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Planning a New Website: The Creative Brief

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Why does this site look the way it does? This started out as a personal blog to experiment with WordPress, now it is dated and technically way below my standard. So, I need to start out with a clean design and a clean message.

Starting a website can be overwhelming. There are so many variables, what-ifs, and strategic decisions to answer about the content. And then there are the questions about the technology. And then there are the questions about presentation, including design, organization, and ongoing development. All this, and by the way, you have to keep up with your regular responsibilities on top of all that planning.

I recommend working with someone who solves these problems every day, and letting them guide you through the process. (Disclaimer: I’m that guy. Hire me. Never mind I haven’t gotten to it myself… that’s a sign I’m in demand and busy!) But if you want to get further before you start that conversation, start with the following questions (Surprise! None are about technology). Most of these are Marketing 101 questions. But most people in business either never took Marketing 101 or have forgotten it. But this is the information you will need to relate to the web designer, so it’s time to polish your answers. The technical term for these questions and their answers is “The Creative Brief”. Start your Creative Brief now:

  • Who is your target audience?
    People who are selling something need to ask:
    a) Who currently buys my products?
    b) Who should, but doesn’t yet?
    c) Who might influence people who buy my products?
    Content providers need to ask:

    a) What content can I create, and what can I consolidate from other sources, and how can I frame it, uniquely?
    b)  Who’s already trying to do what I’m trying to do? How will I compete with them?
    At least a dozen times I’ve been asked to advise someone on selling a product on the web, and in the course of the meeting I find they haven’t done a simple Google search to see what their competitors are doing. This is second only to the “I want to make something like eBay, and my budget is $700” in causing a web developer to develop sudden breathing problems.
  • Who are your closest competitors?
    a) Go to their websites and ask “what are they up to?” and “what are they missing”
    b) Make a list, with their urls, and features of their sites you like and don’t like.
  • What type of product or service do you offer?
    a) Compile your existing marketing materials, and make sure they’re up to date.
    b) Make sure you’re framing your presentation to the buyer, not to yourself.
    c) If your current offerings are not already compiled in other marketing materials, plan to use the website creation process to get graphics and content for print materials: i.e. Get the designers/photographers to make high-res versions of everything, and use colors that work in print as well as on the web.
  • What is your unique selling proposition?
    Make sure you know how your competitors are getting their clients, and up the ante:
    a) Consider price positioning (discount, competitive, premium)
    b) Don’t just copy others, exceed expectations for your industry and region
    c) Don’t promise what you can’t or won’t deliver. Reputations are increasingly transparent with the web. Online review sites can make it clear to everyone if you don’t deliver value.
    d) Having trouble thinking up an answer to this one? Try writing down all the selling phrases you and your staff use to move your product… Just write them all down, then organize them by priority… What words make people focus, What makes them go dreamy? What makes them empathize? What words create trust or counter distrust? What are the objections?
  • What is your budget?
    a) A website can run from “free” (Do it yourself isn’t really free) to annual budgets in the millions. The limiting factor is always the budget. Don’t skimp, this is your brand on the Internet! But don’t say you can spend more than you have: Your site can often be shut down by the developer, if you can’t pay for it. And even if not, it’s expensive to change developers.
    b) Consider what it will require to get to “Live” and then consider what it will take to keep it fresh, after that. A website doesn’t stop needing attention immediately after it is made public. What are you going to do for the long haul?
    c) The most powerful way to build a brand on the Internet inexpensively is the WordPress blog, with SEO and Social Network features embedded, and ongoing posting (twice per week is good).
  • What is your deadline?
    a) Consider a phased rollout. Sometimes it makes sense to get something done for, say, holiday season, or back-to-school, that’s quick and cheap, then do the big redesign after that.
    b) Really? Just one deadline? Are you thinking about ‘Keeping it Fresh’?
    c) Sometimes it makes sense to start small and grow the site in front of your customers. Blogging is a great way to do that.
  • Is your branding worked out yet? Is this an opportunity to do that?
    a) As a designer, I like well designed sites that have beautiful spacing and graphic qualities, but sometimes you don’t want to look too slick… If you’re a discount shop or a funky coffeehouse, maybe it’s ok to be a little ragged and homegrown looking.
    b) Big companies pay millions for logos, but little companies often sketch something themselves or get a stock logo from a business card company. Really, a couple hundred bucks for a small business that isn’t too picky might be enough to get a logo that’s really yours and pretty good. Being unique matters on the web — you’re not just local any more. Being local, you can often have a company name that exists in other towns in other regions. But on the web, you might get a cease and desist from a lawyer. Search your name in several ways online. If someone has a competitive product or service and the same name, you have an issue.
  • Does your logo present well on the web?
    a) Logos with fine details need to be displayed large, because websites have low resolution.
    b) Is your logo limited to black and white? Is it going to look bad on a colorful site?
    c) Has it been copied and recopied, and looks ragged along the edges? Fixing it up may be critical to your presentation.
  • What is your company’s slogan or tagline?
    a) If it’s descriptive, it should show up in any Google search, and not just be invisible in a graphic (the contents of graphic elements of your website won’t show up in a search).
    b) Can it be improved and made into a selling point or competitive differentiator?
  • Describe at least 5 websites you like, including what you like about them. Include URLs.
  • Do you have a typographic preference? (Heavy, light, modern, classic, etc…)
    A good site designer will look at examples of your existing marketing materials, and the sites that you like, and create a composite impression that they will use to guide their design. Then they will exceed your expectations.
  • Are there any specific images you’d like to incorporate?
    a) Do you own the rights?
    b) Are they of high quality, or should they be recreated?
    c) Let your designer or web developer prepare the images… just give them the very best and largest version you have. Good graphics define the website user’s perception of quality of your whole company.
  • Are there any specific colors you may want to use?
    As mentioned above, a good designer will take your existing materials, and sites you like, as well as the images you’ve given them to guide them on colors. Generally a good designer will pick better colors than you can, because they’ve studied how color effects people and also what colors go well together. But if you have specific branding materials that you need to stick to, make sure you can provide specific color information.
  • Are there any specific concepts or colors or imagery you’d like to avoid?
    I remember a client that used an early Terabyte storage system; It was a huge selling point. The design company worked very hard on branding strategy around the image of a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex taking a huge bite out of… something. (I can’t remember.) Turned out, the CEO was a fundamentalist, and didn’t believe in dinosaurs… And two weeks of work went down the drain. Tell your designer of any taboos your company might have.
  • Finally, ask yourself: How is this website going to stay fresh? Can I write content or do I have staff that can write? Do I need an editor? Do I have authorization from the Big Boss or do we need a content brief.
This is just the beginning of the journey… but it’s a great way to get your head into the project. There have been numerous times I’ve participated in projects that effectively redefine an existing company, because the company finally sat down and said “This is who we are” with the Creative Brief. Older companies often experience this, because over years, they drift without redefinition or reviewing the original business plan. Sometimes the world changes under their feet, and the Creative Brief wakes them up. Sometimes the discussions of what should be in the web site lead to enormous efficiency improvements in customer service, or whole new products, delivered digitally. By the way, I just switched credit unions because of a lousy website. It does matter.