Why Your Web Project Was a Waste of Time – And What to Do About It

by 7 11/22/2013

I’ve worked on a lot of website projects.  And I’ve seen the typical process…

The strategy meetings and planning sessions, the writing and design, and endless rounds of revision…

Only to end up with a website that, sure, looks pretty, but doesn’t actually perform any better than the original.

And do you know the biggest problem?

Most website owners aren’t even aware that they’re doing it wrong.

They’re pleased as punch that they have an attractive website, especially if it has a rotating banner, a web form and a modern design.

But we’ve passed the point that it’s cool simply to have a website. Everyone has a website. You’ve got to set your goal higher. You need to create a digital presence that accomplishes your business goals.

That means you need to do more than create a great design and selling copy. You need to begin testing to improve results.

In this article, I’m going to explain why the typical website project is a waste of time… and then show you a better way. We’ll talk about why “best practice” is wrong and how you can find what’s best for your own brand.

How most Web pages come to be

In so many cases, websites and Web project evolve something like this:

  1. The Web Manager needs to impress the C-Suite or the competition is looking a little too good, so the project begins. It’s usually a random decision: some new Web pages, a site overhaul, or a slew of landing pages.
  2. Brainstorming comes next—largely based on what competitors are doing and what looks “cool.” If you’re in a corporate setting, there will be lots of meetings with people saying things like, “We need to use you in the headlines,” and “The CEO should have a spot on the Home Page.”

strategy meeting

“Studies say we’ll get better results if we use ‘you’ in headlines more.”

  1. Finally, a plan is developed and the copywriter/designer are given their assignments. (Mind you, they often aren’t given the actual strategy that was developed during brainstorm sessions. Speaking as a copywriter, that’s a big mistake.)
  2. If this is a corporate website, the copywriter and designer already know what type of messaging/designs will meet approval. And they don’t want the project to drag on… and on… and on. So they draft something that’s sure to pass stakeholder review quickly and call it a day.
  3. Stakeholders review the pages. Since the copy is the approved messaging that’s been in play for years and the design is attractive, they give it a thumbs-up.
  4. The website is updated and everyone happily crosses “website update” off their to-do list.

The process isn’t too different for smaller businesses. The plan is still developed based on what the competition is doing and what “feels” right. And there’s still a big focus on completing the project in a timely fashion.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Before continuing, I need to say that yes, there are lots of companies that put more strategic insight into their Web projects than the scenario I just gave you. And if that’s you, I applaud you. However, you aren’t the norm.

More businesses than you might think see their website as a brochure or a store window, where people can peek inside and learn more about the “real” business. Marketing concepts such as the 4Ps are loosely adhered to. A call to action (or two or three) are placed on most pages, but overall, websites are seen as a once-and-done project.

As for strategy, whatever the Big Brands are doing is what must be right. Or whatever cool tactic is making headlines is viewed as best practice and adopted without question.

But what is best practice anyway? Isn’t it simply what seems to be working based on the large numbers of people doing it? Was there any testing done to prove best practice is indeed best?

And is it best for your industry?

Your customers?

Your business goals?

There is a better way

There’s a lot more that goes into a successful website than the desire for something different… a new design… or fresh copy.

Whole books have been written about the things you can do to optimize your site for traffic and conversion, but it boils down to a focus on business objectives and testing.

Look at the scenario outlined above. Decisions were made based on what seemed smart or pretty or clever, not on business goals or testing.

cartoon showing how optimization decisions are usually made

Source: tomfishburne.com

 I’m speculating here, but I think, since it’s so easy to set up a website, we don’t always make the connection that having a site isn’t the same as making that site perform.

We tend to follow a “build it and they will come” approach to web design. And if we get decent traffic, manage to show up on page one or two of the SERPs, have the site integrated with email marketing, social media and other digital channels, we see that as evidence that we know what we’re doing.

The trouble is, if we aren’t testing, we’re fooling ourselves.

We don’t really know what works. We’re just guessing.

The truth is, you can’t succeed by doing what other brands are doing… or what the CEO likes best… or writing one thing this month and something different next month to see if your traffic goes up.

So what’s the right way to approach your website project?

“Best practice” is an illusion. In most cases, it isn’t best. It’s just what everyone else is doing. It derives from copying someone who is known to do a lot of testing, like Amazon, or the top brand in an industry.

What’s actually best should be a personal thing. It should grow out of the data you gather on your website, based on your business objectives and your target audience.

You have to approach your website from a scientific perspective. You have to gather data, come up with hypotheses, and test what works. You have to be willing to put your opinions to the test and see if they’re really worth their salt.

Here’s a good process to follow:

Decide that conversion optimization is a priority, that website improvement will be ongoing, not one-off projects.

Before you start on any Web project, tie it to a business objective. This will keep you on track and focused. For example, if your business goal is to increase sales, then your website should be geared toward sales (online purchases or leads for your sales team). Your web pages should drive that action, either directly or by funneling them toward the purchase/opt-in.

Come up with several hypotheses as to how you can design/write the page to accomplish that goal. If you’ve been doing analytics and tracking online sales, you have data to help you make a good hypothesis. If not, you need to make your best guess. Essentially, you need an idea about how you can make individual Web pages perform better.

Give your copywriters/designers everything they need to complete the job—all the strategy and business objectives you came up with in planning. And permission to think outside the box. This is especially important if you use in-house writers and you’ve always asked them to follow an “accepted” way of saying things.

Test. Don’t just guess. It doesn’t matter who prefers which version of the design or copy. All that matters is which one meets the conversion goals for the page. And you reach that conclusion by testing.

Implement the winning versions, then look for other elements to test that might increase performance.

There’s a lot more to it than that, but it boils down to 4 basic steps:

pdsa cycle

Source: asq.org

  1. Plan – Come up with an idea about how to improve results.
  2. Do – Create the designs/copy to test your hypothesis.
  3. Check – Run an A/B test.
  4. Act – Make the winning test version your new control.

Over time, your page will evolve into something that connects with your target audience and gets them moving smoothly through your sales funnel.

But it starts with a willingness to delve into the data and figure out what needs testing… so you can design a new Web page that actually meets your business goals and drives conversions.

Will some tests flop? Sure. But that adds to your understanding about what works with your target audience.

The key is to track your results—the wins and the losses—so you can continually improve your website’s performance.

What about you? Have stepped up your game to make conversion optimization an ongoing part of your website development? What are your biggest challenges with testing?

About 

Kathryn Aragon is editor of The Daily Egg, publisher of the C4 Report and founder of Top Marketers Only. She is committed to helping businesses communicate, connect, convert... and capture their market. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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7 COMMENTS

Sara Parks

That is a great post! i totally agree and actually wrote a blog about the same thing this week. Feel free to check it out here.
The company should be focused on their audience and remembering that taking extra time to improve and test will pay off with happy customers!

November 22, 2013 Reply

    Kathryn Aragon

    Thanks, Sara. There’s so much more to get great results than simply doing the project. You nail that in your post. Thanks for sharing.

    November 22, 2013 Reply

Mary Rose Maguire

From a fellow AWAI member, I couldn’t agree with you more! You’re singing my song, Kathryn! First, copywriters should be included in the early stages of website development. Their insights can help the web design developers and make the site successful.

But what really gets me is test-averse teams. How do you know what works (and what doesn’t), if you’re not testing it? Marketing and sales is always a risk. I could get all Freudian here, and share my opinion of a wimpy culture but suffice it to say that too many marketers are willing to roll over and play dead.

If the marketing department wants a seat at the table, they need to show the big dogs why they need to be there. Testing (and the metrics and analytics to prove it) is their ticket. Great article!

November 22, 2013 Reply

    Kathryn Aragon

    Thanks, Mary Rose! I’ve been on both sides. When I’m part of the creative team, it’s frustrating to be brought into the project late, without having been part of the strategic planning. As a project manager, I value the input of the creative team. Their ideas can dramatically change the direction of a project–for the better. And testing is the only way to help them know what needs to be adapted for best results. Great points!

    November 22, 2013 Reply

Anand D

Granted that testing needs to be given utmost emphasis (as indicated in the post). But isnt the problem “unproductive testing” rather than “inadequate testing”?

With big brands outsourcing their testing activities to the so called specialized testing agencies, User acceptance is merely a myth as the actual business owners of the website are extremely disconnected with the test results and approvals..

But then, who can blame these testing agencies?- they hardly partake in the website strategy sessions and go by textbook best practices for approvals. There lies the flaw, in my opinion

December 2, 2013 Reply

    Kathryn Aragon

    You make some good points, Anand. But whether it’s inadequate testing or unproductive testing, the results are the same: We make strategic decisions based on opinion or personal preference, not hard data.

    December 2, 2013 Reply


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