Friday, August 21, 2009

Building a Better Website

I've been thinking a lot about websites. Primarily because I'm embarking on a redesign for my firm's website and I've been on the hunt for "example" sites that I like. Through that research one thing has become strikingly apparent - architectural websites are terrible. They're overladen with Flash, egocentric in the way they only focus on the firms' portfolio (i.e. there is no content contained within to educate their audiences on any issue(s) they may be struggling with) and for the most part they're all the same - firm, portfolio, news, contact. There has to be a better way. And the first step to finding a better way is to realize the AEC community is like any other service business - they're job is to make money vis a vis trading services. And those services are usually purchased on trust and reputation.

When looking for a service provider there are key things you look for - reputation, alignment of services offered with needs, trust and value.

Reputation can be earned through existing client relationships, which in turn create word of mouth referrals to your firm. Reputation can also be enhanced through media stories (assuming they're positive) and through the reputations of individuals that serve as the face of your organization. These types of things generate content for a firms' news section. Something most firms are already incorporating into their on-line presence.

For alignment of services with needs we're going to assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the visitors to your website need the services you provide. Your only responsibility is clearly communicating what services you provide. Remember - you don't have to be everything to everyone. Focus on what you do best and communicate that.

Now the meatier part - value. Let's think about how a design firm can provide value. Hint - it has nothing to do with fees. Instead it's giving clients value for their investment. A design firm can do this in many ways. As an example, perhaps you differentiate yourself through a unique public engagement process that's been shown to generate buy-in from stakeholders earlier in the design phase. That's valuable; buy-in is key in many projects and getting it earlier in the design process saves time and money. Tell your prospects about it through case studies that show solid metrics, post the case studies on your website and drive traffic to them through SEO optimization, e-newsletters, status updates in LinkedIn, etc. Or maybe your visualization services are superior to other firms, explain that to you prospects by telling them why it's important. Does it save them money, or make approval processes easier, or does it make the overall project less time consuming? Talk about your visualization services in the context of how they will solve your prospects' problems, not in the context of "look how pretty these are." Explain what you mean by visualization and give solid examples. Tie the examples back to metrics if you can.

Now on to trust. Trust is a lot harder to win on a website, particularly a static one. But by incorporating a blog into your website you have a vehicle to start a conversation with your prospects. A blog can be used to position members in your firm as thought leaders. It gives people a forum for expressing ideas and communicating thoughts and if comments are allowed (and they should be) it gives readers an opportunity to interact with the blog's writer(s) which will put you on the road to gaining trust. However, before incorporating a blog make sure you have buy-in and commitment from the would be authors. There's nothing worse than a blog that goes for weeks on end with no updates.

The above isn't an exhaustive list of things that would make AEC websites (or any websites) better, but it's a start and I hope it makes you think a little harder about the content you're incorporating. The point to leave with is showing a bunch a pretty pictures, while attractive, doesn't tell your prospects why you're better. You need to explain that through non-promotional, educational content.

While a picture is worth a 1000 words, your competitors "1000 words" are just as appealing.

Oh, and heavy flash sites are just annoying. They take up a lot of bandwidth, some companies restrict access to flash sites on their employees' computers and if the version of flash you've built your site with isn't compatible with the version a prospect has on his or her computer you can guarantee they're leaving your site before setting (the figurative) foot in it.

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