As web developers, we have been seeing quite a bit of confusion recently from prospective clients about what they should be doing on-line.
On the one hand, almost every organization knows that they need an attractive, up-to-date website, because their customers (and donors, lenders, investors and employees) have been telling them they do. Unfortunately, many don’t have a clear vision of how it will help them, or what they really need.
We’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit recently, because it’s at the core of our business. The confusion is partly because a website can serve so many purposes, and partly because many CEO’s who grew up in a pre-web world haven’t fully internalized its meaning.
Among the functions a website can serve is to acquaint people with your organization, sell goods, provide customer support, deliver services, support your marketing, gather leads, nurture prospects through the sales process, assist with hiring, provide training and much more. For many organizations, including businesses, governmental entities, non-profits, educational institutions and others, it is becoming the primary means by which they interact with almost every one.
While this may seem overwhelming, it’s also not terribly relevant to this discussion, unless you are looking to deliver these specific services via your website. For many organizations, that’s way ahead of where they are now.
For the average company or non-profit, there is a single purpose that comes first, and everything else is an add-on. Almost everyone who is considering a relationship with your organization will look on-line to learn more about who you are, and what you offer. The site will not only tell a story about the quality of your organization, it will also provide what may be the only insight that person has about your areas of competence, and the products and services you offer. If they don’t see it, it essentially doesn’t exist.
For most organizations, it takes a lot of thought to succinctly describe what is really important to a wide range of complete strangers with different needs and interests, and to convince each one that this is an important area for you.
It’s important to have someone with technical skills and someone with design skills on your web development team, since you really need both to create a professional website. But that alone is unlikely to produce a website that will bring a stranger to the point where he or she feels comfortable that you are the right one to work with.
Your web developer may not have a team member who is intimately familiar with your industry, although that can help. However, they should have someone on the business side who is capable, with your help, of understanding your products, markets, customers and their needs. And that is the person that you should be talking to first.
By now, it should be clear that there is one basic function that your primary website should serve, and many possible ancillary functions. Some added capabilities may be really important (such as on-line account access for a bank), and much more involved than the basic website. Some specialized functions may be delivered through a separate website geared to a single purpose, such as hiring or lead collection. But the core website should generally convey the essentials of what you offer, for people who are considering a relationship with you.
However, there is one more essential feature of your core website. Your organization’s primary site should offer a window through which various ancillary services can be delivered to your customers, prospects and other constituencies. If the site is properly designed, this will be easy to accomplish.
Often, an ancillary function will involve a business system, such as a customer service application, a registration system, an e-commerce application (on-line store), or a blog or discussion forum. Under the hood, these functions may be provided by complex software applications which may operate on systems in a different data center, at a location remote from the website. If your website was correctly designed in the first place, you should be able to seamlessly integrate them into the site while preserving the original functionality.