Tangled in a web?1 October 2011
Marketing and PR consultant Liz Male untangles the route to redesigning a website
• Websites must be kept up to date.
• A mainstream content management system is more flexible.
• Website redesign needs constant supervision.
• Writing for the web is different from other copywriting.
• After-sales service needs to be considered.
I’m going to be redoing my website soon. In fact, I’ll be redesigning it and changing it time and time again over the coming months and years because the damn thing keeps going out of date.
But so it is for all businesses, including yours. A website is never ‘finished’. Never out of beta testing. Never safe to let it rest on its online laurels. It’s unbelievably annoying, especially when we are all so busy and the marketing budget is tight as hell.
So I thought you might be interested to see my tips for how to approach a website brief and how to go about appointing a good agency to do the job for you.
Actually, it’s the latter that bothers me the most. Most good marketers and business owners have clear views on their communications and business development objectives, and many know what they need to achieve. (See the “Five simple steps to inform a website brief”).
I find that the trickiest bit tends to be finding the right people to help, because there are all sorts of options available and no shortage of web wizards prepared to blind you with science and bore you with technobabble.
Other than a few shining examples of excellence, my experience is that the market broadly divides into three. At the risk of upsetting everyone with hugely unfair generalisations, you can end up with a choice between:
• The freelance programmer who can build you a fully-functioning site quickly based on some simple templates and an impressive love of HTML, XML, SEO and MySQL. Often the cheapest option, but unfortunately programmers usually make very poor designers and some use some really dire templates. This needs a lot of supervision.
• The graphic design agency which puts visuals first, turning your website into a thing of beauty which gets you envious looks. But a bit too fond of Flash and other user-unfriendly gizmos, and don’t think enough about the structure of a site or the back-end stuff. This needs a lot of supervision.
• The digital marketing consultancy which does it all, integrating and optimising your every online and offline move. They’re usually very thorough in their analysis of your business needs, but it’s a pricey service. They’re happiest talking Web 2.0 and will try to sell you all sorts of other services afterwards. This needs a lot of supervision.
Which to choose? Well, much depends on your budget, preferred outcome and how much time you’ve got to manage the whole project. Did I mention supervision? Yes, you’ll need to set aside plenty of time for this.
Getting the balance
Generally I look for a team which has the right balance between heart-stopping visual creativity, bottom line business pragmatism and nerd-like obsession with technical programming and SEO (search engine optimisation). Oh, and great client handling skills too. I have found some really good teams like that, but sadly it’s not a mix you find that often.
Second, I now put my greatest trust in agencies which don’t try and tie me in to their bespoke content management system (CMS). I’ve heard the arguments on both sides, but sorry guys, my mind is increasingly made up these days that a future-proofed, portable, scaleable site needs to be built using Umbraco or a similar mainstream open source CMS.
Third, the Achilles’ heel of almost all agencies is their copywriting skills. Writing for the web is completely different from other sorts of copywriting. I look for a team that understands that, and which demonstrates brilliant attention to detail. More often, I do it myself.
Finally, I take up references now about after-sales service. Once the technical specification for a website is signed off, too many agencies just churn you through the sausage machine; they’re off finding the next client. I want to be nurtured, proactively contacted with ideas for ongoing tweaks and simple improvements that won’t cost much, and no nasty surprises in the maintenance contract. I want evaluation and regular metrics built in from day one, with hands-on help and free advice on how to measure things ourselves using tools like Google Analytics.
Like many consultants, I’ve neglected my own website for far too long. But I regularly project manage and supervise the creation of new websites for my clients, so these tips (and prejudices) are based on real-life experience. What has your experience been? If you have any other tips, I’d be glad to hear them.