A recent International Data Corporation (IDC) survey of Fortune 500 companies in the US found they spent anything from $840,000 to over $1.5 million just to get their sites up and running. A Gartner Group analysis of Web presence startup costs ranged from $104,000 to $285,000, with additional annual costs from $49,000 to $110,000. Even the smallest site can cost between $20,000 and $50,000. Whatever the size of your business, the financial stakes of establishing a Web presence are high - and they're getting higher.
The pace of evolution on the Web has created a turbulent environment which has a dramatic impact on the complexity and cost of site development and management. The endless stream of new technologies places increasing demands on development resources. Users aren't standing still, either.
They're demanding more sophisticated services than online brochures.
The explosion of Web sites has created a red-hot competitive environment for attracting users. Despite the high costs and complexity of starting a new site or re-engineering an existing one, surprisingly few organisations develop a business plan to help them make crucial decisions.
What's a plan?
The I-Ching (Chinese Book of Changes) states: "The proper response to conflict, whether it lies within or without us, is disengagement." This is good advice for anyone developing a business plan. The first move is to step back from the rapid-fire demands of everyday Web mechanics and look at the bigger picture. A Web site business includes all the elements of strategic decisions, assessing, evaluating and managing interrelated components into a holistic system. All these components fall within a triad of business management, content development and technical operations.
A business plan serves three functions. The first is to allow you to make mistakes on paper rather than in the real world. It lets you examine the site from all perspectives, such as finance, marketing and operations.
Your plan enables you to question and support your assumptions, develop scenarios and build models. Second, it is a retrospective tool against which your organisation can assess its Web presence performance over time.
You can use the financial part of the plan as the basis for an operating budget.
A business plan also serves as a document which sells your site within your organisation. Like the business plan used by startup companies, it lets you round up the necessary resources from within your firm.
The best starting point is an executive summary, which crystallises your thoughts, sets priorities and provides the foundation of the full plan.
From there, you need to address the management of the site - expectation management, business strategy, Web team definition, content development, technical infrastructure management, financial analysis and marketing.
Accompanying each of these areas are the on-going, parallel needs of planning, implementation and maintenance.
Planning involves sorting through the maze of options and developing an initial strategy complete with a list of action items and assignments.
Expect ambiguity in this phase but at least have a dynamic plan of action.
Emphasise points of reference in a steady path of demonstrable progress.
At each stage of development, modification can and will occur. Make your modifications to the game plan and move on.
Implementation involves subcontracting action items and creating an infrastructure for constant communication and documented process, which means co-ordinating and unifying the appropriate skill sets to match the function tasks. Project management plays a key role in this phase.
Maintenance means managing constantly changing technology. A Web site will always be a work in progress. This phase requires evolutionary upgrading of skill sets to add functionality and enhancements to the Web site. It also involves establishing proper feedback mechanism and evaluating results.
Business plan elements
A business plan lets you incorporate interrelated information and weave it into a whole to create an outline of your site. These elements encompass the people, resources and tools it takes to implement a successful presence.
Addressing the following elements will help to ensure the success of your Web site plan:
Selling a Web site within your organisation presents a difficult challenge - you have to walk a fine line between selling the vision and over-selling it. Before rushing out to sell the site's role in your organisation, you need to know how to deliver what you are promising. Evangelising for a site is the art of championing via strategic presentations, preparation and anticipation. On the surface, all the hype about the Internet and the Web makes selling a site easy but it can also create unrealistic expectations.
The rule of thumb for expectation management is to under-commit and over-deliver. You need to determine time to completion and overall quality goals in order to fix your budget. Prototyping is an important tool for managing expectation through a series of on-going demonstrations.
This encompasses a wide spectrum of issues. It provides the conceptual framework for determining the business objectives of your site and matching them to your corporate culture.
Each function of a Web site - advertising, marketing, customer support, sales, market research and product or service delivery - requires its own plan. You need to answer all kinds of questions. What kind of business processes do we want to create online? Does our business want to begin with fewer functions or implement them all at once?
You need to know who your audience are, what they want and what you can deliver. The keys to a business strategy are prioritising, planning for success, competitive analysis and budgeting. This stage will include co-ordinating between groups within your organisation.
The days of the lone Webmaster riding over the entire Web site development and management process are fading into the sunset. The new Webmaster team must collectively possess knowledge of multiple fields as diverse as network configuration, design, writing, marketing, software development and project management.
Who might make up your Webmaster team? The answer is as broad as the spectrum of people connected to a business. Responsibility needs to be assigned and new channels of communication and collaboration opened. The ultimate success of your site is determined by how well you bring your workers' expertise to bear on it. The role of knowledge sharing is important in keeping a site co-ordinated.
Providing meaningful content exhausts the biggest chunk of resources for most sites. Content development centres on the mission of the site, its heart and soul, and includes the building techniques and tools used to create the site. This aspect also includes information architecture and design, software development and tool management.
You need to devise an information architecture which defines the structure of your site's content delivery. As part of your Web site business plan, give serious thought to the role of the information architect or Web site designer, to make the complex clear and to maintain continuity between the diverse media. Content development also deals with the management of software tools for maintaining your Web site's information delivery.
Staying ahead of new technology developments requires continual analysis of your site's development toolkit.
Technical infrastructure management
The technical infrastructure includes all the components which come together to provide the platform for your company's content delivery via a Web site. It covers the computer hardware and software, connection to an Internet service provider and more. As with most other areas of Web site management, the technical infrastructure is subject to constant technological improvements which need to be managed effectively.
Realistic budgeting from the beginning is essential. Without a realistic financial blueprint, you might join the ranks of Fortune 500 companies whose development costs mushroomed to four times greater than originally budgeted. You also need to analyse your return on investment, which can be tricky.
Decide what you're using the site for. Advertising? Customer support?
Information collection? Direct sales? Develop a variety of economic models to test out difficult scenarios. The bottom line on a financial blueprint is that it offers criteria for the success of a Web site plan.
Web site marketing
"Build it and they will come" no longer rings true. A key element in your business plan is a marketing plan for keeping the site's URL in the hotlists of your customers or potential customers. This involves promoting the site across your existing sales and marketing channels as well as exploiting online promotional resources. On-going competitive analysis and developing systems to gauge usage and feedback are important elements of marketing. (See Marketing feature page 27).
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: "The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand." Likewise, a Web site business plan represents your beat calculations of your organisation's chances for success. Whatever the size of your business or organisation, the stakes are simply too high to leave your Web presence to chance.
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