Over the past few years I have been involved in the development of several websites for a variety of businesses (small and large, products and services, corporate and e-commerce). I love the work because, done properly, it combines what I consider to be the core aspects of marketing: understanding your target audience, being clear on your value proposition, creating an engaging brand image and generating demand. Here’s what I mean:
Target audience: who is your website meant to talk to? In marketing, we talk about “personas”. These are the stereotypical people that you really want to have poking around your website. Presumably they correspond in some way to your target market. Until you know who you’re trying to talk to, you can’t decide what outcome you want from the conversation or what you should be saying. It seems pretty obvious but for companies used to focusing on the features and capabilities of their product or services, it requires a conscious effort to change their approach. So, know your audience (target market), know their motivation and know what outcome you want from your conversation.
Value Proposition: let’s get this straight from the start. Your value proposition isn’t about what your product/service does (ie. features) it is about what problem it solves. Ideally, it solves this problem for your target market better than any other solution available. Again, this sounds trivial but it isn’t. Odds are if you ask 10 people in your company to articulate your value proposition, you’ll get at least half a dozen answers. And if you ask your channel partners and customers, you’ll get a bunch more (and they’d probably be stronger too!). You need to sift through all this and isolate the core value proposition. The landing page of your website should be devoted to this core value proposition for your intended audience.
Brand Image: the phrase “brand image” makes some business executive’s skin crawl. It is one of those fuzzy, bullsh*t marketing terms that sounds expensive to maintain and impossible to measure. The funny thing is, even hard-nosed technical and financial types who dismiss marketing in their own companies readily respond to well managed brand images like Nike, Apple, IBM, Google, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods (oops!), etc. Think of your brand image as the visual (and sometimes aural) reinforcement of your understanding of your target audience and value proposition. Even if your audience weren’t able to read your website copy, they should have a sense of the value (and values) that your company represents from the visual cues of your website (simplicity, innovation, conservatism, dependability, customer service, etc.). So, when your marketing team agonizes over colours, layout, fonts, etc, understand that they are not just fooling around (ok, maybe a little). They are trying to communicate your value proposition in a different, subliminal language that reinforces the words you put on your website and in your collateral.
Generating Demand: the litmus test of a good website is whether it creates business opportunities for your company. Fundamentally, anyone who hits your website, save those who get there by accident, is a prospect. Think of website visitors as people wandering into a retail store. How do you convert their interest into revenue? Sometimes, depending on your product, the website itself can take your visitors through the stages of the buying process from need recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, to purchase decision (via e-commerce perhaps) and even post-purchase behavior. Often, however, especially for more complex business-to-business products/services, the website simply facilitates the early stages of the buying process; creating leads that personal selling (either direct sales or channel sales) must convert. So, your website must be integrated into a lead management process that your marketing and sales organization can follow to nurture and close opportunities. Put another way, since your website is likely a valuable source of leads, you must put the effort into backing it up with a sound lead management system.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that in many ways, the value of developing an effective website isn’t just in the resulting pages on the web. It is in the deep thought that should go into the preparation of content and development of supporting processes. The pretty website graphics and the mystical search engine optimization practices are in some ways secondary. At the end of the exercise, your story should be clear, your target audience well defined, you’ve developed tools that your sales team can use and you have figured out your lead management process. And because the development of a website is a collaborative process, you have created consensus within the company on what you stand for which leads to a consistent brand message to the marketplace.
The implication of all this is that a website is too important to leave to a designer, web developer or even a marketing communications team. No offense meant to any of these important functions but the website project needs to be the responsibility of the senior marketing executive and must have the attention of the whole management team.