Principles For Getting Your Digital Front Door Right

Head of Digital Peter Petralia explains that when building a website, focus on good content and user experience. And don’t forget mobile.

This article originally appeared in The Next Web on February 13, 2017. 

Websites are brand’s “digital front door” and are often the first interaction that a potential consumer will have with a brand so it’s important to get it right. But not every marketer has unlimited time and money to build the robust website of their dreams. And sometimes getting the balance right in the competing interests of fast, cheap, and good can feel harder than necessary. Here are a few principles that can guide a marketer under pressure to deliver the right site at the right time:

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Coding is a creative act, and standing out is crucial to differentiate your brand from your competitors. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to technical infrastructures and frameworks. If your digital marketing budget isn’t enormous and you don’t have a large technical team on staff to maintain your site over the long term, use a tool like WordPress as your foundation. WordPress comes with plugins for just about everything and a vast library of themed templates; with minimal customization you can create a distinctive looking website. If you have a strong technical team, you could consider Drupal, another open-source CMS that has a relatively straightforward technical infrastructure and a large community of support. Popular sites like Quartz and TechCrunch are built on WordPress and even is built in Drupal.

Choosing an open-source CMS has another advantage: they have product roadmaps. It is almost never a good idea to build a custom CMS unless you are creating a digital product. With WordPress and Drupal, there are people who are constantly innovating and improving the platform to ensure it works on the latest devices and operating systems. Enterprise-level platforms like Adobe Experience Manager or Sitecore are excellent, but if you don’t have a large budget or a sophisticated team, then choose a simpler CMS that meets your needs.

UX reigns over visual design

The Virgin America website made waves a few years ago when the site was redesigned to focus entirely on the booking process using a user experience (UX) pattern that was popular from aggregate booking sites (like Travelocity and Expedia). The simple idea to strip away everything that wasn’t core to a user’s need to find a flight, was actually a bold move that smart brands will take to heart in their own businesses. And while Virgin America’s choice might have seemed risky, they knew that meeting a user’s need is the single most important thing they could do to differentiate an already strong brand online.

While there can be value in challenging conventions, user behavior is hard to change. There is a reason that there are established patternsof UX – it’s because people understand how to use them. Regardless of whether you choose a template, design something new in-house, or partner with a firm to design your website, spend the most time on getting the navigation right. The hierarchy of your site says as much about your brand as your colors, typography, photography style, and the language you use. Avoid mystery meat navigation: make sure each navigation item communicates its purpose clearly and avoid the hamburger and kebab on mobile. Ideally, UX and visual design work in harmony, but if you have limited resources, put your money into user experience every time.

Invest in content and don’t forget mobile

Using a free or low-cost CMS does not mean that your website has to look like every other site built on that platform. You can start with existing templates and customize them if you have the resources. If you don’t have the resources to customize the layout, at least do a quick competitive audit to make sure you don’t choose a template that your major competitors are using. As I mentioned in my previous article, investing in high quality content is crucial. And don’t forget mobile. More people visit websites on mobile devices than they do on desktops which means that, for many users, the mobile experience of your website will be their only experience. Whether you are designing from scratch, modifying an existing template, or using an out-of-the-box solution, make sure the mobile experience is stellar. Two brands who really get mobile right are Casper and Nest. In both cases, their content is structured to support smaller screen sizes and the navigation on mobile is clear, easy to find, and finger-friendly.

If you can’t afford to spend extensive amounts of time and money creating a bespoke website, all is not lost. Choose an open-source, template-based content management system that will be easy for your team to manage and make a few high-priority investments in getting the user experience, content, and mobile version of your site right. Sometimes, as my colleague often says, perfect is the enemy of good. But good does not have to mean mediocre.