Building a website, and a business, is a hard thing to do. Often, businesses and webmasters plan their site, and even start creating it, then flounder. They panic about how the website is going to be received, does it look good or bad.
"It’s rubbish", they cry, "I’ll never build a brand with a website like this!" "Relax", we say, "here’s how to get over those mental bumps, and get your site out in the world (hopefully) making some money."
The rest of this article assumes that you’ve decided on your market and done your keyword research so you know the rough 'direction of travel' for your website. You have, somewhere, a map of what it will look like and which keywords each page will be optimized for.
But if you’re a human being (which this article also assumes you are) then it's very easy to get your website ready in ‘draft’ form sat on your server unpublished. Tweaking bits and pieces might seem like a good idea, but it’s often just procrastination dressed up as something else. It’s hard to launch a site, it’s a big psychological step, which is why I’ve written this. To push you from a few lines of code to a living, breathing site.
1) Build a bazaar. Not a cathedral.
A classic techie metaphor, first coined by Eric Raymond but also a philosophy that any business can and should adopt. Here’s how it goes. (I’m departing from the original text now).
Milan Cathedral, Italy, is a breathtaking piece of Gothic architecture. If you ever get the chance to visit, you really should. But it took six centuries to build.
The Arab world doesn’t have many cathedrals, but what it does have its bazaars. Once upon a time, an entrepreneur set up a stall to sell his wares. It was successful, so soon others joined him. And eventually a bazaar was born, an impromptu shopping mall, if you will.
You need to make sure you’re building a bazaar and not a cathedral. The problem with taking 600 years to build something is that it’s quite hard to be sure that what was useful then is still useful now. What if people decide to worship somewhere else, or whoever is supposed to be financing the project gets bored and moves on? 600 years is a long time. If your website is a cathedral, by the time it actually goes live it may not still be relevant or useful. Or you may have decided to re-focus your business on something else.
A business built like a bazaar however, can adapt to an ever-changing market place. And quickly. Small but frequent changes to your site, in line with customer demand, will make your site better and better over time. And keep it relevant to your market place.
So in summary, publish early. Publish often. And, if you have so much as a page that’s finished, even if it’s not perfect, even if it’s not really any good, publish it now. Yes, now.
2) ‘Listen’ to your customers
The absolute key advantage to publishing early and often is that you get to respond quickly to customer feedback. But to do that you need to be able to hear them. Some of them will make an effort to get in touch, but most won’t. That doesn’t matter.
If you install Google Analytics (or another analytics provider if you wish), you can look at what content your visitors are reading and what (where applicable) they’re doing. Over time, as the site develops, the data you can get from here will be more and more helpful.
3) What do you want your customers to do?
You want your website to be the most beautiful thing on the web (understandably). But quite often users won’t behave how you want them to. Or anything like it. You can’t assume they’ll understand what your site is about. You need to make it absolutely, 100% clear.
What do I mean? I mean that if you want them to buy something, make it obvious. Make a big red ‘Buy’ button the first thing they see. If you want them to call you, put a number there instead. Prefer they sign up to an email address? Make the sign-up box as obvious as it can be. Check out MailChimp.com This is the home page.
Instantly you can see what the site is about, and the ‘Sign Up’ button is displayed prominently. Notice the cheeky ‘Need convincing?’ below it? They haven't inundated you with sales copy, with an apologetic ‘Buy Now’ at the bottom of the page. They’ve just laid it on there - this is the product, this is what it does, sign up now.
Boom. Sure, not everyone will sign up, so they’ve got more information for those who need it. But notice how easy it is for customers to buy. The site doesn’t look brash or unsophisticated, it looks confident. In the early days of your business, and even the late ones, this is a great model to follow.
At this stage you won’t have any traffic to test different designs, so just make it loud and make it proud. This is not the time for finesse. (If, when you have some traffic, you want to do some A/B testing cheaply, check out UnBounce.com They’ve got loads of landing page designs, with newsletter sign-ups too.)
4) What do you need your site to do?
It’s very easy to pretend that your site needs to be a top of the range, technological masterpiece, or else it won’t succeed. This is rarely the case.
If, say, you’re a freelance photographer, you’ll need a website to showcase your work, but do you actually need your website to be able to accept payments? Or link up with your Facebook page? The answer is, probably not. Your customers will most likely buy your products regardless. A photographer will need some contact details and examples of his or her work, but not much more.
The photographer's website could potentially do its job with one page, at least in the early stages.
Rather than waste time making your site perfect, get it to the minimum standard quickly. Then you’re ready to start marketing.
5) Market your site, but slowly. And cheaply.
It is phenomenally easy to throw money away on advertising. Businesses do it every day. At this stage, when your site is a little raw, you can’t afford to do this. But you can, and should, do some marketing.
a) Start with the free stuff
Tell Google you exist You won’t get any SEO traffic at the very beginning (no one will know your brand, and Google won’t crawl your site immediately) but as word spreads, you need to make sure you can get free clicks from brand searches at least. And with time, some generic ones. Now create a Google+ page and a Google+ local page.
b) Start a (small) PPC campaign
These are great for building brand awareness (you only pay when someone clicks on your ad, so you can get your URL in front of eyeballs for free). You'll also get a feel for which keywords convert for you in the absence of any SEO data.
6) You can now make some decisions.
You might have a sale at this stage, you might not. But now you have a little traffic you can start analyzing your data to make smart choices about your business. What is your traffic doing? Is it staying on your site or is it viewing one page then leaving? Do you think you’re attracting the right audience, or are they leaving because your content isn’t good enough? Think about the keywords people are using. What are they really looking for? Can they get that from your website? Is it obvious?
There are a thousand insights you can get from data. And each one can give you an idea of where the site can go next.
7) Plan your next iteration.
Yes. When I said publish early and publish often, I really meant it. Get into the habit of planning, then doing, developments frequently. (We do ours every two weeks). If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll find it hard to work strategically. So you’ll end up doing the things that are easy, or the things you enjoy doing, rather than focusing on the needs of the business. The stuff that needs doing but takes a lot of time, or is just boring, will get pushed further and further into the long grass.
Similarly, you don’t want to build a cathedral. 600 years is a long time in web world, and you need to stay relevant. If you leave it too long between iterations (ie, updates of your site), you’ll find that your new developments are not as relevant as they once were. The market may have moved on and you’ll be left behind.
Once you have your first sale, you’ll be in a position to make decisions based on what’s going to bring you the best return. Is it creating more content or improving what you already have? Maybe it’s time to start your link building? We can’t tell you what to do next, you need to look at the data and decide.
But remember, publish early and publish often. Your business development will then be based on data, not hunches. And you’ll make more money as a result.
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