I have great clients, most of whom are small businesses, non-profits, or part of educational institutions. I try to educate them about how search engines work, how to create great content, how to learn from their analytics and such, but they also teach me. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.
1. Answer your phone
Some of my clients are doing well, building a business from scratch or improving on their past performance, not just because of my services but because they answer their phones. This isn’t just a metaphor. Some small to medium sized business owners, particularly those involved in e-commerce, don’t like their phones. I can sympathize. But I’ve had clients tell me that they took business away from a competitor simply because they answered their phone or returned a phone call. Be there when the customer reaches out.
Obviously, taking a call is just one way of responding to customers and audiences. But it’s also more. Every time we speak with a caller, we learn a little bit more about our customers/readers and their needs and interests. We have an opportunity to ask a question or two about what people think of our website, products, calls to action, and branding.
I occasionally need to offer one bit of caution to clients, however. Remember that the plural of anecdote is not data. The fact that one person complained about something specific doesn’t not always mean that a significant problem has been identified. Sometimes it does but sometimes the real problem wasn’t the one identified by the customer. A person might call and complain that you moved everything around on your site and now they can’t find anything when the real issue is that you altered the color of the button they were used to clicking on. More research may show that that same change is paying off in more clicks by new visitors and most return visitors never noticed the change.
2. Ask the dumb questions.
I often use terminology specific to my field. It’s a mistake we probably all make. I love it when clients ask me to clarify and I never think they are stupid. I think they want to learn. The more informed my clients are, the better I can help them. I love questions like these: Why did this happen? Should I be worried about this? I understand these numbers, but why do they matter to my goals? These are all great questions. Some of the best strategic moves I’ve helped clients make have been generated by their own questions. Those questions pushed me to gather more data, put something in a different context, or think about a persona differently and good things have happened.
3. Find a really good web designer/developer.
I have worked on some sites that made it harder for me to do my work. I’ve seen beautiful sites that just don’t work well. Sometimes designers like to practice new skills on other people’s sites. Ask a lot of questions of your designer/developers. And listen to the questions they are asking you. Are they asking you about your business goals for the site? Do they want to learn more about your audiences? Do they want to learn all they can about how your audiences behave online? When they show you sites they’ve worked on, do they talk only about features and graphics and colors? Do they say anything about how the site functions or how their design choices reflected the business goals of the site owner? How do they incorporate their knowledge of usability, information architecture, and SEO into the sites they build? Are the websites in their portfolio still using the design?
To create a great site, you might need the services of more than one person. You might need a designer to give you a logo and color palette and overall look. You might need a developer to create the functionality you want on the site. I prefer to be brought in on new designs or re-designs early so I can work with the designer/developer. We can both learn a lot from the client as they speak about their needs. And it makes it easier for me to suggest getting the designer’s help if we decide we should test any changes to the site, add any functionality, or just tweak it based on direct feedback or analytics data.
I can assist with content strategy and creation before or while the site is being designed.
4. Content is difficult to manage
Creating compelling, concise, correct, clear, and complete content is hard work. So is keeping it current. Few places have any plans for maintaining their content. I am often asked to help make current content more search engine friendly and end up working on a content creation and content management strategy. Often an organization’s priorities shift, but no one reviews their website content in light of that shift. Frequently writers create documents as if they weren’t part of an entire site or possibly the first page a person will see on their site.
Often new sites begin with whatever content is available and whatever people think their audience is going to want. After a time, we learn so much more about our target audiences that we need to go back over the content with that in mind. Identifying the most productive content on a site can teach us about what the rest of our content should look like or include. What I learn about your competitor’s marketing strategies or about terms appearing in your search logs will also generate content revisions.
Technology can also drive content. Perhaps you need a shorter version of a page for iPhone users. Or you want to make use of new semantic tagging abilities.
Microcontent such as page titles, photo captions, calls to action, or button text often gets overlooked during page reviews.
Few people budget enough for the time and cost of keeping all their content in great shape. Almost no one creating sites funded by a grant-making institution write content maintenance (or ongoing marketing) into their contracts, but they should.
5. Someone needs to have the big picture
Having been responsible for some very large sites, I’ve actually always known how advantageous the perspective from this position can be. Now when I’m working with clients with small sites, I see how mobile they can be. They can afford to try something new or to run a quick test with a new offer or new wording for an ad or call to action. They are able to act quickly on insights gained from looking at their web stats. They understand their business goals and can easily sacrifice one opportunity if it means meeting a larger goal.
My clients who have responsibilities for only a portion of a larger site have a much harder time creating sites with as much persuasive power. They have a harder time creating a comfortable but motivating site. Decisions might have been made based on someone’s strong personality rather than good data or a site-wide strategy. Opportunities for internal links are lost because page authors are thinking only of their small area of responsibility. Larger goals are ignored in favor of small gains in their particular area. Work is duplicated because no one owns specific content or because no one has the global view of how that content can be capitalized upon by more than one department.
I try to ask my clients big-picture questions, but I understand when they don’t always have the best-informed answers or have to compromise. When working for university clients I try to connect them with others who I know or suspect are doing similar work and could be used for strategic link exchanges or guest blog posting or other SEO tactics.
My clients motivate me to do my best work. Thanks for the business folks!