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4 steps to building a website

Congratulations! You just landed a job as the head of marketing at a company that's really starting to take off! After the company’s welcome party, the CEO calls you into a meeting and says, "We need a new website and I want you to make that your number one priority."

Uh oh.

You're a seasoned marketer and have built and managed dozens, if not hundreds, of campaigns. You've touched every possible medium including TV, radio, direct mail, POS, social and you've even led teams that created landing pages and microsites. But how do you build or rebuild a company website that not only tells the company's story, but also serves as a tool for the sales force? And a customer portal? And a lead-gen capture tool? All while being compliant with industry and government standards? And who's going to maintain this? You? IT?

Whoa, take a breath.

Step #1 - Audit where you're at

To start with, take a look at what you are currently doing. You don't have to be an expert at everything listed below, but you should be able to either competently talk about them or at least have someone you trust do so.

  • Where does your site currently live?
    Is your website internally hosted by your IT department or is it with the agency that built it?
  • How are updates currently made? Do you have a CMS?
    Do you call IT, submit a help desk ticket, Slack the web team or just call someone you've never met named Nancy? Can you get access to make updates by yourself or do you need special software installed?
  • Do you have a dev team?
    You absolutely might have some very awesome designers who have won multiple awards, but after the designs are finished would they be able to actually build the website? Similarly, your IT department might manage dozens of complex systems but do they know how to, have time to, and want to launch and maintain a website?
  • Regulations
    Are there any industry or legal regulations (privacy, accessibility, financial, etc.) you need to be aware of such as HIPAA, ADA, PCI or NCUA.
  • Integrations
    Are there third-party technologies that you need to integrate with such as Salesforce, WIDS, Google or Microsoft? Are there internal services or databases that drive certain pages?

Step #2 - Find the good, the bad and the ugly

The CEO wants you in charge of building the new website but that doesn't mean you can't or even shouldn't get input from everyone. Also, although you might have some major stakeholders in the website, don't forget about the people that actually need or want to use it on a daily basis.

  • What's broken?
    This is sometimes the easiest to spot because it is very obvious. "Person _ABC_ wants to do _XYZ_ but can't." However, don't assume that only the obvious things are broken.
    • Maybe the sales team is always sending people Word docs because they can't find anything on the site.
    • Maybe your customers are going to your competitors because your site isn't responsive/mobile-friendly.
    • Maybe the world searches for product as a "widget" but you keep calling it a "gadget."

This is where you'll really want to do some research, both internal and external. Keep in mind you might have people afraid to speak up or so used to the current process that it might help to bring in a third party.

  • What's working perfectly?
    This is also usually pretty easy to spot if you simply ask "If we moved or got rid of XYZ, would your job become easier, harder or stay the same?" Ask about the site search, the navigation, the page layout. Ask your sales staff, your marketing team, your customers. This is another area where the benefit of thorough research pays off.
  • What could be better?
    This can be one of the hardest things to discover, because very often people don't know that there is a better or more efficient way of doing things. This is where you'll want to sit down with people and ask them to show you how they do things.
    • Ask the sales department to explain how they handle prospects looking for information. Do they say "go to our website, click here, then here, then here?" Or do they have a stash of documents on their desktop (possibly with outdated branding and messaging!) that they just email?
    • Ask the IT department if they would like to offload the website onto a trusted third-party. In the past, IT used to control the website because it was "technical" but more and more these days there isn't too much "technical stuff" once a site is built, especially with a modern CMS.
    • Do your customers want to reorder their products with a click of the button but instead are forced to go through the entire order process from scratch?
    • Are people finding your site using some keywords but not others? Do your competitors "own" certain keywords?

These are the nuggets that are essential to find. When you make a task easier for someone they become more efficient and can actually start focusing on doing their job.

Step #3 - Consider patching

Building or rebuilding a site can take months. Is your goal to wait that long and launch "the perfect site" or are you willing to apply some band-aids along the way?

  • Microsite
    Building a microsite is often a very cost-effective way to build a dedicated presence on the web to fill a specific need. Because microsites usually live at a subdomain or a custom vanity domain of your brand, you can isolate and introduce new technologies that would be harder to integrate with your primary site.
  • Landing pages
    Landing pages are another simple way to introduce changes to a site without breaking existing functionality and are a great way to feed people into your main site. For instance, instead of the sales team sending prospects directly to your home page and hoping that they find your product, you could instead have a couple of dedicated landing pages that speak directly to them.
  • Paid search
    If you don't have the ability to make SEO changes to your site, you might want to look into paid search. For instance, if you know people aren't finding your "gadgets" because they're searching for "widgets," then maybe it’s time to buy that and similar keywords to boost your rankings.
  • Social
    If you don't have the ability to change your current site, you can still talk about it online in a modern format. You can also highlight special sections of your site to steer your audience in the direction you want them to go.

One of the benefits of these techniques is that they can happen both concurrently and independently from your main site rebuild. They can also be handled by completely different teams or even third-party experts giving your primary team the ability and freedom to pursue working on your new site.

Step #4 - Build, hire or collaborate

Now that you know what your team is capable of, it’s time to figure out who's going to do what.

  • Build in-house
    If you have a web, design, copy and IT staff that are not only capable but have the capacity and the time to build a website, then building in-house will give you the greatest ownership of the project. However, consult with your departments and staff and make sure that you look into the near-term future to make sure that they won't get pulled off the project in a couple of months.
  • Hire
    Regardless of whether you want to build your site in-house or outsource parts of it, it might be time to hire some staff to support you.
    • Web content manager: Modern CMSs allow you to grant people control over various parts of the site, but you still might want to have someone that oversees the overall vision as well as helps new users onboard to your platform.
    • Front-end developer: Depending on how often and how much you expect to change your site, you might benefit greatly from hiring someone capable of making changes that your CMS doesn't easily expose. For instance, swapping content on the home page is usually pretty easy, but changing the actual layout might require knowledge of HTML, CSS and other languages.
    • Back-end developer: If you integrate with many different services, either internal or external, you might really benefit from a back-end developer that's both familiar with your CMS and dedicated to your site.
  • Collaborate
    This might be your first website, but there are many experts out there that have done this dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of times.
  • Freelancers
    Freelance workers are great for short-term projects and, if you find a great fit, you might even have a partner for a very long time. Make sure that you set your expectations for schedules, meetings and deadlines so that everyone on your team knows when a freelance worker is available. It is also a good idea to inquire about work capacity to ensure that they are able to take on the load that you expect of them.
  • Web firm
    There are firms out there dedicated almost exclusively to web, which can be a great resource if you have all of the other parts of your project covered. Make sure you know what services they specialize in and offer such as back-end and/or front-end programming, design, copywriting, research, SEO, accessibility and usability testing.
  • Full-service agency
    We might be a little biased here but a full-service agency is one of the best solutions available for many companies. With a breadth of experience across many industries, they will help you to lay everything out on the table to see the bigger picture, to find the edges you've missed and to help you research things from an unbiased and professional point of view. Everything from in-house creative, web, copy, video is available to you as you need it. They'll also hold your hand when you want some help or take the reins or back up if you want them to. And they can help you with digital marketing programs that drive customers to your site.

    They'll even write a blog post exactly like this, telling you the pros and cons of alternatives because they honestly care about you and want you to succeed and they want to make sure you have all the options available.

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