Some website ecosystems are simple. An editor puts content into a content management system (CMS), publishes to the website, and a visitor comes to look at it. Nice and Neat.
Some website ecosystems….. Well, not so much. You have lots of editors from lots of different departments. They don’t coordinate amongst themselves. They’re using an advanced, fussy CMS that carries high development costs.
Several smaller sites, one-off landing pages, and translated regional sites complement the flagship site. Each one has a different look and feel. Maybe you have a configurator or store locator.
Thousands or millions of visitors, from multiple audience groups, follow distinct paths to come to the website. They all have different goals.
These are enterprise websites.
They are big, complex, expensive, and if you’re responsible for one in any way, you probably have frequent headaches. Raise your hand if any of this sounds familiar:
- The editors didn’t get sufficient training, and many of them don’t even think they should have to edit the website. Supporting the editors is no one’s official job, so one or two folks try to help out, but they can’t do everything for everyone.
- Every section of the site looks like it came from a different company. The look & feel is different, the layout is different, even the navigation is different. Visitors get lost, and corporate branding is annoyed that things look so unprofessional.
- Things break all the time. “Not found” errors, achingly slow load times, functionality that was fine yesterday but mysteriously fails today – all regular occurrences. The whole thing feels like it’s held together with band aids and wishes.
- Every other project uses a different agency, because none of them ever seem to do things right. Half the projects seem to be just fixing a past project that went wrong. New features and enhancements get launched late or with sub-par quality – no one is ever proud of the website.
- IT is supposed to be supporting all of this, but their delivery time is glacial and they’re always pushing back on business requests. They also seem oddly stressed out all the time.
- Worst of all? Visitors can’t find what they want, can’t accomplish their goals, and are complaining. Some are even threatening to go to the competition.
It doesn’t have to be like this!
An enterprise website ecosystem will always be large and complex. But it doesn’t have to be painful!
The trick to turning things around is to establish a program around the website. Stop thinking of it as a simple marketing tactic, and start thinking of it as a product of its own. One that needs to be carefully planned, owned, resourced, and maintained.
The program should focus on four key areas: Governance, Customer Experience, Enablement, and Future Proofing.
Sounds pretty simple, and in a way it is. Of course, every organization and every website is different, which means the complexities lie in the details. But taking on that complexity will mean that your customers don’t have to.
Let’s look at each of these areas in a little more detail.
In 1997, most companies’ websites – if they even had one – were essentially online brochures (hence the term “brochureware”). I had clients who would hand me literal paper brochures and ask me to put that information on their website, and nothing more.
It’s not 1997 anymore.
Now, no matter what customer journey you’ve mapped out, for which persona or market segment, chances are it will include a visit to your website.
Enterprise websites are still marketing tactics, sure. They’re also communication channels, investor relations tools, tech support hotlines, download centers for specifications and instructions, customer service desks, and more.
Establish your website’s usefulness in the customer experience by exploring how visitors want to use the site. Make it look good, make it work correctly, make key information findable. (And “key information” is defined by your visitors and customers, not by whichever product manager yells the loudest.)
Consider where your visitors are, and what languages they read. Develop a translation strategy to ensure high-quality, up-to-date content for all visitors.
Think about domain names and URL policies – these impact SEO and also how people find your website.
Above all, be consistent.
People who know me are sick of hearing the word “consistency”, because I’m always on a soapbox about it. Be consistent in style, visuals, navigation, functionality, interactions. Always.
Consistency is challenging when there are many different products, audience groups, departments, and customer journeys in play. Most websites grow organically, with various departments tacking on their own content in their own way. They address their own small portion of the overall customer experience, because that’s what they’ve been tasked to do. Over time, the site becomes unwieldy for any visitor who wants to explore more than one page.
That’s where governance comes in.
Governance is one of those things that everyone loves to talk about, but few actually perform. That’s because governance is easier said than done. But if a website program isn’t governed carefully, it will govern itself – to painful results.
Like so many things, it starts at the top. The website needs executive sponsorship from the highest possible level. While one department may “own” the site, a successful website represents the entire organization. So senior management must set the stage.
First and foremost, set goals for the website. These goals will drive the design, content, and features for the site. They will also determine what metrics to watch.
Make sure the right roles exist for the website – ownership, content editing, design, maintenance, etc. – and make sure the right people are in those roles.
Most importantly, empower everyone to perform their role.
Governance needs to be updated and maintained.
So many governance documents fall by the wayside after a couple months because it’s just too much work to keep up with it. But that maintenance is what will hold everything together. Someone – such as the website owner – needs to hold regular reviews and meetings to make sure everything is on track.
And yes, I am talking a lot about a website owner.
While every organization’s needed roles will vary, every website needs an owner. A single person who is accountable for the quality of the site. That’s a big job, which means the owner isn’t likely doing all the work. They may have a team, or run a community of editors, designers, and technologists. But the website owner needs to be empowered to actually run things, and sit at an appropriate level of authority to make necessary decisions.
Finally, set a culture around the website. Because a corporate website is no longer just a simple marketing tactic, the corporate website should no longer be the domain of only marketing, or of a single marketing department. Everyone should be invested in the site, and prepared to provide input or edit content if necessary. It’s no longer acceptable to say “I’m not going to put my content on the website because I only ever use MS Word”. If someone owns content, they should expect to learn how to use the content management system.
Enablement encompasses all those foundational things that make the website program run smoothly. It all boils down to supporting the people, processes, and technologies who are supporting the website.
A comprehensive design system, with structure around patterns and assets, will make life easier for editors, designers, and developers. An enterprise design system is tough to implement, especially for established websites subject to a lot of internal politics, but it will also provide huge returns on efficiency, quality, and cost.
Help editors do the best job they can by ensuring that CMS components are built in a way that’s consistent (there’s that word again) and easy to learn for editors.
Content editors are not usually from IT, and they’re not always comfortable with newer technologies. Provide training, reference documentation, maybe even a support person who can answer questions and help publish content for editors who are struggling.
Speaking of IT, give them more love.
Particularly the team that handles website infrastructure and the CMS. This is a group of people who only ever get noticed when things go wrong, but they are always there behind the scenes, almost always underfunded and overworked, keeping things running 24/7. And because they’re underfunded, they’re often holding things together with duct tape and wishes.
Please shower them in appreciation, and help them get the funding and headcount they need to do things right. In return, they will continue to work minor miracles on a regular basis.
Build trusted partnerships
Lastly, look very carefully at your agency partners. Many enterprise websites have multiple agencies for different parts of the site, or maybe one agency for a flagship site and another for microsites. And when things go wrong with the site, often the agency takes the blame. That means too many companies try to fix their website problems by bringing in a new agency and giving them the same instructions – a recipe for all kinds of headaches.
Aim for one agency. One agency that has the capability to design and build to your needs and specifications, that will be your trusted partner for the long haul. Invest the time to figure out what you really need in a partner, and to complete a comprehensive search process. Some projects may still require a specialty firm, and product management may cling to their favored agency. (That’s one area where governance and a design system will be vital.) But getting the number down, and partnering with one primary agency for the website ecosystem, will ease the pain dramatically.
The first three focus areas will get your organization to a world-class website and a successful website program. This last one, Future Proofing, ensures that it stays that way. These are activities that need to be done routinely and continuously, for the life of the website.
We all know the importance of search engine optimization (SEO). The groundwork for successful SEO generally boils down to “have a good website”, which means all the other things mentioned here will contribute to positive SEO.
Beyond that, determine how important SEO is for your website, which pages should be front and center, and how people might search for that content. If your agency partner doesn’t have an SEO practice, consider engaging a specialist from time to time. Those specialists keep up-to-the-minute with frequent search engine changes. They can advise on how to optimize for best SEO, or even take over much of the work for you.
Listen to your visitors and customers. Solicit feedback in the form of surveys (I’m not talking NPS surveys – ask actual substantive questions), interviews, focus groups. Incentivize people however you need to in order to obtain real-world feedback from real website visitors.
In between feedback, track your analytics. It’s best to identify a few key metrics to look at – metrics that measure progress against the website’s goals.
Then, feed those learnings into the next cycle of content, design, or functional updates as appropriate.
Every website needs to grow and mature
As you add enhancements and updates to the list, organize them into a proper roadmap. Importantly, don’t throw random reactive projects into the mix. Allow the governance process to gatekeep a roadmap of updates that will best benefit customers and the organization.
Include research and planning initiatives in the roadmap; they are critical projects that deserve to be represented and resourced.
Keep the roadmap realistic and plan to do things right.
One or two solid enhancements that are well-designed, thoroughly tested, and launched correctly are far better than ten sloppy, rapid-fire changes. As updates are made, integrate change management activities to ensure that internal and external stakeholders are on board.
Keep up the momentum by keeping updates nimble. Not only does an agile update process reduce complexity and cost, it also brings updates to market much more quickly. You will be able to respond to customer needs, fix problems, maintain that critical infrastructure, and free the organization from the slog of major capital projects every other year.
There will always be a need for the bigger projects, but once you have a solid foundation in place, most of the maintenance can be done in much smaller chunks.
These key focus areas apply to any website.
Smaller sites will generally be simpler and can use a tailored-down version. But even the smallest site can benefit from these activities.
What I’ve outlined here may sound like a lot of work. It is. But here’s the thing: your organization is already doing this amount of work. Without a proper program in place, the work is decentralized, felt all over the organization, pulling little bits of money out of various budgets, pulling time from employees, putting extra work onto customers. It’s not always being tracked, but it’s being done.
By putting together an enterprise website program, you can streamline the work. You can channel spending to the right places that drive value. It’s additional effort and cost up front, for long-term returns in cost reduction, employee efficiency, brand value, and of course, customer happiness.