Do you recall the last time you heard of any online project meeting a target launch date? Regardless of our positions in the industry, we are all very familiar with deadline delays and deal with them regularly. Whether it’s a media launch date, production deadline, or web site upgrade, most likely, the initial time line will be outdated within a few weeks. The industry is young and inexperienced, and putting forth a unique concept in a short time frame is harder than ever.
It is common for an agency to come into the picture with a potential client six to eight months prior to a target launch date to begin discussing strategic planning. After making the initial sales pitch, getting out the request for proposals, and determining the agency of record (a process that can take months), the agency often already has a good idea as to what is required from media and creative perspectives.
The agency often plays a consultant’s role at this stage, guiding the client through the production process, pointing out what needs to be improved so that a media strategy converts well once visitors are brought to the client’s site. Essentially, interactive agencies are responsible for generating interest and driving qualified traffic to the web site. However, it is equally, if not more, important for a new individual user to have a great experience once he or she visits a site for the first time. It is in the best interests of the client and the agency to maximize the potential of the web site prior to its launch. The client, naturally, wants to succeed beyond expectations, and the agency wants to build its client base and reputation and have its clients continue to spend ad dollars.
So much gets invested in building a solid online project. High-end web sites can take a couple of years to get up and running once financing, recruiting, technology, supplier relationships, distribution channels, and media strategies are established.
It is almost ironic to see mistakes made repeatedly, but once companies finalize their web sites, many often want to immediately begin their media blitzes. A common example is a site launching at the beginning of the fourth quarter, which has this tiny window of opportunity to show numbers by the new year. This is a high-risk business and you’re already limited with time and resources, so be careful about further complicating matters by launching at the most expensive time of year to advertise. Remember that the company is expected to sell immediately with no brand recognition whatsoever.
The No. 1 recommendation for any client ready to launch a site is to STOP. Take a step back, and re-evaluate. Whenever the site finally goes live, take time to set up an evaluation period and make modifications; there is too much at stake to ignore this. Remember: A user needs to be impressed on his or her first visit and have the best possible experience. There is no loyalty otherwise. Advertisers are often so excited and under so much pressure to show results that they feel obliged to see some activity within the site. Realistically, a two- to three-week evaluation period is a small price to pay for attending to details. It is also beneficial to get a third party’s feedback since those involved in the site’s production are so familiar with it.
Some basic aspects that should always be examined and will be critical to one’s success are:
- How fast does your site load? Once a user requests your URL by clicking through on an ad, the site should load quickly. You could be better off with pages that are light on graphics and images and load quickly than with an impressive graphic design that takes 20 seconds to load. Also, remember that most users have a slow dial-up connection with a 56K modem, so pages that load fairly easily with high-speed access take much longer with slower access. People will not wait for you! Web Site Garage offers some general evaluations on load time, spelling, design, and browser compatibility.
- How easy is the site to use? Does it lead users where THEY want to go? Imagine yourself as a very novice Internet user and the least intelligent person on earth when doing such an evaluation. (For some odd reason, I seem to find this easier than most, and I’m certain my colleagues will be delighted to vouch for that!) A good site will be simple and lead you naturally, without confusion. You cannot afford to have your customers worry about errors or feel anxious about the security of their purchases.
- Does the site direct people where YOU need them to be? Most web sites have a number of options on their home pages. In the case of a shopping site, the key is leading people to purchase. It is not uncommon to see a site’s menu bar within the product directory given equal weight with the “Contact Us,” “Advertisers,” or “FAQ” links. Site builders need to weight the design so that users are naturally led to the product pages where they can spend money.
- Is the message crystal clear? Does the home page (or page that you are directing traffic to) explicitly explain why you are there? With all the crazy domain names out there, it can be tough to find a good one that truly depicts the contents of the site. There should be a bold, obvious message when the user arrives for the first time.
There are a lot more details to discuss, but these are basic, major points that still get overlooked today. Even with a masterful media plan that brings the most qualified visitors to a site, it is the site itself that ultimately makes the sale. The points mentioned are a good start, although there are more. Take the extra time to make adjustments that will help convert your first-time visitors. However, be sensitive to the webmasters and design team. Their work is very personal and they can take criticism to heart, so be nice. Designers will eventually get over criticism if it’s constructive. And without it, the company might not be around long enough for their work to be admired!