Questions Your Web Partner Should Be Asking You.

I recently had a call with a newly hired digital director. He had some challenges to face based on the decisions made by his predecessor, including migrating his site to a different CMS platform, moving the hosting and establishing a better maintenance contract.

The conversation made me think about all the things his existing web partner had missed. Often, once a site has been built and launched, clients and their partners shift to a lowest-cost vendor model, rather than an ongoing strategic partnership. This is especially true if the decision is driven by procurement or IT, rather than marketing.

This is shortsighted for a lot of reasons. I'll spare you the horror stories. But when your site doesn't load or perform properly, all of the time, money and effort you put into the content and design were for nothing. What’s more, your organization is now forced to spend more time and money to fix the problems that could have been avoided if your web partner had approached the site strategically and asked the right questions earlier in the process. Questions like:

Tell us about your business. When do you get the most customers? What do they need to do on your site?

Is your business cyclical? Do you have high and low periods each year? Are you running any programs that might help raise traditionally low periods?
One of our nonprofit clients does a fundraising luncheon every year. They get a lot of traffic during that time, so we used to scale up their hosting considerably for the weeks before and after, making sure visitors to their site got the information and functionality they needed to support the organization's mission. Now that we are running more varied marketing programs throughout the year, we have set up their site to automatically increase its capacity when it detects a certain level of demand.

Unfortunately, this kind of flexibility isn't always thought about during the design and build phases, despite it being a very important part of the web experience. In fact, many agencies and implementers act as though they don't even realize the required technology exists.

Maybe you host your site with your IT team, and you'd expect them to know your business.  Maybe your agency hosts it, but they outsource the management of the hosting to another vendor. Either way, make sure you or someone on your team is thinking strategically about the ongoing business needs of your site, not just a launch date.

Where do you see your business going online in the next year? Next three years?

If you have three products now, do you expect to be offering five next year? Do you feel like you have the right amount of traffic now? Should it be double, triple, or ten times as much next year? Might you need a more personalized, authenticated experience for your members or best customers at some point? Those are very different situations that have implications on user experience, design and engineering.

Yet, when setting out to design a new site, many vendors will simply use your current site as the reference point. That's how their project managers estimate time and costs for the project, how their designers and writers think about content, and how their developers build the site. If they don’t engage you in a detailed conversation about your future needs, your site will be scoped, designed and engineered using out-of-date information, and will likely be obsolete before you know it.

What are your internal team's capabilities? Who do you have on your digital team?

Your team’s capabilities should be a big determiner in which tools you select to create and maintain your site. There are lots of different content management systems, marketing automation solutions and customer relationship management tools available, many of which supply the same functionality in slightly different ways. But all of them are flexible, so it’s far easier to mold the tools to fit your team rather than the other way around. If your vendor is pushing something that requires massive amounts of education or a major shift in your staffing model, it’s not the right solution.

If you have internal programmers, this is doubly important. You want them to end up with a system they'll understand and be able to build on, not something that will require additional expense or create ongoing struggles.

What makes the site a success? How do you measure it?

The technology industry is overrun with "project" babble–talk about project plans, deliverables, cost performance index, change orders, architecture steering committees and FTEs. Unless you're a project company, those aren't the metrics you need to succeed. You're probably only mildly interested in page views. You're really looking for the metrics that drive your business. Metrics like heads in beds, or turnstile turns, or weekly sales. If your vendor doesn't understand the metrics that are important to you, they won't be able to measure them correctly for you.

Has your web partner been having these discussions with you? Are there others you’d add to the list? Let us know in the comments.