Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Hydra of Web Site Development

Like the Hydra of Greek mythology, though much more benign (and not to confused with the 1990 Toto album, one of their weaker efforts), effective Web site development requires many heads. Perhaps not nine like the Hydra, but at least four: a technologist, a graphic designer, a writer, and a Web strategist. Finding all four skill sets in one individual is as rare as finding the next Michael Jordan in basketball, though finding two may be possible.

Many companies -- and not just small ones -- make the mistake when looking for Web development talent of focusing on the technology side: "knowledge of HTML, Java, Flash" etc. is among the absolute requirements in their want ad. While technology skills are important, they are not necessarily key, any longer, to the development of a truly effective online presence.

Take this law firm site for example: the graphic design is simple yet elegant, and technologically it works fine; but the navigation could be improved (Who are they targeting? What exactly do they want me to look at first on this site?) and much of the content has been written by lawyers (and reads like it). Yes, particularly in a larger company, it is important to enable multiple individuals to contribute content to the company Web site in their area of subject matter expertise, but as the brilliant Anne Holland of Marketing Sherpa pointed out in this column, it is also important to have a "keeper of the words" in order to maintain consistency and ensure the maximum impact from your Web communications.

So, for smaller firms who can't afford to hire a Web team, the question becomes: what talent do we hire and what do we outsource? Actually, the technology and graphic design aspects are the easiest to outsource. Virtually every Web hosting company now offers easy-to-use content management tools from entry-level (e.g. GoDaddy's WebSite Tonight) to professional-grade (such as the Neuance tool from Neulogic), taking the technical burden off the business. Graphic artists are generally not hard to find locally, and since complete site redesign is something most companies only undertake once every two to three years, it makes little sense to hire one full-time (unless you have a lot of other needs in this area). If you're not sure where to look, there are national marketing temp firms such as The Creative Group and Aquent who can connect you with professional graphic artists on a project basis. If you don't have the budget to hire a graphic artist, Web site templates for a variety of popular site-building and content management programs are available for prices ranging from free to about $100.

Writing is a talent you should have in-house. Although this individual does not need to be dedicated solely to Web writing (unless you have a very large and dynamic Web site), this individual should have knowledge of how to write for the Web: in other words, the "4-C" ability to write content that is compelling, clear, concise and consistent.

Most important is the Web strategist. This is the person who can answer the basic questions such as "Who exactly are we targeting with our Web site?" and "What are the key messages we want to communicate?" as well as determining what content should be on the site, how the navigation should flow, and what special features/capabilities should be incorporated (e.g. news feeds, stock feeds, links and resources, events, Webcasts, white papers / expert knowledge, online support, e-commerce, online chat etc.). This individual will be key to the success of your online marketing efforts; he or she won't be an entry-level marketer and won't come cheap, but will be critical. The Web strategist doesn't necessarily have to be an expert in technology or graphic design, but if you can find one who can also write, that's a bonus worth paying for.

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