Take a Deep Breath, and Start Simply

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Robert Hess
Microsoft Corporation

March 23, 1998


Looks Aren't Everything
So, Tell Me All About Yourself. In 30 Seconds
Okay, Tell Me More
What? You Like Me? You Really Like Me?
The Picture of the Company Cafeteria Probably Doesn't Qualify
Free Is Good
But It's So Simple...

A friend recently wanted to work up a Web page for her company.

The problem? Not only did she have no clue as to what HTML was, but she is also new to computers themselves.

However, my friend does spend a lot of time browsing the Internet, and so is familiar with all of the information out there, and how it looks. She knew it would be helpful for her to have some sort of Web presence that she could use to provide additional information about the services and capabilities of her company.

Without any real assistance from me, or any other Web-aware individual, she fired up Microsoft FrontPage Express and jumped in. Before long, she was totally frustrated and had to walk away from the computer before she threw it out the window. This was by no means the fault of the tool she was using. Instead, it was because she tried diving into the deep end before she even knew how to dog paddle.

She was ready to give up and concede that Web-page stuff was simply beyond her. I attempted to settle her down and give her some guidelines, the better to wrap her head around what she was really trying to accomplish. Here is the essence of what I outlined to help her get a start on preparing her Web pages.

Looks Aren't Everything

First and foremost, think about what you want to say, not what you want it to look like visually. This is a very hard thing for beginners to grasp. With modern Web sites having so many great looking graphics, layout tricks, and whizzy features, many would-be Web designers start by trying to work up pages that look just as cool. It's like watching a commercial for some new sports car, then going out and trying to duplicate some of those amazing driving feats yourself. Remember the fine print: "This is a professional driver on a closed track. Do not attempt these maneuvers yourself."

While it might be cool graphics that grab attention, it is the information provided by the page that will make it worth reading, and worth coming back to.

Since MSDN Online readers are all accomplished Web designers, I expect that the following won't be groundbreaking news. But perhaps reading through the questions I put to a "newbie" will help you think through how you work with clients or sites that are also having trouble getting into the water.

So, Tell Me All About Yourself. In 30 Seconds

You are given a free 30-second radio spot. What information would it include?

You have a short time frame in which to provide your audience with the key nuggets of information that would entice them to contact you. While catchy jingles are all over the radio, let's pretend that a soundtrack at that level isn't an option. To begin with, you can't afford to hire a musician to write a jingle for you, nor can you afford to purchase the rights to a song. And while you do run across a lot of music attached to pages on the Web, it's not only annoying, it also falls under the same sort of legal licensing issues as apply to radio spots.

So you have 30 seconds. Just your voice sharing information with the audience. Who are you? What do you provide? Why would somebody want to contact you? Most importantly, how do they contact you? If you can work out such a sample script, you have a good start for the home page of your Web site.

Okay, Tell Me More

Somebody sends you an e-mail request for more information. What do you send back?

Let's assume you put up a single Web page, as described in the first scenario. On it, you list four or five "services" you provide. These could be things such as "wetland consultation," "manuscript proofreading," or "amateur magic act." -- in essence, very wide and general topics. Now somebody sees your page, sees your e-mail name on it, and sends you e-mail along the lines of:

"I saw your Web page, and would like more information about your wetland consultation services."

You now have a potential customer interested in more information. The customer didn't provide much in the way of specifics as to "why" he or she is interested in your services, so you can't really provide a directly targeted answer. You also realize that bouncing e-mail at customers, asking for more specifics, might scare them off. So instead, you write up a relatively short "one page" of e-mail that describes the specific services you offer, and tries to give them enough information to understand how you might be able to help them.

You want to lead with a paragraph that drives quickly to the heart of the matter. It would be the "teaser" or the "hook" that will pull customers into the rest of your response. You don't want it to look like overblown marketing hype. You want it to sound personal, friendly, not overbearing. But you also want to ensure that it provides the important information a potential customer needs to make an informed decision as to whether to proceed further.

Now, you have a background page to one of your "services."

What? You Like Me? You Really Like Me?

If somebody sent you e-mail asking for more information about you or your company, what would you send back?

Similar to the above scenario, little is given in the way of specifics on the type or level of information requested. Your response should probably take a form somewhat similar to the cover letter job seekers send with a resume. You want a nice, conversational-style introduction that helps the reader better understand who you are, and what your goals and objectives are. You would then follow this with some low-level facts and figures that provide quantitative supporting information. The facts and figures might be dull and boring, but they should be short and specific.

Again, be sure that your lead-in paragraph convinces customers that it is worth their time to read further. And make sure that you continue to provide rewarding and appropriately entertaining information that makes it as easy as possible for them to continue reading what you have to say.

This section can form the basis for the very important "About Us" page for your site.

The Picture of the Company Cafeteria Probably Doesn't Qualify

What is the information that you would find useful to have on your site?

The most important thing to follow through with on your site is solid, truly useful information. One way to figure out what this might be is to check your notebooks and reference materials for those tables and lists of information that you are always consulting. Make the information on this site useful to -you, and there is a good chance it will be useful to others.

Are there questions people commonly ask you, questions you are always retyping in e-mail? Put this on a "FAQ" (Frequently Asked Questions) page.

Are there Web sites you often go to for research? Create a "Links and Resources" page and list these here (insofar as doing so doesn't give away the secrets of your success).

Free Is Good

We've all walked down grocery aisles and seen the little stations where free samples are being handed out. Some of the people who stop at these kiosks have no intention of buying the product; they are just grazing their lunch. Others, however, may not have considered buying the product, but this free exposure motivates them to take the next step and plunk down some money.

This approach can work on the Web. Is there some aspect of what you provide that might appropriately become a "free" sample? Maybe this is a smaller version of your full product. Maybe it is informational articles based on some of your background. Maybe it is some helpful tools and utilities. The point is that a Web site that just talks about the services you offer might be fine to look at once, but what you really want is to drive repeat visits, as well as get people to pass your URL around to others.

An example of this approach might be an artist who is creating an "online" portfolio. In addition to the normal information about the artist, and some representative samples of his or her artwork (appropriately copyrighted and credited), perhaps the artist has put together pages of "clipart" for free download and use by others. Such clipart would have been drawn specifically for this free collection, and over time, the collection would grow. Perhaps most visitors to the site would simply grab some clipart and leave, but eventually some of these lookie-loos would be convinced to become customers.

But It's So Simple...

Review the above carefully, and you'll notice that there really isn't anything unique to Web pages or site design. These are much the same sort of things you need to think about in working up any sort of market presence or advertising exposure. While the Web provides a lot of unique and special aspects, the first steps to take in exploring this new frontier are fairly straightforward and comfortable. If you take your time, and start with areas that are the most familiar to you, it should be easy to gradually build up to a full-blown Web site.

Robert Hess is an evangelist in Microsoft's Developer Relations Group. Fortunately for all of us, his opinions are his own.