You’ve decided that you need a website for your business. Maybe you are building one ‘from scratch’ or maybe you are updating an existing one. It’s easy to get excited about the beautiful photos, the great layout and the fancy features of your new site. This stuff is great to fun to think about. But to build a great website, you have to start by identifying its purpose, the site’s goals and who the target audience is. All too often, these planning steps are skipped and you end up with a great looking website that doesn’t actually help your business or the people who visit.
Ask yourself why…
Why are you building this website? What does success look like? Remember that a website is a marketing tool. For many businesses, it is the heart of their marketing efforts. The first step is to set some specific, measurable goals for the site. Are you trying to raise awareness of your business or educate people about a problem? Then maybe your goals should be monthly or weekly traffic targets. How many visitors do you want? How will the site generate this volume of traffic?
Maybe your site is primarily about lead generation. In that case, you will want to think about site traffic, but focus on the number of leads generated. Will you drive people to your contact form or a more specific lead generation form? How many leads do you want to get over what period of time?
The point is to set measurable goals and be clear about them. These goals will help you make good, strategic decisions as you design, build and launch your website. These goals are your map, helping you navigate to a successful launch.
Who is the audience?
A website is a communication tool. You have information you want to communicate to people who visit the site. So who are these people? The principle is user centered design. If we are building house, we need to understand who is going to live it and what their needs are. The same is true with a website. Who are these visitors and what do they want?
User personas are a tool used to guide this research. A user persona is a brief, fictional biography of a typical user. It should cover their demographic details, their age, gender, occupation and income. It should describe what information they are looking for and how they go about finding it. Most importantly, it should describe their relationship to technology. How comfortable are they with their computer or phone? What other sites do they visit? If you go his route, you will create multiple personas, one for each key group you want to reach.
Even if you don’t create user personas, you need to do enough research about your visitors to be able to answer those questions. The point of user research is to understand the audience, their relationship to technology and what they want to achieve. Figuring out what other websites they use and like is key. This allows you present concepts in familiar ways. People say a website is easy to use when most of their guesses about how it works turn out to be right. This starts with understanding them and what they expect.
We talk about people browsing or surfing the web, but this is the wrong metaphor. Instead, think of your users as searching for something. They have a goal and are methodically trying to accomplish it.
The sales funnel
By this point you should understand who your site visitors are and what they want. They have a problem of some kind and are looking for a solution. Where are they at in this journey? Are they just starting out, or have they done a lot of research and are getting ready to act?
A good way to think about this process is the sales funnel, which describes the process people go though when researching and buying. There are four main stages to the funnel: awareness, interest, decision and action. Each stage has progressively fewer people in it, giving it the shape of a funnel.
Even if you aren’t selling anything on your site, the funnel describes the process visitors go through to make a decision. And if you have created personas, you should consider where each one is in the funnel.
- Awareness: At this stage people know they have problem and may be aware of existing solutions to it. Users in this stage are researching, often on Google, looking learn more about their problem.
Interest: A person in this stage has gained knowledge about their problem and has an active interest in solving it. They have formed the intent to solve the problem and are looking for solutions.
- Decision: At this stage in the funnel, the person is making a decision to take advantage of your solution. They have likely evaluated other solutions, and are looking to take advantage of an offer on your site.
- Action: The person is ready to act. If you are selling something, the customer is ready to buy. They are ready to act on an offer.
This is high level description of the sales funnel. Depending on the product or service you are marketing, the funnel may have fewer or more steps.
The point is to understand the frame of mind at each stage. To use language that appeals to people at different stages. Your visitors have an overarching goal, but they also have specific goals at each stage.
Build Your Site Architecture Based on Your Sales Funnel
Often, different pages or parts of the site will appeal to people in different stages. Build out as many landing pages as needed that target what different users may be searching for at different stages in the sales funnel. For the final two stages, you want to understand what makes an offer attractive and what an effective call to action (CTA) looks like. Build strong benefits and straight forward actions users can take to make a purchase or share their information with your sales team.
Develop the content
At this point you should begin developing the content of your site, keeping your goals, your visitor’s goals and the sales funnel in mind. Figure out how many pages or sections the site needs, and write the content for those pages. Figure out what photos, illustrations, icons and other kinds of artwork you need. Determine the tone and the image you want to project and how to communicate this to visitors.
After you have written content, then you can decide how to present it. This approach is called content first design, and it’s pretty much the inversion of the standard approach to website design. Instead of picking a template and then creating content to fill it, you create the content first. This allows the design to arise out of the content. Working this way, the design will serve the content, instead being applied to it.
The metaphor here is wrapping a gift. First you buy the gift, then you pick a box for it and then choose wrapping paper and bows. Focusing on the design first is like buying a box, then searching for a gift that will fit inside.
Start by identifying your goals. Then research your audience, who they are and what they expect. Think about the process people go through investigating a problem and taking action on that knowledge. Write content and choose images that support this decision making process. Present your content with a design that communicates the image you want to project and incites people to take advantage of what you offer.