Making sense of website planning

The web represents unlimited potential in terms of creativity and information transfer. But it takes planning to make it work for...

The web represents unlimited potential in terms of creativity and information transfer. But it takes planning to make it work for your business

Every company should have a web presence. The reason is simple: it allows potential users or customers to find you and contact you 24 hours a day, every day. But you first need to solve and address a few basic issues.

The decisions begin with whether you intend to create the site in-house or hire a web design company. You also need to think about who is going to maintain the site once it is up and running and how often this maintenance needs to be done. This will vary considerably according to what type of site you are creating. Most sites containing news will need weekly updates at the very least!

You need to consider what your customers require from your site. There is little use in having very complex multimedia sites if you are selling modems. If your customers were looking for new modems, there's a good chance that they will be bored by the time the page has downloaded. But it goes further than this. Let's just imagine you have a great product for sale and it is only available from you and no-one else in the world. Your customers don't just want you to say that you have it, they want to know how to get hold of it and would probably order on-line if you made this service available to them. If you have a computer and a modem and your business accepts credit or debit cards, your customers can make on-line purchases. They can even download information (software, music etc) which puts your unique product in the hands of your customers within a few clicks of a mouse button.

So how do you find out what your customers want from your site? Most PR agencies will do this sort of customer expectation audit. But make sure that your representative really knows about the web before you get the cheque book out. You may find it quicker and more cost-efficient to do it yourself. Talk to your customers, think about their demographic backgrounds. If you have a customer base made entirely of 18-44 year old males, you have a very good reason to get your site up and running. But for all sectors of society, the Internet is creating new demands for instant information and purchasing. For all types of customers, you can start with a few common assumptions: people won't wait more than a minute for any page to download, so keep it (fairly) simple on your home page. Other big irritations to people include pages not being found, multimedia or animation that crashes their browser and non-working links.

The next task is to make realistic estimates of your time scale. Depending on the size of your company, you need to make a clear inventory of existing software and staff skills. For larger companies this may include deciding which sector of the business has primary responsibility for the site, and plan recruitment and training accordingly. You then need to outline the time frame for going from innovation to on-line inspiration.

You then need to look at the options as far as both soft and hardware are concerned. Basically, if you have a PC and a modem, you can buy web space and build your own site. It can be as complex or as simple as you like. Or you can buy the services of a web designer and web builder to do it for you. Even if you choose the latter option, it's important that you find out more about what software will be used so you can see whether they are addressing your business needs appropriately. They should be asking the questions outlined above as well as those that follow.

You need to consider support levels whenever you choose software for corporate use. What are the costs, when is support available? What training will your staff need to use the program and how much will this add to your costs? You should, at a very early stage in planning, be affording budget to training and support, especially if the maintenance will be done in-house by one person or just a few.

You may opt to hire a designer or agency to handle the production of your website. Even if you take this option, and it can be very expensive, you will still need the basic knowledge of how the web works in order to direct their work according to your plans. Ask to see sites they have already produced and find out as much as you can about what tools they use so that you can build up your knowledge on their potential and limitations.

Think about the cost of scaling your application. Most web publishing packages make it fairly easy for you to scale your website, but don't buy a package that you will have to abandon after a year because its not compatible with any of the

e-commerce agencies. You may find that your site is so successful it grows your business very rapidly. If this happens, how will your package expand? Find out the cost of increasing the number of user licences and also how the package integrates with other software you may need. Coldfusion server edition fits seamlessly with Netobjects Fusion. Together, they allow you to grow your site with both hardware and actual content without having to retrain staff or start again from scratch. Most will also allow you to fit existing web pages within them so that you can reuse previous content/designs.

Overall, you need to ensure that you fully research exactly what your needs are before you look at software, taking into consideration the staff you have available, their level of skill, your time scale, and ultimately, what it is you are trying to do with your site.

The web represents unlimited potential in terms of creativity and information transfer. But it takes real planning, in order to make it work for your business.

By Rachel Hodgkins

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