The DCL Group: An IT Management Consulting Company

Planning Your Website's Goals and Objectives

By: Charles J. Lovey, Managing Member, The DCL Group LLC

The best websites - those that visitors enjoy using and that fulfill the needs of their owners - do not necessarily dazzle with high end technology or state of the art multimedia displays. They do, however, reflect the results of careful planning, a well defined set of objectives and a clear sense of identity.

For all of the unique aspects of communicating on the web, the early phases of a web site project are much the same as any other advertising or media initiative. Before pages are laid out or content is developed, it is imperative that these key questions be answered:

•    What is the purpose of the website?
•    Who are we trying to reach?
•    What does our target audience want and how will we attract them?
•    Who are our competitors? How will we differentiate ourselves?
•    How will our business identity (branding) be reflected on the site?
•    What are our expectations for our web presence? How will we define success?

Commonly, businesses will not have the answers to all of these questions at the inception of the website project. However, the time and effort expended in addressing these issues early in the process is critical. Many web project dollars have been wasted as unfocused development efforts failed to satisfy client expectations and later needed to be redone.

The following sections will help to focus your thinking on these key strategic issues.

Basic Purposes of Websites
In fundamental terms, websites are used to fulfill one or more of these eight objectives:

•    Entertain
•    Inform
•    Sell
•    Promote
•    Distribute
•    Research and report
•    Foster or serve community
•    Facilitate workflow

Even the largest and most successful commercial sites seldom attempt to fulfill more than two or three of these objectives. The cornerstone of your web planning effort will be to articulate a mission statement for your site that clearly identifies and prioritizes the site's basic purposes. An example of an appropriate mission statement for a small manufacturing company might be:

The primary goal of our website will be to promote our company's image and products with profiles of our company and key personnel, information about our products, product announcements, press coverage and user testimonials. We will secondarily seek to foster a sense of community among our product's users by means of e-mail and/or other online interaction.

Note that in our example clear primary and secondary purposes have been identified in conjunction with some high level ideas as to appropriate content. Nothing is yet established as to how that content will be delivered - for example, the goal of "community interaction" may be served via simple e-mail exchanges, or it may take the form of a sophisticated (and significantly more expensive) on-line chatroom. A review of the various options and their costs and benefits will take place in the later planning phases; for now the idea is to determine the "big picture" of the site's mission.

Identifying the Audience
Identifying the target audience is closely aligned with the overall mission of your website. Some of the basic purposes outlined above clearly suggest that the site's mission will be to provide an additional vehicle for a company's existing constituency - it's current customers, vendors, suppliers and employees. Other basic purposes will suggest that the business reach out to new and potentially unknown constituencies.

The "internet boom" of the '90's produced its share of horror stories as some companies forecast wildly optimistic sales growth based on new e-commerce initiatives. The competitive landscape quickly became overcrowded and many rosy projections went unfulfilled.

Savvy businesses have learned from this experience and are generally adopting a more conservative posture with regard to their online presence. Many small and medium sized companies who are only now establishing a significant online identity are gearing their initial efforts to appeal largely to their existing constituents.

In such instances, businesses are generally very capable of defining their audience in terms of demographics, attitudes, preferences, and buying habits. They may, however, be unaware of how their current constituents utilize the web. Often this information is easily obtained via direct inquiry, and by examining how competitors are utilizing their web presence to augment their businesses.

Some businesses will have compelling reasons to pursue an online audience that is significantly different than their existing constituencies. In such cases, it is essential to gather information about the target audience. Trade associations, area demographic reports, and news and trade journals can all be useful sources.

Finally, even if a business targets its website squarely at a very well defined constituency, surprises will be forthcoming. After the website is launched, a variety of methods can provide information about a site's visitors. Businesses who track this information consistently find that the profile of the on-line audience or market is skewed from their "target" audience in any number of ways - and they adapt accordingly. Even the best conceived site will require ongoing revision as more is learned about the site's audience and how they are using the website.

Competitive Positioning, Differentiation, and Branding
We firmly believe that a clear sense of purpose and a knowledge of the target audience are and should remain the key issues in developing a website. Nonetheless, it would be shortsighted to plan a company's web presence without considering competitive issues.

Among your best resources in the early planning stages of a website are the sites of your company's most respected competitors. If they have established a strong web presence, it is likely that they have learned from experience and developed formatting and content which resonates with their target audience. Play the role of a user and go through their site. Get a feel for features that command your attention and draw you in to their pages. Use these feelings and images to generate ideas for your own site.

While you are at it - learn from your competitor's mistakes! You will occasionally hear a business owner complain that his website is generating no interest and no traffic. A visit to the website will often confirm that it is poorly conceived, with no sense of purpose, flawed navigation and design, an unappealing graphic layout, and superficial, dated, or incomplete content. Again, go through the site as a user would. Get a feel for what you don't like, and vow to do better on your own website.

As you look through various websites, you will find that the best of them have a distinctive "look and feel." The various features seem to belong together. Each page has a distinctive presence that ties it to the rest of the site and leaves a lasting impression with the user.

What you are sensing is no accident. It is the result of carefully developed branding - the creation of an immediately recognizable identity for a company, product or service. In website specifics, branding is reflected in everything from font selection, page layouts, color schemes and logos to the site's domain name, writing style and editorial voice.

The details of each of these items will be addressed in later phases of the development process. For now, think in broad terms of the image you would like the website to convey for your business - conservative or flamboyant? contemporary or traditional? formal or casual? coolly professional or warmly personal? Come up with a list of adjectives that you would like to hear your target audience use in describing your website.

Decide early on the nature and extent of the tie-in necessary with existing non-web media and/or marketing materials. Corporate logos and color schemes are obvious examples of items which should be kept consistent between the website and off-line material. Consider also any imagery or symbols which are strongly linked to the business identity, or which are consistently used in the company's marketing and public relations initiatives.

Defining a Successful Website
Because websites can have so many different purposes, defining and measuring success is a very fluid and inexact process. Tracking the number of visitors to the site is a common and valid metric - it is the rare site that can fulfill its business purposes if almost no one is looking at it.

But while traffic counts are often seen as an end in themselves, they are really just a beginning. A website devoted to fostering community among a small and select group of users might be considered quite successful if it generates a few hundred unique visitors a month, while a large e-commerce site may generate many thousands of visitors each day and still be seen as a failure if it does not convert that traffic into revenue.

In the early stages of planning your website, it is helpful to think in terms of qualitative rather than quantitative measures of success. Depending on the goals articulated in your website's mission statement, some of the following metrics may be appropriate to your purposes:

•    Positive feedback from existing customers about the website
•    An increase in new customer relationships
•    An increase in sales activity
•    Favorable media attention to the website or its contents
•    Backlinks to your site from other websites
•    Evidence of referral activity to your site from existing users
•    Decrease in customer service calls or customer complaints
•    Number of user registrations at the site
•    Response rates to online surveys and subscriptions
•    Increased employee productivity and morale

Summary and Conclusion
Creating a new website for your business can be a rewarding and satisfying experience. Thinking through the various possibilities for your on-line presence may even give rise to other ideas for enhancing your business and improving efficiencies.

To recap the early stages of the planning process, it is essential to address the "big picture" questions relating to the purpose of your website and the profile of your target audience. You will want to create a mission statement for the web project that will clearly identify the site's objectives and their relative priorities. This statement will serve as the cornerstone for all of your related planning efforts.

You will need to consider your target audience and determine what will attract them to your website. In the case of an existing business seeking to appeal to an established constituency, this information is often well known from the inception of the project. In other cases, extensive research on the audience's demographics will be required.

Your early planning should include a review to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the websites of your major competitors. Identify the specific aspects of their sites which work well and which work poorly, and develop an overall sense of their on-line identities. In completing this task you will almost surely begin to develop some strong opinions as to what must be included (or avoided at all cost) on your own site. You will also begin to sense how your corporate identity differs from theirs, and to formulate a theme for the branding of your site.

All of these issues are inexorably tied to the company's overall expectations for the site and the measurements to be utilized in assessing the success of the web project. Keep in mind that while traffic counts are valuable, many other measures (some of which may be highly specific to the underlying business) may ultimately prove far more useful in measuring the website's impact.

The DCL Group: An IT Management Consulting Company
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