Don’t dive into web development until you discuss website strategy first:

Over the years, we have had many prospects ask us to help them improve their website. But, they often begin this discussion without even addressing the topic of website strategy first! The conversation usually opens with a baiting question like: “So, what do you think of our website?” This is quickly followed with a proclamation like: “If we just had a [faster/better/prettier/more colorful/more functional/more interactive/more intuitive/more responsive] website, then we would sell a lot more [stuff]”. Whenever this happens, I always ask the same question: “What’s your strategy?” Because long before you can jump into user experience (UX) design, long before you can jump into development, and long before you can jump into information architecture, you first have to start with strategy.

A clear and cohesive Strategy allows you to focus on the business objectives first, and then execute the best creative tactics to achieve them. Whether you’re a highly innovative brand or you embrace a more traditional style, your website strategy sets the tone for designers, developers, UX specialists, and information architects to align on what success looks like for you online.

Strategy alignment is critical to producing a website with high conversion rates that consistently generate bottom-line results for your business. After all, the goal of a website is to give your visitors a reason to care, a reason to engage, a reason to buy, and most importantly, a reason to come back. With the right research, analysis, and tradeoffs, a compelling strategy can offer you opportunities to outmaneuver your competition and take your business to the next level. Moreover, it provides you with the ability to understand how you can grow your site, make the necessary tradeoffs to differentiate yourself and identify changes required to improve your conversion rate.

If you proceed without strategic clarity, you run the risk of building what could amount to a very expensive and ineffective marketing tactic. A tactic that will complicate your story, confuse your target audience and misalign with your business objectives. Under this scenario, a slick new website could actually do a terrific job of putting you out of business!

What is Strategy?

In 1996, Michael Porter wrote a fantastic, five-part series for Harvard Business Review to answer this very question. In the article, Porter argues that “operational effectiveness, although necessary for superior performance, is not sufficient, because its techniques are easy to imitate.” In contrast, he suggests that the essence of strategy is “choosing a unique and valuable position rooted in systems of activities that are much more difficult to copy”. Using cases such as Southwest Airlines, Ikea and Vanguard, he shows how making trade-offs among activities is critical to the sustainability of strategy. Ever wonder why Southwest Airlines only flies Boeing 737 jets? Or why you have to assemble Ikea furnishings yourself? Porter shows how managing across all of a company’s activities and making intentional tradeoffs (i.e. deciding what not to do) enhances both competitive advantage and sustainability.

The insights gleaned from Porter’s work on strategy over twenty-years ago are still incredibly important and relevant today for marketers. Think about it: businesses of any size today can create an impressive, fully responsive website at low-to-no cost. In fact, there are providers who will build you a website for free if you sign up for their hosting and maintenance services. Website development has become a commodity to some extent. In this type of competitive environment, is a new website with all the cool bells and whistles going to win over your target audience? Perhaps, but today, it only takes a matter of hours for your competition to copy whatever you have done and your competitive advantage is fleeting at best. No, the path to brand and business success no longer runs through faster, better, cheaper websites! The secret to success lies in leveraging what is different about your brand to be more different. Porter describes this concept as “fit”: a company’s unique set of activities and how they fit across the value chain.

The right website strategy identifies your target audience, draws insight from their needs, wants and interaction preferences. It validates what messaging resonates with them and measures how effectively you change their behavior. How you invest in and align your marketing activities to reach and engage your audience says a lot about what makes you different. And, the specific tradeoffs that you make say just as much, if not more, about you. After all, no great brand can be all things to all people.

In that spirit, here is the most important thing you can do to strengthen your strategic positioning and not let your website become another easy-to-copy marketing tactic…

Publish Valuable and Shareable Content!

Once people discover your website, you need to make sure you keep them there, impress them with the value of your content and keep them coming back for more. Your content should be entertaining, relevant, useful and easily consumable (i.e. bite-sized!). Great content is not just about you and what your company can do. Ideally, it’s about why you do what you do (i.e. your purpose) and why a customer should care. When your audience reads your stories and interacts with your content, they should discover that your customers are the heroes (not you or your brand). It’s a fact that Google ranks sites based on dynamic, valuable content. So to get the attention of the search engine spiders and your audience, you need to have readable and relatable content – even if you rely on sponsored content to get things going. There are many online business guides on affiliate programs to help lend a hand, so if you need guidance, be sure to turn to the experts. What’s more, content needs to be regularly published, as this will keep readers coming back to see your latest posts.

Furthermore, you should also be simultaneously publishing your content on social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to accelerate social connections and encourage sharing of your content. Part of your strategy is to uncover your audiences preferred social media channels. Connect with people by joining in with conversations on relevant topics, and by being as helpful as you can. You can also add links to content that provides solutions to your audience and bring new readers to your websites. Add your social links to your website so that your customers can connect with you there, and place sharing buttons on every piece of content to encourage readers to share on their own social media.

And always remember, when you are sharing something of value, there is nothing wrong with asking for something in return! Complete strangers have landed on your website, engaged with and downloaded your valuable content. They like it, and they keep coming back for more. Now, you’re not going to be in business for too long if you’re giving away everything for free. Ask them to share more information about themselves: provide an email address, complete a quick survey, give some details about their preferences, etc.

In exchange for a free eBook, a how-to guide or helpful tutorial, ask your audience to share your brand story with their network, to help you broaden your reach. Maybe they will provide you with a comment, a review, a testimonial or an endorsement, which will further enhance your credentials. Your strategy should focus on offering something of value to start the relationship and then providing visitors with different ways to engage with your brand and give back. People are generally willing to pay for things that benefit them, so your strategy should be to give them different paths to exchanging value equitably.

If you’d like to learn more about how to formulate a winning strategy and avoid letting your website become just another marketing tactic, get a copy of my new book: Marketing, Interrupted. In the book, I share the stories of business leaders across a variety of industries who are driving significant transformation within their company. You’ll explore the challenges marketing leaders face, discover how they are making tradeoffs and see how they transform marketing – sometimes in ways that seem counterintuitive, or even a little crazy!