Neglecting your website’s most important element?

Companies and organizations devote an amazing amount of time to agonizing over what their websites should look like. They review a host of different design approaches and spend hours trying to determine exactly how each page should function.

Then they slap some content in place.

What kind of content? “Take that stuff from our last catalog, add in those news releases, and didn’t we put some executive bios in that presentation we did two years ago?” After all, they’ll tell you, it really doesn’t matter. Just as long as there’s some content. Then they go back to agonizing over the right shade of blue and which stock photos of happy employees present the image of diversity they hope to portray.

That’s how it happens, more often than not. So what’s the problem?

Why do important visitors — such as prospective customers — come to your website? Are they interested in your taste in color? Are they curious about the font you’ve chosen? Were they drawn in by the stock shot of the smiling unidentifiable-race-but-not-quite-Caucasian woman wearing the headset on your “contact us” page?

Or do they visit because you have some kind of information they need?

I’m confident few website visitors seek out sites to check out the design, fiddle with functionality, or analyze the coding. I’m even more confident most are there because they want to know something about your business and what you do or sell.

Perhaps they need to purchase replacement part #46A3WH for their veeblefetzer. Maybe they want to see if your executive team has the market knowledge they’re after. Could be they just want to know whether you’ll be open before 9 a.m. tomorrow. Their specific reasons differ, but all involve learning something about you that’s important to them.

You haven’t invested all that money for your site to become an art gallery or a source of cheap entertainment, have you? I’m sure your goal was to deliver information about your business or organization when visitors want to know it, and the quality and quantity of that information will determine whether that visit has been a worthwhile use of their time.

So why does content invariably fall to the bottom of the priority list? I blame human nature. Design and functionality are far more fun and interesting than gathering and organizing information, so that’s where people want to spend their time. And, because many people are intimidated by having to write something new, they’d rather repurpose something that already exists.

It’s not just the companies and organizations that have websites. Study the “our team” section of many web developers’ own sites, and you’ll see plenty of designers and code wizards, but few writers (or, to use today’s fancy term, content developers).

Far too much of today’s website development is driven by designers whose primary goal is to make their sites attractive or developers who want those sites to be able to do cool things. I know design and functionality are critically important, and I have tremendous respect for professionals in both fields.

But without the right content, design and functionality are like an empty photo frame. It may be nice, but it isn’t serving a function.

When developing or redesigning your website, your first question — long before you argue about colors — should be “What do we want this site to accomplish?” Maybe you want to sell more of what you offer. Maybe you hope to make the perfect first impression to someone who may entrust something important to you. Whatever your goal is, it probably involves making sure that you have the right information in place. Once you decide what that information is and how you’ll develop it, you can begin to think about how it should be presented.

Think I’m wrong? Consider the amount of time you spend online and the sites that have earned the largest share of your attention. Do you visit them because they’re cool and attractive, or because they provide something you want or need to know? The next time you work on your own site, I’d suggest that you keep that answer in mind.