Would you build a house without first having some kind of sketch of what you’re wanting to build? Plus a floor plan? And a set of building plans? Not likely.
When building a website, the sketch of what you want the end result to be is your vision statement. It’s a short description, not of how your website works or how it’s built, or even the technologies involved, but rather a description of what purpose it will fulfill when it’s done.
You have a vision for your site, or you wouldn’t pursue getting it built. Your vision statement is your vision, in writing in a clear, concise form.
The vision statement leads to the plans. And the plans determine what, exactly, to build and how to build it. Your vision statement helps the website-building project stay on track through all stages of development, whether you’re building the site yourself or hiring someone else to build it.
The vision statement covers:
- Problem and Goals — what problem are you trying to solve by building this website? What are your goals for the project?
- Audience — who will use the website?
- Most Important Actions — what the most important actions you want people to take when they visit your website?
- Competitors — who are the other companies that are seeking business form the same audience?
The audience is the people who will be using your website. It includes visitors to your site and you (or whoever will be managing your website). The website needs to serve and be useful to everyone involved.
Knowing your audience helps you decide what content to have on your website and what tone and language to use. You would write a letter very differently to your younger brother than you would to the owner of a large corporation that you’re wanting to do business with, even if you happened to be writing about a similar topic.
Understanding who your audience is, what their needs and wants are, what brings them to your website, and what they are hoping to do there is fundamental to every bit of content that you put on your website: text, photos, graphics, layout, everything.
Your website and content form a bridge that connects your customers to your business. You want that bridge to be as solid and stable and as unobtrusive as possible. You want it to provide the perfect pathway for visitors to become customers without putting any unnecessary obstacles in their path.
Most Important Actions
Once you know who your audience is, it’s important to become clear on what it is that you want them to do.
Are there certain actions that you want them to take on your website? Is there certain content they should read and understand to become better educated on what you offer? Is there a myth or misunderstanding about your business or industry that you’re trying to debunk? Or a new perspective that you’re trying to provide?
Educating Your Customers
Some products and services are more complex than others. And so is the purchasing and decision-making process. Sometimes there are things that you need your customers to understand before they’ll do business with you.
As a web designer and a person who uses and is familiar with computers, many times I’ve been asked things like: “My Windows computer won’t boot. Can you take a look at it?” “I’m having trouble getting my email set up, can you help me with that?” “My hard drive is making a strange noise. Do you know what’s wrong? You work on computers, right?”
While it’s true that I can often dig into and eventually solve those types of problems (and have many times), it is not really “what I do,” at least, it’s not what I do for a living. Instead, I help customers with their websites and their businesses. Yes, I work with computers much of the time. But people often blur the distinctions. “Web design, programming, consulting. Oh, so basically you do computers. Maybe you can help me for free with whatever computer problem I’m having this week” becomes the line of thought.
Thinking about your business, if what you do isn’t superficially immediately obvious to people, then you may be in a similar boat.
In fact, people may see little difference between you and your competitors, even though you know there’s a huge difference in how you approach things and the quality of results that you deliver.
So one important action you may have when people come to your website is to understand what your business is about. What it does. What your products are. What the benefit of using those products is. What the experience is like when people deal with you and your business. And how all of this differs from what your competitors offer.
Actions that you want people to take on your website can include things like the following and others:
- call your business
- fill in a contact form
- read a particular article or even just a block of text
- see that your business is unique from others in your industry
Your primary competitors are businesses in your industry that serve the same audience as you and that provide seemingly the same types of goods and services.
To have a successful business and website, you don’t want to copy your competitors, but you do want to understand them and what they offer. And you want to make it clear that you are different in useful and important ways – ways that people can understand and relate to and that are important to your customers.
So every website design should be preceded by some amount of competitor research. This will help you gauge what’s being done in your industry. It will show you the minimum level of what your website will need to do in order to be on a level playing field. And it will show how you can differentiate your business. Plus it will save time.
Once you’ve put together a list of competitors, you want to become clear on what they offer. What are their products and services? How do they present them? What seems to be working for them? What doesn’t? What advantages do you have? What disadvantages? What distinctions do you want to make between your business and theirs?
Back to Your Vision Statement
Now that we’ve discussed all the prerequisites, let’s revisit the vision statement. A vision statement is typically a few paragraphs long. It tells who your website is for (the audience), what it’s intended to do and what the most important actions are that you want people to take. I tend to use one paragraph for each.
A vision statement is more than just a bulleted list. It should be written out in paragraph form using clear language so that anyone reading it — you, you’re staff, your web designer — will be clear on what you’re wanting to build. And you want it written in a way that it’s inspiring. It will, in a sense, be the plumbline that you compare your website project against as you build it. A vision statement isn’t a dry, technical, voluminous spec.
Choice of Technology
I want you to notice something at this point. In this article and the previous, we haven’t even mentioned the underlying technology that the website is built on. WordPress? Drupal? Custom-coded HTML and CSS? Wix? Squarespace? Weebly? Shopify?
We also haven’t talked about hero images, colors or navigation.
It’s not because these aren’t important. They are. It’s just that having clarity on your goals and vision for the website is more fundamental, and you need that first before you can make good choices with any of these other things.
Once you know your goals and have a vision statement, the next step is to begin mapping out your site. What are the main components it will need to have? I’ll discuss that topic in a future article.