Before you start any new website project, it's important to give some time to challenging your own idea to make sure that it is worth the investment that will be required to realize it online. If it holds up to the scrutiny of the following questions, you may be ready to get started.
What is your budget?
At Newfangled, we like to talk about money right away. The simple truth is that no other question I'm going to suggest in this article matters unless you can afford to do the work you're hoping to do.
There are two budgets that need to be considered and allocated in advance of beginning any web project. The first is the cost of the initial phase, which should cover the planning, prototyping, design and development leading up to the first launch of the site. If you've already set aside a specific amount to work with, it's helpful to let your web partner know this up front. Vaguely representing your budget in order to try to control negotiation won't work well for either party. A good web partner will consider your budget and tell you exactly what can and cannot be done with it, even if that means you end up spending less than you planned to.
The second budget is the yearly amount you'll likely spend maintaining your website, which might include specific costs like support and hosting fees, as well as any functional upgrades or design changes you make moving forward. Often, this amount is commensurate with the initial project cost; the more complex and costly a website, the more complex and costly it is to support and maintain.
What will your site offer?
Why are you building this website? What do you hope to achieve with it? If you are unclear about the purpose and expected outcome of your project, then you will have a difficult time answering any further questions. Start by considering your business. If, for example, you offer services to other businesses, your immediate goal is to capture the attention of prospects that don't know about you yet, speak directly to their need--clearly identifying the pain points and your solutions--and compel them to contact you. In other words, your website is primarily an informational resource and lead-generation tool. On the other hand, if you offer a product, you may need to provide functionality like product demos and support forums in addition to actually selling it through your website. In either case, you must have specific goals for your website. Simply being online is not enough.
Does your business plan make sense online?
This is a question we ask when considering any e-commerce project we might take on. E-commerce projects are often untested businesses--meaning that they haven't already worked out basic production, marketing and sales details in the corporeal world. Those businesses that take an existing and successfully operating business online have a much greater chance of making their operation work on the web than those that have not. They can answer all the questions we would typically ask when planning an e-commerce store about prices, the relationship between products, bundling options, discounting methods, etc. If you're not prepared to think that specifically about how your e-commerce store will work, you probably need to do some business and marketing work before contacting your web partner.
With e-commerce projects, translation is often more successful than conception. When the hard work of creating the core business is already done, figuring out how to execute it online is much more simple. However, that is not to say that new online businesses can never be successful in their initial launch. They just require much more planning in advance of any development work.
Who is your audience?
If you've worked out the purpose and goals for your website, the next step is to identify the types of people you hope will use it. We call these types "personas." As an aspect of planning, identifying personas is one of the most helpful exercises for shaping your content strategy. In their most simple form, your personas will probably be either decision makers--those to make the final decision to buy--or influencers--those whose research will enable decisions to be made. For business to business marketing sites, it will be very important to enable both types of persona, particularly because what is of value to influencers--substantive content--is just as valuable for search engine optimization as well.
If you're interested in identifying your audience, check out our newsletter, Who Are You Speaking To?
What do you want from your visitors?
Though most successful companies have experience creating and executing robust lead nurturing processes for print marketing campaigns, it hasn't been until recently that they have had to apply the same principles to web marketing. It's one thing to identify the most basic goal--sales. It's another thing to understand how users operate online and to nurture them from browsers to customers. Clear and easy-to-respond-to calls to action are critical to actually capturing leads online. In some cases, they might be as simple as 'Buy Now!' But most often, they are actually going to be engaging users to enter into relationship with you, perhaps by signing up to receive more information, registering for an event or requesting a meeting with you. No matter what the level of engagement, you should try to ask for as little information from the user as possible while giving them as much as you are able. For example, if you are offering a newsletter subscription, go ahead and ask for the user's email address, but much more than that will be pushing it, making it much more likely for someone to pass up your offer. Put simply, don't ask for more information than you need.
You can learn more about creating calls to action in our newsletter, Doing More with Less.
What third parties do you need to integrate with?
Often, your website is just one piece of a complicated operation. Rather than attempting to consolidate all the functional elements of a business into one web application, it's probably more realistic to properly integrate a website within an existing process that may include many players. This means finding ways to integrate the website's functionality with already working systems. Before you start any work, it's very important that you identify all the necessary systems already in use and determine what level of integration with them is possible. There may be limitations based upon time, budget or the capabilities of the other systems.
Another resource you might find helpful on integrating with third-party technology is our newsletter, To Buy or to Build.
How will you measure your investment?
Before you build anything, someone will surely want assurance that their money will be well spent. Measuring the return on an investment requires data, so you'll want to make sure that your website is built to facilitate measurement. This could mean generating unique reports, passing information to and from other measurement tools, or integrating with CRM's. Assuming you've created clear calls to action, your site should begin generating rich user session data that will help you understand how it is being used, from the beginning of a lead cycle all the way until a goal has been completed. If you don't collect and measure the data, you'll never know what is working and what isn't.
We've got much more information about measuring your website's performance in our newsletters, Coping with Complexity and How to Use Google Analytics.
Who will maintain your site?
Once it's built, maintaining a website is a major ongoing effort. Yet many companies assume that it can be just folded in to the already long list of responsibilities of someone in their marketing department. Perhaps this is realistic for some, but not many. The amount of work required to maintain a website should correlate to the level of expectation for its value as a business tool. In other words, if you expect your entire business to run through your website, then you should expect to devote significant resources to it as long as it's live. This might mean partial time spent by several people, or full time by one or more--it depends upon the size of your business and the complexity of your site. But the key point is to plan for this in advance. Realistically, maintaining a website today involves regularly creating and adding content to the site, tracking and nurturing leads, evaluating site performance with various measurement tools, planning for and managing ongoing upgrades, and all kinds of engagement activity necessary to generate valuable traffic to it. For some sites, one person can do all these things; for others, it will require a team.
How much work is involved in creating and maintaining a website? Find out in our newsletters, How Much (Work) is a Website? A Lot!, Developing a Content Strategy, Managing Your Online Reputation, and How to Write a Newsletter.
Do you have time for this project?
A typical web project takes 3-6 months from planning to launch, though various phases of the project will require different levels of client attention. During the planning, prototyping and design phases, we tend to schedule as many as 2-3 calls per week with our clients to coordinate and review progress. However, less input is needed from our clients during the actual development phase, so it tends to be a "quieter" time in which they can create and prepare content to be entered once the site is built. In any case, the website development process, from start to finish, is a significant effort which requires the full attention of everyone involved. Think of it like an intensive, boot camp like training experience that prepares you for the ongoing task of maintaining your website. If you don't have time to devote to this process, you either need to make time or find someone at your company who does.
Are you ready?