A website is not a marketing strategy

Is building a website the same thing as building a marketing strategy? It's understandable that people have started to confuse the two.

With so many amazing online marketing tools available and (in many industries) a shift away from traditional marketing media like printed materials, marketing for many businesses and organizations has become an activity that largely takes place on the web. It's easy to start thinking of using those online tools as analogous to creating a plan for marketing.

But just like a more traditional printed brochure, billboard or phonebook ad, a website is a tool that you use to implement your marketing strategy and communicate about your brand. You can't build an effective organizational website without having a marketing strategy in place first any more than you can give a great speech without first having something compelling to say.

The distinction is worth making. At my company Summersault, we too often heard from organizations that were ready to have us start building their new website before they were clear on what their message and brand are, let alone their broader strategy for communicating that message. They were hoping that the logo, colors and other visual pieces that would be defining marketing elements in the life of their organization will be figured out as a part of building the website, almost as an afterthought. They were hoping that the words, tagline and content used to engage and invite action from their target audience would somehow flow from the navigation menu or page layout they pick for their new site.

In short, they were hoping that building a website would also build their branding or marketing strategy.

Again, it's understandable. Business owners, not-for-profit directors, artists, entrepreneurs - these are busy people who are ready to see results. They already see clearly in their minds what their organizations do and why there's great value in that, so it shouldn't be so hard to shape a new website to reflect that value along the way...right?

But we know how those websites turn out, don't we? The online visuals don't complement graphics used elsewhere in the organization. The content feels cobbled together and repetitive instead of derived from a clear and consistent core message. The call to action for the website user isn't clearly articulated because the organization wasn't quite sure how to clearly talk about their value to the user in the first place. There might be a shiny new website up and running, but that doesn't mean good marketing is taking place.

We don't wish that experience on anyone. It can be a waste of time and money, and it can be downright frustrating for everyone involved when the end result doesn't meet expectations. And so when we talked to a potential client about collaborating on a new site, we asked questions about how that project fit in to the big picture of their marketing plan. If the answer to any of these questions was "I don't know" or "it's not clear," then we knew we had some marketing strategy work to do with our client before we started building a new website.

But it's well worth it. When you're clear about what to communicate about your programs, services and value in a way that is compelling and engaging for your target audience, how you implement those communications gets a whole lot easier. Whether your tool of choice is a website, a paid advertising campaign or traditional print pieces, the message is consistent and the call to action clear. Users and potential customers become engaged, and they respond.

(A version of this article originally appeared on the Summersault blog on March 19, 2013.)

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

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