Getting High on Your Own Supply

July 26, 2012 by Matthew Schwartz

Lessons learned from a design studio's own website redesign, and how they reaffirm everything I've been saying to clients for years about branding.


For 12 years, we've been shouting from the mountaintop the virtues of owning an effective website and the impact it can have for our clients. We've even found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of telling a prospect or client their baby was ugly—delicately pointing out its many flaws. And some of these people have asked us to help them. But we had a dirty little secret of our own.

We knew our website sucked.

And when I say sucked, man do I mean suuuucked! I'm not afraid to say, maybe it was pretty good 5 years ago, but now it didn't have most of our recent work. Didn't share our expertise. The copy was lame. It was crappy to navigate. Things got so bad we just stopped sending people to it to. Just gave up on the thing and focused on painstakingly creating great proposals, subconsciously hoping to make up for our inadequacies on the web.

Well, I can finally say those days are over, and thank f'ing God. Sorry, but that's just how relieved I am to finally own a website that reflects the quality of our people and the full breadth of their strategic, creative, and technical talents. And you know what? So is every single one of them. Tuesday, we finally kicked Cobbler's Kids syndrome to the curb and launched a site that actually reflects the value we create for our clients. 

But I'm not writing this to puff out my chest about our (awesome) new website. I believe I've learned some some valuable lessons worth sharing. Sometimes you have to go through something in practice to make all the theory have a meaningful impact. And passing through the divide has made me an even bigger advocate for effective branding & user experiences than ever before. Here are a few observations.

Getting Your Site Right Takes Commitment.

When we start every project, we always share with clients how valuable their full engagement and active collaboration is to the quality of our work. We know they have a job to do that isn't building their website. Well, for people who understand building websites inside and out, there were times where it was flat out impossible to move things forward because we were just too busy. I can only imagine what it's like for clients who are unfamiliar with website process. This site launch has given me an incredible amount of empathy for them, and hopefully our experience will make us more effective at helping clients manage the inevitable bottlenecks.

Content Development is a Bear!

In cases where our clients are creating their own content as opposed to having us develop it, we warn in advance that content development will almost always be the thing that holds up a site launch—especially without a dedicated copywriter. It just happens every time. Well, I'm a trained writer and, man, what a beating. And it wasn't just the writing. Finding all the image assets and producing them took serious patience and discipline. Never underestimate how much effort content development and gathering media assets will take. The sooner you get out in front of it, the better.

Making Incremental Changes is a Death Sentence.

Our site launch took seemingly forever. Sure, client work was a huge contributor to delays—we didn't have the luxury of a firm doing the work for us, and we've been busy! But it's also true that at times we were our own worst client (OK, I probably was…). We try to help our clients see the forest for the trees when creating a website for them, but man, at times, were we stuck in the weeds making every detail perfect. While I think our new site looks, reads, and functions great, I'd rather have had it live 4 or 5 months ago and made adjustments from there.

Having an Adaptable Strategy is Invaluable.

Ok, this contradicts my previous observation, but I think there's a balance. We started our process much as we do for clients—staff surveys, competitive research, etc. We then designed the user experience around our findings. That gave us a great foundation. But at some point, a few things didn't play out as we had expected, so we made adjustments. Having an overall strategy to rely on, and a sense of our priorities made us more agile when we needed to be—and made decisions easier along the way.

Getting Your Brand Right is Your Best Calling Card.

We're in a professional services business. One thing I've heard many times from other professional services business owners is that referrals are the name of the game. Branding or websites don't really matter. Maybe so. But DAMN, it feels good to know that when people are checking us out before they pick up the phone, or when they're evaluating our proposal against other firms, they're getting the real story on who we are and why we matter. Great clients have higher standards, and even if they come by referral, don't assume they're still not evaluating you against other equally goodoptions. You've gotta give 'em the goods.

A Great Brand Energizes Everyone in the Company.

We often tell clients that a great brand is about more than just making believers out of customers, donors, advocates—it's also about what your own people think about you. Well, I can say for sure, that's no bullshit right there. The feeling of excitement in the studio over our new site is palpable. It's energized us I think everyone here feels like they work we do us is valuable and meaningful. As an investment in company morale and talent recruitment? We couldn't have paid enough.

There's a lot more I could say, but what I want to say most of all is 1st, thanks to every one of our clients for partnering with us over the years to produce what we believe is pretty tremendous work. Going through the process brought back memories of some pretty outstanding (and yes, sometimes grueling) projects. And 2nd, thanks to everyone here in the studio, past and present. Not only could we have not gotten our new site up without a lot of hard work these last few months, but without you all, none of the beautiful and meaningful work we've created would have ever existed in the world. And that kind of blows me away.


About Matthew Schwartz

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