Websites are not only a public expression of a business; they often are a very personal statement by the business owners on how they view their work and vision. And that’s not always a good thing.

Business websites are about talking to customers and potential customers — anything else is a blog (not that there is anything wrong with that). Depending on the nature of your business, your personal vision may be a huge part of the message you want to communicate to customers. But if your site’s not saying “Hey, come do business with me,” it is speaking the wrong language, or at least trying to speak to the wrong groups of people.

I recently engaged with a professional multimedia company that is interested in making changes to its site. This company is hugely successful in its space; its portfolio boasts several prestigious national projects, including a presidential library. These are very talented people who, rightfully so, want to showcase their work and creative vision.

The CEO expressed frustration that the firm’s current site does not emphasize, or really even communicate, to potential clients the company’s full range of services. Instead, it focuses entirely on the company’s portfolio (again, it’s awesome) — there is no channel on the site that describes a range of services. The About element in the home page design doesn’t even carry a hyperlink.

When a user does go one click deep in the site, they get more information about specific portfolio projects, but these details tend to speak to technical process involved in the work: editing tactics, color palette choices, and the like — information that multimedia professionals will find fascinating, but will be fairly meaningless (and perhaps even a little intimidating) to potential clients.

The CEO says the current site design is a reflection of a philosophy of “letting the work speak for itself.” Again, I can’t emphasize enough how impressive the work is — clearly, showcasing the firm’s portfolio is job one. But I also have worked as a freelance editor on a proposal the firm prepared for a major national project (which it won, because it’s a really impressive company), and so I know how much it focuses on collaboration with its client to refine the project’s content and message before the shooting and editing begins.

If I am a potential customer, that’s what I really want to know: How are you going to help me get my message across with this impressive project? And this client has a highly refined process that addresses just that; it’s part of the fabric of what they do. It’s just not featured on its website.

Aside from some basic mechanics (the current site relies almost exclusively on the WordPress blog metaphor — no, no, no), the real issues with this client’s site are re-focusing on who the site is for, and what actions they want a visitor to the site to take. Of course, not everybody who visits a site is going to fit a specific profile — I’m sure this client realizes a legitimate, albeit tertiary, benefit to having other multimedia editors follow with interest their projects. Cool. But who is your core audience, and what do you want them to do after a visit?

The first step in any consulting gig is to get the client invested in the process, and that’s particularly true with creative folks. So my first step, after a quick interview with the CEO, was to send along a simple little audience profile questionnaire for all stakeholders to complete. It goes like this:

Describe briefly the three groups of potential clients who you want to visit the site:

  • What are these people looking for?
  • What is the main impression you want to make on them?
  • What are the three most desirable actions this type of visitor can take upon their visit?

Repeat three times.

  • What is the main thing you would like to learn about the three groups of people who visit your site?
  • How do visitors to your site find you in the first place?
  • How often do you want visitors to the site to return?

For new or fragmented companies, this can be a pretty extended, even painful, process of figuring out exactly what you want to do, but this client knows what it does, and how to describe that high-value process to customers. It’s just not conveyed on the website.