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Web Design vs. Web Marketing? Which is more important?

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We seem to spend a lot of time hopelessly trying to talk our clients out of doing massive upgrades to their site. I think we all have a little bit of the “If you build it, they will come” mentality. We’re somehow convinced that if we build the biggest, baddest, best-looking website in the world, that the search engines will be magnetically pulled to its abounding beauty and the site will be an instant success. What we should really be thinking is, “if you promote it, they will come.”

There was a great article in Practical Ecommerce by Mat Greenfield about a year ago where Mat said that many of his clients spend 90% of their web budget on design, and only around 10% on “other stuff.” It’s sad how many beautiful websites that are out there in the webiverse that will never be seen by anyone but their owner, never be graced with the smooth touch of the GoogleBot, and will eventually die without ever having the chance to fulfill the measure of their creation: making a sale.

Web design is certainly important. A great looking website can help buyer confidence and trust and can be an outstanding sales tool for your company…. as long as you have traffic. I have often said that I would rather have a Plain Jane boring site with traffic, than a maxed out Cinderella site without traffic. Perfect Example: Craigslist.org vs. Oodle.com. Both classified ad sites that provide free listings. Oodle has a great look and feel, exciting images, and “oh so sweet” web 2.0 goodness. Craigslist on the other hand has a design that could very easily land it in the web design “Hall of Lame.” So which site would you rather own? Before you answer, just in case you’re not familiar with either site, Craigslist has about a billion times as much traffic.

So how can a site like Craigslist do it? If you’ve been thinking about spending a ton of money on web-design, this would be a good time to site back and say “Hmmmm….. I wonder if web-design isn’t really as important a factor as I think it is?”

Now before I give you the wrong idea and accidentally convince you to make your website out of sticks and mud, let me clarify a little: Having a good looking website is important. Having an AMAZING looking website with every conceivable bell and whistle, animations by Pixar that jump right out of the screen, celebrity endorsements, and a flux capacitor, really isn’t important. In my experience, the biggest result of having a boatload of additional features built-in to your website is that you get to do a boatload of upkeep.

I use this analogy often: A website without marketing is like a car without gas. You can have the nicest Rolls-Royce in the world, but if you spend everything on the car and don’t have any money left to put gas in the tank, it’s just a decoration, not a useful tool. You’d be much better off buying the junkiest 3 cylinder Geo Metro you could find, and having plenty of money left over for gas.

I got my start in ecommerce back in 2000, and I initially spent about $1000 on a website. The website didn’t look very good, but it worked, and people could order on it. After having the site for about a year, I was convinced that the boring design was detracting customers from making a purchase, and that a really high-end expensive website would make all the difference. We found some really great web designers and got the site redone for about $7500. We did notice an increase in sales, but it was slim, and certainly disappointing. Unfortunately, I had to learn many lessons the hard way, but eventually figured out that marketing, not design, was the key. By mid 2002 my company was spending over $20,000 a month just in pay-per-click fees, and making a very healthy profit margin. I have no doubt that the results would have been nearly the same with the previous “boring” site design we had.

One important factor in the story above that needs mention is that we were already making money before we made a large investment in web design. Many new site owners are under the impression that they need to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to launch a site. Not so. Websites are cheap these days and maintaining them is easier than ever. You compete with the big boys in your industry NOT by having the best design, but by doing the best marketing.

So, the moral of our story is:

  • Web promotion will get you more business than web design
  • It’s better to start off with an inexpensive, but decent looking website, then upgrade as your profits grow
  • Make sure you save a healthy portion of your web budget for marketing

Despite how convincing my arguments are, many of the people I talk to are beyond convincing and I still hopelessly ramble on to the deaf ears of people who will spend their very last farthing on a new kitchen table while their cupboards are bare. But…… if I can save just one virtual soul from the hellish nightmare of being a lonely, unloved, cobweb ridden website in a death sentence of unvisited obscurity , it will all be worth it.

Maybe I should hire a celebrity spokesperson?

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