Just Another Pretty Web Site?
4. What's the scope? How much interactive or revolving content, portfolio content, and special features will make up the site? Are you going to need the Rolls Royce of Web sites to accomplish your objectives, or will a Toyota do?
5. How will the site be organized and what will its focus be? Site navigation is tremendously important! You must consider how the basic site map or outline of the site will be structured based on the most important information you need to communicate.
You'll also need to determine the overall tone or "personality" of the site. Too many bells, whistles, animations, and gimmicks will send visitors clicking for the exits.
6. How can you avoid looking like a second-rate operation? Forget the 1,000-word firm history. Who cares if your firm moved two blocks east back in 1952? Show folks what you can do for them now. And while you're thinking about better content, develop a plan for regular maintenance — weekly, or even daily.
A Visit to ADD Inc
The 150-person Cambridge, Massachusetts architecture firm ADD Inc wanted to create a virtual tour for visitors to their Web site. They presented the same types of information and visual cues that someone would receive by walking through one of the company's three offices.
This means a Web visitor isn't immediately bombarded with information but finds out what he or she needs to know as the tour unfolds. Small amounts of imagery and text are delivered throughout the site, with links to more detailed information.
ADD Inc Web developers culled key information from the firm's existing marketing materials and presented it with as few words as possible, using images to convey a sense of the company and its work.
For prospective clients, that included work methods, examples of projects in specific market sectors, communication tools, and e-mail contacts for firm leaders. Prospective employees also want to know what it's like to work at ADD Inc, what professional development options exist, and how to apply.
Jill Rothenberg, the firm's information technology director, says the biggest challenge was finding images that would convey their message and would also serve as icons for the structured sections of the site. Each image unveiled by the mouse is a clickable link that takes you to a certain section of the site.
Four people working together at a laptop in front of a projection screen evokes new technology and design collaboration — the firm's work style. It also serves as an icon for the 'methods' section, which includes examples of communications media used by the firm.
The design that visitors don't see is the structure that makes it simple for non-technical managers in the firm to update sections of the site themselves, says Rothenberg. Database-driven forms allow the firm's human resources manager, for example, to update job postings and the public relations manager to keep news releases current.
Building a Mission-Critical Site
When the Albany, New York firm of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, P.C. (EYP) initiated its new Mission-Critical Facilities Group, they realized it would need to have its own Web site.
The new group has carved a distinct engineering niche based on helping financial institutions, "dot-coms," Web-hosting companies, telecommunications firms, and broadcasters protect their critical business data, communications, and power systems from failure.
"Specializing in the electrical/mechanical work for these critical infrastructures is a different marketplace than that of the traditional A/E firm," says Rick Einhorn, principal and business development manager for the group.
Creating content that would establish their expertise was difficult. Because of the sensitive nature of their designs, only one-fifth of the Mission Critical Facilities Group's clients allow their names to be used online, and few will allow specific descriptions of their projects. "These designs look almost like Fort Knox," says Einhorn.
So their site focuses on a "we've seen your problem before" image through articles, papers, and a "Tough Questions" section where engineers answer technical questions from people in the industry. Einhorn receives and forwards questions to technical staffers, and so far, they've not been stumped.
Content drives the site, which also includes cutting-edge design. A 20-second Flash-animated introduction gives a quick overview of the firm's focus, while drawing people into the site.
Although many companies avoid using animation, EYP isn't worried about shutting out users with low-end computers. Their clients are, by nature, highly computer literate people using top-of-the-line equipment and high-speed connections.
Warming Up the Callers
The Des Moines, Iowa residential architecture and planning firm Bloodgood Sharp Buster Architects & Planners, Inc. (BSB) recently revamped its Web site to reflect its expertise in residential design and its recent growth and changes.
They wanted a seamless transition from the firm's traditional publications and portfolio to the Web site. They wanted something that was lively, informative, and interesting but not overwhelming.
The result is a brightly colored, streamlined design that is easy to navigate, yet provides layers of information for visitors to explore or pass over. There's plenty of project information on the site for those who want it, but it's tucked away in clearly labeled sections of the site, with links to more detailed information.
Stephen Moore, the firm's partner in charge of marketing says: "We're better at warm calling than cold calling, and we like to have people calling us. We've had a number of people who have read our newsletter and then gone online to check out the Web site. And something they saw there supported their reasons for calling us."
In the next few years, he expects the low cost, speed, and client-directed interaction of the Web will make it a key tool for communicating directly with clients and potential clients.
More interactivity, including password-protected sites for customized portfolios, special online presentations for clients, and online project updates, will add to the site's role in building relationships.
Closing Words of Advice
If you decide to seek outside consultation for your next-generation Web site, realize that many Web site "specialists" are heavy on graphic design. But don't expect them to understand your business or your objectives.
You'd better have a firm grasp of what you're trying to accomplish, or there's a good chance your investment will result in nothing more than a gee-whiz fireworks display that will quickly fizzle.
Your site won't have the substance or carry the message that you need it to, and it won't differentiate you from your competition. Invest some time in establishing a game plan that amounts to more than just a facelift, and you'll get much better results from your Web site.
Mark Goodale, principal, and Sally Giedrys, associate, are with ZweigWhite, a management consulting firm serving the design and construction industry.
This article was excerpted from Revolutionary Marketing, Issue #016, originally published January 2001. Revolutionary Marketing is ZweigWhite's monthly newsletter of innovative marketing for A/E/P and environmental firm leaders.