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I can't help but mourn the number of sites I see that represent missed opportunities.

There may be nothing particularly "wrong" about the design, the underlying coding, or even the writing—but these websites aren't right, because they fail to connect with customers in any meaningful way (the way that ultimately brings customers to your door and cash to your register).

The root problem seems to be a lack of imagination that is further exacerbated by a poor understanding of the fundamentals. (Last year I wrote a blog post about a commercial website, that of Saddleback Leather Company, that really impressed me, because it suffers none of those shortcomings.)

If you're reviewing your own site—or working on one for a client—I encourage you to consider the following points.

1. Take your eyes off your competitors and put them where they belong: on your customers

Sure, you should take a glance at your competitors (hopefully, a backward one) from time to time. But too many enterprises initiate their Web efforts by reviewing their competitors' sites.

Without critical information about how well these sites perform, how can you know what's worth retaining or rejecting? Worse, competitor sites can be downright misleading. Too often, I've seen people reject exciting, potentially lucrative new ideas precisely because "no one else is doing it." Well, maybe that means it's a foolish idea. But maybe it means you can seize an opportunity others have overlooked.

The only way to know, or to make a reasonable guess, is to look at your customers—and I mean closely. How do they shop? How do they conduct research? What information do they need before they'll act, or even show interest? Which authorities do they trust? What encourages confidence and trust? Where do they "live," not just in flesh-life (hangouts, associations, communities) but in virtual-life? What media, traditional and online, do they read? Which bloggers do they follow? And where do they like to gather online (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.)?

2. Your Web presence is much bigger than just your website

The truth is, your site isn't the only resource your prospects have for investigating your products or services. People are talking—on blogs, on forums, on online media sites, on open community forums and "closed" proprietary sites (often built around industries or interests). What's said there is every bit as important, perhaps more important, that what's expressed on your own site.

You can choose to ignore those alternative locations (and judging by most sites, that's what many companies do), but your customers do not.

How will you manage those other sources? Will you monitor, listen and, when appropriate, respond? How will your site relate to those other sources? Can you develop content that can be spread and shared across the Web? Are there opportunities to encourage links back to your site? Will you cultivate relationships, among communities and with key thought leaders, that can stimulate more interest in your business?

When you keep the big picture in mind, then it makes sense to think of your site not as an island on the Web but as a crossroads where important connections can be made and sustained.

3. What's the underlying business model?

Turning your corporate capabilities brochure into a Web site is not a business model; it's merely the illusion of having an online presence when, in fact, all you've created is a reason for potential visitors to ignore you.

Instead, you should think of your site primarily in terms of not what you want to say but what you want visitors to do.

It's vital to give this matter deep thought, because decisions made in favor of one model may preclude options that would work in another. Let's consider three major models:

  1. E-commerce: You offer products and services people can purchase directly, on the site itself. Under this model, you'll need flawless tools for taking orders and accepting payment—plus all the information a prospect might want (including product specs, testimonials, shipping info, etc.) for making a purchase.
  2. Outbound or "sales": You bait your site with offers that give you an opportunity to collect lead-generation data you'll use in subsequent sales efforts. The principle here is one of exchange: you offer something of perceived value (say a whitepaper, webinar, or enewsletter) in return for information (name, title, company, email address, etc.), which you'll either direct to your sales team or deposit in a lead-nurturing system.
  3. Inbound or "marketing": You create a site loaded with rich content that becomes a center of community interest. As your credibility rises, you become the trusted resource of choice in a given product or category. Exciting stuff—but you need a consistent stream of buzz-worthy content to make it work.

I'm not saying one approach is necessarily better than another; the right choice is the one that best serves the intersection between your business and your customers. But I am saying that your strategic decisions lead to important tactical choices that often cannot be mixed with each other.

For example, Michael Stelzner is a firm believer in gating content to gather leads. Under his sales model, this works; he's able to direct leads into other channels (e-newsletters, seminar offers) that push prospects through the sales funnel. David Meerman Scott, however, believes in open content without any registration; that works for him, as it accelerates the distribution of his content, in turn leading to impressive book sales and lucrative speaking engagements.

The two approaches are contradictory, yet one or the other may be right for you—if it fits your overall business model.

4. Content should drive structure, not the other way around

No one in her right mind would design a book cover, select a binding, and create an index before actually writing the book itself. But that's exactly what so many people do when they approach a website: the architecture comes first, then a copywriter is summoned to fill in the blanks. Silly!

Why does that happen? Usually because the project is led by the wrong people: the Web developers. From their perspective, it's all about navigation and code. What you want, however, is a business perspective (all of the above points) to lead the process.

When business leads, content comes first, not last. And the site is then designed around the kinds of content that make sense for your prospects, your customers, and your business.

5. It's not about you

This principle is the most basic, yet most difficult, to embrace. Even though it may be "your" site, the site isn't, or shouldn't be, about you. Yet most sites persist in narcissism: endless pages "about us," mission statements, methodologies, philosophies, visions. All created under the illusion that these things create "competitive distinction."

If you believe that, take this simple acid test. Select a key phrase from your mission statement or "vision" and Google it. Look at the number of returns and then tell me how "distinctive" your vision really is. Reality: no one cares.

What do visitors care about? Themselves. Their interests and needs. And unless your site reflects your visitors' hopes, dreams, and desires—unless it speaks their language and on their terms—you're done for.

So, what's next?

As the Web evolves, most companies do a fairly good job keeping pace with emerging technologies. But the harder, yet more rewarding, work involves keeping up with changing "hows": the different ways people use the Internet to learn, communicate, shop, entertain themselves, and more.

By matching your Web presence to your customers' Web habits, you stand the best chance of winning their confidence and cash.

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image of Jonathan Kranz

Jonathan Kranz is the author of Writing Copy for Dummies and a copywriting veteran now in his 21st year of independent practice. A popular and provocative speaker, Jonathan offers in-house marketing writing training sessions to help organizations create more content, more effectively.

LinkedIn: Jonathan Kranz

Twitter: @jonkranz