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“Lift weights” sounds like good advice, but it opens up more questions than it answers. How much weight? How many sets? Reps? Is there a possibility of hurting myself? What if I take a day off, does that mean the week is shot? And of course, the main question: will this actually help with my goal?

If you’re reading around the web for tips for how to improve your website, you will come across this same type of advice, but for websites.

  • “Use white space”
  • “Make a video intro”
  • “Put a call to action in the header”

How much white space? What if I don’t know how to make videos? Does the header always need a call to action? Why? And, will this actually help with my goal?

I don’t think this type of advice actually helps anyone improve their website. In fact, if your website is not working for you, it probably has less to do with the visual details and more with your overall strategy.

Website strategy is like guardrails for your site design.

Knowing your strategy will make your decisions clearer and more effective and you can worry less about the details.

“Should I use a 14px or 16px sans-serif or serif font?”

While it’s cool to know the technicalities of website design like typography terms, it’s not necessary for a business owner.

When you have a website strategy you know to ask the important questions instead, like “Why would anyone care about the service I provide?”

Your website can be beautiful with no strategy—it will fail. With strategy, however, even the most amateur-looking website can do a better job, because it has a cause and purpose.

So without further ado, let’s go into the 3 steps to setting your website strategy.

#1. Page flow.

I definitely roll my eyes when it’s said your website should have a goal. Of course every website has a goal. With how confusing & frustrating it is to get a website up and running, I doubt anyone is doing it for fun except for me.

It would even be safe to say every website has the same goal: make sales. With that in mind, should we litter our site with the same call to action leading to our Shop or Contact page, on the off-chance a visitor might click?

On website goals, from Rattleback, a marketing agency for professional service firms:

On the surface, it seems like the answer to this question is both obvious and simple — you want them to hire you. Or at least call you. But, of course, that’s the end game. Just as you wouldn’t propose marriage on a first date, a client isn’t going to read one article on your website and open the door to invite you inside. No. There’s a whole host of things they’ll need and want to do before they’re ready for that next step in their journey. Your job is to guide them through that journey in the most effective way possible. We call this journey a user flow.

Jason Mlicki via 6 Best Practices for Your Website’s User Flow

If you are a professional services firm, I recommend reading that article for tips on how to structure your website’s user flow. Otherwise, here’s how to figure it out for any website.

First, start with an assumption of what pages you will have based on the “need to know” about your business. In other words, cover Who/What/When/Where/Why/How of your business in the form of a list of pages. Let’s say you are a marketing agency.

  1. Who: About Us
  2. What: Services
  3. When: Contact
  4. Where: Locations
  5. Why: Blog
  6. How: Home

Now, this is where you’ll have to do some thinking on how your ideal customers would navigate your website.

  1. Where do they land? What question are they asking?
  2. When they reach the end or even the middle of that page, what further question will they have?
  3. Where can I lead them that will answer that question?
  4. And so on, for all the pages until you have a solid flow that guides users through the sales process for you.
  5. Note if you need additional pages (you might, as every business is different) or if some pages are unneeded.

#2. Page content.

In the first section, we discussed user goals as a way of determining the flow of the website, as in what page will lead to another. Now, for the actual page content, consider your brand promise to guide the writing and imagery.

You should also consider the smaller questions your visitor will have within the larger question of the page established in the first step. So for example, your About page is answering the question “who is this?” Some smaller questions your visitors will within that could be: “does this company have some history?” or “what is the motivation (mission) behind this company?”

It’s ok to make your layout generic and “like everyone else’s.” If you are using Squarespace, Wix, or a similar website builder, you can keep the default elements of your chosen theme and just fill in your own writing and imagery. Remember, if you have a website strategy, the details are not important. They will fall into place once you have a top-down view rather than bottom-up.

Now, what is a brand promise? It’s a simple expression of what you provide to people beyond the simple product or service. It can be a single word like “peace” or a sentence like “accounting for people who want to be at home with their families early tonight.”

For example, FedEx provides package delivery. But so does USPS, UPS, DHL, and many others. What makes FedEx stand out is their brand promise—”when it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight.”

FedEx makes sure everything they do reverberates this message. It’s how they became a delivery service you ask for by name.

Similarly, your website should communicate your brand promise to stand out from your competitors and relate to your ideal customer on a deep level.

Come up with your brand promise. It probably already exists in how you provide service. What do you do for your customers that is special, not a given with your product or service category?

Now, after you have your brand promise, that informs your writing and images alongside the smaller questions for each page that we discussed.

Use the smaller questions to create prompts for yourself, such as “what expertise does this company have?”—that’s what you should say.

Then use your brand voice to answer—that’s how you should say it.

? Not sure of your brand voice? Check out the brand voice quiz at HowToBrandYou.com.

#3. Education plan.

If you made it this far, you must have worked out your site architecture and content—that’s awesome! Congratulations.

But you still don’t have the key.

The key to a successful website is… ??? CUSTOMER EDUCATION.

The point of your website is to educate your ideal customer.

That’s how you stand shoulder-to-shoulder against your competitors, even the biggest ones.

It’s how you shape the market in your favor.

And it’s how you gain trust with a wider community, even if they don’t hire you.

Your website is not for going on & on about yourself.

Your website for your customer, and it’s very likely most of them are still in the research phase of shopping around when they visit your site.

So, ask yourself what is a helpful way you can educate your customer about your product or service?

It doesn’t have to be unique—a regularly updated blog will work out just fine.

Maybe you are a software company and would benefit from building a knowledgebase.

Perhaps you’re a highly specialized law firm and case studies are what your customers are thirsting for.

Or you could be like me, a web designer who improves websites for service providers.

The best part of website strategy and lifting weights (to return to the opening example) is it’s not more difficult to work with a strategy. Strategy is actually the easy way to do things! Anything else is harder than it needs to be and probably won’t get the results you want.

So go forward, and do what’s best for your customer.