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Web site planning can be a sticky situation

"Failure to plan means planning to fail." -- Brian Tracy

There is no question that ecommerce is growing rapidly. From totally web-based to "clicks-and-mortar" companies (i.e., offline businesses with an online presence), everybody seems to be jumping onto the Internet bandwagon. The upcoming holiday season is purported if not feared to be one of the most busiest of all time. Online sales are exploding.

The reason for this incredible slope upwards is the fact that more and more people are going online. It was only recently that the number of online users was believed to grow to over 250 million by the year 2005. But according to recent NUA Surveys, the Internet demographic people, the latest numbers published in September of 1999 indicate that we're not too far off the mark already -- incredibly, with an online population now toppling the 200 million mark (see http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/world.html).

But are we ready? Maybe. But one thing is for sure -- many sites are definitely not prepared. Browsing the web one can easily notice that numerous sites have failed to follow some of the most basic principles of website design. Such storefronts may have great content, professional looks and good entertainment value. But if they are not making any sales...

Sergio Zyman, the former Marketing VP of Coca-Cola and author of the recent bestseller, "The End Of Marketing As We Know It," states that marketing's goal is simple -- so simple in fact that it is so easily ignored. Online, we see that problem all too often. As Zyman points out, the goal in marketing "is to sell more stuff to more people more often for more money."

Web marketing is not any different. The goal is also to get more people to visit a website (and to visit more often) and to get them to buy (and to buy more often). Undoubtedly, that is the number one key to success online. Agreeably, it is not as easy as some think -- and the Internet as well as IMC's private site are testaments to that fact since they are replete with struggling marketers trying to get their wares off their virtual shelves.

So how does one get more visitors to buy more stuff more often?

Marketing is not just built on advertising and sales. Like Zyman points out, it's a symphony of carefully planned and implemented disciplines, strategies and tactics. While planning one's online marketing activities is a different and often more complex issue, simple website strategic planning is probably the most neglected of all web marketing strategies -- not too many webmasters consider website strategic planning as a marketing process in itself.

Strategically planning a website is not a simple issue either. To write about it within the confines of an article is virtually impossible. But to get you started, here are a some tips to guide you in creating an objective-centered website.

Web Storyboarding

Storyboarding is a planning technique used by many filmmakers. The object is to divide the movie into chunks. Producers place multiple sketched sheets on a large wall or corkboard. And each sheet depicts a specific scene in the movie -- including the characters that appear at that point in the film, what they do and say, and that particular scene's visuals and sounds. By looking at the entire storyboard, they can easily decide what exactly a user (or viewer, in this case) should see, know and feel with each scene.

In web storyboarding, designers can create a site chart (often called a "site map"), where each sheet represents a specific web page. But instead of using sheets, they design small boxes, which can be accomplished with most word processing or graphic design programs. Each box describes a specific web page and contains a summary of its content, layout, graphics and objectives -- thus giving each page a specific function within the whole site. Then arrows are drawn between boxes in order to trace specific user trajectories.

The end result looks similar to a flow chart where each box flows into another (or into many others). And arrows are in fact links between pages -- some arrows can be filled, dotted or dashed (the choice of which can represent different outcomes, such as primary trajectories, secondary ones, etc). One can strategically plan, with each box in the chart, what the user is supposed to see, understand and do, as well as where he or she should go next.

But some people prefer the larger, more visual approach used by cartoonists with their corkboards. Therefore, they take a series of "post-it" notes (those small, yellow pieces of sticky notes), write a brief summary of the page's content and purpose on each one, and place them on a wall. Once notes are created for every web page, the webmaster can then rearrange them, change them around, add some more and remove unneeded ones altogether.

Sticky notes can also be used to determine trajectories and user functions (by drawing arrows on additional notes that are placed between consecutive "web pages"). Alternatively, some like to stick their notes on a large bristol or dry erase board and, with a nonpermanent marker, draw the arrows between each note. The possibilities here are numerous and the technique can be adapted to fit one's style. In fact, let's look at some examples.

Going Up Or Down?

Generally, there are two ways to accomplish storyboarding -- and the choice relies solely upon a person's individual preference. One is called the "top-down" approach. A box or note is placed at the very top -- usually representing the index, splash or home page -- and others are subsequently placed below it for the rest of the site. In the end, the storyboard looks something like a pyramid; the deeper a user goes into a site the more content and choices one will be given (within the larger bottom layers of the pyramid, in other words).

The second technique is called the "build-up" approach -- the reverse of the top-down one. If the web designer already has several ideas for content and user outcomes, then he can start with the bottom. Multiple boxes are placed on the storyboard -- each one defining a specific idea or purpose (e.g., an order page, its subsequent confirmation page, an "about us" page, an ezine description page, a product showcase page, a special promotions page, a security and privacy policy page, an order form, and so on).

Boxes are then placed above them and act as pages from which some of the others stem -- some can also be placed below them to which others lead. Consequently, other layers in the storyboard either precede or support specific choices users make. Of course, some parts, layers or "legs" of the storyboard can end up being longer than others, such as those areas that lead to even deeper pages within the site offering more content or choices. But in the end, they all lead to the final page, which in reality is the first or entry page.

But site maps, arrows and user trajectories aside, the one thing to keep in mind in the whole process is the larger objective around which the entire site must focus. Before commencing any site, the designer must clearly determine the core objective of the site itself -- having it clearly defined from the beginning is vital. Afterwards, the key questions one should ask (and ask often), with each and every box (or sticky note) in the storyboard, are:

  • "What do I want my visitors to know here?"
  • "What do I want my visitors to do at this point?"
  • "What do I want my visitors to feel right now?"
  • And, "Where do I want my visitors to go next?"

Also, one should look at it from an all possible angles and perspectives. If a visitor ever landed on any given page within the site, will that person know where she is? Will that person know (and can easily choose) what she is supposed to do? And more importantly, will that person know where to go from there? Answers to all of the above will help not only in planning but also in developing content, writing web copy and improving site navigability.

Aside from having an objective in mind and working around it as specifically as possible, designers should also plan for contingencies. That is, they must look at all the possible trajectories and outcomes within the site. If a visitor decides to click into a different part of the site, it must be clear as to what they are supposed to learn and do, and where to go next.

Ultimately, webmasters should plan, plan, plan -- because, as it is often stated, a web business' greatest and most feared competitor is not another online company trying to wrestle for the lion's share of the market, but the potential yet confused shopper who cries out:

… "What am I supposed to do?"

About the author
Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter and consultant dedicated to turning sales messages into powerful magnets. Get a free copy of his book, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," when you subscribe to his free monthly ezine, "The Profit Pill." See http://SuccessDoctor.com/ now!

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