Great Web Projects Start With the Right Goals

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One of the marks of good web professionals is that they’re partners in strategy.

I recently spoke with Matt from 3thought, a graphic design team we love, about working with them on a redesign project. In the course of the conversation, Matt asked a question that made me think: “What would count as a win for you on this project?”

Getting asked this sort of question is one reason why you should work with the best agencies you can, as opposed to looking to hire out work on the cheap. As we’ve argued before, one of the marks of good web professionals is that they’re partners in strategy.

In other words, good web professionals don’t just build what you ask for and then invoice you; they want to understand your goals, and then use their expertise to help you meet them. How they help you meet your goals might take a form significantly different than you’d first envisioned—which is great! That’s part of the value a professional can offer.

Implicit in Matt’s question, in my description of good web professionals—and in a lot we’ve written in the past—is something I’d like to spell out explicitly: to execute a successful web project, you have to know what your goals are. Not only that, but they have to be the right goals. Let’s have a look at what that means.

The Right Goals

Good goals for a web project satisfy all of the following conditions:

  1. If achieved, your goals must be worth the resources you spend in pursuing them.
  2. You must have a clear and reasonable hypothesis for why you (or your organization) can achieve your goals.
  3. You must have a clear and reasonable hypothesis for why spending resources on a web project will help you achieve your goals.

As simple as it is, this list is a pretty good litmus test of whether a web project has the potential to be a good one.

What’s the Desired Action?

Almost every web-based goal involves a desired action that you would like a specific market to take.

I’m going to add in a second list as well. This list relates to the very basics of marketing, without which it’s just about impossible to have a goal that makes any sense.

If your project is on the web, your goal almost certainly involves a desired action that you would like some specific set of people (your market) to take.

To demonstrate, let’s take three examples of things you might want to do on the web: raising bike helmet awareness, self-publishing your sci-fi novel, and selling flatscreen TVs.

All three projects initially sound like something you, the site owner, “do.” But let’s look at the actual goals driving these projects. They look something like: “English-speaking bicycle riders consume and are persuaded by educational materials on the importance of bike helmets,” “English-speaking sci-fi readers learn about my novel and download it in an available format,” and “prospective flatscreen TV buyers in the continental US find out about our store and purchase a TV through it.”

If you look at any project’s goal, it breaks down into a market and a desired action.

It’s not just these examples. To succeed, virtually every online project requires one or more people to take a specific hoped-for action.

How Desired Actions Get Carried Out

Whatever your desired action is, you’ll need the members of your market—the people whom you hope will take the desired action—to move through the following flow:

  1. Become aware of the possibility of performing the desired action.
  2. Based on perceived benefits and tradeoffs, decide to perform the desired action.
  3. Successfully navigate the steps required to perform the desired action.

This whole flow could happen very quickly. For bike safety, it could be “1. notice bike helmet pamphlet, 2. based on cover and text introducing pamphlet, decide to peruse pamphlet, 3. click to open pamphlet and read pamphlet in browser” or even “1. notice eye-catching statistic, 2. allocate attention to fully engaging with statistic, 3. contemplate and remember statistic.”

Or it could be more drawn-out, which is where sales pipelines and a lot of related concepts come in. To buy a flatscreen TV from you, for example, a potential customer will have to 1. learn that your store exists, 2. do a fair amount of price shopping, internal budgeting, and comparing products, and then 3. complete the purchase and delivery process needed to close the sale.

What Does a Web Project with Incomplete Goals Look Like?

These principles are all simple, but each one has a lot of conceptual bite that can help save you from ill-conceived web projects. Let’s look at an example of a project with incompletely thought-through goals, drawn loosely from a real-life project.


You run a nonprofit that provides after-school activities for kids. You’re looking to invest in a premium software package, training, and technical support in order to publish a multimedia presentation narrating the life of the nonprofit’s founder. As your website is out-of-date and rarely used, you’re not sure how the software package and website would interact; you’d like technical help with that as well.

Goal: That people become aware of and are inspired by the example of the founder’s life.

Desired action: “View and appreciate the multimedia presentation and become educated on the life of the founder.”

Market: Not clear! Who specifically should be educated, and who is likely to find the presentation? You get very little web traffic since your site just sits there; most of the actual value you provide is in in-person interactions with kids.

Concerns about project: This project draws red (or at least yellow) flags on all three items in list #1 above, and, especially, item #1 in list #2. Let’s take a look:


Goal worth achieving? Learning the inspiring examples of past people is worthwhile in general; but does acting as a repository for information on the life of the founder fit into the core mission of your nonprofit? If the main value you provide is in-person to schoolchildren, working to become a multimedia content provider may be outside of your mission—unless you have reason to think that the presentation will help you in your core mission.

Clear hypothesis for organization being able to achieve goal? No, because of the absence of a marketing plan. Let’s look at list #2, item #1. Your site gets almost no traffic; how will people be made aware of the presentation? Are you committed to putting out press releases, social media blitzes, etc., to drive a lot of traffic to the presentation? If you’re successful in driving appreciable traffic to the presentation, how do you expect that your core mission of helping children through after-school programming will benefit? Does this mean that the goal, given the resources you’d have to spend on it, may not be worth achieving (list #1 item #1)?

Simply publishing something online does not mean people will see it.

Clear hypothesis for how web project will help achieve goal? Partially: web technologies would solve the problem of publishing the multimedia elements you have on hand. However, publishing online doesn’t necessarily help the marketing aspect of the goal in any way. Simply publishing something online does not automatically mean it is seen by appreciable numbers of people. Believing otherwise is an extremely common mistake and the source of many ill-considered web projects. Many websites get essentially zero traffic, and an unmaintained and outdated nonprofit site disconnected from the organization’s core mission is likely to be one of them.

What Would Help This Project:

1. A clearer value proposition. If it were possible to send a lot of people to the presentation, it would help to know why that furthers the nonprofit’s mission. Beyond a certain amount of basic information (on the “About” page, for example), curating information on the inspiring life of a past person could clearly fit the mission of a library, archive, or museum; but why does it fit the mission of a children-focused nonprofit? The best answer I can think of would be “It will attract more donors and/or make existing donors give more”; that hypothesis would have to be evaluated separately, and that process could start to lead toward a more realistic plan of action (or abandoning the current plan—and perhaps finding an interested library or museum to remit the materials to).

2. A basic marketing plan. Again, it’s very easy to think that because something is on the internet, people will see it. This is often not the case without a lot of very focused and sustained effort. Understanding how the nonprofit will commit the marketing resources to support the presentation would help—and would lead to a clearer accounting of the costs of the project relative to its presumed benefits.

What Did We Learn?

How will you reach people and convince them to take your desired action? “Put a site on the internet” is not a satisfactory answer!

The point here is not to pick on our semi-actual nonprofit, but to look at the decisions and tradeoffs that need to go into any web project. The general concerns this case study exposes are extremely common; ask any web developer who speaks regularly to potential clients!

I hope this case study shows the value of thinking carefully through your goals, and how you reasonably expect to achieve them, using, for example, the two short lists we provided above. This will help you expose potential fundamental flaws in your planning that you may never have considered—flaws which, in my estimation, hamper half or more of all web projects.

I also hope you take away, in particular, the need for a marketing plan: How will you reach people and convince them to take your desired action? “Put a site on the internet” is not a satisfactory answer!

In Conclusion…

As you’re planning any web project, please ask yourself: “What good will this do?” Don’t stop there: How do you know you can be the person or organization to bring that good into the world? What market, specifically, are you trying to reach, and what do you want them to do? Why do you believe you can not only reach those people but also convince them to take your desired action? How do you know that web technologies are the right set of tools to make all this happen?

These may sound like a lot of very simple questions, but if you think through them carefully, your reward will be a grateful web developer, freedom from a lot of potentially failed web projects—and, hopefully, the pleasure of a successful one.

Thanks! Would love to hear any questions or thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credits: PV KS

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