Back in the early 90's, when the Web was just getting going, the question "Do I Need A Website?" was pretty easy to answer: "probably not". The expense of owning a server, plugging it into a persistent internet connection, was too much to bear for anyone but the largest institutions (universities, mostly). The investment-drenched dot-com days started to turn that logic into "probably yes"; by the time Web 2.0 came around, cheap infrastructure (think Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure) and a million website platforms turned that answer into "yes, obviously!"
But maybe it's time to question that assumption. In 2018, what kinds of people need websites? What other ways can your business have a digital presence? What role can social play? What role does mobile play?
What the CMS world looks like to us now
A couple of years ago, we started talking to customers about "purpose-driven websites" as their primary online property. We did this to get ahead of a looming problem: most of the company websites we were seeing were just brochures. You could call them "informational" websites and not be wrong - sometimes they were just a CMS-driven catalog of links to literal brochure PDFs.
Most of these sites were five to ten years old, built on off-the-shelf CMS platforms like Joomla or Wordpress, with minimal attention to user experience, information architecture or content.
Later, businesses like Squarespace and Wix made their play with higher-quality templates and better user experience. They worked to attract a wide variety of customers. But the overwhelming majority had the same problem: they didn't really do anything for businesses.
Some even looked really good; there is no doubt that time and attention paid to design is well-placed. But well-planned, well-designed content will make your last-minute, unstyled additions stick out like a sore thumb. The value of design becomes an albatross.
I think of these as "check-the-box sites". They check the "Website" box on a basic list of business priorities, but that's about it. Sites like this will have an "About Us" page nobody reads, and a "Contact Us" page with high SEO value but no schema metadata. They'll often have a single catch-all page that gathers content about promotions, special offers, legal disclaimers and all kinds of other junk, because it was the easiest way to get the content "on the website".
So Do I Need A Website For My Business?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before committing your marketing budget:
What role does digital play in your revenue?
Do you sell products online? Obviously digital makes a direct revenue contribution in the case of ecommerce. This is especially true if your sales process is complex or interactive.
But what if you sell your product or service in-person or over the phone? If you meet new customers, capture leads or subscribers, or make bookings or appointments, digital plays a direct role in your revenue. You cannot afford to ignore it, and you must make a well-rounded plan for digital in your annual marketing budget.
Is my product or service novel or unique?
Of course it is; that's how you're in business, right? Not so fast; there are plenty of products where the market is reasonably well-saturated already, and customers need little or no coaxing to buy something just like it. You'll use price as a way to convince them to buy your product.
Usually, though, your product is different. Special in some way. Maybe shoppers have seen it before, but aren't convinced it's for them. Maybe they don't know how it works. For these businesses, website's role is to help customers overcome objections. Websites need to spend time educating customers about the problem, and the unique way you'll help them solve it. We realized this was true when planning the new website for TRX; the product is absolutely unique in the marketplace, and potential customers just needed to be shown how it's used.
Sometimes, your business has a different way of selling.
Are my customers using the web?
I'm not trolling you here: are your customers even using the web? Or are they using social?
I know it seems like a weird distinction. Tech reporters will still call Twitter and Facebook "websites", and they use some or all of the same underlying technologies. But from a business perspective, they aren't "the web"; they're a different beast. You interact with customers in a different way on these platforms. And the platforms themselves have a lot to say about what you can and can't do there.
You might even think about Amazon this way. Sure, it's a shopping platform. But there are many parallels with social as to how you interact with customers there; you have a lot less control.
In marketing you go to where your customers are. Pew Internet rehashes the most predictable digital stat of all, Social Media Use in 2018. Guess what? It's going up. It's never not going up. Your customers are going to be on social. But are they going to be using "the web"?
Use your website for the right things
Use your website to attract visitors whose problems you can solve. Educate them with the knowledge they need to be great customers. Empower them with the digital tools they need to buy from you.
My favorite examples of this are when something is complex to sell, is customizable, or involves a long-term commitment. It makes perfect sense to invest in a car configurator, or a custom onboarding process for a fitness membership.
It doesn't make sense to invest against a platform. You shouldn't throw money at a problem Facebook or Amazon is solving already.
For example, we are seeing more conversations go to social. Businesses are becoming experienced to see Twitter as a part of their customer service mix, and chatbots for CS are right around the corner. These conversations are increasingly happening on channels that are not your website. In the future, it may not make sense to invest heavily in a customer service channel for your website.
So what should you use your website for? Use it where a webpage is the most engaging, most frictionless way of educating. Use it to sell something that's hard to buy.
OK, who doesn't need a website, then?
There are a few. Typically these are businesses that don't or can't use creative to enhance their offering. These businesses usually don't invest in digital because their business is hard to experience with words and imagery (restaurants, fitness instructors, personal services like massage), or because there is little need to educate already well-informed customers (commodities, look-alike products, services like dry cleaning).
These kinds of businesses that should rely more heavily on platforms and content creation than on operating a website. A restaurant should keep its menu up to date on Yelp and engage with Rezzie and DoorDash for digital revenue. A food truck should definitely lean into Twitter for daily updates on location and specials. A fitness instructor should spend more time developing engaging content for YouTube and Instagram than a website - that's where the customers are!