Quite often, website redesigns are not very good for the client
They over-promise, under-deliver, run over budget and over schedule, and don't actually improve the performance of the client website (mostly because nobody bothers to measure the performance to begin with).
I appreciate that this announcement isn't as momentous as the lead spokesperson for the health insurance industry turning whistleblower, but it's not something a lot of agencies want to admit because website redesigns are the largest engagement (by dollar) that an agency gets with a client. And this brings me to my second secret:
Five and six figure website redesigns are often cost justified in the name of increased donations, but are never actually measured.
I've seen this promised a lot, but rarely do I see a vendor who even knew what the performance numbers were when saying it. That should ring alarm bells in your head.
Not all website redesigns are bad, but they can be an expensive and painful process if not scoped down viciously, and for most of the 12+ years I've spent in agency work watching both my colleagues, competitors, and clients conduct them, everyone has a motivation to increase their scope. I say this with a significant amount of humility, given that I have pitched for, led, won, and executed website redesigns for clients for two thirds of my professional life.
This week I'm going to tell you common myths about website redesigns, and then over the next six weeks I'm going to give you six data-driven projects that you should do long before a website redesign. These projects might even make it moot to do a redesign. At the very least, they provide the sound research you would need if you actually wanted to do a redesign well. These projects are:
- Learn what the user wants to do: Purpose and task analysis of existing visitors
- Learn what the user does: Examination of your analytics
- Learn what the user can't do: Website goal quantification and optimization
- Learn what the user can and can't see: Visibility analysis of your existing design
- Learn what the Internet sees: Backlink and keyword preservation
- Learn what the user craves to hear: Exploring new editorial vehicles
(I should definitely tip my hat to Jono Smith at the Event360 blog and Brad Porterfield from the Latino Community Association. Last week Jono interviewed me and Brad prodded me to say more on this topic, which led to a beginning of this essay in the comments of my interview.)
So, onto the top myths about website redesigns.
Myth: We're just going to update our look and tweak our brand
Although it does occasionally happen that an organization does a purely aesthetic redo, this is usually the camel nose in the tent. Suddenly you're also putting in a new content management system. And then another department wants to add an advocacy tool. And somebody else wants to create a new content area.
This happens in nonprofits especially because of the need for broad consensus to move forward with the redesign and the lack of focus on a single goal. When you start adding items to your website redesign like a Christmas tree, you destroy the ability to judge cost recovery. Much like a fast moving bill in Congress, people tend to add their well meaning initiative onto the project to make sure it gets done and the end result is awful.
Every item you add to the redesign adds a level of complexity and additional critical points of failure that can delay the project or overrun the budget. The knowledge that adding scope adds complexity and cost is not rocket science. But often agencies, especially those with a lot of headcount, will assert that if they start to fall behind they can add more people to a project.
Literally, since the time of mainframe computers, it has been known that adding more people to an already late project makes it even later. That large agency staff is not going to save you. I recommend that if you have a number of discrete parts of your website you want to build out, that you execute those in discrete chunks. This way you can justify the expenditure of the money based upon the needs of the audience.
Myth: Our website looks old, we need a new look and feel
Honestly, that isn't going to do it. This is especially true now that organizations are judged by the work they do in an ongoing manner and what they say. Changing your colors or your aesthetic will give you a new look and feel, but it isn't going to cause existing and potential donors to feel better about you. Changing the work you do, or describing it in a way that is more appealing to donors is what will change their perception of you. Doing this is "Learn what the user craves to hear: Exploring new editorial vehicles".
(Unless you're website looks like one of these, in which case you really do need some aesthetic work.)
Myth: An easier to navigate website will pay for itself in increased donations, sales, etc.This is ironic, because vendors don't even ask what your current conversion rate is before they write you a proposal. You can only make this statement if you know three things:
- Your conversion rate
- You existing performance
- Your likely increase in performance
Let's do a simple math problem:
You have a nonprofit website that had 10 million unique visitors and took in $100,000 in donations last year. It converts unique visitors into donors at the rate of 1%, meaning that of every 100 unique visitors, 1 becomes a donor. If a vendor comes to you and says they can raise your conversion rate by 15% to 1.15% with a redesign that costs $50,000. Should you do it?
Raising your conversion rate, assuming the size and quality of your traffic remains equal, is going to raise your annual donation revenue to $115,000. That's an increase of $15,000, for which you are paying $50,000. In a little over three years you will recoup your original investment, and then maybe start to see profits from it. I don't think that's a good use of $50,000 this year.
This assumes that the 15% number is correct, which is surely a blind guess. It turns out there are mathematically solid ways to increase your conversion rate, and they don't involve redesigning your entire website. This is described in "Learn what the user can't do: website goal quantification and optimization".
You feel the need to redesign your website to increase a poor conversion rate.
Undertake a website optimization project first, you will achieve most of the major gains at a lower cost.
Myth: Our vendor has a methodology to ensure that we produce a website that serves our needsIf you are truly letting your decisions be data driven, you don't sign up for an entire website redesign at once. I wonder how often these methodologies justify the need for a website redesign? The answer is probably often, especially if the agency holding the website redesign contract did your research.
I have done website redesigns before where it became obvious midway through the project that the budget needed to be shifted to producing more content focused on user needs and less on the work of the actual look and feel. In those cases I took money away from a redesign and gave it to writers, some of which benefit the company, and some of which didn't, but I don't think this happens very often. When I did it as one of the owners of the company with the contract, I had the gravitas to tell my partners that this was the right move. I doubt that happens very much, though.
When you sign a website redesign contract that covers the whole process from research through redesign and launch, your agency has an incentive to skew the research so that it recommends a redesign. And depending on how hard you fought to get money for their contract, you have a bias to see it that way too.
If your vendor thinks so highly of their website research and planning services, do one of the six projects I mention above with them, but don't contract for the rest. Immerse yourself in the data and see what that produces. Also, unless your CFO is trying to spend a grant in a hurry, she'll thank you for spreading out your spending a little longer.
Myth: Our vendor has a methodology to ensure that we will launch on time and on budget
Any vendor with a website redesign methodology has clients with horror stories about late projects in which the total cost went up because of added scope, or the things they were able to launch with were reduced, which is another way of increasing the price. Just ask around.
If you do your "redesign" piecemeal and focus on what you learn about the user before taking the next step, you're unlikely to miss anything, or to run far over budget.
Look for my description in the coming six weeks about each of these projects. You (or your CFO) will thank me.