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January 10, 2019

Fundamentals of Website Planning Every eCommerce Manager Should Know

Businesses and organisations recognise that planning is an essential factor for success. But, unfortunately, when it comes to website development, there is sometimes a failure to properly plan or no plans are made. This write up is therefore meant to serve as a guide to help organisations, businesses, and designers to plan and launch successful websites.

Recognising the purpose of a website 

Most business websites are created with the purpose of driving sales. Although the aim of a successful site is to engage, inform, and empower its visitors, the prime purpose, however, is to convert visitors to leads and ultimately turn leads into customers. Some visitors may purchase digital or tangible products through the website while others may come to relate in some way with the business, and eventually purchase products or services from it.

You should determine what the purpose of your website is, if it is not to make sales. It could be to persuade your visitors to take action such as making a donation, becoming a volunteer, or requesting more information.

Plans should be made for your website to be able to change over time. This is because any website has the potential to eventually grow into a sustainable source of income. 

Why plan?

Businesses and organisations both recognise the importance of planning. However, when it comes to web projects, there is often no proper planning or absolutely no planning at all. This might be due to the demanding nature of running a business. It could also be that certain organisations simply do not recognise the expertise, energy, time, and skill that building even the smallest website requires. It might be because people fail to recognise that web planning is just as important as the need to plan for any other part of their business.

What happens when you fail to plan?

  • The website developer or designer will have to make assumptions that may or may not be correct in regards to how certain content will appear on the site. The complexity of development is affected by the way the pages of the website are built which is, in turn, affected by how content is displayed.
  • It will lead to unnecessary back-and-forth communication which could have been avoided if things were figured out and gotten right the first time.
  • Leads to delays and missed deadlines due to backtracking.
  • Cost overruns that result from extra work which fall outside the scope of the original project.
  • Project confusion and client dissatisfaction. 

All these will result in a finished website that yields poor return on investment, fails to serve the intended audience, and falls short of its purpose.

Your website is the responsibility of marketing, not IT

The importance and value of online marketing for a business should not be underestimated. Most companies fail to recognise that building a website is not a purely technical endeavour. It should not be considered to fall in the domain of the IT department. The marketing department should take up the task of website building. Marketers, as communicators, should drive the design, structure, and content of your website. They should take the lead. This is because communicating with the public falls to them and it is what they do best. The role of IT will then be to ensure successful execution of the plan and keep the site running efficiently. They should only help to research and support the technical requirements that will drive online marketing goals. If a company happens to not have dedicated marketing resources, it should endeavour to engage qualified communicators to help in building its website. The right people for each task should be hired.

The “waterfall” method of website development

 IT departments that deal with large projects often use a method of development in which the phases comprise a series of steps which flow downward to the eventual completion of the project, in a way that every step is affected by the one before it. This is known as the “waterfall” method of development. Although it is a good idea in theory, in practice it can create the side effect of over-specification. It would require every minute part of the project from beginning to end to be detailed. Absolutely everything is specified, including the line length of page headers, the point size of the font, and the exact way a simple photo gallery is meant to function. The waterfall method is necessary for critical projects where there is zero allowance for error, for instance, in a situation where handling people’s money is involved. In building such projects, it is essential that everything should be specified in great detail before attempting even a single line of code.

However, web content is meant to be able to change at will over time. This means that using the waterfall method implies having to pre-plan every single minute aspect of the website. Therefore, since websites are supposed to be flexible, there should be a way of reconciling the inherent flexibility of the medium with the need for clear and detailed specifications. A set of design and content specifications could be created which could greatly reduce the possibility of mid-project glitches alongside creating a framework that will allow the growth of the site over time. Expansion should be possible, making a news section, for instance, able to move from handling ten news items to two hundred. Site editors should be allowed the flexibility to change headers, titles, reorder content, swap out key photos, etc. within the framework established in the planning stage. All these will be possible if the ideas presented below are properly implemented in a Content Management System (CMS).

Getting agile 

There is an approach known as Agile Development that is primarily used in software development but which could be applied to website creation. It needs to suit the skills of the project participants as well as their temperament and approach. You should be able to consider if this approach is suitable for your project by going through The Agile Manifesto.

It should be noted that Agile Development could take a little longer and cost a little more than the traditional methods. It can, however, be a very effective method for more complex websites. You should check out the level of comfort that your creative team has with it if you decide to try it. 

The value of paying for planning

Some businesses that need an estimate for their site are generally equipped with an idea of what they want to do and may have developed a list of pages or a simple site map. Others will offer a Request for Proposal (RFP). Most of these items, by themselves, are not enough in most cases to allow the generation of an accurate proposal. They could help to generate a very broad ballpark figure but are not enough to arrive at an accurate cost. 

Enter the needs assessment 

A needs assessment involves figuring out where a business has been, where it is going, and how it will get there. It is a vital step in the development of any website. There are three important things to remember here: 

  1. Your website must meet the needs of its audience
  2. A website is an extensible and flexible communication tool which reflects positively or negatively on your business. It is often the key contact point between the business and its customers
  3. Key internal stakeholders who have something valuable to contribute must be allowed to weigh in. 

Ensure that the site is in tune with the overall marketing

The needs assessment of a website may go hand in hand with other approaches and efforts of the marketing department. There should be consistency and continuity across all marketing efforts. The design and structure of your website should be informed by the marketing and established branding of your business to make sure that the business is held together.

Cost and timeline

You should mark out a realistic timeline and budget for your project. A proper needs assessment will take up about 5 to 15 percent of your total budget and 10 to 30 percent of the total allocated project time. 

The needs assessment: intake

You should make sure to prepare a series of questions for your intake meeting. This should start with the core ideas, business offerings, values, and messages and then get into more detail. The following questions are meant for small business but with proper modification can suit institutions, non-profits, and other types of organisations:

  • Mission statement: what the business is all about
  • Why the company or organisation was created
  • What perceptions will people have of the company through the website?
  • Describe your target audience
  • What is the most important thing visitors want from the site?
  • What is the most important thing that will be conveyed on the site?
  • Who makes up the competition? Recognise where such websites have succeeded and failed
  • What will indicate the success of the project?
  • List three or more websites you like and three you don’t like and find out why

There are no rules relating to the number of questions that should be asked, but it should ensure that enough time is allotted to this and that you dig deep enough. The questions should turn out different each time you go through the process as you tune into the needs of the business, identify new areas that need clarification, listen to responses, and uncover the necessary opportunities. 

The intake process should be all about the owner of the business. The website designer should pay attention, take notes, and obtain all the necessary information. Learning about the client’s business, message, and audience should be focused on. The provision of solutions should come later.

Why your brand is very important to building your website

Deciding on the look and feel of your website should be one of the first steps in the process of designing a website. Your brand, therefore, provides the framework on which the design of your website stands. The website should be an extension of your brand, and this means that your brand should come first before your website.


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James Cummings is a top online marketing analyst, brand expert and business psychologist. James has wide experience at senior managerial level and has helped deliver staffing solutions to some global brands. He has interfaced at board level with FTSE 100 companies and successfully managed multiple web projects across different niches to their full cycle. Working with a team of top level digital media professionals from around the globe, James’ WordPress portfolio currently spans over 40 properties. To see more, visit https://uk.linkedin.com/in/james-cummings-ceo.

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