Make better informed decisions about your site

(S01:E01) As website owners we like to talk about the importance of business objectives but I suspect we talk the talk, rather than walk the walk.

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I have a confession to make: I am addicted to buying Apple products. Rarely do I question my desire, I just find myself buying it. Even when I do ask myself why I should need this shiny and new thing, I convince myself with a few weak justifications like “This will be what finally boosts my productivity to 110%” or “I have to keep up with technology for work, don’t I?” before handing over my credit card.

However before you judge me stop for a moment and ask yourself: do you carefully consider every expenditure on your site or are you sometimes tempted by the idea of a shiny, new design to fix all your problems?

It is not enough to simply ‘want’ a new feature or design. You need to ask whether it provides a benefit to the business.

Why care about business objectives?

In our haste to get a shiny, new website it is easy to overlook business objectives. They are often considered a ‘nice to have’, an optional part of the planning process, or perhaps a bonus presuming time and budget allow us to think about such things. However, ignoring business objectives is a false economy. For a start, they are an invaluable tool for making decisions.

Business objectives help decision making

Business objectives act as a plumb line which a project can be measured against, for an unbiased evaluation. While working on any web project there are countless decisions to be made such as:

  • Functionality
  • User testing
  • Time spent on design
  • Accessibility
  • Maintainability
  • Copy

Business objectives allow us to make informed decisions based on what return these individual aspects, and expenses, will bring.

For example, if one of your business objectives is ‘Reduce cart abandonment at checkout’, you can be sure that investing in usability testing will be a valuable way to find the cause.

Equally, we know that forcing users to register, an idea often suggested by over enthusiastic marketing departments, is a bad idea because users hate the process and it will only increase cart abandonment.

Business objectives justify investment

Business objectives help us judge the quality of these kinds of ideas and justify the expense of implementation. This is particularly important when dealing with senior management. They can be used both to prove further investment is justified and to defend money already spent on the site.

Invest? Yes or No.

Business objectives are also a communication tool.

Business objectives aid communication

Many web projects fail because of a lack of communication between the different parties involved. I’ve witnessed multiple projects where the developers’ expectations were radically different from that of management. Often these differences are not discovered until the end of the project and this inevitably leads to conflict. Having clearly defined business objectives helps to ensure all parties are working towards the same outcome.

I’m not claiming that this is the solution to all communication problems, as different parties will interpret business objectives in different ways, however, working towards a common aim is a starting point for improved communication.

Now the benefits of business objectives are clear, the next question is: “How can I identify what my business objectives are?”

How to identify business objectives

In many cases, business objectives are pretty obvious. If we run an ecommerce site together, increased sales is an obvious objective. If we run a web design company, the primary objective is probably lead generation.

However, on some sites the objectives are not so clear. For example, what is the objective of a museum website? What about a news website?

Every site has business objectives

The truth is that all websites have business objectives. It is just that some are not as immediately obvious as our ecommerce site or web design company.

Take our museum website. The primary purpose of this website is probably to encourage more people to visit the museum but like most websites I suspect our museum has more than a single objective. The museum might want people to sign up to their newsletter or they may provide resources that research students will find useful to encourage them to join the museum staff . Just because it is not immediately obvious how you track these objectives does not make them any less important in defining where resources should be spent. Next week we will explore how to track these less tangible goals.

Nebulous business objectives such as customer satisfaction or improved perception of your brand, are just as important as the measurable ones such as purchases, signups or lead generation.

However, it’s not just the type of business objectives that matters. It is also how you decide on them.

Work collaboratively to set objectives

At this point we might be feeling smug because we can list our business objectives. It is something that we have put a lot of thought into and so we feel ahead of the curve.

However, could all of our colleagues who have a vested interest in the website (our stakeholders) also repeat the business objectives? Do they actually know what they are? Even more importantly were they involved in creating them?
Business objectives cannot be created in isolation. It must be a collaborative process with everybody agreeing on the final outcome.

A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned how business objectives can be used to assess ideas proposed by various people internally within the organisation. Over at our ecommerce business, our marketing department were proposing that users were forced to register before purchasing so they could get the skinny on our customers. I suggested that if one of the business objectives was to increase orders, you could argue that this idea would be go against that objective as it increased instances of cart abandonment. Where this falls down is when the marketing department are not involved in agreeing the business objectives. If that is the case they are not going to accept them as a legitimate reason for rejecting their idea.

That is why it is important to consult widely about what your business objectives should be.

How you manage this process is entirely up to you. However, I would give one piece of advice: Do not allow your list of business objectives to grow too long and always prioritise.

By keeping the list short you reduce the possibility of different objectives clashing with one another. Also, by prioritising the list, you ensure that when a clash does happen the most important objective is obvious. However remember that different objectives can have different priority in different sections of the site.

Be specific

One problem that occurs when writing business objectives is that they often become vague, especially when produced as part of a collaborative process. For business objectives to be most effective they need to be as specific as possible.

Take our news website I mentioned earlier. One goal might be to increase advertising revenue. However, this could be much more specific by identifying how the revenue could be increased.

Instead of the vague objective of “increasing revenue”, why not have two goals?:

  • Generate more traffic to the website
  • Increase the number of users clicking on advertising

The same is true for our ecommerce website. Instead of simply looking to “increase sales”, we can break the objective down into:

  • Increase the number of sales
  • Increase the average order value

One reason it is important to be as specific as possible is that otherwise you can get undesirable results. For example, if you just set your business objective as “Generating more leads” (as we discussed with our fictional web design agency) it could end up costing the company money as they frantically follow up a large number of low quality leads that will almost certainly never go anywhere. Instead, the business objective should be to generate more high quality leads.

Avoid unrealistic objectives

It is remarkably easy for business objectives to become unreasonable. This is often because they, or rather their authors, assume too much return for too little investment or the returns to happen in too short a timescale.

Remember that these objectives need to be agreed by everybody. This doesn’t just mean the stakeholders who want something delivered. You also need to include the team who are actually going to implement the web project. Whether you are using an internal web team or outsourcing, you need to make sure that they can deliver on those objectives.

This is a particular problem with external agencies who may tell you anything to win the work. A better approach is to engage an agency before defining exactly what needs to be built because then they can be involved in the process of defining realistic objectives.

The problem with having unrealistic goals is not just a failure to deliver, it is also the inevitable blame game that follows.

Avoiding the blame game

Assigning blame is damaging to the morale of your web team. It’s also unrealistic to attribute blame to any individual. Web projects are complex, with each person’s contribution depending on many others. If you start blaming developers for late delivery, they’re just as likely to blame you for a poorly defined scope of work. Everyone is unhappy. Nobody wins.

A better approach is, when the project is over, to discuss how it did or didn’t fulfil the business objectives. Usually this can’t happen immediately because business objectives are fulfilled over time. When that meeting does take place, it should always look forward rather than focus on past mistakes.

Boss shouting at employee

Consider which parts of the project didn’t meet expectations. Was it because the expectations were unrealistic? Did a problem arise that couldn’t have been anticipated in advance?

Editors Note: This article is covered in considerably more depth in Paul’s latest book ‘Building websites for return on investment‘. Buy two copies today… actually make it three ;)

What next?

Hopefully, I have now convinced you how important business objectives are.

However, knowledge is one thing and implementation is another. Before the next show I recommend you complete the following actions:

Action 1: List your objectives

The first step is to bring all the stakeholders together including management and your web team. Draw up an initial set of business objectives. The aim is to agree a maximum of half a dozen prioritised objectives.

Action 2: Establish measurable goals

Now is the time to get specific with your objectives. Identify detailed objectives within your general aims and attach specific numbers so they are measurable. Share these measurable goals and iterate until you have unanimous agreement.

Action 3: Review using these objectives

Use your approved objectives as a plumb line against which to make decisions. Does your current web project help achieve your business objectives? Will it generate the required level of return? Is your current site doing its job or does it need to change?

Although you will see immediate benefits from having a set of business objectives, the real returns emerges over time. Once you can measure the successes and failures of changes it is possible to track the returns they provide. It is this measuring of return we are going to address in the next show.

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