Everybody knows how big Hollywood movies are made, right? First, the director hires some actors, as well as a crew, and flies them all to a remote location. Then, with a rough idea of what the movie is about, they film hundreds of hours of gorgeous raw footage of the actors in costumes saying whatever they think makes sense. This footage then gets flown back home, an editor plays around with it, makes it look nice, and only then does the director hire somebody to write the movie script.

This wouldn’t make much sense, would it? After all, as a director, without a script or story to work from, how would you know which actors were right for each part? How would you know which scenes to film or sets to build? How would the actors know what lines to say or how to say them? How would you establish conflict, much less resolve it … or build suspense … or pull heartstrings … or convey meaning?

Yet it’s not uncommon to run across websites created in exactly this manner. All too often, the messaging and words used on a website are treated like second class citizens in relation to the design and development. Anybody who has ever been handed a website mockup for consideration with phrases on it like “Your Site” or “sample copy” or Latin text like “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet” knows all about this.

The idea behind this approach, of course, is that first the client will sign off on the design and structure of the site, and then the appropriate marketing text will be added later on. Several variations on the theme of using nonsense “placeholder” text include:

  • For a site being redesigned, transfer the text being used on the current site
  • Re-use marketing copy from print collateral like flyers or brochures
  • Grab comparable content from a competitor’s website

While each of these options is, arguably, preferable to using generic, nonsense, or Latin text, they still miss a key point, which is that …

Website Content is not the same thing as Website Messaging

Not sure what the difference is between these? Put simply …

Website Content is all of the consumable text, photo, video, or audio elements on your site. In short, content is a what, and more often than not, it’s a what that can easily be lifted out of your site and placed somewhere else. If you can replace text copy with generic or Latin words, then odds are it’s content, not messaging.

Website Messaging, on the other hand, is not only a critical aspect of your site’s overall marketing strategy, it is the backbone of that strategy. If content is the what, then messaging is the why. Why is somebody visiting your site? Why should they buy whatever it is you’re selling? Why should they do business with you and not with another company? Why does your business do what it does and do it the way that it does? Why does it even exist in the first place?

When conceived and implemented effectively, all of the why‘s of website messaging should fit together into a compelling flow that carries the visitor from one piece of web content to another and from one web page to another, leading them to some action that you want them to perform. This action might be anything from signing up for a free newsletter to buying something from you.

Whatever the desired action is, it shouldn’t be something a visitor arrives at by chance. Creating a “Newsletter” tab or link on your site and assuming people will click on it is trusting chance. Creating a page on your site that’s dedicated to paid events and assuming people will notice the banner ad for it that’s buried halfway down the sidebar of your site, then click on it, is trusting chance.

Not trusting chance is what effective website messaging it all about. The following progression is one example of a messaging strategy that could be applied to either the homepage of a site or to a landing page:

  1. Identify the potential customer’s problem
  2. Explain how your product or service offers an ideal solution to that problem
  3. Present the visitor with a call to action, in case they’re ready to commit
  4. Dig in deeper by telling the story of your product, service, or business
  5. Offer more details about the features of your product or service
  6. Present the call to action again
  7. … and so on

This kind of progression could play out on one page or across multiple pages. The point is that messaging is in fact a progression, a strategy, and not something that can simply be dropped into the placeholder slots of a pre-designed website.

How Does a “Messaging First” Approach Work?

So if we accept that building a website first and trying to shoehorn the messaging in later doesn’t work, then how does one go about doing it in a more effective way?

For the answer to this, let’s revisit the movie-making scenario. Most directors will start the production process for a movie with something like an outline, then move on to what’s called a treatment, and then the full script.

Likewise, the process of developing a new website should start with your overall marketing strategy and the creation of various positioning statements. These statements basically define who you are, what you do, who you do it for, and what makes you unique, and will serve as the fuel both for your messaging strategy and for the messaging itself (which is primarily words).

Armed with a script, the movie director will then make decisions about all of the elements that go into making a movie, from actors to film crew to shooting locations.

Likewise, once a web developer is armed with a messaging strategy and the (mostly) words that represent that strategy, they can begin the process of designing and developing a website to accommodate it.

In the same way that a director wouldn’t look at a script for a movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars and consider filming it in the Florida Everglades, certain messaging strategies will or won’t lend themselves to particular website layouts and designs. If your target is a high-end corporate audience, then odds are you don’t want your website to have a whimsical feel to it. If a major component of your communication efforts will be to publish an ongoing series of white papers, then a long, one-page layout for your site probably isn’t the way to go.

Without a script, a movie director is left to guess about critical decisions that will invariably cost the production company both time and money, and will likely result in an inferior end product that will neither score big at the box office nor win any Oscars.

Likewise, a web developer who works without a clearly defined messaging strategy and well-crafted messaging risks costing you both time and money, and will likely end up building something that doesn’t meet the goals of your business.

Something important to be aware of here is that not all web developers have the ability to guide you through the process of creating an effective website messaging strategy. Nor does being a web developer necessarily make one an experienced enough copywriter to craft the messages needed to bring such a strategy to life.

Please note that this statement is meant as no slight to web developers. The skills required to design and build a website that is attractive, responsive (looks good on all devices), secure against hackers, loads fast, and is capable of doing everything you need it to do are specialized and impressive. But they are a different family of skills than the ones required to write, communicate, persuade, and guide a potential customer to a desired action.

So unless you have an in-house marketing resource who can handle this critical process or are working with a web development firm for which messaging is a core competency, then it’s important to avail yourself of a writing professional who can handle this for you.

Need help with the messaging on your website? Not sure if you need help but would like a free website messaging analysis? Drop me a line here or connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s have conversation about it.

In Part 2 of 3, “Unraveling the Mystery,” we discuss what the process of creating an effective website messaging strategy looks like. Then …

In Part 3 of 3, “Is It Too Late?” we wrapped things up by discussing what to do if you’ve already got a website with either no messaging strategy or one that isn’t working for you, but rebuilding the site from the ground up simply isn’t an option.