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10 Step Guide to Renovating Your Web Site
(It's time for a facelift!)

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Letting your Web site grow stale is a major disadvantage— especially if a competitor’s site offers more for prospects. Here’s your guide to making over your site.

“If you want to increase your Internet business, you probably need a more sophisticated site with more features and services to the consumer. And that means a site redesign,” says consultant Dan Gooder Richard, president of the Gooder Group in Fairfax, Va.

So, where do you start? Leading Web experts say the first step is to consider exactly what type of redesign you want. The simplest and fastest solution is a graphic makeover—changing the colors, the layout, the type fonts and images. This redesign concentrates on the home page and navigation, and is relatively quick and inexpensive, says Richard. “A graphic redesign might involve changing templates or provider, or stepping up to create a custom site.”

A second type of redesign focuses on adding to the functional capabilities of your current site. This might involve hiring a Web designer to create more lead-capture forms, improve your site’s search capabilities or add a login application that allows prospects to save and retrieve a previous home search.

“One popular function is adding predefined MLS search capabilities to make it easier for the customer,” says Lu Doan, co-founder and principal of RBD Studios in Bonita Springs. For instance, a one-click search for “$1 million homes in Orlando” or “waterfront condominiums in Fort Lauderdale” is much easier than trying to type in a long list of parameters, such as price range, municipality and ZIP code.

If you currently have a template site, you may be able to change the design and add functions by choosing a different or more versatile template. In that case, the site’s content would remain basically the same.

“That’s one type of migration path,” says Doan. “But if that’s not enough, then it’s time to look at your business, see where you’re going and update everything.”

The third redesign approach is to go back to the beginning and rethink your overall site. As you might expect, this is the longest, most complex and most expensive—but potentially most rewarding—strategy to follow, according to Michael Russer, an international speaker and author based in Santa Barbara, Calif. 

“A complete update begins with proper planning,” says Russer. “The biggest mistake real estate professionals make is spending 10 percent on planning and 90 percent on implementation. It should be the other way around.”

If you’re considering a major overhaul to your site, Russer suggests taking the following approach:

1 Determine your target market. Does most of your business come from a certain market segment, such as retirees, investors or first-time buyers? Do you emphasize a certain neighborhood or geographic region? Or, are you trying to attract everyone seeking a home or commercial property in your area?

“Your site will have to provide something of value for the online consumer,” Russer says, “and that message varies by market. Trying to include everything dilutes that message—and your site just won’t work.” He says a relatively inexpensive template site can be highly effective in attracting your target market, as long as it can be customized to meet your needs.

2 Consider one or more targeted new sites. Russer says it’s often more effective to create several new sites—each with a clearly definable target audience—than to redesign an existing site.

“You can leave your current site alone,” Russer says, “and use it for your sphere of influence and current clients. Then, you can start fresh with one or more new targeted Web sites that would be linked to your current site.”

3 Brainstorm. Invest some time thinking about what images, information or messages would “wow” an online prospect. “[Identify] the needs, wants, desires, fears and aspirations of your target consumers,” says Russer. This brainstorming process can include family, friends, and past clients and customers—anyone who can give you good feedback.

4 Organize your content. Once you’ve identified your market and key messages, you can begin organizing the content for your site. Let’s say you want to focus on the executive home market in Jacksonville. That strategy will serve as your guide in creating the structure, design and menus for your site. “You start with what’s most important and work your way down to what’s least important for your potential clients,” Russer says.

“One of the basic rules of online marketing is to focus on the customer,” says Russer. “Consumers don’t care about the [sales associate] until they feel the agent cares about them,” he adds. “Creating a site that focuses on the agent is a huge mistake—that’s almost the last thing the client should see.”

5 Prepare an outline for each content area. Russer recommends using a bullet-point approach to capture key messages or ideas. Then, hire a copywriter who can put those thoughts into persuasive and informative language. “Most [sales associates] can’t write good copy, and neither can most designers,” Russer says.  Typically, a copywriter would interview the sales associate and develop an understanding of the target market. The writer should also understand the emotional profile of prospective clients and customers in order to craft the most appealing headlines.

6 Go to a design firm.  Once you’ve developed an outline and have the copy in hand, now’s the time to approach a design firm about the actual makeover. “It’s important to remember that the design is simply the package, not the message,” Russer says. “Many [sales associates] mix them up.” And if you go to the designer with an outline and copy in hand, you’ll speed up the redesign process and reduce your overall costs.

7 Include irresistible offers throughout your site. By offering something of value, such as a special report, community profile or relocation packet, you encourage online visitors to provide their contact information. Those offers should be linked to your back-end automated response and lead-capture applications. Russer says it’s essential to include a privacy statement to assure visitors that you won’t give away the information they provide.

When creating response forms, Russer says, it’s best to use a voluntary approach in asking for personal information, such as name and address. “The online world is all about building trust rather than resentment,” he says. “Tell visitors that the entire form doesn’t need to be completed unless they choose to do so.”

8 Build in a response mechanism. Once an online form is completed, the site’s back-end system should respond with a short thank-you note along with a reassurance that the visitor’s request will be answered promptly. The system should also notify you at the same time, so you can send the requested information, along with a personal note, as quickly as possible.

9 Hold off on search engine optimization. It’s not necessary to start optimizing your new site immediately to attract the major Internet search engines, says Russer. Instead, you should track how well the new site is doing at converting those incoming inquiries. And don’t revise your site’s copy simply to add keywords for the search engines, Russer adds.  “The copy should engage the online consumer first—then it can be optimized for search engines by a specialist.”

10 Measure your new site’s success. Talk with the design firm about tracking those key statistics—first-time visitors, return visits, page popularity and response rates. That’s how you’ll know if your new site is generating those phone calls and face-to-face appointments that ultimately lead to closed sales.

The entire makeover process should be focused on the hopes and desires of your target customer, says Russer. “To attempt a redesign without answering the basic question—What does my customer want?—is a waste of time and money.”

Richard Westlund is a Miami-based freelance writer.