Website planning is probably not the sexiest thing you’ve ever heard, but if you’re building or redesigning a site, the topic is definitely worth your attention. How do you build a website that actually does what you want it to do? How do you keep the design process on track? Website planning may seem trivial at first glance, but it’s quite important.
So much marketing takes place on our websites that the site functions as a sort of digital front door. It’s a portal to your business. It may also be the shop itself if you do ecommerce or invite your customers to interact with you in some other way.
So let’s start our review of small business marketing strategies with website building. But instead of diving headlong into the technical stuff, let’s begin with the prerequisites—the planning that ensures the website you build is aligned with your intention. This planning will ensure that your site provides full value to your business and the customers you serve.
Remember that in marketing, what goes around comes around. If your website only creates value for you, the business owner, it’s not likely to succeed. The site must also create value for your customers. It must help them reach their goals. We’ll keep this point in mind as we proceed with our planning.
As for the value you get, I hope you enjoy this activity. It’s deeply analytical, but I believe analysis is one of the wellsprings of creativity. Not the only one, for sure, but an important one. Analytical thought nourishes creativity, and this planning exercise will help you design a site that is both beautiful and highly functional. If you hang in there to the end of this post, you’ll be able to download a site planning worksheet you can use in your next project.
I’m going to adapt this planning exercise to WordPress, if only because most people end up using it. WordPress dominates website building in the same way that Google dominates search. According to Search Engine Journal, 39.5 percent of all websites were using WordPress as their content management system (CMS) at the start of 2021. If you focus on sites that use a CMS—which I see as a good move for most businesses—the figure for WordPress market share jumps to 64.1 percent.
If your research leads you to the conclusion that Shopify, Drupal, Wix, or Squarespace is a better fit for you, by all means go ahead and use it. This planning exercise will still be useful, with only slight adaptations.
Note also that this planning exercise is not only for people who are building new websites. If you plan to overhaul an existing website, this activity will benefit you as well.
So let’s get down to business with a step-by-step procedure.
- Write down your name and the name of your organization.
- List the domain of the new website. If you are migrating from one domain to another, list the old domain as well. Your site builder or migration specialist will need both domains to set up a redirect.
- Write a purpose statement. “The purpose of this website is to …” Now fill in the rest of that sentence. For most businesses, the purpose of the website is to generate leads, phone calls, newsletter signups, reservations, or appointments. Other purposes include blogging, portfolio display, and ecommerce. For good measure, write two purpose statements: “The primary purpose of this website is to …” and “The secondary purpose is to .…”
- Write an audience statement. “This primary audience for this website is ….” Make this description as specific as you can. If you’re a business consultant, write something like “The primary audience for this website is IT consultants who need help with project management.” If you’re a financial planner, write something like “The primary audience for this website is dual citizens who need help with cross-border tax planning.” If necessary, write an additional statement to identify your secondary audiences.
- Write a benefits statement. Remember that creating value for others is an important goal of your planning. “The benefits my audience will gain by visiting the site include ….” And: “Secondary audiences for this website include …. The benefits they will gain by visiting the site include ….”
Presumably, you already have some thoughts about the content you want to develop. Without at least preliminary content plans, you would not even be thinking about building a website.
Still, yesterday’s plans are never quite right for today. As your website begins to take form, your content plans will need to become steadily more detailed and concrete.
If you have not begun thinking about the content of your key pages, this would be a good time to do so.
- Make a list of the key pages in your site, like Home, About, Services, or Products.
- For each page, create a bullet list of the topics you want to cover on that page. Keep in mind the value you want to create with each page. How will the content of the page help your visitors succeed in their quest?
- If you have already identified particular graphics, make a list of the ones you want to include with each page or topic. If you are using images created by others, make sure those images are not encumbered by copyright.
Conversion and Tracking
Conversion is what we want people to do as they progress through your marketing funnel. We want to convert prospects to leads, leads to customers, and customers to advocates or repeat customers.
In this stage of our planning exercise, we identify conversion points and tracking methods, and triggers.
- Identify your conversion points. These are the specific methods you will use to generate leads or prompt conversions. Examples include contact form, questionnaire, quote request, lead magnet download, book a reservation, etc. If you’d like to take a closer look at marketing funnel design, see this Digital Silk page on website planning. You don’t need a comprehensive list of conversion points at the outset, but identify at least some of the ways your site will encourage people to interact with your business.
- Identify the tracking systems you will use. Examples include Google Analytics, Facebook Pixel, Conversion API, Bing Conversions, etc. This list may change over time as your tactics evolve, but at least capture the systems you will use at the outset.
- Identify the trigger mechanisms you will use to track conversions. Examples include a no-follow thank you page, event tracking, ecommerce tracking, certain pages visited.
- Identify the metrics you will track. You can modify your analytics reporting over time, but at least set down a preliminary list of metrics here.
Most businesses require supplemental software to complement their websites. In this one-step stage, we identify that software.
- Identify your integrations. Examples include customer relationship management (CRM) software, email marketing platform, scheduling software, and inventory management for ecommerce.
Website developers use the term sitemap in two related ways. They’re both methods for describing the organization of your website:
- A visual sitemap is a flowchart or schematic of your website. It clarifies site organization for the site owner and designer.
- An XML sitemap is a text file created in extensible markup language. It describes the site organization for search engine robots. You can use a plugin like the Yoast SEO plugin to automatically generate an XML sitemap. It will sit in the root directory of your website, and you can submit it to Google, Bing, and other search engines.
Both sitemaps are necessary. We’ll describe the visual method here.
- If you are rebuilding a site, create a sitemap for the existing site. Note its pain points and confusing navigation paths. Make plans for improving them.
- Create a sitemap for your new website. Start with your home page and work down the pyramid. Use descriptive names for each page, or pair page titles with descriptive names.
- Identify navigation flow—not the menus, but the way you want people to travel through the site. Make note of these pathways. You will have to add explicit links to guide your visitors.
- After you create the large blocks, go back and note conversion points and calls to action (CTAs).
The best websites follow a pyramidical form of organization. The pyramid is helpful both for human visitors and search engines. It’s hierarchical, with tiers of pages descending from the home page. It’s also interlinked, with links guiding visitors and search engines through the site to individual pieces of content. Yoast describes this method of organization as cornerstone content.
There are many ways to organize a website, but I recommend a pyramid scheme that complements your business objectives, products, or service lines. Use front page widgets to link to next level pages, and link those pages to other pages and posts further down the pyramid.
Use a drawing tool like Miro, Visio, or Google Drawings for this task. Or if you prefer, make a simple text outline. I created this example with Google Drawings.
Stuff We All Need—Legal Policies
Which policies you need exactly depends on what you do on your website. These policies must be tailored to your business practices and to the jurisdictions in which you operate. You can consult a lawyer, generate them, or write them yourself. I recommend one of the first two options.
Make a place for them now in your sitemap.
In this exercise, we plan the paths users will follow as they navigate the contents of our website. The folks at Creately do a good job of explaining this process in Website Planning Templates | Website Planning Guide.
- Note the destinations you have in mind for your visitors. Where do you want them to go on your website? What actions do you want them to take?
- If you have analytics data for an existing site, examine it now. Look at metrics like bounce rate, time on page, and exit pages to discover patterns. Which pages satisfy your visitors? Where do you lose visitors?
- Draw a flowchart, reflecting a path from your home page to your various conversion points.
- Use this flowchart to discover the navigational aids (in the form of text, images, links, and buttons) you will need to provide to guide your visitors to their destinations.
Here is an example of a simple navigation flow:
Remember that your home page is not the only entrance to your website. Visitors will also enter at blog posts and landing pages, referred by search engines or social media. In practice, there are many routes visitors can take through your website to your conversion points.
It’s not necessary to flowchart every possible path in advance, but adopt the habit of creating clear navigational paths to your conversion points.
Create centers of value throughout your website and carve out robust navigational paths to lead your visitors to those pages.
Here we create another map that describes key aspects of the WordPress implementation.
It documents the theme and theme options, widgets, custom post types, unique page designs, added functionality, and plugins we will use in the site.
Here’s an example. Again, you can create a simple text outline if you prefer.
Stuff We All Need—Backup, Caching, Security, and SEO Plugins
There’s stuff we all need that WordPress plugins can provide. We all need a backup plugin. We all need a broken link checker. We all need a caching plugin to speed up our sites. We all need security plugins. We all need an SEO plugin.
A few words of caution here about plugins. First, choose popular, well-maintained plugins. A large install base indicates a plugin has found wide acceptance among other WordPress users. That’s a good sign. Make sure as well that the plugin is compatible with your version of WordPress and has been updated recently. Outdated plugins can cause trouble.
Second, don’t overdo it. Every plugin adds complexity to your site and increases its footprint. So add as many plugins as you need, but as few as possible. Use plugins that do double-duty wherever possible, such as a security plugin that also provides backup capability.
Looking for Inspiration
Website planning involves a lot of analytical work, but in this phase, you can unleash your creativity.
Simply put, you are looking for inspiration. It is all around you, once you start looking for it.
Google site developers. Browse their portfolios and note the designs that appeal to you.
Browse on Behance and Dribbble (yes, that’s three b’s). Check out the portfolios of the freelance designers on those sites.
Look at your competitors’ websites. Note the designs and specific pages that appeal to you.
Record your findings in a swipe file. Include screen captures and the URLs of specific pages. Jot down the specific reasons you like them.
Web pages consist of rectangular elements. Wireframing is the process of arranging the elements. Rosie Allabarton at CareerFoundry gives an excellent description of the art in The Definitive Guide: How To Make Your First Wireframe.
You can use pencil and paper or any convenient app for this purpose. You’re only creating rough sketches, and you want to encourage your own spontaneity. Make the technical bar as low as possible.
Create wireframes for both desktop and mobile versions of a page. Your WordPress theme, if it’s a responsive one, will automatically create mobile page layouts by default, but you can override the defaults with a little CSS programming.
Here’s a charming hand-drawn wireframe from Wikimedia Commons:
I also like this whimsical diagram for a coffee app.
Website Planning Wisdom
We usually think of planning as a process of identifying exactly the things we will do in the future, but I find I get into trouble when I allow my planning to become too rigid.
Instead, I find it more helpful to think of planning as a process of anticipating the future. Use website planning to explore your options in site design. Consider the design decisions you will make and how those decisions will affect your visitors. Try to see your website through their eyes.
Above all, think of website planning as an exercise in value creation, both for yourself and your visitors. Although we build websites to promote our businesses, the paradox of promotion is that we must help others to help ourselves.
A website, in other words, is an opportunity to help others succeed. Use your planning to make the most of this opportunity.