Neglecting the most important part of your website?

When developing or updating their websites, companies and organizations devote an amazing amount of time to agonizing over what the sites should look like. They consider all sorts of different designs and spend hours trying to get the functionality exactly where they want it.

And then, they just slap some content in place.

What content would that be? “Take that stuff from our last brochure, add in those news releases, and didn’t we put some executive bios in that presentation we did two years ago?” They’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter. Just as long as something is there. Then they go back to agonizing over which shade of red looks best and which stock photos of happy customers reflect the perfect degree of diversity.

But wait a minute! When important visitors — such as prospective customers — come to your website, why are they making the effort? Is it because they want to get a sense of your taste in color? Is it because they want to applaud the font you chose for the header? Are they drawn by the photo of the smiling unidentifiable-race-but-not-quite-Caucasian woman wearing the headset on your “contact us” page?

Or are they visiting because you have some kind of information they need?

I’d wager that few website visitors seek out sites to check out the design, fiddle with the functionality, or study the underlying coding. In fact, I’m pretty confident that the overwhelming majority are there because they want to know something about your business and what you do or sell.

Whether they’re planning to buy replacement part #46A3WH for their veeblefetzer, are trying to determine whether your executive team has the expertise they’re after, or are checking to see if you’ll be open on their way to work in the morning, they need to know something. That’s why they visit your site.

Simply put, that’s why your site exists in the first place (at least in 99 percent of cases). It’s probably not intended to serve primarily as an art gallery or a source for cheap entertainment. The goal is 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.

Given that importance, why does content fall to the bottom of the priority list? I suspect that a big part of the reason is human nature. Design and functionality are far more fun and interesting than the pedestrian task of gathering and organizing information, so that’s where people enjoy concentrating their efforts. Plus, many people are intimidated by the writing process, so they’d rather repurpose something that already exists.

It’s not just an issue with homegrown websites. If you study the “our staff” section of many web development companies’ own websites, you’ll see many designers and coders, but few writers (or, to use the trendy term, content developers).

Far too much website development is driven by designers whose primary goal is to make their sites attractive or developers who want them to be able to do cool things. Now, I’m not saying that design and functionality aren’t important. They are critically important, especially when it comes to conveying the right image for your business or organization — 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.

In other words, the first question you should ask is “What do we want this site to accomplish?” Maybe your goal is selling more of what you offer. Maybe it’s making sure that you provide the perfect first impression to someone who is wondering whether they should entrust something important to your firm. Whatever it is, it probably involves making sure that you have the right information in place. Once you’ve established what that information is and how you’ll develop it, you can begin to decide how it should be presented.

If you don’t believe me, take an honest look at the time you spend online and the sites that have earned the largest share of your attention. Are you there primarily because they’re cool and attractive, or because they provide something you want or need to know? I’m pretty sure I know the answer, and the next time you examine your own site, I’d suggest that you keep that answer in mind.

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Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at https://sfwriting.com/freeguide, and his blog is at https://sfwriting.com/blog. ©2014 Scott Flood All rights reserved.