Your boss has finally decided that this 'world wide web' thing isn't going away anytime soon, and your company needs to get with it. Or, all your competitors have web sites, and your customers are starting to ask where yours is. The task gets delegated to you - create a corporate web presence.
What do you do now?
Before calling in the consultants, spend some time planning and thinking about what your company wants and needs. This will save a lot of time and money in the long run. A web site can be anything from a single page describing your business and contact information to a 10,000+ page information kiosk with on-line selling and every internal corporate document available for public viewing. Your company will probably want something between these two extremes.
The first question to ask yourself is "Why do we want a web site?" ("Because the boss says so" is not an acceptable answer.) A good web site needs to have a purpose - is it to provide education? to sell your products over the web? gather sales leads for traditional marketing methods? entice potential corporate investors? What is it that you want your site to tell, or sell?
Your web site will be visited by many people, for many different reasons. However, the type of visitor you cater to will say a lot about your company, and will determine which of them visits again. Selecting a small number of specific goals will allow you to focus initial development in those areas. Keeping longer-range goals in mind will ensure you design for expansion, so it won't require a complete rebuild of the web site every time you want to add a new section, feature or function.
Once you've decided on the main purpose for your site, the next step is to think about your audience - what type of people are you trying to attract? What types of information will they be looking for? What types of tasks will they want to perform?
Existing customers may want to track orders, or find out about upgrades, add-ons and patches for products they have. Potential customers will want to check specs on particular products and perhaps know about delivery times. Your own sales people may want to know stock on hand. Potential employees will want to know about job openings. Investors will want to see financial reports and projections.
What type of internet access are these visitors likely to have - high speed T1 connections from a corporate office, or slower dial-up lines from their homes? The slower their connection, the fewer graphics you'll be able to use, because they won't wait around for long download times.
How much experience are your visitors likely to have with computers? with the web? with your products and your corporate structure?
What is the main content you're going to include? What will be of value and interest to your visitors? How can it be organized in a way that will be logical to an outsider? Let the content dictate the page design, don't force content to fit into a pre-designed page template. Studies have shown that the most useful sites let the content define the layout, not the other way around (see http://www.uie.com/). At the same time, you want a consistent navigation scheme across the site, and a consistent look and feel.
What style do you want - corporate official? fun and friendly? hard sell marketing? The web site should match your overall corporate scheme, including colors, logos, style, and look and feel. Get out some of your most recent marketing materials and customer mailings, and use them to get ideas. You don't want to replicate your brochures on-line - the web is a dynamic new medium, and must be treated as such.
How much information do you want on you web pages, and how will it be organized? Try to think like a typical user (or better yet, call some and ask them) - how will they expect to see things organized? What terms and categories will make sense to them? Your customers don't care about the internal organization of your company, they want the information organized in a way that makes sense to them. You'll want your site to have a nice balance of depth vs. breadth - not too many subjects or links on any one page, but users should be able to get to any information in about 3 clicks.
There are also some technical questions that will have to be addressed. Do you need your own domain name? A standard package would include your web site as a sub-site on your ISP's (internet service provider) site, for example http://www.umsl.edu/~acs, where "acs" is the sub-site on the ISP "umsl.edu". An example of a company with it's own domain name is http://www.cfgastco.com - the Carl F. Gast company. Having your own domain name will cost more - an extra $50/year to register the name, and up to twice as much per month in hosting charges. The advantages are that you get a shorter address (easier for people to remember and return to), and you can change ISP's later without having to change your address (like you can change long distance companies without changing your phone number).
Do you want to build repeat traffic to your site, or build an on-line community? If you want visitors to come back again, you need to change content often (at least monthly). If you want to build a reputation as experts in a particular field, you need to give away information to prove your knowledge of the subject. If you want to build a community around your web site and products, you need to include ways for your site's visitors to interact with each other, such as chatting capability.
What about getting feedback from the people who visit your site? You should include email links on every page so users can report problems with the site. But do you want to collect information about your visitors? If you include a survey, you can request specific information from web site visitors, but they will expect something in return. Most people balk at being asked to register before being able to view a site, but if you offer them something in exchange they will provide personal information. Perhaps you can put them on an email list for announcements of upgrades or new releases (but keep the announcement emails infrequent and brief, with a pointer to the web site for those who want more information). With a form instead of a free-form email link, you can control the type of info you ask for, but this may also limit the type of feedback you get.
Once you have an idea of what you think you'd like, draw some quick sketches and test them out on people. You can use co-workers at first, let them go through you paper site, and see where they have problems. It's much easier to erase on paper than to recode on the computer. You can also ask some outsiders (who are not so familiar with your company) to try a run-through as well. What are they looking for that's not there? Where do they get lost? If 2 or 3 of your "test subjects" have problems at the same place, the design needs to be changed.
By this time you should have a good idea of what you want. Now you need to decide if you can have it. What is the time line and budget for building and maintaining the site? Is there a budget range? Do you want to build everything at once, or start small and add sections over a longer time?
Talk to local web developer groups and other local companies with web sites to find developers who work on the scale you want, and are familiar with your industry - a good referral is always better than a choosing blind. If youre building a large site, you may want to hire a web design consulting firm to help you write an outline and request for proposals, to articulate some of these issues. Then you can send the proposal out for bids from several competing web site design firms. Or, if you're comfortable with the firm that helped design the proposal, let them then implement the design and build the web site.
Someone will need to maintain the site and make changes - will this be done in house, or will you out source it? If you're going to make the changes in house, make sure the person who will be doing the maintenance participates in the design and development so they understand the architecture of the site, and how much time it will take to make changes. If you decide to contract out the maintenance, estimate how much work this will be, and look into either a monthly retainer or straight hourly charges. Do you want all changes to filter through one person, or will you let each department submit new information directly?
Someone will have to check email and questions that come in from the web site at least daily (more often if your site gets higher traffic). this will most likely be done by someone in house who knows your product line well. Most internet surfers are impatient - they'll at least want a response within 24 hours indicating their question was received and is being looked into, if the answer itself can't be returned immediately. If your company is unwilling to make a commitment to answering e-mail promptly, don't offer email forms on the site, or include a note indicating how long a reply is likely to take.
This article has given you a lot of questions. Start thinking about them and writing down the answers, and you'll be well on your way to building a valuable resource for your company and the rest of the on-line world.
The author, Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., has been a scientific software consultant since 1992, and has been developing web sites for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries since 1994. She welcomes comments on this article.
Originally published in Chemical Web Marketing and Technology September 1998.
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