For many years I have helped my clients with their web sites as part of their overall marketing and business development strategy. Usually, it is in terms of helping them define what they want to achieve with their web site and integrating it with their other profile raising, inbound marketing and business development activities.
But on several occasions I have led projects for clients to commission and supervise external web designers and developers. Happily, these projects have resulted in some really great web sites – a couple even winning awards.
But it’s a different matter when it comes to developing a new web site if it’s for your own business – particularly if you are a small business and do not have teams of technology, design and content experts to rely on. So I thought I’d share my most recent web development experience.
I’ve had a web site – www.kimtasso.com – since 2000. It’s been through a number of changes, some of them major overhauls. For example, it was originally written in frames and used Flash. At the time this was cutting edge, but things moved on rapidly and it quickly became a problem so an early technical change was its conversion into API.
I’ve had to live with other limitations resulting from the underlying structure – for many years I didn’t have a Content Management System (CMS), or a site search and lately the lack of social media sharing facilities has been a real issue.
Last year the design changed too when my company name, brand and logo changed. I monitor the analytics regularly so I know exactly how much traffic I get and from where – and what content is of most interest. Not always the content that I would like to be of most interest! SEO has been – as I am sure it is for most people – a constant challenge.
And I have been supported in this work by some dedicated individuals and friends – some on the design side and others on the tech front. I’ve also experimented with different suppliers – always to return to the trusted team of individuals.
Situations – Hand was forced
Earlier this year though my hand was forced. The company hosting the site decided to upgrade its servers. And my site fell over. And it wouldn’t get back up again. Nightmare! We looked into whether it could be made to work in the new environment and concluded that I would need to bite the bullet and have a new site developed using more current technology.
So I needed help – and I needed it fast. And I didn’t have a huge budget. Furthermore, I didn’t have the time (nor the inclination) to use some of the many tools around that would allow me to develop a site myself. Despite the fact that, in the past, been trained in HTML, WordPress and more CMS systems than you can shake a stick at.
So I called on my friends at Fresh01 with whom I have worked successfully on many legal and property web sites in the past for my clients. A custom built site would have taken too long (and too much money) so they suggested we look at WordPress.
I asked them to take as much of the branding and design from the “look and feel” of my existing site. And I think I gave them a single sheet of “must haves” and “would like if at all possible”. Naturally, I stressed the need for a mobile version and full integration with social media. I also agreed that it was time for me to start doing my own updates with a CMS. It wasn’t the most comprehensive of briefs – but that’s cobbler’s children for you.
As the hosting company had imposed our timescale (the old server was to be decommissioned at the end of August) our timescale was set. Fresh were utterly confident that they could do the design and build in the time but there was a problem. There are many, many pages on my site (it’s “content rich”) and there are hundreds of blog entries going back to 2008. How on earth were we going to migrate all the content from the old site to the new?
This had been a problem on a previous project where the client hadn’t factored the resource to do the migration. On that occasion, Fresh_01 had taken a big hit by absorbing the costs to preserve the client relationship. I remain grateful to them to this day although I don’t think that the law firm concerned realised quite how fortunate they were.
Ever creative and resourceful, Fresh found a student who was willing and able to devote a chunk of time to copying the content across. They also offered to project manage this individual and to have him sit in their offices while the work was completed and provide a supervisory and training service.
They provided a short outline project plan and a cost along with some example designs and, once I’d paid 50% of the cost (which was mostly to buy the necessary design templates and pay for the content migration exercise) we were we off.
Design and development
Within a couple of days I received some example layouts. The first I just didn’t like – and neither did they – but they had anticipated this and sent an alternative. I liked it but asked my grown son (a digital native) for his views. He liked it so we started. Although I requested a couple of tweaks. But I resisted the urge to start providing comments on small design details.
Shortly after, about nine pages arrived showing what the design would look like for a variety of different pages of the web site. No wire-frames. Again, I resisted the urge to start providing detailed comments and kept to general observations about styling and colours. There were a few telephone and Skype calls where we went through things together on the screen – but no more than a couple of hours in total.
Then things went rather quiet for a while. I guess that the “behind the scenes” stuff was happening and all that content was being taken across. I kept my fingers crossed and concentrated on my day job. Then there was another blip. Those pesky hosting folk forgot my site was on an old server and it disappeared for a while. Fresh stepped in to the battle and got the old site back up again quickly. I was now starting to panic about what would happen if the new site wasn’t ready and the old one was switched off. Amazing to think how reliant we now are on having a web presence.
With just a week to go before it had to go live (the company hosting the old site were committed to their “pull the plug” date) and, coincidentally when I went away for my first holiday in over a year, I took a look at the progress on the development site.
My heart sunk. There were so many things that didn’t feel right. I started to panic a bit. I was worried whether it would be ready. But I swallowed hard and gave the guys at Fresh a call. We went through my first page of points and it quickly became apparent that all these things were relatively easy and quick fixes. Phew.
I relaxed and started to admire how the new site was looking. It’s light years ahead of what I’ve had in the past yet the branding has been beautifully preserved while there’s a modern freshness and a whole bunch of new functionality.
As I waited in the airport for my flight, I looked at my site and there it was. Not perfect – but pretty damn close. I knew that when I returned it would need lots of behind the scenes work – for example, I need to go through each page and add key words to optimise search engine visibility. There are also all sorts of minor content niggles that I will be able to fix on my own with my shiny new CMS. But it was there. Thanks to the heroes at Fresh_01.
Reflecting on the exercise, I came to a number of conclusions:
- No matter how good your marketing skills and how valuable your content, you must be aware of how the underlying technology will impact your web site. And not just the code – but the hosting environment and even the domain registrations. This is tough for a non-techie person
- There are two major strands in any development – the strategy, positioning and content – but also the technology. I am grateful that I didn’t need to do both in one hit although I can see the benefits of a project that combines them.
- Web site development is a collaborative process – you need frequent, open communications and not fear raising concerns or stating your needs. Equally, you need to be open-minded and prepared to listen to people who know more about tech stuff than you do.
- As the only decision maker on this project, things went really smoothly. I commiserate with my colleagues who work in-house (and myself when running client projects) who have to get numerous stakeholders to agree on and approve each stage and element during the design and development process. As it happens, this project took just five weeks – which is nothing short of a miracle in itself. If I had had to get others to provide input and approval I suspect it would have taken at least three times as long.
- I really, really, really detest companies who do web site hosting who use automated support request systems – I want to speak to human beings who communicate in business language rather than tech-speak and who understand the concept of customer service.
- In a crisis, you need to know who your friends are and to trust your suppliers. I’ve had some disasters with past developers (mostly as a result of failed communications at their end and delivery delays) but Fresh have always delivered for me and my clients – on time, on price and on quality. They also know me – the pressures I work under and the way in which I like to work (I’ll say idiosyncratic – no doubt they will use other words!). They aren’t fazed when I verge on hysteria and they somehow always manage to be professional, calm, positive and fun.
So. Over to you. Would love to hear your comments on the site www.kimtasso.com. While the project is complete, we all know that all web sites are constantly “a work in progress”.