The one thing every successful site has to have

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If you’re hoping to get more conversions on your website, you need more than a clear call to action, strong copy, compelling headlines, great visual styling and a streamlined user experience. You can have a successful site without hitting any of these. Just look at Craigslist. But there is one thing that every successful site has in common. One thing without which even the best website cannot succeed. One thing which you absolutely, positively, one hundred percent have to have if you are to be confident that your own site will succeed.

A clear objective

I do a lot of consulting on many different kinds of websites, to many different sorts of people. Of these, a sizable number share a common problem: They have a website which is getting modest traffic; maybe even a nice low bounce rate—but it’s just ticking over, providing an online presence and not much else. They want to know how to make it more successful.

Well, the thing about success is that it’s simply a matter of achieving an objective. That’s the very definition of what success is. So if either you or your website aren’t clear on what your objective is, then success becomes basically impossible. Shooting in the dark is a sure-fire way to fail as a business online.

Since success online is so often defined in terms of conversions, let me make an observation: When people talk about increasing “conversions”, they often assume this means getting users to pay for a product. But it can mean getting them to sign up for a newsletter, or subscribe to an RSS feed; or prompting them to wade into a discussion or offer feedback on something—or even just planting a seed in their minds so that one day they come back to you for something when they need it. You can’t know what “conversion” means for your website until you know what you’re trying to achieve with it. “Conversion” is whatever your site’s objective says it is.

Clarifying your site’s objective in your own mind

It’s fairly rare for people to have no idea what their site is for. But it’s equally rare for them to have a really good idea of it. Despite the fact that building and maintaining a website can be quite the investment, a lot of organizations do it just because they think they have to have one. Then they feel vaguely uncomfortable about its existence, because it’s not actively justifying its existence in any obvious way. They have a general sense of how it should be doing this—but they’ve never quite put it down on paper.

This is easily fixed. Put it down on paper! Either the internet is important for your business model, or it ain’t. If it ain’t, cut your losses and stop paying hosting and domain registration bills every year. But if it is (and let’s face it, it probably is), then you have a clear place to start for determining your site’s objective—or objectives, since most sites have more than one.

Get specific by writing down objectives

Mostly, the problem people face is not a complete confusion or bewilderment about the point of their site. On the contrary, it’s that they have just enough understanding that they’ve never realized that there’re no clearly-defined goals. It’s this lack of clearly defined reasons for a site’s existence which prevents it from being a strong asset to an organization. Listing the reasons (preferably in writing, so that you can revise and refine them) is all that’s needed to establish a clear set of objectives to be met—which can then be immediately compared to the current performance of the site and give you a good idea of where to start making changes.

Clarifying your site’s objectives in its users’ minds

An obvious by-product of a site which was built with no clear objectives in mind is that no clear objectives are discernible to its users. This is why so many sites are missing three key design elements:–

  1. a compelling headline,
  2. engrossing copy,
  3. and a clear call to action.

If a site omits these, it’s going to struggle. And if you’re considering hiring a web designer whose own site omits these, look elsewhere. You can have the most stunning visual style in the world; the slickest effects; the most user-friendly forms and who knows what else—but with the hammer falling empty on those first three chambers, your site isn’t going to be hitting anything.

In your defense, the first thing that any web designer who isn’t a complete gibbon will say, when you ask for a website (before he even thinks about giving you a price range or proposal), is: what’s it for? And then, once he knows, he’ll make sure the site meets your goals. Hence, when you fill in a project brief for me, you’ll find that the site’s objectives are stressed as key to the project outcome. And it’s why all my proposals start with a clearly-defined objective to be achieved. Because I’m not a gibbon.

Treating your site like any other part of your business

The moral of this increasingly lengthy diatribe (and I am wont to give a moral) is: your organization’s resources aren’t magically excluded from your business model just because they exist in the ether.

A website is like a billboard, a brochure, a shop, a whitepages ad, an answering service and a press release all rolled into one. You expect to pay through the nose for these things in real life, because you expect them to all produce a sizable return on investment—which you map out with careful research and clearly-stated goals. It’s time to start thinking that way on the web.

D Bnonn Tennant
‘The Information Highwayman’

D Bnonn Tennant, ‘The Information Highwayman’, signs his name to this

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