There are many great agencies in the world, but few great agency websites.
Of course, now that I’ve said that, you’re probably thinking of a few agency websites that you think really are great. But why? What makes them great? Are they great because they’re beautiful? Clever? Slick? Do they make a strong impression on you? Do they make you think that the agency is hip, cutting edge, or cool? If you had a website or two in mind, you probably answered “yes” to more than one of these questions. So could I, about quite a few agency websites. But you can probably also sense that I’m leading you toward a different measure of greatness.
An agency’s website either serves a business development purpose or it doesn’t. Most don’t — even the ones that, at least in theory, intend to — and I want to argue that an agency’s website cannot be great if it isn’t designed to create new opportunity for them. Otherwise, a website is just something to look at. And while that might be exciting for those who make it — or inspiring for those who look at it — a website that is nothing but eye-candy is nothing to aspire to. Why? Because you can be the most unique organization in your market, but without the right website, no one will know. You can have the greatest products or services in the world, but without a website that introduces and explains them, no customers will buy. You can create the most educational, expert content in your field, but without a website designed to make it discoverable and engaging, it won’t move the dial when it comes to creating real opportunity. You can build a contact list of thousands of viable contacts and email them religiously, but without a hub to direct them to — one that not only informs and engages them but also methodically graduates them through the buy cycle — your investment will not return much value.
The bottom line is, your website should be the culmination of all your digital marketing activities, not just a digital portfolio. It should be the platform which supports your position in the market and the execution of your content strategy, receives and directs your contacts, feeds your marketing automation program and, in the end, delivers the right opportunity to your CRM.
So the question, then, is what makes this sort of agency website great? It comes down to four simple building blocks. If your website has them, then it will be great.
The Four Building Blocks of a Great Agency Website
The four building blocks of a great agency website have both a conceptual root and a practical manifestation. The conceptual root of each one ties back to how you do business, and the practical manifestation ties back to how each is expressed on your website.
First, your positioning provides the foundation for your business. It is your niche in a vast market of opportunity. It identifies what you do, and for whom, and the more specific you can be — the tighter your positioning, the narrower your focus — the easier it will be to craft a compelling marketing message that is consistently articulated throughout your website. So, the conceptual root of the first building block is positioning, and its practical manifestation is a coherent message that is consistently clear, visible, and indexable on every page of your website.
We’ve written pretty extensively on this, but if you want to know what makes a great marketing message that checks those three boxes, start here.
2. Business Structure
I once spoke with an agency principal who had spent years cranking the content marketing machine but wasn’t seeing the results she expected. After she described how she and her team had organized their content efforts — from the strategic selection of types of content and message focus all the way to the tactical selection of calls to action — she concluded with a sigh, “We got so deep into content marketing, that we forgot to mention what we actually do.” They’d forgotten to connect their content marketing back to what they do for money — their services. That’s essential, of course, but it also presumes something pretty big — that an agency has actually structured its business into clear, discrete services. As it turns out, few agencies do.
In the early stages of working with an agency, we advise them to begin to think about their ideal client engagements and break them down into meaningfully differentiated segments. For some agencies, these segments may actually be experiences or services they sell individually. For others, they may be steps in a sequence, each of which is essential to their methodology. In either case, it’s important to articulate them individually and structure a website around them so that, first, a prospect can be gracefully guided to a better understanding of what your agency does and how they can access your expertise, and second, every piece of marketing content can directly connect prospects who first engage with them back to the business itself. After all, the purpose of your website is to attract new opportunity by way of expert content and then graduate that initial researcher interest through the process of evaluation to buying. No prospect can be expected to buy without understanding what, exactly, they are buying.
So, the conceptual root of the second building block is business structure, and its practical manifestation is in a strategic information architecture, one which I’ve written about in much greater detail in a five-part series of articles that covers our recommendations for an information architecture which will turn researchers into buyers, as well as our recommendations for the design of each individual page it contains.
Content marketing is simply a system for sharing your expertise with the world. Agencies that have built their digital marketing systems around content marketing have long since transcended basic blogging. They have adopted a much more robust, theme-based, media-diverse content strategy. And if you haven’t, you should, too.
But as far as this system of building blocks is concerned, expertise should really be the easy part. It’s what you know — that’s the conceptual root — and its practical manifestation is in the expert, educational content your site contains.
Great agency websites work. They are like employees that speak for their firms, 24-hours a day, creating and nurturing opportunity and having a measurable impact on the bottom line. And they do this by understanding a very simple truth: Websites that work are designed by firms that know exactly what they want from their prospects. That’s what I mean by engagement. Engagement is what you want from your prospects, and you get it by telling them what to do.
Every page on a website should tell a visitor where to go next. Menus don’t do that. Menus are way finding tools that, first, tell visitors where they are, and then tell them where they could go. But think about it. Where should they go next? If a visitor lands on a blog post, what do you want them to do next? Subscribe to your newsletter? Read a related post? Make that clear to them. Every page should have a call to action; no exceptions. If a visitor lands on your home page, what do you want them to do next? Learn more about what your firm does? Then give them a big, clear button takes them where they can do that. Nobody wants to guess about what will happen after they click something. Nobody wants to explore your site like it’s a maze. Clearly label everything, and clearly direct everyone.
This final building-block, engagement, is grounded in the idea that in order for your website to be held accountable to marketing goals, you’ve got to know exactly what you want from its users. But its practical manifestation is in the tools they’ll use to give that to you: clear, concise, and compelling calls to action. Wherever your site gives something, it should ask something in return. For more detail on both how they should work and how they should be integrated into your website’s design, see our white paper on the system we use to hold website designs accountable to measurable, marketing goals.
A Simple System
Clearly, this is very simple system. But it’s rarely implemented. In fact, while most agency websites are more and more content-rich, they are still missing the foundational building blocks. Unfortunately, what I have observed is that no matter how great the content, an agency website cannot be relied upon to actually move the needle without a clear articulation of that firm’s positioning (and really, a narrow positioning to begin with) and a direct connection between the organization of the firm’s business and the organization of its website.
So, to review. If you can truthfully say each of these four statements, then your website is probably doing what it should be:
- A great agency website articulates a firm’s positioning with a coherent message distributed throughout the entire site.
- A great agency website makes a firm’s business structure clear with a strategic information architecture organized around discrete services.
- A great agency website makes a firm’s expertise discoverable, readable, and actionable through its deep repository of educational content.
- A great agency website facilitates engagement with a robust system of clear calls to action associated with every piece of content it contains.
Is your firm’s website great? If it isn’t, why not? And, more importantly, what will you do now to make it great?