On August 6, 1991, the first web page popped up on a newfangled thing called the Internet. Twenty-eight years later, websites are still hard to launch. Why is that?
Launching a website seems like it should be easy. We’ve had nearly three decades to work out the kinks in the process. Premium themes, visual editors, and content management systems (CMS) have all lowered the barrier to entry.
Standing up a little five-page marketing site over the weekend should be a piece of cake, right? Trim the hedges. Pressure wash the deck. Commence web domination.
I love me some barbecue, and a comparison between smoking a brisket and launching a website is apropos. None of the multitude of tiny tasks is particularly hard or delicate. Yet, with so many steps in the long sequence—not to mention a gristly, unforgiving cut of meat—the likelihood of making a mistake is high.
The purpose of this post is to slice up and serve seven juicy observations from a decade of smoking websites (too far?) before I explain how to launch a website by following 15 clear-cut steps.
1. Websites can be hard because of people.
Few words produce a bumper crop of opinions faster than “website.”
Suddenly, otherwise mild-mannered people are touting “the fold” or positively fuming about email popups. Only people who hold commerce with demons use email popups. Everyone knows that.
Mixed, often contradictory opinions lead to design by committee, which in turn leads delays and subpar results. One easy way to avoid all three is to shrink the team.
That’s right... Solicit fewer opinions. Design by committee is the perfect long-handled spoon for stirring up dissent, discord, and disappointing results. So don't.
No design project should be a democracy, and a website is no exception.
Establish a monarchy instead. Give one person ultimate decision-making authority. That king or queen may cause griping and stink eye, but the beauty of a CMS like WordPress, Squarespace, or Craft is that your monarch can later assuage the commoners by making certain tweaks in v2.0.
That brings me to my second observation.
2. Websites can be hard because of perfectionism.
A website is simply a collection of your best guesses (and hopefully, best practices) until you get real user data. Smart companies use website analytics—Google Analytics is free—to gain insight into how people are finding the site and how they’re interacting with it.
One way to justify your exclusion of surplus opinion-mongers and decision-makers is to point to the sensible goal of launching an imperfect site quickly, driving traffic to the site, keeping an eye on analytics, and using real user data and insights to make informed refinements.
If your Services page has a high bounce rate, then you can split-test a new version. The new bounce rate will prove or disprove your hunches.
By divvying up desired features and functionality into multiple phases or versions, you can also shave weeks or months off your timeline. A phased approach keeps you focused on the minimum viable product. Non-essential features and functionality can wait.
For customers to schedule appointments through the website might be cool, but if your old website didn’t have offer that capability, then your customers won’t miss what they already don’t have.
Iteration is your friend. Perfectionism is a chump shilling diet pills.
3. Websites can be hard because of code.
Lots of people feel out of their depth with web projects. Web development and writing code still seem complex and esoteric to many people.
We humans don’t like feeling ignorant or helpless. We tend to disengage. Our attitude becomes “Just let the agency and their techies handle it. Make the bad HTML men go away."
Though we always appreciate your trust, we have found that a collaborative approach works the best. We can handle the design, code, and much of the strategy. But we need your understanding of your brand, audience, and industry.
For example, we once had a client who knew that most of their web visitors would be in their fifties and sixties. They asked that we make the web fonts larger and easier to read for their Baby Boomer audience.
Though we would have preferred a different typography lockups for aesthetic reasons, we saw the good sense in the client’s request. We made the changes, and the site was a success because the client stayed engaged in the planning, design, and development process.
4. Websites can be hard because of poor planning.
A website is a mosaic of constituent parts, seen and unseen, including strategy, copywriting, images, navigation, links, buttons, icons, code, pages, and forms.
Those parts have interdependent relationships. For example, links go to pages, buttons need words, photos need alt tags, and form submissions need to find their way to somebody’s inbox.
If your stakeholders haven’t sat down and hashed out all the relationships, you will end up with a mishmash, not a beautiful mosaic.
A robust planning process helps you ask the right questions, formulate the right answers, and piece together a work of art that supports business goals.
5. Websites can be hard because of weak strategy.
Many organizations tackle a website project with a Field of Dreams mindset: If we build it, they will come.
A website can certainly be a marketing vehicle, but the car needs an engine. Strategy makes your website work. Different websites are built for different purposes. What’s the purpose of yours? What do you want people to do? What counts as a “conversion” for you?
Here are several common purposes:
- Is yours an e-commerce company? Obviously, your site will need shopping cart functionality and secure credit card processing.
- Will your website need to receive Personal Health Information for your medical practice? You’ll need a HIPAA compliant server and ongoing compliance.
- Will the linchpin of your website be a blog where you post fresh content weekly? A clean layout with appropriate white space will create a pleasing reading experience. Chances are, many of your readers will read your posts on their smartphones and tablets, so that layout should be equally attractive on your site’s mobile version.
Your strategy for converting web visitors into readers, subscribers, customers, or fans will dictate choices you make with UI/UX, design, headlines, calls to action, content, and photography—decisions all the way down to font size!
By gaining clarity around what success looks like in advance and by defining “conversion,” you can simplify the whole process and dramatically increase your chances of seeing positive ROI.
6. Websites can be hard because of missing credentials and brand assets.
As I mentioned, a website is a mosaic. Some of its pieces may take time to track down. If you’re redesigning an existing site, then you’ll need credentials for your hosting account, domain registrar, and CMS dashboard.
You’ll also need a high-res logo file, preferably in vector format, as well as your corporate fonts, brand colors, photography, videos, and icons.
It’s fairly common for us to ask for credentials and assets and discover that no one on the client side knows where they are. We must follow the bread crumb trail back to see if an office manager who left the company years ago might have what we need on an old hard drive.
Of course, some clients are really on top of things and send over what we need within the hour!
The point is, corralling credentials and assets often takes more time and effort than the client anticipates. If you see a new website on the horizon, go ahead and start organizing your digital house now.
7. Websites can be hard because of unrealistic expectations.
Many business owners secretly expect a new website to be the marvelous elixir that’s going to cure all the organization’s aches and pains.
A new website represents a large investment, and the right website, strategy, and ongoing marketing can generate conversions, leads, sales.
A new website, however, is not a substitute for a more holistic marketing plan. A website is an important brand touchpoint, but it can’t plug all the gaps in your brand strategy.
Think of a good website as an amplifier.
If you already know what makes your brand special, what makes your target audience tick, and how you create unique value for them, then a website can get that message to more people.
On the other hand, if you lack clarity around your brand’s purpose, unique selling proposition, and target audience, your website probably won’t make much noise.
Thankfully, being in the second camp doesn’t mean you can’t build and launch a beautiful, effective website. You’ll just need to plan on some remedial branding work along the way.
The Lowdown on a Successful Website Launch
Let’s transition now to practical steps you can take to have a successful launch. Balernum’s process goes through four phases—Planning, Strategy, Implementation, and Refinement—and follows 15 steps.
- Have an Alignment Meeting. You can read more about and download Balernum’s Alignment Meeting agenda here. We answer questions like this:
a. What isn’t working well?
b. What is the dream?
c. What does success look like?
- Finish answering important questions about the project’s scope. You can check out the questions we ask our clients here. A website is a lot like a house in that the price depends on how big and fancy you want it to be.
- Define your strategic goals.
a. How will you define conversion?
b. What’s the single most important action site visitors can take?
c. How will you quantify and track that?
- Define your primary audience. If you don’t know what makes your preferred customers tick, then take the time to ponder their goals, desires, fears, objections, the consequences of doing nothing, and any content they would find helpful.
- Define your primary call to action. What do you want people to do? Call your office or schedule a consultation? Download your app or buy your book? Your primary call to action will shape your content strategy, which will in turn dictate the site's copy and content.
- Develop content strategy. Here are some of the ingredients in Balernum’s smoky, brisket-y content strategy:
a. Customer Journey
b. Value Proposition
d. Core Messaging
f. Redirect Strategy
g. Meta Data
- Outline the site map and page structure. How many pages does your site need? How do those pages relate and cross-link to one another? How will they be organized under the main navigation?
- Create stylescapes and set design direction.
- Create wireframes.
- Gather and organize design assets.
a. Logos & Typography
b. Identity Guidelines
c. Lifestyle and Product Photography d. Videos
g. Content & Copywriting
- Design high-fidelity mockups.
- Set up test site and begin coding.
- Perform testing and quality assurance.
- Finalize your launch plan and marketing.
- Finalize your approach to measurement and analytics.
What if you don’t want to smoke brisket alone?
That’s pretty much it. Launching a website isn’t astrophysics with a dash of nanotechnology. The process is like smoking a brisket: lots of steps, lots of room for error, and thus a strong incentive to follow a step-by-step process and not reinvent the wheel.
If you think you might want help launching your new website, answer these questions for us. We’ll follow up with you shortly.
Otherwise, put in your name and email address below, and you can download a beautiful PDF version of the 15-step website process outlined above.