Back in 1996, I wrote some of the copy for what would become my company’s first website. Since then, I have been involved in the development of many more. In fact, I have been actively involved in the creation and management of websites on a daily basis since the turn of the century.
Two Decades of Experience
When I returned from California in 1999 to serve as the Director of Marketing for Creamer Dickson Basford, I led the redesign of the agency’s website, writing the copy and working with a sister agency that specialized in web development. Then, when we created Magnet Communications the following year, I worked with that same team to develop a website for this new firm.
I secured the domains for my own suite of freelance sites before I left Magnet Communications in 2001. I went on to create my first blog in 2003, to further expand my skillset and gain an even better understanding of the emerging digital world. And as a freelancer, I wrote the copy for and helped design a number of websites for clients, including several professional services firms.
When I joined Asphalt Green in 2007, the fee-for-service nonprofit had just launched a new, complex e-commerce site. I was responsible for managing and maintaining that site, providing fresh content on an almost daily basis. This gave me a wealth of experience in managing a large, complex site. Plus, I learned a lot from having a talented webmaster and digital designer on my team.
Understanding the importance of being able to develop and maintain a web presence as a marketing communications professional, I went on to teach myself how to use WordPress, arguably the most popular platform – or content management system (CMS) – for building and maintaining websites these days. And armed with this knowledge, I started a new blog, this time focusing on my experiences at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Having left Asphalt Green just two weeks before this soccer tournament began, friends and colleagues encouraged me to blog about the trip, especially since it was my fifth World Cup adventure. This gave me an opportunity to put my WordPress skills to the test. I designed, developed, and tested the website; created an editorial or content calendar; learned how to navigate the challenges of mobile writing, editing, and publishing; and developed a series of best practices and standards to ensure quality and consistency.
I enjoyed that experience so much, and had such overwhelmingly positive feedback, that I decided to build on that success and continued writing about soccer when I returned home to New York City. The blog quickly evolved into what can best be described as an online soccer magazine, Total Footblog, for which I regularly researched, wrote, edited, and published feature-length articles (1,500 words on average) about various aspects of the game rarely covered by the mainstream sports media. In fact, I published an average of 13 articles (20,000 words) per month, making me arguably one of the most prolific American soccer journalists at the time. And I enjoyed a two-and-a-half year run working as an online journalist before business demanded that I shut it down and return full-time to my freelance communications consultancy.
In addition to honing my website development and website management skills, this foray into journalism gave me a better understanding of the challenges and needs of journalists in the digital age, which further strengthened my media relations expertise. It also helped improve both my digital communications and content marketing skills as well, and my social media skills in particular, given that these were the primary tools I used to market the site.
A few years later, I dusted-off my blogging skills to once again chronicle my World Cup adventures in Total Futeblog. However, this was a temporary and more traditional blog, blending stories of soccer and travel, which I created specifically for the Brazil 2014 tournament.
As I mentioned, I wrote the copy for and helped design and develop a number of websites as a freelancer. And I used WordPress to build this site, chrisdobens.com, as well as my copywriting site, both of which I created without the assistance of a digital designer.
To explore and better understand the capabilities of a new generation of DIY content management systems, I built a site for a client using SquareSpace, one of the more popular of these new platforms, as well as a portal for myself with GoDaddy – again, without the assistance of a digital designer. I still prefer WordPress, though, because of its range and versatility. Plus, since it is the most common content management system, that makes my reasonable proficiency with it all the more valuable.
I also used WordPress to create a professional “pop-up” blog, where I offer commentary on various aspects of the communications profession. And given the importance of blogs as a modern communications channel, I have dedicated a separate page to blogging. But now that I have established my credentials, I want to move on from my experience with website development and management to walk you through the actual process.
Laying the Foundation
Before you build a website, you first need to consider how it will be created, hosted, and managed. I will circle back to managing the site towards the end of this page, so let me begin by focusing on choosing a platform to build and host the site.
By now you should have realized that I am a huge fan of WordPress. There are plenty of other options out there, which make creating and maintaining a website extremely easy – even for a novice. And if you want to dive deeper into my thinking on which platforms to use, including what I learned from building a site with SquareSpace, I wrote a blog piece about that.
But the first decision you need to make is whether you want to invest in the ideal website or are willing to settle for a more affordable yet functional one. If you have the budget, and the need, I highly recommend hiring someone who can write the copy for and manage the design and development of the site (like me, for example) along with a digital designer who can write the code and help maintain it as the webmaster. If you cannot afford to hire professionals, there are a number of DIY web development platforms you can use, as I mentioned above. And you do not even have to know how to code.
To Code or Not to Code
Although I wrote my first computer program back in the 70s, and regularly wrote programs for classmates for beer money right through college, I drifted away from my geekdom after graduation, when I moved to New York City and its abundance of distractions for a curious young man fresh out of academia. Of course, like everything else in technology, computer programming has evolved dramatically since then. The programming I knew has been relegated to the history books. And while I have frequently flirted with the idea (and still occasionally do), I have yet to learn Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which is the language that is most commonly used to write code for websites these days.
Fortunately, though, I do not really need to know HTML to create a website. The current content management systems – such as WordPress, SquareSpace, GoDaddy, Wix, etc. – make it easy enough to create and maintain a site without knowing how to write HTML code. These platforms provide semi-customizable templates which you can then configure and populate to suit your needs (within reason). And the internet provides enough resources to help you find whatever snippets of code you might require to further modify certain aspects of those templates.
However, if the budget allows, I always prefer to work with a professional website designer. And doing so is essential if the company wants to be able to truly customize their site, beyond the templates and other off-the-shelf options available from the various DIY content management systems. For example, I cannot make snow fall across the home page for the holidays, but a digital designer can.
To learn more about the differences between the abilities of a design professional and a communications professional, I encourage you to visit my design and production page. And I also talk about how to work with and get the best from designers on this blog post.
The bottom line is that if you want a truly beautiful website with the complete freedom and capability to explore unlimited options and customizations, then you will need to have a web designer on the team – in addition to someone like me who can bring their comprehensive marketing communications experience to the design, production, population, and management of the site. But if you have a limited budget and are happy with something as basic and static as chrisdobens.com, or even something like this one, then I know enough to be able to create and maintain sites like these all by myself.
As for hosting, domain registration, and all of that, I prefer GoDaddy. It is not the cheapest, but they have some of the best service and support you will find from a tech company these days. If something goes wrong with your site, they are available 24/7 and very responsive.
Designing the Site
I approach a website the same way I approach anything else: with a plan. And a written plan, that includes objectives and strategies. I discuss this in greater detail over on my strategic planning page.
When designing a site, in terms of its layout, content, and function, I begin with the target audience. I think of the site from their point of view, which helps me shape both the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience). This is where a lot of companies get it wrong. They build their site based on their business instead of their customer. The best websites are built for the customer, making it as easy as possible for them to learn about and purchase your products and services.
To achieve this, you have to ask the right questions. What will attract the target audience to the website? What will make them click further into it? What sort of information might they be seeking? What will trigger a purchase? How does that purchase happen? And what sort of service, assistance, fulfillment, or follow-up is required? And to answer those questions, you will need a thorough understanding of the company, its products and services, its unique selling point or value proposition, the marketplace, and – above all – its target audience, or customer. Again, I discuss this all in greater detail under strategic planning.
Once armed with that information, then comes (for me, at least) the fun part: mapping out the site. There are various methods to achieve this, from sophisticated software to pencil and paper. I have a webmaster friend who uses Post-Its, which she can then move around on a wall set aside for this sort of thing. I prefer using an org chart-like approach, or even an outline.
The goal of site mapping is to determine not only what pages will be on the site but also the structure of the site – where those pages will be located and what they will link to. In essence, you are mapping out the site’s navigation. And, once again, the focus needs to be on the user, and what makes the most sense in their eyes, as opposed to the structure of the organization and what makes sense for its various managers and department heads.
Populating the Site
A great design deserves great content, and this is where my expertise really shines. As with the design, when writing copy for a website you need to think of it through the customer’s eyes. And it is more akin to ad copy than a corporate boilerplate.
But also think in terms of images, graphics, and video. People often make the mistake of limiting themselves to text. Think in terms of populating the site with content. That can make it so much more dynamic and appealing.
However, you must also be mindful of the size of those images, considering bandwidth and download time. And remember that text is typically more useful in SEO (see below) than other forms of content.
Once you have populated the site with great content, your work is far from over. As I will discuss shortly, you need to give visitors a reason to keep coming back to the site, which means featuring fresh, new content on a regular basis.
SEO & SEM
SEO stands for search engine optimization. This is the strategic use of key words throughout the site to make it more compatible with and attractive to the various search engines (e.g., Google). There are some technical tricks to this as well, which change often – as do the algorithms and best practices of these search engines. But fundamentally it is a way of improving your site’s search engine rankings organically.
For those seeking non-organic improvements, that is where SEM – search engine marketing – comes in. This is involves purchasing paid listings to improve your search engine rankings.
As I have worked mostly with nonprofits, small businesses, and entrepreneurs in recent years, I do not have a lot of SEM experience, since these types of organizations rarely have the budget for effective SEM. Besides, I never click on such artificially boosted links myself, preferring instead to put my faith in the power of the search engine and its almighty algorithms, so I tend to question the value of investing in SEM.
That aside, I do have plenty of SEO experience. In fact, I have taken a couple of SEO classes and am armed with a digital dossier detailing the best practices and procedures.
Testing & Troubleshooting
Once you develop the site, you will need to test it thoroughly. And on different equipment and operating systems, including Macs and PCs as well as various mobile devices. Test it on different browsers as well. Check to see how quickly images download. Check the navigation and all the links. Consider the fonts, colors, and text sizes. Make sure it loads smoothly, performs well, and looks good on smart phones. And if you can, get feedback from actual customers – a user test panel – to see what they think.
Then, once you launch the site, you can use Google Analytics to monitor how it is used. Study the paths that visitors take. Then look for ways to improve those paths, the overall flow, and sort out any obstacles that may appear.
This is arguably the most neglected and under-appreciated aspect of having a website. A lot of clients think it is something you just build and then won’t have to revisit for a few years, to “freshen it up” a bit.
As I mentioned above, the internet is constantly changing, and therefore so are the best practices for operating an effective website. Plus, unlike most marketing and sales collateral, the content of a website can be easily and quickly updated and changed. And that is a good thing.
Fresh content can improve your SEO and rankings. It also gives visitors a reason to return to your site – time and time again. After all, unless you have an e-commerce component, there is often little incentive for people to return to your website without the promise of new content.
One way you can continually provide fresh content is through a blog. But I also like to include periodic updates on the home page and in other key locations, to draw visitors back to the main page as well as to drive them to other strategically important pages throughout the site.
At Asphalt Green, I was creating new web content on an almost daily basis. This was because the site was so large and complex – and also served as our primary sales platform, with a robust e-commerce component. I worked closely with our webmaster to create and post regular announcements and promotions on the home page and elsewhere throughout the site. I even mapped out a content calendar to coincide with our regular marketing calendar, ensuring that we had something new on the home page every week.
And having the assistance of a talented digital designer like her not only made sure that the new content looked interesting, often including animation and other effects to draw the viewer’s attention, but she also could offer insight into exactly where to place the new content, navigation buttons, etc. thanks to her thorough understanding of best practices for website design and maintenance.
I manage and maintain my own sites, because they are fairly basic. But if you are managing and maintaining a large, complex site like we had at Asphalt Green, having a webmaster – someone with proven digital design skills and a thorough understanding of best practices – on staff is invaluable.