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Four essential questions to ask when building a successful website

Edgar Allan | Blog | Website Types

We make a lot of websites at Edgar Allan and every project is different. Different industries, different starting points, different reasons why we’re being asked to do the hard work of re-thinking a digital experience — or building one from scratch. Some brands have a really old site that just needs to hit the waste bin. Or they have a new product or new brand that needs to be introduced. And some companies have no site at all (it’s rare, but still happens). 

Regardless though, every time we start a project, we take a deep breath, crack our knuckles, and start at the discovery phase before we make anything at all. A lot happens during discovery (read more about that here), but one of the most important lines of questioning in website creation is even bigger than “Who’s your audience?” or “What makes you different?” 

Before you start any digital experience  project, you should ask four things if you ask nothing else: 

1) What is this website for? 

2) Who is this website for? 

3) Why are we doing this at all? (This is about opportunity and challenge.)

4) And how will the sneakiest, hardest parts of this (hint: content) be accomplished?

Before you start any project, you should ask four things if you ask nothing else.

Today, we’ll tackle the first one.

What is your website for?

When we ask “What is this website for?” we’re really asking, “What is this site's goal?”

This feels like a dumb question, right? I think it’s just so basic that it often isn't explored well enough. The thing is, once you've started a project, this question can be super helpful and has implications on how and where to spend energy.

Based on a site’s goals, we’ll want to determine:

  • Which elements we want to dial up the effort 
  • What parts of the process we can maybe lean back a little
  • And how we might create efficiencies 

Honestly, neglecting to take just a moment to ask that question means guessing. And I've told you a million times how much I hate guessing

I think organizations generally know the functional reasons why they’re creating a site. Those might include:

  • We've got a trade show in three months 
  • We're launching a new project
  • We changed names
  • Our old site is hot garbage; throw it away. 
  • We haven’t been paying enough attention to it, and now it’s broken

But beyond those surface reasons are the actual user-centric goals of a project that you and a company are about to spend a whole lot of time thinking about. 

So, it bears digging a little bit deeper. 

It's all about taking a breath and a momentary step back. 

Edgar Allan is an agency all about story. We see story as a fundamentally human way to connect humans to other humans and apply that to all our work. One of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, identified six “shapes” of story that you can apply to nearly any narrative ever told. As a brand storyteller, I think about these all the time. One is called “Man in Hole,” where a man moves along through time, encounters something, fails (falls in a hole), but then climbs back out and redeems himself. That's a whole narrative. You can think of like 10 movies where that's the entire narrative arc.

But the one that I think websites fall into is most times called “Bear at the Door,” which comes from Jerome Stern’s book Making Shapely Fiction. It’s a story trope where, you guessed it, there's a bear — something dangerous — at the door, and you have got to do something. For a company’s website, the bear at the door might be your CEO saying the website is garbage. It might be that you have a trade show in three months and you’ve got to look slick. Or the bear might be, “Oh, gosh, we can't do anything with this website because we're locked out of it and our agency quit.” 

When that bear is there for clients, that’s the moment they most need to take a break and ask, “What do we want to accomplish here?” Because the answer really does affect how the detailed, difficult, thinky work of creating digital experiences gets accomplished. 

So, what’s this site for? Fortunately, there are a handful of options that should lead you in the right direction.

What are the four basic types of websites?

First, let’s get this out there: At its core, a website exists for humans — and to some degree businesses — to solve problems. So taking the time to look closely at what those problems are is going to help you figure out how to solve them successfully. Similarly, knowing that the problem we’re solving is one of brand awareness, sales journey, information distribution, or inspiring knowledge leadership (or something else) is going to help focus your efforts when planning and executing the work. 

At its core, a website exists for humans — and to some degree, businesses — to solve problems.  

I’m certain I'm going to miss an edge case or two or ten. But in my experience, websites generally fall into four categories:

1) Introductory Or Enticement

These are true brand and marketing sites. We used to call them brochure sites, but I don't like to talk about that in that way anymore — no website should ever be a flat brochure. These are sites that address things like who the company is or what the product being sold is, and they focus mainly on vibe creation and storytelling. 

Eg. Chobani Yogurt

Read more about Introductory or Enticement sites here.

2) Informative

Sites that fall into this category are usually a little bit deeper, a little meatier in content, and are typically more more functional than story-led. Think universities and other educational entities, governments, and some nonprofits.  

Eg. Harvard University

Read more about Informative sites here.

3) Sales

Sales sites have a primary goal of selling something. This is e-commerce in general, and while some other types of sites have a bit of a sales component, we’re talking about websites where their main focus is as a site built to sell stuff, full stop.

Eg. Masterclass

Read more about Sales sites here.

4) Knowledge Leadership

Sites like news outlets fall into this group, but also community sites like Mighty Networks and Medium. These are sites dedicated to being a knowledge leader or a knowledge aggregator. 

Eg. Medium

Read more about Knowledge Leadership sites here.

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