Have you been thinking about a new website? As your business grows and your products and services change, your website needs to be updated to reflect these changes. But the website building process can be exhausting. From finding a web designer to gathering photos, and having to write all the content.
As a business owner, when you’re looking to update your website—or have one made for the first time—the first thing you’ll probably think about is how you want it to look. Websites, after all, are a way to visually represent your business online.
But a truly great website is much more than that. What often gets overlooked is the critical role that organization and content play on your website. Websites need to properly reflect who you are as a business, but they also should be designed with your customer in mind—since they are the ones who will ultimately be spending the most time with your website.
Crafting your website around your customers’ needs is what we call content-driven web design.
What is Content-Driven Web Design?
Content-driven web design is a method of website design that involves using content and page structure to inform visual design on a website.
Which means what exactly? It means before you start sending your web designer photos, graphics, and color choices, you first need to think about what words you want on your website and in what order those words need to appear.
The Principle Behind Content Strategy
The guiding principle of creating strategic content for your website is simple: content hierarchy.
Content hierarchy is a way of prioritizing the most important information a potential customer will be looking for.
We always have to go back to the customer. What will they be looking for when they reach your website? Your company history or photos of your staff might be good supplemental information on your website, but they’re not (in most cases) the main things a potential customer is looking for.
So content hierarchy is the principle to follow to ensure customer needs stay at the base of all website decisions. As you implement content-driven web design, constantly refer back to what information your target audience might be seeking to determine which information is the most important to prioritize on your site.
Why Use Content to Drive Your Website Design
Using a content-first strategy is important for several reasons:
- It forces you to take a step back and think about exactly what pain points you’re solving for customers.
- It makes you prioritize the needs of customers over the needs of other internal departments. We see this a lot. Each department thinks their information is most important and must be highlighted first on the website. But ultimately the most important information is the information the customer is searching for.
- It can save you time and money. By developing a clear strategy of how many pages you will have on your website and what will be on each page, you and your web designer will have an agreed upon plan. This will protect you from vague agreements about how many pages you’re allowed to have.
The Method of Content Driven Design
Now that you have the what and the why you need to know how.
Developing a content strategy might sound daunting, but we promise it isn’t. We’ve broken the process down into three steps: site structure, page structure, and content.
First thing’s first, none of these steps exists in a vacuum. They are all very closely related to one another.
You’re going to want to start big – think very “pie in the sky.” Before you even consider the words on a page, you’ll want to come up with a functional site map. This will inform how each page is then structured.
And once you’ve decided how each page will be structured, then you can nail down the actual content. This content then guides your designer.
What is a site map? A site map is a list of all the pages on your website. These can either be a numbered list or shown as a visual.
What is page structure? Page structure refers to a detailed outline of what content is on each specific page on your website.
What is content? Content refers to the actual words/copy you use to fill in your page structure outlines.
The Process of Website Content Strategy
To create a customer-centric, content-driven website, we need to explore how content hierarchy fits into site structure, page structure, and content.
To best understand what site structure is and how it fits into your customer first design, let’s check out an example.
This video demonstrates an overwhelming navigation/menu and a homepage that doesn’t direct the visitor to any particular action.
When a visitor gets to this page, they don’t know where to go. Even if they use the main navigation, hovering over an item gives them hundreds of other options. There is no clear path for the user to take. Decision paralysis sets in and instead of learning about a product or service, they exit your website.
What does site structure look like when you institute content hierarchy? Let’s take another look.
With a newly designed version of the above website, the customer is guided down a homepage with very clear direction. The homepage now identifies and calls out the most important actions users on the website want to make.
The new navigation at the top of the page is condensed into broad categories so the website visitor is not overwhelmed by a long list of options.
It is important to note that good site structure doesn’t mean simply eliminating a lot of pages. There are a lot of well-structured websites that have a lot of pages. The key is to organize them appropriately.
There’s no “magic formula” for the “right” size of a website. You don’t want to look at all the content on your site and just say “nope, it’s too big, let’s nix it all.” This site still shows the same content, but it’s organized more effectively.
Another example is The City of Mauldin. When we were first handed this project we did not recreate exactly what they had using the same format. Instead, we went through, audited each page, and reorganized the content into bigger, more digestible categories for the audience.
So regardless of if you have one audience you are speaking to or many (like a city website) you can identify important user paths and create an effective site structure.
With page structure, we apply the principle of content hierarchy to an individual page by prioritizing the most important information and making sure it appears early on.
Typically, you’ll want to start with your homepage because it acts as the train station that routes users to different areas of your website.
As you create the structure/outline for each page, think about what messages are most important to get across. This should be based on marketing priority and customer needs.
Each page on your website should have a clear path to action. You never want a customer to get to the bottom of your website page and have nothing to do. You need to call them to action.
If you had a customer walk through your brick and mortar store, fill up their cart and walk back to the checkout counter, you’d want your associate to ask them if they are ready to check out. Without the ask they might just leave their items and head home if they can’t find anyone to ring them out.
The same idea should be applied to your website. As you think about what each page needs to say, think about what ‘ask’ makes the most sense, and keep your customers moving towards that checkout—even if the “checkout” is a figurative one to reach out for more information.
To get a clear idea of effective versus ineffective page structure let’s take a look at another example.
In this first example, you see a homepage without a clear call to action or any page structure. All the text is in large paragraphs and the buttons on the right are big, making the visitor think they are important, but it isn’t clear (unless you are a current customer) what those buttons are for.
After looking at this homepage, a potential customer is left with nowhere to go and they are not being called into any kind of action.
With a little page structure, this newly designed homepage for the same company gives users direct calls to action and guides a potential customer through important information.
- Visitors are immediately directed to either view a printer or explore IT solutions (the company’s main two offerings)
- Visitors then get an overview of who the company is and have the option to learn more
- Then they are prompted (again) to view printers and copiers
Giving clear, concise actions for your visitors will help empower them to explore your site on their own terms and discover all you have to offer.
Now comes the fun part—filling in all your outlines with actual content. When you first set out to redesign your website, you may have felt overwhelmed when asked for ‘content.’ But, if you have properly laid the groundwork with site structure and page structure, the content writing will come easy.
At Engenius, we typically write content for our clients, keeping things like clarity, conciseness, SEO best practices, target audience, and brand voice in mind.
But even if you don’t plan on working with a copywriter, you should be in a good place to craft well written, easily digestible content that calls your visitors to action.
When writing your own content, it is important to explain what you do and how you do it.
We know, this sounds like a no brainer. But it is easy to get caught up in the daily lingo and jargon of your own industry. What might seem like common sense to you often isn’t to your customers.
Consumers like to be in charge of their own research and buying process, so if you can break out the steps in your process and explain exactly what a client needs to know before doing business with you, you’ll be steps ahead of your competitors.