By Christopher Biddle
Successful web redesigns start with a strong focus on customers and the actions THEY want to take on your website. Follow these six steps to engage your customers and get results.
Remember the “good old days” of airline websites?
Air carriers used to splash pretty photos of stewardesses and dramatic pictures of planes in flight on their digital home pages.
Those graphically elaborate home pages were easy on the eyes. But try to book a flight? That wasn’t so easy.
Today, you can “book a flight” right on the home page of every airline. Why? Because that’s the one thing most of its website visitors want to do – buy a ticket to go somewhere. “Pretty” doesn’t cut it anymore.
The lesson here is that effective websites are customer-centric. They seek to engage customers and other target audiences to do the things THEY want to do in availing themselves of your products and services.
To build an effective website, put your customers first and take these six steps:
- Develop a Strategic PR Plan
- Research Your Target Audiences
- Make Your Website Audience-Focused and Task-Oriented
- Create Simple, Easy Paths to Follow
- Optimize Your Website for Search Engines
- Write and Post Your Own News Stories
1. Develop a Strategic PR Plan
When clients ask for a website redesign, I ask them a fundamental question: WHY? Why do you want to redesign your website? What do you hope to achieve? Who are your target audiences? What do you want them to do when they get there and why?
The answers to these questions provide a strategic understanding of the purpose of the redevelopment project. They explain how the new website will support your organization’s bottom-line goals and how it will integrate with other communication channels such as print publications, email, social media and the like. This information provides the basis for the development or modification of a Strategic PR Plan that will underpin the project.
2. Research Your Target Audiences
Many clients assume they “know” their customers or other target audiences. The president of a business association might say: “I know what our members want. We don’t need to research that.”
This is the most wrong-headed assumption any organization can make. You can never presume to “know” your target audiences. For one thing, every organization speaks to multiple audiences, each of which has different perceptions, interests and needs.
Audience research is a fundamental first step in any communication plan. Who are the key audiences on whom your organization depends for its success and survival? What is your relationship to those audiences? What do they want from you? Are you meeting their expectations? What obstacles stand in the way of a successful relationship? What will motivate them to do the things they want to do? How do they like to get their information (mail, email, social media, webinars, podcasts, face-to-face meetings)?
This research can be accomplished with the help of needs-assessment surveys, face-to-face meetings, thought-leader interviews and other feedback tools.
3. Make Your Website Audience-Focused and Task-Oriented
A single website cannot be all things to all people— not effectively, at least. First, based on your audience research, decide which of your target audiences you want to engage on the new website.
Next, make your website task-oriented. Drawing on your survey findings, identify the top things your customers have said they want to do, such as make a purchase, register for an event, download information, become a member, network with peers, or call for help. Then, use the home page as a “get started” portal, making it easy for people to start and complete these tasks.
Also, drawing on your survey findings, use the key words your audience members used to describe the things they’d like to do on your website. Put these words in the navigation, page titles, headlines and subheads. Do NOT use jargon, organization-speak, corporate mumbo jumbo, abysmal acronyms or overly technical language.
4. Create a Simple Structure with Easy Paths to Follow
The home page and main navigation bar should serve as gateways to simple paths audience members can follow to quickly do the things they want to do. These pathways should be structured in a logical manner, with clear sign posts guiding them to task completion.
Use simple and consistent key words and short headlines, subheads, sentences and paragraphs to lead people down the paths you want them to follow. Use prominent links or eye-catching graphics to lead people to take desired actions on each step of the way. Oversized words and endless paragraphs of dense text are death to a website.
5. Optimize Your Website for Search Engines
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the Holy Grail of modern web design. If your website is properly optimized, target audiences will easily find your web content when they search online for products or services related to your offerings. The goal is to have your web content appear at or near the top of search-engine results in your fields of endeavor.
One of my clients, a homeland-security-research group called CCICADA, is a national expert in stadium and large-venue security. It uses big data analytics and computer models to predict and manage crowd movements. The news stories posted on its redesigned website have led it to the top of search engine results in this area of expertise. If you enter “large venue security” into Google search, for instance, its posts on this topic will appear in the first, second and/or third position out of tens of millions of results.
You can pay a ton of money to have your website optimized for search engines, but this will do you little good if your website is not audience-focused and task-oriented, as described in steps 2 and 3 above.
If you want your website to appear at the top of search engine results, I also recommend having an experienced web developer host your new website on WordPress. Search engines like the WordPress blogging platform, but you are advised to optimize that platform using WordPress SEO plugins.
6. Write and Post Your Own News Stories
Storytelling is—and has always been—at the heart of effective public relations. No one responds to endless streams of dry information. We are drawn to stories about people, places and things we can relate to. We are drawn to compelling narratives.
Today, storytelling has a powerful ally—digital communications. Now you can 1) write and post your own news-style stories about your customers and how they are utilizing your products and services; 2) create your own online newsroom, replete with stories, videos, personal blogs and the like; 3) use social media and email campaigns to distribute these stories; and 4) continually post fresh content.
A news-style story is one that conveys useful information, contains links to authoritative outside sources, and is not obviously self-promotional.
These stories bring your organization’s mission, products and services alive for your target audiences, capturing their interest and engaging them to take actions on your website. This is called “content marketing” or “brand journalism.”
But you can’t post these stories any which way on your website. Search engines like news-style stories posted on a blog platform. Nothing will optimize your website better for search engines than a robust news blog continually updated with fresh content.
There’s no magic to this six-step approach. It takes hard work and much careful thought, but it yields measurable, bottom-line results. As for design, that’s important, too. Your website should certainly look professional and be pleasing to the eye, but this should never be the primary focus of your “redesign.”
To know if your redesign is successful, you will also need tools to measure that success to ensure you are getting desired outcomes.
Biddle’s Bottom Line: If you want bottom-line results, make your website audience-focused and task-oriented.
Christopher Biddle is President of Biddle Communications & Public Relations (BiddlePR) in Moorestown, NJ, and President-elect of the New Jersey Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.