September 4, 2008

What is Web Strategy and Why Should You Care?

NOTE: This post is old, and is probably on different subject matter than my current writing. It is possible the information is outdated or my opinions have changed. -- Josh Klein, May 28, 2012

The vast majority of websites are not worth caring about.

Alas, I’ve begun with the end of the story. Let’s start at the beginning.

I sometimes struggle to explain my profession in less than 6-seconds at dinner parties. I dread boring conversations, so any answer I give must also answer the unspoken follow-up, “and why should you care?”.

But in less than 6-seconds.

My answer could easily be, “I make websites.” But that suggests I craft the pixels and code, for which I rely on my talented partners. My job mostly consists of the parts before and after the “making”.

People outside the web industry largely misunderstand the process of creating websites. (They hire a “freelance web designer” with a scope of work that doesn’t match her skill set, and are only willing to pay for features that would lead to a website better left unmade.)

Thankfully, I’ve figured out what to say.

By letting you in on my answer, I also want to clarify the purpose of my writing. Why should you read this blog?

My about page explains what I hope you and I each get out of it, but there is also the question of why the content itself matters.

There are a couple versions of the answer. The final one is going to be the 6-second soundbite. But first, the long answer exists because understanding web strategy requires understanding what a website really is.

No, I don’t think you’re stupid (you’re smart enough to read my blog!), but I think most people’s preconceived notion of a website is wrong.

Websites are not beautifully designed word documents that link to each other (what most people think). Websites are not even like desktop applications you use (what most web-savvy people think). Websites are like the physical spaces you inhabit (what I think!).

By way of explanation, an aside:

Public Spaces Define Human Interaction

Check out the following talk. Within, James Howard Kunstler laments the abandonment of architectural sophistication in American suburban sprawl. He’s a riveting speaker. It’s worth 20 minutes to watch.

For our purposes, the most important point Kunstler makes is that, “your ability to create places that are meaningful, and places of quality and character, depends entirely on your ability to define space.”

(If you’re reading via an RSS reader, you might have to click through to the page to view the video.)

I’ve butchered the quote. Kunstler actually concludes the thought, “with buildings,” but I need to make a point about websites, okay?

There is a sharp contrast between the abysmal despair of a street corner in suburbia bordered by Walmart, Target, and Chucky Cheese, and the expressive character of a lively town center lined with shops, restaurants, and bars.

Places that are not meaningful, or of quality and character, create miserably depressed inhabitants, which is both a sociological problem (if you read this blog for the warm fuzzy feeling) and a business problem (if you read this blog to learn web biz).

The difference is the “active permeable membrane”. Don’t worry, even Kunstler admits he sounds like a jerk.

“Active” means people are doing things there. “Permeable” means people and things go in and out of it. “Membrane” refers to it having boundaries (even if the boundaries are permeable).

The physical layout of the space determines how people use it and whether or not they want to be there. For the bottom line of the shops making business in the space, this is the stuff of life or death.

Translation: the architects and planners of a space determine the success or failure of the businesses that occupy it.

Hold that thought.

What is Web Strategy: the long version

Every website is a blank slate. It will (probably) occupy 1 unit of “space”, a particular domain name, but otherwise it is primordial ooze, an empty lot.

A web strategist’s job begins like a real estate agent trying to fill an empty lot. He must answer questions like:

- Who are the people who will use this building?
- What do those people want us to build here?
- What should we actually build here?
- How will our building be affected by our neighbors?
- What will our neighborhood look like in 10 years, and how do we plan for that future?

Then the web strategist’s role changes to that of architect:

- What sorts of things should be in this building?
- How should people behave here?
- What is the path people take from the entrance to their destination?
- How should the building be laid out?
- Where can we optimize a visitor’s experience?

And finally, the web strategist returns to the role of real estate agent:

- How will we let people know the building exists?
- Where are the people we want inside now?
- And if people don’t like the color of the wallpaper, let’s measure that and maybe just change it later.

Naturally, there is a whole team involved in this process, too:

The engineer helps determine what is viable, then directs the team who builds it (like a web developer).

The interior designer makes the space visually compelling (like a web designer).

The copywriter… um… okay there is also a person who writes copy for websites. The copywriter also needs to be a ninja-like SEO expert in disguise and a master salesman.

And then regular people come and occupy the space, and do all sorts of insane things you never predicted, so you have to continue to test and optimize on the fly.

After all, websites are public spaces. But buildings are hard to change where websites are not.

Why you should care about Web Strategy, and the soundbite definition

It’s hard to build a bad public space in the physical world. You still need an architect to plan it, an engineer to make sure it actually works, and everybody else. It costs millions. Yet for all this trouble, it can still looks like an 8 year-old made it out of chewed-up Legos.

Lots of websites are like this. Businesses drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on bad websites. Dozens of people (some smart) work their asses off, yet the final product turns out as a steaming pile. They tell lots of people about it with a launch campaign, but the people quickly stop coming.

It can also be easier to build a bad website because you can do it on the cheap. After all, your 15 year-old nephew is a computer wiz, right? Here’s the problem:

Even the crappiest of the crappy physical public spaces are seen, passed through, actively shunned. They may not be worth caring about, but at least people make that choice.

Bad websites are completely invisible.

There is no actual space occupied. There is no stray foot traffic, no passersby, no curious explorers and experimenters. If your website is a shitty public space, it will fail to occupy even an iota of another human’s attention budget.

Worse, even if you somehow trick people into coming (translation: advertise), they will leave as soon as they discover the ruse, and no one will return.

So what does a web strategist do? A web strategist figures out how to get people to visit your website, take some desirable action or actions, and build an ongoing relationship with you. He acts as both real estate agent and architect, both marketer and product developer. In many cases, there is an additional dash of entrepreneur to define the business model.

Web strategy is the process of planning a successful website.

Now, how to start an interesting dinner party conversation? What’s the 6-second soundbite?

I’m a web strategist. My job is to make websites worth caring about.

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  • http://noahgreenstein.com/wordpress/ Noah

    How many dinner parties do you actually go to?

  • http://www.brandthunder.com Kevin Dwinnell

    Enjoyed the post.

    I’ve also been working on my “friends and neighbor” quick pitch. Which started something like “we customize the browser for major brands, sports teams, music groups and the like” only to lead to a long discussion of what the browser was. Which then leads to “yeah, we work mostly with Firefox, which is software like the big blue E on your desktop.”

    And then I spend countless hours working on a good 6 seconds.

  • http://www.joshklein.net Josh Klein

    @Noah – Not as many as I’d like, so start inviting me to yours :)

    @Kevin – Yeah, it’s tough. A friend told me his version is “I make cool stuff for the web”, then adjusts the complexity of his further explanation based on who he’s talking to. Thanks for stopping by!

  • http://parkinsense.blogspot.com Kathleen Cochran

    What a fun and enlightening read! I actually think I’m on the way to sort of understanding what you do.

    I stumbled upon you in stumbleupon…thanks for mentioning my site!

  • http://www.joshklein.net Josh Klein

    Thanks Kathy! I’m so glad you stopped by. I’m really enjoying your blog.

    (Hint: to anyone who hasn’t yet, you simply must click on Kathy’s name in the above comment.)

  • Shannon T Alston

    nice article! nice site. you're in my rss feed now ;-)
    keep it up

  • http://www.freelancewebdesigner.me Freelance web designer

    thank you josh

  • http://www.freelancewebdesigner.me Freelance web designer

    thank you josh

  • Peter

    I loved that. I've often found it hard to explain this to me, too and it does my head in because I know I'm not good at coding websites but I am great at what I do and that is developing a strategy for a successful website. Alas, nobody understands what a “web strategist” does so I often time end up saying I am a web developer.

  • Peter

    I loved that. I've often found it hard to explain this to me, too and it does my head in because I know I'm not good at coding websites but I am great at what I do and that is developing a strategy for a successful website. Alas, nobody understands what a “web strategist” does so I often time end up saying I am a web developer.

  • martynsmith

    Beautiful – brilliantly written in a manner that anyone can readily associate with and comprehend.

    We've had a web site for years. People do visit to get what they need, then leave. We are now about to embark on a Strategy (at last).

  • martynsmith

    Beautiful – brilliantly written in a manner that anyone can readily associate with and comprehend.

    We've had a web site for years. People do visit to get what they need, then leave. We are now about to embark on a Strategy (at last).