Need a new website? Go content-first.

Maybe you've been busy building your business and finally have time to refresh and improve your website. Maybe you're starting from scratch, creating a website for a new business or endeavor. Or maybe you've been wrangling a lot of moving parts with your company's website, and now that it's time for a redesign, you want to be smart and strategic.

So where do you start? Well, you want a clean, modern design that's easy to navigate. You want fresh colors and readable fonts and an eye-catching logo. You want the site to be a visual reflection of your brand.

And after you’ve nailed that, you can repurpose, rework, or "massage" your existing copy to work with your new design. You may be able to hire a professional whose specialty it is to "craft your story" or just make sense of all the moving parts, once you've got your design templates defined.

[Insert record needle scratch]

Wellllll, wait a second. Let’s start with a simple question: What makes your customers come to you? More specifically, why do they come to your website? (Hint: it’s not your cool logo or your bright colors.)

They come to you to do something. Maybe it's to make a purchase, or find specific information, or do research. Zooming out another level, maybe they want to make a confident decision, or alleviate a crappy feeling (like confusion or frustration), or learn something, or pass their time productively, or take care of a task so they can get on with their lives. You get the picture. 

No one comes to your website to look at your clean, modern design.

Here's how you address those goals: through your content. By communicating certain information, at certain times, to certain people, in certain ways. And you need to know the what, when, whom, why, and how to do that successfully. And your look and feel--your web design--needs to work around that.

Some people call this content design or information design. We call it content strategy. 

It’s understandable that we go straight to the visual stuffhumans are visual creatures, after all, and we’ve all got a touch of the Shiny Objects Syndrome. But here's what I'm getting at:

Web design is not just visual.

When you say you need a new website, you really need things like:

  • Clear, comprehensive, and up-to-date information that’s relevant to your people

  • Engaging descriptions of your products and their benefits

  • An explicit value proposition that brand-new customers will “get” quickly

  • A living platform for news and education about your business, your industry, your offerings—whatever your people are looking for

  • A way for your people to access and interact with your business 24/7

Visual design can greatly enhance every single one of these purposesin fact, it’s crucialbut it’s not the first step.

THE FIRST STEP IS YOUR CONTENT.

Not the second step, not the third step, and certainly not the last step. The first step. Always.

 Now, this is where your resistance will kick in. Any of these sound familiar?

“My website is pretty simple, so this doesn't really apply to me.”

“I have a good enough idea of what my website needs to say/what my customers want.”

“This sounds too complicated/too time-consuming/unnecessary. I need my website to launch yesterday.”

“I have new brand positioning from my PR firm/marketing department already, so this work is done."

“Easier said than done."

It would take a separate post to fully address each of these points, but for now, take a deep breath. Here's what it all boils down to: it isn't optional to take the time to clarify and document what, when, why, how, and with whom your business should communicate. Even if you think you already know the answers.

(BONUS! Doing this also happens to help distinguish your business from every other business, which leads to more conversions and more loyal customers.) 

Predetermining web page layouts that may or may not allow you to communicate in the most effective waysor may create placeholders for content that your business a) doesn't need, or b) can’t realistically create right nowonly guarantees that you’re going to have to redo your website all over again. Probably sooner, rather than later. And shuffling around existing copy to fit a new web design? Ain’t gonna work either. Not for a business that continues to grow (you do plan to continue growing and evolving, right?).

PUTTING CONTENT FIRST IS A SCARY-SMART MOVE.

Because it is scary. It might feel a little uncertain, when you’re used to thinking design-first and considering "the words" to be the easy part. (Biggest lie ever. Don’t fall for it.)

By taking the time to thoughtfully plan for your content first, you’re not only ensuring the success of your new website for your own good. You’re also enabling your website productionwhether you hire an external team or just customize an awesome WordPress or Squarespace template yourselfto start 10 steps ahead, with a clear plan of action for communicating the right things, at the right times, in the right places, to the right people.

You’re allowing your copywriter(s) to put a creative spin on ideas of substancewhich is exactly what great copywriters live to dorather than handing off next to nothing in the way of guidance, then expecting the substance to magically self-generate from their words. While sounding catchy and fun and on-brand.

And you’re looking forward, building a future for your business that involves knowing when and why to make updates (because you use content strategy), how to incorporate new content and content types (because you’ve thought ahead), and what content marketing efforts actually make sense (because you understand what people really want from you, not just what your business wants to communicate).

So, how to get there? Well, you can hire someone (cough, cough). Or you can just back away from the Pinterest boards. Stop looking at other people's websites. Table those logo explorations for later.

Right now, just focus on what your audience or customers need from you. Why do they come to you? What are they trying to accomplish, and how can your business help them do it (while making them feel awesome about themselves too)? That's what they'll come to your website for, and it's why they'll come back. 

And when you're clear on that, every element of your design, visual or otherwise, not only looks nice. It comes to life.