Your Own Website – Ten Dollars or Two Grand?

It’s Gotta Be Good
So, you’ve decided to get yourself a website. All of your favorite singers have them. It seems to be a great way to showcase your talent and give potential clients/customers/fans a place to connect with you. You’re right: an effective website can be a part of a larger strategy to push your career ahead.

However, you have to make certain that the quality of your site matches the sound of your voice. There’s no point in launching a substandard, difficult-to-navigate, mediocre looking website. After all, potential clients may conclude that your site is a reflection of the quality of your music.

How much do you have to spend on creating a good site?

What makes a good site “good”?

Do you have to love computers to do this?

What key features lead to web success?

The pitfalls of ineffective and over-expensive websites can be avoided. Our Anonymous Web Design Expert shows the novice the way.

Content
You might think that the first question that needs to be answered has to do with the look of your site. However, there is an even more basic question than this and asking it now, at the beginning of the process, will save you a million headaches later on. How is your site going to be updated?

When people first launch a site, they imagine that the job is done, but it’s only the beginning. Answering the question of “Who’s going to manage the content?” will save you hours and hours of work later on. Fortunately there are some straight-forward ways to answer this most basic question.

First, sit down with a pen and a paper and think through the themes and items that are likely to be changing on a regular basis. It may be that you will be adding tour dates, CDs for sale or pictures. Or, maybe there will be new sponsors or video clips. List the things you want updated and think about who’s going to do it and how. In the web-design world this is called “content management” and you need to make sure you can do just that.

To assist you with the creation and management of your website there are some fantastic free tools. These tools are called “open source” meaning they have been developed under a Creative Commons License, enabling you, as a member of the public, to use them free of charge. The Web Community has been building open source tools for years and it doesn’t cost a thing.

One very popular open-source tool is calledWordPress. WordPress offers you the opportunity to host anything from a simple blog to a fully-featured website. The key thing at this early stage is that WordPress can act as a content manager; you can load up all kinds of media ranging from video clips to sound files—and, most importantly, it’s easy for anyone to update it.

In fact, spending some time researching WordPress will mean that you can be the “content manager” yourself. That is, you will not need to turn to an expert every time you want something new on your site. I have seen even the most reluctant technophobes become adept at adding content to their site after falling in love with WordPress and its simple management backend.

So, take a few minutes to jot down what will need to be changed on your site and when. Try out WordPress; find a cheap host (recommended by WordPress) and have a go at installing it, posting some content and running a blog. WordPress can be modified to act as a full blown website but to get you going, you want to think more about content and keeping it fresh. Don’t worry about how your site will eventually look, just get used to content management. Doing this will get you thinking about the next step: how users will navigate your site.

Navigation

The final look of your site is the “sexiest” part of the deal. But just as a long lasting relationship has dimensions other than sex, your relationship with your website requires that you address the more mundane dimension of navigation. Good site designers figure out how the site will be navigated before they arrive at the final look. How will people get to the information you want to put onto the site?

There’s a rule in web design that nothing you want people to see should be more than “three clicks” away. There are times when this rule may be broken—but don’t think about that now. Instead, your job is to make sure that people can get around your site easily. Having already decided on your content, you know the kinds of things you want on your site. Now you are going to figure out how people are going to get there.

First start doing some web surfing; find sites that you like and every time you see something that catches your eye, jot it down on a piece of paper. Maybe a computer geek like me shouldn’t be talking so much about pen and paper! But for many people the physical action of writing something down helps them to focus on a plan.

Jot down the kind of information you want front and center and the kind of information that can go on a different page. Once you’ve established this, you are ready to take a bunch of sticky notes and physically represent your site on paper.

Figure out each pathway a visitor will take to get to where you want them to go. Write just one step per sticky note, like, “Click on Buy CD”. Stick all of the notes on your wall and arrange them. Keep rearranging until you are looking at a sticky-note representation of your website. Make sure you have multiple paths to the same information. That is, if one note is removed, you should still be able to get that same section from other paths. Keep sticking and keep rearranging until you are happy with the navigation.

Doing this with sticky-notes may sound kind of silly, but you really do have to make sense of navigation on paper before you go onto the web. Think about giving someone instructions on how to make tea (OK, I’m British), using one sticky-note for each step in the process. How many notes would you need? Have you covered every step? Is it clear and logical?

Having done all of this, you now know what is front and center on your site and what’s on other pages. You also know what visitors have to “click” on to get there—and you still haven’t spent any money!

Money
I really believe that successful websites begin with individuals who invest time in answering the first two questions before they come to the question of money. That is, throwing a lot of money at a website does not necessarily guarantee success. A clearly constructed website, where visitors can easily find what they want, is always a part of the process.

So, now we finally come to the look of the site. Do you pay for a designer or use a template—what’s best? There’s no doubt that there are some good looking templates out there and you should feel free to experiment. If all you want to do is display some pictures and post some notices about upcoming events, you can go for a free theme from designers. You can download these for free: WordPress has thousands of them—so, just dive in.

Remember, though, that templates have their draw backs. The number one limitation is that they remove your individuality. This can become a major frustration and is one reason many people come to me. There is, however, a bigger reason to consider employing the talents of a designer (remember I’m not looking for any work).

There’s a lot of competition online and you need to stand out. If you go for a generic template you will look generic. If you try something new, you will look fresh and innovative. Which would you prefer?

To make yourself stand out think of an idea or concept that makes you unique. It doesn’t have to be complex. It could be a simple clean, crisp website that uses a new form of navigation or maybe there are a few simple images that link to the different areas of your site.

If you get a designer, how much is it going to cost? Having now looked at many of the websites of VoiceCouncil members who are actively working, I can safely say that you should never need to pay more than $2,000 US for the design of a WordPress site and the implementation of widgets designed to sell CDs, host videos and sell gig tickets. In fact, it could be much less than this. Now there is something more I need to say about money…

Don’t Get Ripped Off
The world of web design is a growing quickly. There are many reputable web designers who operate with talent as well as integrity. But, like any business, there are disreputable and fly-by-night providers. In fact, web design is, in many ways, a perfect haven for fly-by-nighters!

When I am working with a client, they always have my phone number, as well as my email address. Web design is a virtual world, one in which your designer can quickly disappear! So, you should have more contact details than just an email address. It’s also invaluable to have recommendations from your web designer’s clients. Don’t hesitate to ask your designer for clients they have worked with; you can then contact these clients directly to ask about how they felt working with the designer. Never hire a web designer without having seen their portfolio and having spoken with their clients.

Always agree with your web designer on exactly what they are going to do before you make any payment. Also, never pay the entire fee for web design up front. Always hold back at least half of the final payment until completion. What does completion mean? Completion means that your website works on a variety of browsers. Don’t trust your web designer’s report that it is running fine; go to different computers that use different browsers, make sure for yourself that your site looks perfect on Safari, Firefox, MS Explorer (6 and 7) and even on Google’s new Chrome browser.

Test everything on your site—even buy something from yourself! When you have done all of this and you are satisfied that the site is completed you can rest easy at night. There is nothing worse than completing a site, making payment and then finding that visitors can’t buy CDs because your shop doesn’t display correctly in Firefox.

One more note on money: save 25% of your total budget for spending on post-launch issues. There are always things you will want to change after you’ve launched the site. You don’t want to be in the position where you don’t have money left to change a blurry image or to tone down a shade of color here or there.

The Icing on the Cake
There are several things you can do to make your website polished, professional and useful:

• Don’t overload the viewer with too much information in one location. In other words, don’t have word or image clutter. Just surf the web yourself for good examples. Often prominent news sites have worked out how to have uncluttered pages by reusing the same space. Google “tabbed navigation” and you’ll soon see what I mean.

• Get a cool and memorable domain name. It should cost you around $5 – $20 US. You will need to register this name; this can be done from a number of domain registrars, again by searching Google. Search for the best price and get a unique name—the more unique your name is, the better chance you have of getting to the top of Google faster and being remembered.

• Relate the content on each page to another part of your website. For example, if the visitor is reading about a gig you did in Springfield, then have a link on that page to the photos you took from a recent gig you did just down the road in Johnstown. You never know, they might see something in a picture that will lead to them buying your CD. If they are reading about the voice spray you use then have a link to your page on vocal technique. The point is to keep people moving around in your site and to feed them juicy content.

• Get yourself an email address. Your email will look more professional if it’s yourname@sitename.com instead of bob1234_5678@hotmail.com.

• Always make sure that you reply to emails quickly—this proves that your site is alive and worth visiting. Make arrangements with your host provider (see below) to have your emails forwarded to an address you can reach online. Or, ask them for webmail access so you can reply whilst you are away on business or holidays.

• Change the content on your website frequently. Nothing looks more unprofessional than seeing coming events listed that happened last year! Think of things that frequent visitors might like to see. Invest time every week entering new content. Fans, promoters, clients, purchasers etc. will notice these changes and see this as a reflection of your positive energy.

• You are going to need somewhere to host your site. You need to check with the hosting provider that you get everything you need to host the content management software you want to use. Not all hosting providers are the same. Tell them what you are going to use and ask if they can help you—don’t buy the hosting package and ask later. The monthly fee for hosting shouldn’t be much more than $20-30 US. In the future, you can upgrade, as and when your website expands.

• If you are selling things through your site the most simple way to do this is to put an image or button up next to the item you are selling that links into PayPal. If you are adding products all the time then you can use shopping cart software such as Cube Cart or integrate a payment gateway such as WorldPay but you’ll need technical help to do this. PayPal is free, simple, quick and gets you selling T-shirts (or, whatever) in no time at all.

Go For It
You can have a great website that promotes your career—and you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg. Remember, the most important steps to this reality do not involve spending much money. When you do put your money down on the table, follow the advice above. Once you’ve done all of this (or even if you haven’t) you’ll want to read my article for next month: Making Your Website Look Even Better. But I’m still not going to tell you who I am…

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