9 Proven Strategies for an Effective AEC Firm Website
With the evolution of Web 2.0 and the onset of Web 3.0, an effective, professionally designed website is a must. In my 15 years of AEC marketing experience, four of which have included helping our clients with their website projects, I have found that compelling websites include the following:
• great strategy
• thoughtful planning
• marketing focus & integration
• innovative graphic design
• professional photography
• strong Web-oriented writing
• technical expertise
Unfortunately, there are a lot of poorly designed websites out there. Here are 9 common mistakes, and how to overcome them, using the elements above:
1. Poor branding
Problem: You have no clear identity. What are your AEC firm’s strengths? If you make me work too hard to figure it out, I will give up.
Solution: Talk to the CEO, president, principals, and other firm senior staff about how they define the company’s unique qualities and areas of differentiation. These messages should be communicated clearly throughout the website, as well as in all of your marketing materials.
At Ware Malcomb, we utilize a branding questionnaire with our website clients to help define and establish key branding and strategic positioning messages. It is important that brand consensus includes and is supported by company leadership, not just the marketing staff.
2. Fails the “5-second home page test”
Problem: Often in our attempts to be creative we are vague. If I visit your website homepage, can I tell in five seconds or less what your firm does? If not, I might just move on to one of your competitors’ sites.
Solution: Be clear on your home page about what your firm does, make it easy to understand. Ask clients and consultants to give you feedback on the homepage design and messaging. Just like when you meet someone for the first time, it takes a few seconds to make a lasting impression. This same rule applies to your website.
3. Unclear, difficult navigation
Problem: Poor navigation can be characterized by too many or duplicative links, use of uncommon terminology, and poor organization. Go through your website a few clicks—how hard is it to return to the home page? Do you get lost?
Solution: Navigation is not the place for creative writing. Use of common section and page names will transport your site visitor to the content faster. When constructing your site map incorporate elements of simplicity and scalability. Think like your client. What information are they typically seeking? How would they search for it?
Make sure you have room in the structure to add elements so the site can easily expand in the future.
4. Suffers from neglect
Problem: Website contains old or dated information. When I see a website where the most recent press release is from 2005, I think, “No one is paying attention.”
Solution: When designing your website, be realistic about how much time you have to make updates.
• Develop a plan that works with the structure and staffing of your firm.
• Work with your Web designer to determine how much in-house updating ability you want and what makes sense to outsource.
• Designate a specific individual to be responsible for updates.
• Formulate a schedule for periodic website revisions.
5. Writing overkill
Problem: Extensive or highly narrative writing can deter people from reading your message, lessening its impact. People are increasingly inundated with too much content.
Solution: Invest in concise, active writing. Use titles, subtitles, and bullets often. This enables your reader to digest your content more readily. There are also benefits with regard to search engine optimization (which is another whole topic) to using titles and subtitles.
According to Jakob Neilsen of Sun Microsystems, you can double usability of your website by following these guidelines:
• 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word for word
• Reading from computer screens is 25% slower than reading from paper
• Web content should have 50% of the word count of its paper equivalent
6. Too similar to the competition
Problem: You look too much like your competition and fail to stand out.
Solution: Do a thorough review and evaluation of your competitors’ websites. Even before you construct a site map for your website, research your competition and summarize their website information—color scheme, branding themes, messaging, etc. This should be a differentiating tool you use when crafting your website.
As an example, Ware Malcomb recently worked with a healthcare development client on updating the look and feel of their website. As we were assisting him with competitor research, we found that half of the client’s major competitors used blue as a dominant color in their websites. Needless to say, we recommended another color. We also identified each of the firm’s core branding messages, to ensure that our client’s message was unique.
7. Typos, bad grammar, poor writing
Problem: Poor website writing, including bad grammar, typos, run-on sentences, etc.
Solution: Have a strong writer on your team? If not, hire one to help you. Follow the guidelines in #5, writing overkill. Also, develop a quality control process, including multiple reviews of the content with several reviewers before it is launched.
At Ware Malcomb, we typically have three people review writing before we submit an article. Often all of the reviewers find something that needs to be corrected or improved. This reinforces how important editing is as part of the writing process.
8. “Amateur Hour”
Problem: It might seem like a great opportunity to save money to have your son or brother-in-law design your website. Don’t be fooled into thinking it won’t show.
Solution: Website design technology is changing at a rapid pace even for professional Web designers. Your website is one of the main vehicles you use to market and brand your company. Invest in a professionally designed website.
Websites are the great equalizers between large and small firms. Many clients will preview your website before deciding if they want to contact you. They will judge how professional your firm is by the quality and content on your site. Make a professional, savvy impression by doing it right.
9. Slow loading buzzkill
Problem: When your website takes too long to load, site visitors get frustrated. It deters them from returning to your website. Our Web designer shared with us why this might be occurring:
• Use of huge image files
• Flash with a heavy content (loading bar, full flash sites, etc)
• Too much information on a page
• Hosting server is slow
Solution: Talk through this concern with your Web designer. Ways to avoid this include:
• Optimizing image files.
• Avoiding the use of flash or movie files as main message content.
• Organizing the site concisely to avoid too much content on a single page.
• Planning ahead to determine if heavy scripting is really needed to achieve the goal.
• Use a fast, reliable hosting company.
Technology keeps changing. Realistically, your website needs to be redesigned every 2-3 years.
Here are some websites that I think pass these tests. Some of them were designed by Ware Malcomb, some weren’t. Check them out!
• Ascendant Development (designed by Ware Malcomb)
• Society of Industrial and Office Realtors, Southern California Chapter (designed by Ware Malcomb)
• Hotel Indigo
• McKinsey & Company
About the Author:
Ruth Brajevich is CMO for Ware Malcomb, a global design firm specializing in architecture, interior design, site development, and graphic design services. She is a 15-year veteran of the design industry, and is a member of SMPS and CREW, Orange County, Calif. With Ware Malcomb since 1998, Brajevich oversees the firm’s marketing department, and launched Ware Malcomb’s in-house graphic design studio, wm | graphics.