I am a champion of “The Never-Ending Website” idea. We must find ways to be smarter about how we design and build them, and how we keep them alive.
In this post, I’m going to share some ideas to empower you to do that. The goal of a never-ending website? To create and manage a digital strategy that can support the needs of the organization long-term, and that requires slow and steady iteration vs. radical redesign.
And most importantly, to get your organization to stop investing significant funds and time into new website initiatives only to have to throw them away and start from scratch several years into the future.
Ideally, we should be creating an ecosystem that will empower your brand to be “easily alive” — always on, engaged with your target audiences, evolving with your organization. Digital is no longer the last stop on the brand train. Digital refers to a manner of existence as much as it does a medium.
“Digital” is the increasingly complex system of tributaries carrying vital messages and nutrients to and from the heart of your organization and out to those who are engaging with you, in all the interactive places that can occur.
There are four very important aspects that need focus in order to develop the never-ending digital ecosystem. Don’t let anything else come into the discussion if it’s not about audiences, channels, actions, and content.
Consider first your organization’s mission. You exist for other people in most cases, so why do you exist for those people? What do they need from your company or organization? Break them down into the most important groups, if they have different needs. Let’s use Apple as an example. Here is an excerpt from their current mission statement:
"Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and Internet offerings.”
This snippet gives us some of the key audiences, and some ideas around what kinds of content they will be most likely to engage with, and that we want them to ultimately be consumers of these offerings. We can also begin to think about what channels might be best to reach these audiences. So a simple mission statement snippet can get us going in fleshing out our approach.
As you dive into examining how to keep your website and digital brand alive in perpetuity, you’ll want to start out thinking about your audiences. Who are they? What makes them different? Why do they (or should they) care about your organization?
At Fastspot, we try to do our audience work during our Discovery and Strategy phases which are very early in our process. We work on everything from creating personas based on audience interviews and surveys, to creating journey maps, to mapping content strategy directly to audience types.
We also try to draw connections between audiences and internal content creators. Who is talking to whom? What does the internal stakeholder team expect to be managing and accomplishing? Is the organization or business staffed accordingly to support these audience needs?
This is a supply and demand issue and must be figured out before a successful strategy can be implemented.
Once you’ve mapped out your audiences, think about the channels you might use to interact with them. What do you want your engagement to be like on Twitter? Do you have email campaigns planned? Who do you want to be following your corporate account on Instagram? What kind of channel will you be managing on LinkedIn? Is your organic SEO plan in place? Are you going to spend money on paid SEO?
Does each channel have different kinds of audiences? What kinds of actions are audiences on those channels looking to take? What kinds of content are most successful on those channels? Do you have publication calendars and know who is responsible for each channel?
It’s important to spend time on these channels, and study the information they are reporting on when it comes to their users. There will be plenty to dive into that will help you understand what works best when you think about channel-specific content strategy.
You can also study your own website analytics to get some idea of how people are currently using those channels. In Google Analytics, click into the Acquisition section, then click into All Traffic. If you explore within that section you can see tons of information about what search terms audiences are using to find you, what channels are most productive, who is linking directly to you, etc.
Analytics can also tell you a lot about whether audiences are taking actions you want within your website. We recommend assigning dollar values to high value actions, so you can literally see if your website content is generating value for you. For example, a user filling out our contact form is very valuable for us, so when that form triggers a “thank you” page, we know someone filled out and submitted the contact form. Scanning Google Analytics' $$ column let’s us easily see if our site or channels are providing value to our organization.
From there, we can look at the pathways the user took through the content, and try to determine when they decided to take action as they were moving through the content. Even thinking about your content in this way should affect how you set it up — and how you ensure analytics is working to track a user and their behavior.
Within the Google Analytics dashboard, click on Behavior, then Site Content, then All Pages. This gives you a breakdown of how how users are consuming your website content by page. Another interesting comparison is to add in a Secondary Dimension. You can do this by clicking on the drop down field that says Secondary Dimension, below “Page” that exists at the top left of your main data table as you’re viewing the All Pages Behavior data. Type in the word “domain” at the search field at the top of that dropdown to quickly pull up the option to select Users: Network Domain. Select that as a secondary dimension, and now you can see much more specific detail about “who” is clicking on your content. We look at this set of data several times a day, and it can be extremely revealing!
We also consider the different pathways users follow within the digital ecosystem channels. For example, where does their journey start? A search on Google? Through a shared post on social media? Through an email correspondence that asks them to visit your site? There are an untold number of variations here, but your organization is probably only concerned with a few key pathways. If you’re not sure how audiences are getting to you, ask them. A quick survey on your site or digging into your analytics can provide key information in understanding user pathways.
Code and Theory wrote a fantastic case study on their work with Maybelline, and referred to an approach to content development that I really like, called “Bites, Snacks and Meals.” They also encouraged their client to get away from thinking about channels as silos and instead look for “systems.” Ideally, you create journeys and pathways for your audiences to move amongst those channels that are more representative of a system not a silo. As you create these systems, you must be considerate of what kinds of content you’re offering your audiences along the way.
Not every audience wants to start out with a “meal” when it comes to content, and some channels are not appropriate for asking users to take lots of actions.
Identifying how audiences behave, and what actions you’re trying to encourage can have a significant impact on how you create and distribute your content. Today’s digital consumer uses multiple channels, for various needs and with different outcomes in mind.
For example, a user on Twitter is probably not expecting to make a big time commitment to reading or engaging, but they may flag things for future exploration through “favoriting” or “retweeting”. Studies show that users will often share something before they have finished reading it, or after only reading the headline. If you’re not encouraging audiences to share your content (at the top of a long post) — you’re missing a good percentage of your sharing potential based on user behaviors. They are looking for bites more than snacks. And they want to share those bites within their own social networks, so make sure you make it easy for them to do that. But where do those bites lead them? What doors may those bites open for that user to connect with an organization on a more robust channel like Facebook or the primary website? Why would they want to take that journey and take the actions you’re hoping they will take?
A focus on audience, channels, actions and content should allow you to come at any new initiatives with a renewed focus and a way to measure the outcomes of that effort. If you aren’t rock solid in these four aspects of your communication efforts, you’re taking a shotgun approach motivated more by ego and internal representations than by real meaningful marketing initiatives.
By narrowing your focus, you will soon realize that quality content is a “must-have”, not an accidental occurrence. Quality content drives people’s actions, and this means not only great visual design and presentation, but a deep understanding of the desires and needs of the audiences, conveyed in the way you communicate with them, and the actions you invite them to take within the channels they spend time within.
You can’t have quality content if you don’t have a guiding foundational elements to follow — this is your content strategy. A holistic content strategy should include a strict guiding set of directives that directly align with your channels which indicate what should be happening with the content. This means, who is creating it, how often, for whom, what kind, and what action is desired. Additionally, how long will the content live, how will be it be evaluated (is it working or not?), who is responsible for it once it’s live, and what’s the plan if it doesn’t work, or works really well?
And now I have to deliver some bad news. Really good content is hard work. While the guiding principals and directives will help, you need an inspired and proactive content team. Often times, your internal digital teams are working in a purely reactive situation — putting out fires, accommodating requests, facilitating changes. This is not ideal. Your digital team should not be order takers from those within your organization. Rather, they should be empowered curators and creators who are nimble and active, spreading out in orderly manners within your ecosystems, to create and facilitate inspired content for your audiences.
How do you get there? Once your structural approach is in place, set success goals for the team. Then set them lose to try to meet and achieve those success metrics. Empower them and let them find inspirations and challenges,
Most importantly, set up a proactive not reactive relationship between your content creators and digital managers and the rest of your organization.
I have always bristled at the hard sell presented within a lot of digital marketing, particularly when it’s a big commitment to make that purchase or agreement. A need to push the “Buy Now” button so far into my face as if to say, you might not realize why you’re engaging with my content so let me remind you, “IT IS TO BUY!!!” This is the exact mindset that will get you into trouble with any website project, and any other marketing effort. You skip past all the nuanced and critical steps in an audience’s engagement with your brand or organization, that you end up with cheap “one-offs” that have to be constantly scrapped because they don’t work.
Sure, we all want our audiences to ultimately “commit” to us (whether that’s a sale, an enrollment, an email address, a donation, a name), but this path is complicated, delicate, and ongoing. It’s also existing in multiple places, with lots of competition and a increasingly short attention span.
There are no easy fixes or top-tips to follow that will reap lasting rewards. You have to dig in, and be willing to accept that, at the end of the day, it will be perfectly aligned content, distributed in strategic manners throughout the appropriate channels and to the most important audiences that will increase your results, as seen through more actions being taken by your audiences. And all of this requires an empowered and proactive internal team.
This will be the fuel that keeps your website moving and your business or organization evolving. If your new site and digital strategy is set up to provide ample avenues for this work to be done, and you have a strong team in place to generate and distribute that content, you’re going to do well.