will give you a basis for deciding if your website is successful or not.
For example, if your goal is to generate more leads, keep track of how many requests for quotes you get via your website. Tracking software can make this easier, but even a simple Excel spreadsheet will work. Once you have a baseline, set a realistic goal for how many leads you want to get from your website each month.
One of the first questions I get asked at the start of any website project is, “How much will this cost?” My answer is usually, “It depends,” because I don’t yet have all of the details I need from the planning process to provide an accurate estimate. Still, when starting to plan, it’s important to have some mutually understood concept of
Let’s go back to the house analogy. If you’re building a house, you might only want a 400 square foot tiny house. Or you might want a 10,000 square foot mansion. You can live in either, but they serve different needs and start at vastly different price points. Websites work the same way. A basic templated website with a few pages can be quite economical to get up and running. Meanwhile, a fully custom website with e-commerce and custom programming can easily cost over $20,000.
If you have a budget number in mind, start there. If not, at least identify the scope of what you’re looking for. Is it a mansion, a tiny house, or somewhere in between? This will give your web designer some idea of your expectations and help them ask the right questions along the way.
Regardless, don’t get caught up with exact numbers at this point. Price alone is a poor foundation for planning a website and can lead to cutting corners and a poorly designed, under-performing result. Instead, revisit your budget after you’ve gone through your initial planning. By then, you will have a much clearer picture of what you want from your website, and your web designer can provide a more accurate estimate.
Website strategic planning starts with a deep understanding of your business, your target audience, and your message. If you’ve done an overall marketing plan, you probably already have a strong grasp on this.
As you’re planning your new website, think about answering these three questions for your visitor: Who are you? Why should I care? What do you want me to do?
Your website needs to introduce your business to your audience. First, this means you need to tell people what you do. Your visitors have a short attention span, so make it obvious from the instant someone hits your homepage.
This is especially important if you’re a small business in a niche industry that isn’t widely known. Take our client Precision Coating Technology & Manufacturing for example. Their niche is industrial coatings and powder coating – I know, exciting, right?
But even though it’s a technical field selling to other industrial or manufacturing businesses, their homepage is clear about what they do. They create industrial coatings for every application – whether that’s metal brackets, surgical implements, or
Another important part of who you are is the purpose or mission of your company. As noted speaker Simon Sinek points out, every business knows what they do, but very few are able to express why they do it. Speaking to your “why” can set your business apart from your competitors.
Here’s the harsh truth: your website visitors don’t really care about your products or services. They care about how you can help them solve their problems. They’re all asking, “What’s in it for me?”
In order to answer this, you first need to know who is asking. That means knowing who your target audience is. Identify your ideal customer, and develop buyer personas, so you gain a deep understanding of your customers’ motivations, goals, and challenges.
Once you know what matters to your customers, you can start talking about how your product or service can help them. Just don’t fall into the trap of self-centeredness! Unfortunately, too many businesses forget about their customer, and only talk about themselves and how great their products and services are.
One way to convince customers to care is by focusing on benefits, not features. A feature is what something is, and a benefit is what something does. Apple is great at this. When the first iPod came out, it had a huge amount of storage for audio files. But that was a feature. Apple didn’t sell that. Instead, they sold “1,000 songs in your pocket.” They focused on the benefits and result of the new technology, rather than the product itself.
Think back to your goals. What do you want your website to accomplish? If you’re like most businesses, you ultimately want people to buy from you. The trick is that there are often many steps between the first time someone visits your website and when they make a purchase. You need to continually get your visitors to take the next step toward your goal.
Maybe you want them to read an educational article, register for an event, or download a free resource. Or maybe you just want them to contact you for a quote. These are the types of actions that can move your prospects further down the sales funnel until they’re ready to buy.
As you’re working through the design and development process, think about what calls to action (CTAs) you can use to tell your visitors exactly what you want them to do. Make them clear, and concise and support them with strong benefits to encourage your visitors to take action.
Kick-start your website planning
Now that you’ve got a strong foundation in place, you can start weaving the major elements of your site into your website development plan. These fall into three general categories: design, content, and functionality. Let’s address each one at a time.
Design is often where teams get hung up in the website planning process. You, your marketing team, and your web designer often have different opinions and taste when it comes to design, which means personal preferences come into conflict. Establish a common ground by staying focused on the goals of the website, and how your design can help answer the 3 key questions above.
Rather than trying to control every aspect of the design, define a direction, and let your web designers use their expertise to create something that aligns with your goals and your business. If you have any existing marketing materials, start there. Things like logos, brochures, colors, font choices, and styles give designers a good feel for who you are.
Inspiration is another key part of the design planning process. Look at websites that you love, and identify what about them attracts you. Talk about websites that you dislike too, which can reveal things you want to avoid. This is a great time to do competitor analysis and see what your competitors are doing on their sites. Don’t forget to critique your current website (if you have one) and discuss what’s working and what you’d like to change.
Content is like the furnishings for your house. It’s all the stuff that goes inside that makes it home. For your website, that includes all the copy, images, video, audio, etc.
When planning your content, think about what you already have. In most cases, you’ll have either an existing website or other marketing materials that you can pull information from. Regardless, take the time to have a detailed conversation with your web developer so they have a clear picture of what your business is all about, all your products/services, and your unique selling proposition.
Content isn’t just about what you say, it’s also about how you say it. Consider your tone of voice, and how you want your visitors to perceive you. For example, if you work in a medical field, you may want your patients to know you’re a trustworthy expert. Your tone of voice might be professional and empathetic. On the other hand, if you’re a clothing retailer, a fun, informal tone may fit you better.
Finally, always keep your customers at the front of your mind as you’re planning. Ask yourself what kinds of information they’re looking for when they visit your site, and what they need to know in order to take that next step toward the sale.
Functionality drives how both you and your visitors will interact with your website. Your goal in planning is to make sure that your website does everything you want it to do, and creates a great experience for your potential customers.
Start by identifying any special features you want on your site. Things like e-commerce carts, photo galleries, calculator tools, login portals, or blogs often require additional coding and can throw a wrench in the works if your web developer doesn’t know about them ahead of time.
Next, think about the navigation for your site. Start sketching out how you want to organize the content for your site, and how you will make it easy for people to find information. There are many different styles and layouts for navigation – dropdowns, hamburger menus, sidebar navigation, etc. Certain types work better in different situations, but if you have preferences, let your web designer know.
Don’t forget functionality for yourself, too. Some people just want their web designers to handle all website changes, but others prefer to make updates themselves. If you want a content management system (like WordPress, for example) to be able to control content on your side, your website designer needs to know that at the start of the project.
Great websites take time to create. But too much back-and-forth or unexpected changes along the way can leave both you and your website designer feeling frustrated. In addition to getting a great website, you want the design process itself to be successful. What does that mean to you?
Discuss any concerns or expectations you have with your web designer, so they can communicate appropriately with you throughout the process.
The timeline is often one of the biggest expectations. Talk with your designer about a realistic timeline, based on the size and complexity of your website. Recognize too, that timelines rely on both parties. Your designer should create a schedule, but you also need to be responsive in providing timely input and responses.
If you have an existing website, expect your website company to ask for access at some point during the process. This information will allow them to make better recommendations during the design process and is critical before they can take your new site live.
If you don’t have an existing website, talk to your web designer about choosing a domain name (example: ours is ezmarketing.com). You’ll want the shortest, simplest version of your business name that you can find.
With all these critical questions answered, you can now put together a blueprint for your website. This is called the sitemap. Like the architectural drawings and floor plans for a house, the sitemap lays out the scope of the project and the organization of all your key elements.
Sitemaps come in a variety of formats. For a small website, a simple bulleted outline of your page structure may be enough. If you have a lot of pages, you may prefer creating a visual map. Color coding can also help visually differentiate page levels and structure. Ultimately, the format doesn’t matter, as long as everyone involved can see and agree to the overall organization for the site.
The sitemap is a necessary part of any website planning process. You wouldn’t start building a house without a blueprint, so don’t start building your website without a sitemap.
Ready to start planning your next website project? Use our handy worksheet as your website planning tool! This template will walk you through the key questions you need to answer and discuss with your website designer before you start building your website. If you are looking for a website developer, check out our website design services.
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