How to Write a Business Website Brief

Some clients in the past have turned up at our offices with a few hastily scribbled notes on a scrap of paper. A few of these think that this will easily turn into an exhaustive document, explaining everything a prospective web development team will need in order to build them the site of their dreams.

Clearly, this is rarely the case in all but the smallest of websites. So, here’s a few pointers for those wondering how to approach a developer with all the required information, in the form of a website brief.

Determine your Strategy

The first thing to put in the brief is a list of goals that the business needs to achieve. There’s a nice article about website strategies here at A List Apart. This list will help to guide the rest of the brief towards common goals for the new site.

Write your Company Profile

It is helpful to include background information in a website brief, such as a small amount about the products and/or services you provide, a mission statement if you have one, etc. Explain your company’s position in the market. Highlight your competitors, and why you’ve been successful to date, or point out areas where you might need extra help, if relevant.

Create a list of your objectives

Websites are capable of aiding your business with many of its aims in the new age of the dynamic web. What do you want your site to achieve? Consider the following starting points:

  • Generation of sales leads
  • Brand and Public awareness
  • Generation of market research and demographics information
  • Customer support (Technical information, feedback, etc)
  • Online Sales (eCommerce)
  • Distribution of information (support documents, for example)

Determine your Site Content

In terms of what’s actually going to be on the site, it may be that a company has several clearly defined categories of information that they wish to supply to customers and consumers.

A description of this information should be outlined as clearly and accurately as possible in the brief; a website development team doesn’t and couldn’t know your business from the inside out. They certainly won’t know it as well as the staff and management do (assuming they’re not an in-house team, of course). Therefore, although any development team will certainly still have questions, it can save a lot of time and potential pitfalls if the brief writer has a clear plan of what the website needs to achieve and what it will offer to the end user. Bring as much information to the meeting table as you possibly can.

Determine your Site Audience

Are you targeting other businesses or consumers? Maybe you need to hit both of those markets? If the latter is true, you may be working as part of a larger organisation and might wish to consider sub-dividing your website accordingly – consumers of manufactured goods, for example, will certainly not be looking on a website for the same information as business customers (e.g. stock buyers) or shareholders, for example.

Make sure your website is going to be delivering the right kind of message and information or services to those people who are key to the financial success of your business – the customers. Ensure your web development team has the right information here, otherwise you may end up with something that doesn’t do the job – remember, you’re running your business – you are the one who knows who the site needs to target.

Determine your Site’s Reach

The internet is, of course, a global phenomenon. As such, businesses have the ability to sell over a potentially limitless area, depending on who wants to be from them. So importantly, you need to put a geographical scope on who you’re selling to. If you’re selling pizzas, that’s a local-only market. If you’re selling hardware goods, that’s potentially a regional or national market. Intangible or specialist goods, for example MP3s or antiques, are worth selling at an international level.

So when you’re decided on who you’re going to be selling to, you must also examine other factors. If you’re selling abroad, do you need to provide support for multiple languages? If you’re selling physical goods, can your delivery network handle all your needs? Chances are, the shipping company you use nationally might not be sufficient to handle international orders. Likewise, if you deliver items yourself, how far can you realistically travel without employing third party services to help you out?

Furthermore, if you are handling international orders, you will need to be equipped with a solid e-commerce system. It will need to handle all your potential shipping and payment mechanisms, accurately and securely. Remember that if you sell internationally, you’ll likely need to accommodate multiple currencies and payment mechanisms, such as PayPal, credit cards, cheques, etc.

Site User Roles

Once you’ve determined what you want your site to do for you, you’ll need to work out who is going to be doing what on it. This means assigning user roles – responsibilities for different tasks on the site. For example, a typical medium-sized site will generally have an overall site administrator overseeing the whole site, and several content editors writing copy, creating images, etc. A smaller site such as this one will likely be controlled by one or two persons with general control over everything.

Of course, there are roles outside of your organisation as well. You have to consider your users’ roles also. If you have users that you want to sign up (“authenticated” users – for site memberships, email newsletters), these have to be considered differently than passing users (“anonymous” users). This can get more complicated than you might expect for larger sites, so be sure to plan this carefully – map out all your options to help you with this stage.

Other Considerations

Some further questions that are worth looking into. Include in your brief whatever relevant information comes up from looking at these.

Are we meeting our business objectives with our current website?

If applicable, it is certainly worth taking a good look at any existing websites you may own or run, in order to determine where not to spend future development money, in some instances. If you have a website that has failed to achieve certain business objectives, make notes on the areas that have done so, and why you believe or know this to be the case. Likewise, if certain parts of existing sites have been successful, make this known too.

What information do we already have?

If you’ve already got a website, chances are good (hopefully!) that you have been monitoring your site’s progress in some fashion. You might have been using a site statistics package that resides on your web host (e.g. Urchin, AWStats). Alternatively, you could have been using an off-site monitoring package (e.g. Google Analytics, which uses browser scripting to register a visit). It is also possible that you have neglected both of these paths and are content to monitor the progress of your site merely by observing your current position in the SERPs (search engine results pages) of the major players in the search market (i.e., Google, MSN, Ask, Yahoo!, etc).

The information that can be gleaned from site statistics can be very useful if interpreted correctly. It can help you identify who is using your website, and in what way, by analysing paths visitors take through the site once they have ‘landed’ there, and also where they have arrived from. This information can be useful to future development, so inform the readers of your brief that it is available, if so.

What information do we want to collect?

Given the above note, you’ll now be aware that it can be important to monitor your site’s progress, if you’re not already. If there is certain information that you need to monitor to achieve business objectives with your new site, make this information known, or at least enquire about it. For example, in Governmental projects, there may be a requirement to achieve a certain number of visits in a certain period, in order to qualify for further development money.

Websites can be configured to collect a wide array of information. Decide if there are other information collection mechanisms that are appropriate to your company. Such mechanisms might include:

Feedback forms – a web form could be inserted in certain pages of the site. Commonly this would be used to collect comments on written articles, or fault reports on products through a support area of the website.

Contact forms – a very common mechanism is the contact form, these days on nearly every website. A simple form to collect data on a customer’s behalf to contact a relevant party in your organisation.

Polls are now fairly commonplace on a lot of database-driven websites, and can be very useful as a data collection tool. These have the added benefit of consuming very little of your users’ time; usually these simple web forms can be completed with little more than a click or two.

Registration mechanisms (site membership) – you might want clients or customers to be able to log into your website to gain access to protected sites/default/files or information. For example, an engineering company may want its field workers to be able to access certain technical sites/default/files remotely, but not allow casual visitors to the site to access this information.

How can we add value to our site?

If you have other information that could be dispersed via the website, such as press releases or news items, making these available to your site’s visitors can greatly increase the value of your site. Your web development team will likely be able to make some suggestions, for example, they might be able to offer a tool to deploy marketing emails. If you have such information at your disposal, make a note of this in your brief.

If anyone wants to leave comments or questions (or maybe additions!) please feel free.

Updated Jul 10th 2008

Blog Tags: Business