How to own a boat or… How to maximize the ROI on your expensive new website.

It’s beautiful isn’t it? Just launched into the mighty currents of the World Wide Web, chaos and adventure beckoning, your new site bobs majestically by the dock. You and your coworkers clammer aboard, exploring all these new nooks and cranny's, playing with things you’ve only ever seen and in some cases only heard about on other seemingly unattainable websites. A steely glint emanates from your eyes as you daydream of exotic lands you will visit and the treasure you shall acquire…

It’s beautiful isn’t it? Just launched into the mighty currents of the World Wide Web, chaos and adventure beckoning, your new site bobs majestically by the dock. You and your coworkers clammer aboard, exploring all these new nooks and cranny's, playing with things you’ve only ever seen and in some cases only heard about on other seemingly unattainable websites. A steely glint emanates from your eyes as you daydream of exotic lands you will visit and the treasure you shall acquire…

But wait, what is this? The damn'd boat maker has forgotten to paint the port jib rigger, and this thing doesn’t have a steering wheel it has a rudder! What are all these different sails? How does the cargo get in the hold? How often should I paint this thing? What was a steely glint in your eye, turns slightly towards disappointment, disappointment tinged with terror.

I’m all to familiar with that look of terror. I’ve been building web applications and tent-pole websites for a long, long time, and of the many pitfalls and unproductive warrens one can accidentally wander into, unprepared site ownership is probably the saddest one. Big websites and custom web applications are so expensive to develop these days, and often only occur once every three or four years (if you are lucky!) in organizations that take on a proto-mythical status. Many people involved know that this may be the only, or one of two chances they have to do this, a lot is riding on it. The natural inclination is to focus on the “what and when” of your development, and to agonize over features, design, or what visitors will think. Those things are all important, but there’s something missing from your list, and that is “how will we own and run this thing?”

If I could be so bold as to offer you some advice, it would be: spend a few hours mapping the following out before you embark to the shipyards to have the website of your dreams shorn out of digital lumber:

(We’ll start simply)

1. Who will work on the website? Do these people own smartphones or do you not let them handle sharp objects? How much time can they devote to various care and feeding tasks your website will need? (Hungry websites are angry websites!) Are you trying to increase the number of people working on the website with this new system? Should you be spending any of your budget on making these people successful?

2. What promotions, events, and other things will you put on the website? Do you have an editorial calendar of when things will go up and come down off the website? Do you have a budget to help build cute little features to support these things? Is your website designed with campaigns and seasonality in mind? How important is this ephemeral stuff to your success? You can either waste or invest a lot of money here, or find yourself hamstrung depending on your answers above.

3. Who is going to keep your website updated, patched, secured? If you have endless amounts of money, this answer is easy! (Some vendor!) But if you don’t have endless amounts of money you probably want to consider this a bit more carefully.. Most “managed” hosting vendors won’t really help keep up a CMS system, their support usually ends before “the application.” This generally means you will hate them on some level, and that you’ll need to have some sort of CMS/Technical dude to supplement your lovely expensive managed hosting vendor.

4. How will we document and keep track of any changes, enhancements, modifications to our website? There are down in the weeds technical considerations here (What sort of Source Control Management system will you use, don’t worry overly if that sounds like Latin) and less technical ones as well. (We had a freelancer build out feature X, here is a zip file of what he did for us, and here our our requirements and information we gave him to build it.) And of course there’s day to day knowledge keeping: For the fall campaign we did X, Y, Z, we got so many conversions, and then when we removed it in the winter we had to remember to do A &B.

5. Scheduling a yearly checkup. It’s always wise to schedule a yearly or bi-annual audit of your website. Knowing how old Betsy is doing is very important to know even before Betsy needs to go to the vet. Some things to cover: How is the editorial/managing experience of the site? What frustrations do we have with campaigns or other non-day to day activities that you might forget about between aggravations? Is your website's visual design holding together? Does it look junky or less professional as time goes on? Is it slower to use? These are just some ideas to scratch the surface; I’ll bet you can come up with a much better list.

6. Planning for your ship to die… Yes it’s sad, but that day will come soon enough; Having a plan for how long you will try to use the website, when you will invest money and staff time again in it in a major way, and making good decisions throughout the actual life of your website all depend on knowing what your ROI is going to be. If you aren’t planning for your next website you won’t clearly be able to decide how much to invest in it as time goes on to make it useful and to keep up with changes in technology and user preference.

Here at Phase2 I help our clients create and implement process and governance polices that help answer these questions. Even if you’re not looking for a new website tomorrow you should start answering the above questions today. Let me know if I can help you with that! ;)

Nate Parsons