Websites That Work
The first place most of your prospects will see you is on the Internet, so ensuring your website effectively sells your firm is crucial. A cookie cutter site that is more of a summary of your firm will do you no favors; instead, reflect on your firm, culture and uniqueness. If you're looking to drive leads, your website needs to be a refined tool created with strategy and intent.
Create Your Strategy
Before you begin designing your website, you need a game plan. Having a strategy upfront will guide the rest of your decisions.
Determine What Makes You Unique. Your site is going to differentiate you from all of your competitors, but first, you need to know what those differences are; ask yourself the following questions:
- What are you passionate about?
- What do you do well?
- What are the unique services you offer?
- Is your positioning unique?
Ideally, you want to be able to highlight and articulate your unique offerings through your website and its visuals.
Find, and Focus, on Your Target Audience. Who are you trying to reach? Everything you say needs to resonate with that audience. The smaller and more specific your audience is, the more pointed you can make your copy and the higher your conversion rate will be.
Create Your Message. Your message is a succinct and well-stated value proposition. A value proposition is a constructed argument for why a prospective client should hire you. On a website, this is made up of four parts:
- A headline: An overarching statement that describes the end benefit you're providing.
- A sub-headline or paragraph: Further explains the headline and provides validation for its argument.
- Reasons to believe (bullet points): Substantiated, compelling, factual arguments for why someone should believe the headline and sub-headline.
- A visual element: A video or image that helps tell your story.
For some tips on how to create an excellent value proposition, check out the infographic, Quicksprout, put together here.
Do Your Research. The best way to discover your own aesthetic is to see what others have done that speaks to you. Who inspires you? Whose websites have really hit it out of the park? Those sites have workable pieces that you may want to employ on your own site. Then, take a look at your competitors. You don't want your site to look exactly like theirs. Make yours stand out in terms of your value proposition and site construction.
Share this information with your team, or the company designing your website, so that they have a clear understanding of what you're looking for. Of course, if you are purchasing a template website from a software provider, your options may be limited, but more on that is included below. Here is a list of 10 example websites from around the world that do this well:
- 5 Ways Group
- 24Hour Bookkeeper
- Hemingway Bailey
- LiveCA LLP
- Moore Details Bookkeeping
- New Wave Business Solutions
- Singletrack Bookkeeping
- Two Roads
Choose How You Plan to Build Your Site
Once you have a strategy and know what you think you want, there are several different avenues to build a website, including the following:
- Cookie cutter: There are many low-cost or free online providers with templates you can just plug your text and images into and be done. However, this is not recommended. What you save in money, you lose in opportunity.
- Customizable, flexible templates: These are what most people in our profession have used. By leveraging template providers, and then adding your own spin through customization, you're able to get a more unique product that better represents you. Examples include Squarespace and CPA Site Solutions.
- Designed from scratch: This is where you work with a design agency to build your site. They will take what you want to convey, how you want it conveyed and the inspiration you want them to draw from to create a site that conforms to proper web standards.
- Industry focused, built from scratch: The same as designed from scratch, except that it’s designed from those who specialize in the accounting industry (Example: PracticePlus).
Most of us can't afford the big names, so you will want to look for a local agency with a solid portfolio. A local agency is better because you really want them to understand who you are, what your practice is all about and how you operate, so that they can convey all that through the site and have it resonate with the clients you're trying to attract.
Content. It's important to have a good sense of your website's purpose. Is it purely for prospecting? Will there be a portal? The latter may change your site's navigation and will increase its complexity. Knowing the site's purpose, from the start, will help you understand its scope.
Start with a Blank Canvas. Use a lightweight tool, such as Word, PowerPoint or Keynote, as a quick prototyping tool. Start dropping in content as you go along to vaguely assemble what you want the website to be. Or, take what you already have and place it there and modify it as you go. The goal here is to use a tool you're comfortable with to get your ideas down on a physical document so that you can collaborate with others and get it done.
Build the Website on the Canvas. As you build the content on the site, there are some key questions to solve. Scribble down your answers and then go back through and refine your answers over time. Here are some key questions:
- Does the website match your firm's personality? Does your logo and site embody your culture? Is it written in the language you use (Example: conversational vs. professional)?
- What is your message, and is it unique? What is your unique value proposition, and what are the underlying arguments to believe your firm is unique and differentiated?
- What bucket of things should your site communicate? This is going to become the navigation of your site. Are you going to talk about pricing? Services? Can the services be bundled, or do they need separate pages? Do you want a social section? What's important is not to make your navigation look like every other site out there – even if it's just by changing the wording.
- What is the one thing you want people to do? Do you want them to call/email you? If your site is dual-purpose, do you want them to use a portal? Every page on your site needs a single call to action. It needs to pop out and be what all the work on that page is driving someone to do.
- What represents visually what you are trying to convey? Search the web for images that resonate with what you're trying to say. These won't be the images you use. You want to use professional, non-clipart imagery for your final product. But, you want something to not only collaborate on, but also convey what the final imagery should be.
- What are you selling and how are you selling it? What are your services? What is the most concise way to state them? Are you going to talk price? If so, is it bundling, value pricing or do they need to contact you to find out?
- Who are you, your employees and your firm? You need a background, or "about us" section, because your prospects should be able to see who you are and why they should hire you.
- What are others saying about you and your firm? Social proof is really important. Testimonials and case studies are a great way to reinforce your headlining statements.
- What is your expertise, or what are you passionate about? This goes into your content marketing, which lives in a blog or your other social content.
Some of these things you may already have, some may be blank and some might be on a wish list. The point is to start thinking about these things in a structured way to help you organize and set goals for the future.
Next Steps. Here are the next steps you need to take:
- Canvas ideation. With your team, collaborate on layout, design and high-level content. Next, consolidate the feedback and continue to iterate, in order to get to the best reflection of your business and goals.
- Visuals: Source and secure high quality, representative imagery that fits the vision and content that you have laid out. Do not use clipart.
- Content: Write the detailed content from the high-level descriptions. Like the canvas ideation, continue to work as a team, consolidate and iterate.
- Partner: Work with a professional to finally design and develop the site.
To get to the best outcome, I have listed out some critical website dos and don’ts. Use what works, and not what seems super cool.
- Clean & concise: Keep it to the fewest number of words possible.
- Unique & targeted: Keep your message of uniqueness focused on your audience.
- Fresh & consistent: All of your web properties should be consistent in look and verbiage. Update your sites on a regular basis.
- Responsive design: No matter what device your site is being displayed on, it always needs to look exactly the same.
- 5-second rule: Within 5 seconds, you should know who the website is for, what it's trying to convey and what action should be taken.
- Squint test: Put your website up, step a few feet back and squint at the screen. See what pops out. Your commanding arguments and your call to action should all pop up and be easy to locate.
- The "fold:" This is the bottom of the screen. Everything you need to convey in the 5-second rule should be above the fold. Don't assume someone will ever scroll on your page.
- Clear call to action: Every single page needs one.
- The white space: The more white space, the easier it is for someone to digest your page and know what to do.
Tips & tricks:
- Keep it simple: If you're unsure about whether you should add something, you probably shouldn't. The more clutter added, the less effective your site is going to be.
- Contact info less than 1 click: Don't make it difficult for someone to find your contact info. Ideally, it should be right at the top of the page.
- Easy on the eyes (color, font, density): Pick one font and a few colors (one of them will be gray).
- "You," not "We:" It's all about "you" the client, not "we" the firm. Make sure that you're putting their needs and benefits first.
- Intuitive site navigation: Don't do what everyone else does, but keep it simple and clear.
- Simple contact form: With every additional piece of information you ask for, you will have a 50% drop-off. Only ask for what is absolutely necessary.
- Client validation (below the fold): This is needed, but should be below the fold.
- SEO (baked-in): Do all the SEO things in terms of meta tagging, keywords, and making the first sentence on the page what you and the page are about.
- Design every page like a landing page: Every page should stand on its own.
- Speedy site: It should load in less than a second.
- Test the design: Once you're done, test it. Send it to peers. Make sure that it's getting across what you mean for it to. Keep iterating.
- Cookie cutter sites
- Lots of color, fonts and text
- Flash, pop-ups and pop-unders
- Carousels and sliders
- CAPS and underlines
- Complex or deep navigation
- Stock imagery
- Recycled content
- Auto-play video and music
Website design merges art and science. Creating a site that is going to make you stand out from the crowd, while also embodying your firm's culture and uniqueness, takes more than just plugging content into a cookie cutter template. It requires a proper marketing strategy, concise content that best represents the firm and the right design to convey that message to your target audience.