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Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia (or Build a Website for No Reason)

Issue № 205

Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia (or Build a Website for No Reason)

by Published in Business, Project Management, Web Strategy · 48 Comments

At the head of the conference table paced a well-dressed man with a loosened tie, rolled-up sleeves, and an air of frustration. Sitting across the table from me was the web design team the man had hired to create a website about his pair of rare and identical 1964 muscle cars. And then there was me.

After a lengthy monologue from the client on the history of the Ford Mustang, the color mint, and the travel history of the two cars, the meeting turned into a flurry of to-do items: hire a photographer, scout locations for photography, scan logos, research the design style of the 1960s. Meanwhile, designers furiously sketched layouts to give the client an idea of how the website might look. This wasn’t a meeting, it was the Jerry Springer Show.

The web design team on the other side of the table were actually friendly competitors, and they’d asked me to tag along in the hope that my advertising education and experience would provide another “expert” opinion. So I watched the circus of mental high-fives passively while chewing on a dry turkey sandwich until the client, and president of the bank whose boardroom we occupied, turned to me and asked what I thought of all of this.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and put down the sandwich. “But I don’t really understand what you’re trying to do here. I know you want a website that has something to do with these cars, but what is this site for?”

The high-fives stopped. People adjusted themselves in their high-back leather chairs and the bank president stopped pacing and sat down. After a few minutes of discussion it became apparent that there was no objective or strategy in place. The project had no reason to exist except that the client wanted a website and the web designers sitting across from me liked money, so it seemed like a natural fit. Oops.

Why strategy?

The formation of strategy isn’t one of the most popular aspects of web development, but it should be. Strategy narrows the focus and purpose of a project to make it as effective as possible. Strategy helps contain the scope of work, direct the content creation process, and provide tactical direction to information architects. It also allows designers to design instead of just making pretty pictures, and it keeps developers focused on the right features. And, once the website has launched, you can keep the strategy around to help market the site through SEM, SEO, and, uh, EIEIO.

This isn’t rocket science, nor does this need apply only to large commercial endeavors. A simple strategy can be adopted to help all ranges and types of websites. Big companies can use strategy to determine how best to educate new users about their products and make it easy to purchase them. Likewise, a non-profit can identify a sub-set of particularly generous contributors and create a section of their website that appeals to this audience. Blog publishers can use strategy to formulate an editorial direction that increases readership. And in some cases, this plan can help rein in a client who is eager to add additional features, widgets, and gizmos.

But why me?

In a perfect world, the client would’ve had the business rules worked out prior to starting a project, leaving the designer to wallow in artistic brilliance while a co-ed rolls by on a Segway drinking a soy protein shake, but as you all know, utopia doesn’t exist and it’s almost impossible to drive a Segway with one hand.

Clients are often unable to form a clear objective and strategy due to a lack of time, a lack of experience, or a surfeit of bureaucracy, the kind that develops business rules that are more complex than the project itself.

So if the client doesn’t have it under control, it’s up to you.

No really, why me?

Strategy development may be a little outside your job description, but let me tell you from experience, you never know where you’re going to end up.

Tomorrow you could find yourself breaking free from the shackles of Office Space oppression and into the coffee shop wi-fi entrepreneur’s chair, or you might find yourself suddenly in charge of a group of people who are looking to you for direction. (Or not.)

Whatever your employment situation may be, a good strategy—or what Cameron Moll calls, “Raison d’ªtre” (he’s suave, that Cameron)—will provide a set of ground rules during development and after the site launches.

This is how we do it

Over the years several great web production books have outlined a complex process for documenting the focus of a site. This work starts with researching the current situation of a website’s audience, reviewing traffic reports and revenue details, doing competitive analysis, etc. This method also defines the target audience in detail by creating user personas.

Over the same number of years, I’ve written several of these documents for projects ranging from national advertising campaigns to a local comic book shop’s website and from telemedicine in rural Alaska to teleministry in Southern California. Throughout all these projects, one thing has remained a constant: those with clear, well-written, strategies ran smoother than those without—and ended up pleasing everyone, including the client.

In his classic book Secrets of Successful Websites, David Siegel writes:

A good web strategy fits in with the overall business strategy. It’s usually best to start with a focused, service oriented site and keep expanding from there. If you define the audience as “all teenagers” or “all people surfing from noon to 1 P.M.,” you will have to launch something the size of CNET to be successful.

In this single paragraph, David has identified the core of crafting a good strategy. Since Secrets of Successful Websites was published, several more books on the subject have come out, each containing a chapter that repeats or builds on what Dave said in the first place.

Back to the never-ending wisdom of Siegel, let’s pull out this gem: “It’s usually best to start with a focused, service oriented site and keep expanding from there.” “Focused” and “service oriented” are the secret to success and serve as the most basic instruction for crafting a simple strategy that will keep everyone focused.

The following approach is simple, focused, and service oriented…and you can adapt it for projects of any size.

Jim Avery knows strategy

I went to a university known more for its NCAA Division I hockey program than anything else. Somehow, I was fortunate enough to study the principles of advertising under a man named Jim Avery. Unlike the lifelong academics I had to endure in other classes, Jim came to academia after a career in advertising. His experience, practical know-how, and ability to teach led to a fantastic education in advertising, and strategy.

Through his approach to defining strategy for ad campaigns, which you can find in his book Advertising Campaign Planning, we can establish a strategy to give your websites purpose. It’s a two-part approach that involves establishing an objective and then crafting a strategy that will achieve that objective.

The objective

The objective describes what you want the website to do. It’s one sentence, and one sentence only, that uses clear English (no web or business mumbo jumbo) to communicate purpose. An objective for A List Apart might look like this:

To establish A List Apart as the magazine of choice for anyone who wants to create better websites.

The objective is broad in scope, and needs some strategy to pull it back to Earth. Note that the verb used at the beginning of the objective can be replaced with other actions like promote, increase, position, etc.

The strategy

Your strategy will define how you are going to achieve the objective you just developed. When it’s finished, the strategy will outline the who, what, and why of the website. A strategy for the above example might look something like this:

To convince anyone who wants to create better websites
to read A List Apart
instead of Reader’s Digest
because A List Apart actually has articles on the subject whereas Reader’s Digest contains none.

That’s it. Strategy is served.

As with the objective, the verbs in the top two lines of the strategy can be changed out but the last two lines must stay the same, because they identify your competitors and the rationale for choosing your site over the competition’s.

As I’ve stated earlier, this process can be more involved and detailed if the situation requires it. Otherwise, these four lines are all that’s needed to clearly define the site’s purpose, and in those cases where more is needed, this format can be used as a starting point to communicate the project’s core purpose.

Now let me try to write a version that summarizes what I’ve been trying to say in the last 1,500 words.

To convince ALA readers
to use strategy to define the purpose of a website
instead of ignoring it and moving right into production
because strategy brings focus to the project and serves as a framework for all the components that make up a website (IA, copywriting, design, development, marketing, janitorial services, etc.).

See. Easy, peasy.

The next step, of course, is to measure every new idea against the strategy to see how it fits. How does the site architecture and navigation support the focus of the site? How does the design appeal to the target audience? Will it cause users to follow the path laid out in the site strategy?

Oh, and when your clients call with a brilliant idea? Point them to the strategy and ask them how their epiphany will help achieve the objective.

This isn’t the be-all-end-all solution, but I hope it helps those who haven’t found an easy way to integrate strategy development into their workflow, and others who aren’t always involved in the decision making process. Use it, mix it, reword it; the main idea is to give a site a reason to exist…other than “someone has money and wants to build a website.”

So those cars

Back at the bank, the conversation started up again. While trying to communicate the reason for the existence of a website showcasing his cars, the client revealed that less than one-hundred people in all of the United States would likely be interested in obtaining the pair of classic cars by rental or purchase.

Upon hearing this, I suggested, much to the chagrin of my fellow designers, that the client might consider abandoning his idea for a website altogether and communicate to these people directly through a well crafted print campaign. That, however, is a topic for another article.

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