Imagine you had to depend upon a backyard garden for food. You wouldn't just plant a few seeds and then hope for the best. You'd research the types of crops best suited for your environment and how to best prepare the soil. You would plan well in advance when to plant your seeds and then follow a strict schedule to nurture your crops. You would constantly be asking, Are they getting enough water? Enough sun? Too much water? Too much sun? In short, you would think about your garden all the time because you need it to produce for you.
Today's websites are built to produce results. Whether those results are sales or leads, you've built your website for a purpose and you're depending upon it to succeed. But its success depends upon you actively nurturing it. Nurturing a website means more than just filling it with content. It means engaging with users, measuring the site's success using analytics and tracking data, adding new functionality, adjusting existing functionality, performing repairs, and planning for future redesigns. Depending upon the importance of your website, management of it could easily be a full-time role, if not the responsibility of an entire department. You need to be ready.
Depending upon your website content strategy, you'll have many different opportunities to engage with your audience. If you maintain a user or customer forum, your engagement will be fairly traditional (i.e. responding to and participating in discussion threads), but most of today's opportunities are centered around monitoring how people discuss your brand in online spaces you don't control. On the other hand, if you maintain a blog or a regular on-site newsletter that allows reader comments, this is your best opportunity to bring those discussions to you. Don't squander that opportunity. If you receive a comment, respond to it directly and quickly. Find out all that you can about the person who left the comment and find ways to connect with them. A simple Google search will probably help you to locate your commenter--perhaps on Twitter, LinkedIn, a company bio, or their own blog. Once you do, start to build a relationship by reading their blog and contributing to discussions around its posts. Remember, this is not to build incoming links to your site for search engine optimization. This is to engage and bring some humanity to your brand.
For those discussions and mentions of your brand offsite, make sure to participate in them as well. You'll need to either use reputation monitoring tools or do it yourself using Google alerts and other RSS feeds to watch for mentions of your company, product or keywords related to them in blogs or on Twitter. You'll probably have to set up a Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook account, too, if you haven't already. If you're groaning, I understand, believe me. But the reality is you can either build your online reputation yourself through this kind of engagement, or let others determine it for you.
For more information on engaging with readers, check out our newsletters, Monitoring Your Online Reputation and A Practical Guide to Social Media, or our blog posts on Using Social Media to Connect Professionally, how my blog comments attracted INC Magazine's attention, and Allowing Un-Moderated and Anonymous Blog Comments.
The importance of measurement is so clear that I'm not sure I need to put forth any argument for it at all. Keeping a close eye on on traffic and tracking data will help you to adjust your website to best serve its purpose and provide the best experience for its users. But the only way to do this well is to make it part of your weekly (if not daily) routine. The more activity your website gets, the more closely you'll need to monitor the data you're collecting. If you're using Google Analytics, you have an incredibly powerful tool at your disposal, and a mountain of knowledge offered by Google themselves to help you use it to its full potential.
For more information on measuring your website, check out our newsletter on How to Use Google Analytics and our blog posts on measurement (there are many).
The Cost of Complexity
The more complex a website is, the more work it requires to manage day to day--not to mention the more people required to do this work, the more functional upgrades or changes it will need over time, and the more it will cost to maintain. This is a simple principle that I call "the cost of complexity." If you are planning for a website project or are getting ready to launch a new site, you will need to realistically plan for the amount of time and money you will spend on it in the year after it is launched. Yearly budgets for complex and active websites are often commensurate to the cost of the initial project; if the initial project cost $30,000, managing the website over the next year is likely to cost the same or more. If you are engaging and measuring to the extent you should be, you will discover many reasons to adjust and improve the design and functionality of your site moving forward.
Many websites quickly exceed the expectations of those who create them, in terms of lead generation and on-site activity, which is certainly something to celebrate. However, it's also something to respond to quickly in order to make sure that a website's architecture can sustain continued growth of the kind it's already seen. In some cases, it may be necessary to rebuild the underlying architecture of a website, or at least a particular portion of it, in order to improve its performance given the level of user activity it has reached. For example, websites that allow user-generated content may become sluggish once the number of users or the amount of data they submit begins to exceed its initially expected capacity. It's at such a point that reconfiguring its database would not only radically improve its performance, but also prevent it from becoming unusable.
The Long-Term Life Cycle
We have clients that we've worked with for over a decade. During that time, some have redesigned or completely rebuilt their websites multiple times. Beyond the cost of complexity issues I already mentioned, the long-term life cycle of a website typically involves various points at which business decisions or new technologies will make major update necessary. This could be an aesthetic facelift, a redesign based upon new branding, or a complete rebuild of the site. Whatever the case may be, we've observed that the normal pace for this sort of thing is every three to four years. If that's shocking to you, consider that Facebook was first opened to the general public only 3.5 years ago in September, 2006 (and redesigned multiple times since). A lot can change in just a few years!
On that note, we just redesigned and rebuilt our own website in January, which was the 7th version in 10 years!
If you've just gotten started with a new site, don't worry too much about the next one yet. As I hope you've learned from this series on how a website is built, you have plenty to think about right now in order to get the most out of your website. But, it doesn't hurt to think ahead, either.