Why You Shouldn't Replace Your Old Website
It’s mid-morning and my cell phone rings. I’m between tasks and haven’t talked to a soul all morning. I need to hear a voice, even if I don’t recognize the caller’s number. Surprisingly it’s not spam, and the lady on the other end, the owner of an MSP in Dallas, explains that she needs a new website. I try to get her to describe the problem.
“What’s wrong with the website now?”
“It’s not working for us”, she says.
So I ask, “Would you mind if I ask what specifically isn’t working?”
She replies, “I’m not getting any sales leads through the site.”
“Any idea why?”
“No”, she answers, “and I’m counting on a new website to fix this issue.”
We are trained to buy new.
Does this story strike you as a little ridiculous? It does me, but at the same time I get it. Most of us are busier than hell, so busy that sometimes buying new is easier than trying to fix what’s broken. We also live in a culture of disposables—electronics, home appliances—where repair ends up being more expensive than purchasing a new replacement. We have been trained to “buy new”.
If that’s not enough, others may try to convince us that new is better. As a marketing agency owner, I used to think convincing a client to replace a legacy website was, by default, in their best interest, knowing that what my team would build would be superior to what it was replacing. Some agencies will not consider taking on a new client if forced to work with the legacy website. It’s new or nothing. My agency now takes a contrarian view.
I’ve also seen stakeholders within a firm, if unhappy with their firm’s website for any reason, lobby for a new one. They don’t necessarily have to contribute, financially or otherwise, to the process of building it, so what do they have to lose in asking for it?
What’s so bad about a new website?
There are lots of reasons why you should not build a new website to replace a legacy site. For one, a website is not a dishwasher, and you can’t just pick out a new one on Amazon. Even the simplest websites generally combine some form of unique expression and tailored design with the complexity of an underlying content management system and hosting environment. As soon as you make a choice to rebuild your website you are likely committing yourself to double, triple, or quadruple your normal workload over the subsequent weeks and months to have any hope of a favorable outcome. You can’t effectively outsource or delegate the important decisions about your firm’s marketing, and the decisions are numerous. I’m not arguing that the effort is reason in and of itself to avoid building a new website, but I do want to make the point that buying new is anything but the easier option.
It’s not about what you’re gaining, but what you’re losing.
The reason you should think long and hard about replacing your website has more to do with what you’re giving up when you make the leap from the old website to the new one. The typical new website is birthed from hundreds, if not thousands, of assumptions based on opinion, intuition, and quite likely one or more persuasive personalities. Perhaps some new design trends are incorporated, and some new photography and video thrown in. Maybe the navigational structure is re-organized. And maybe, just maybe, the result of all these guesses is better than the existing website.
But you know what’s usually missing from that onerous process? What’s missing is evidence that any of these changes will make a difference to your audience. What’s missing is the influence of convincing data that supports each of our decisions. Red buttons instead of blue. Roboto font instead of Montserrat. Putting our philosophy on the About page. Adding all the employees to the Team page rather than just showing C-level leadership. Are you making all those changes because you have evidence they will move you toward your business goal?
Look, I have no doubt that a talented agency can create a “better” website than the one that your company published five or seven years ago. But unless you have rigorously been running marketing experiments on the site (I bet you haven’t) and unless the intelligence garnered is leveraged in the design of your new website (an awkward idea, given the way iterative experimentation works), then a wholesale replacement of your website is probably not a great idea.
Changes to your website should be made incrementally, based on the results of experiments that provide evidence that such change has a positive impact. What I have typically witnessed instead is a monumental (substitute “expensive”) effort resulting in the implementation a brand new design, a site’s underlying technical architecture, and typically some smaller portion of a website’s content. A brand new site that may, or may not, bring better results than the last one. Out with the old site, and along with it a ton of data that would have proved quite useful as a benchmark for experimentation.
To add insult to injury, these gargantuan efforts take so much in the way of time and money that many times there’s no appetite left for actually leveraging the asset in a meaningful way. “Set it and forget it” seems to be the prevailing philosophy. I’m reminded of the tortoise and the hare. The rabbit burns out, and I don’t blame him for sitting on the bench to catch his breath while the methodical tortoise inches forward, each confident step adding a new insight and creating value.
How to have the best website among your competitors without ever building a new one
The most successful marketers take a different approach. Instead of operating out of the perceived need to impress the CEO with a flashy new website or to make a big splash with a redesign, they seek to understand the connection between what happens on the website today and the buying decisions made by customers and prospects. They observe website behavior and develop goals related to how to deliver more value as measured by improved engagement, an increase in micro-conversion rates, higher page rank, or some other meaningful metric. They hypothesize and design experiments to measure the impact of small changes on those metrics. They seek to create one simple success after another, implementing change only when evidence suggests that such a change will bring about a positive result.
Continuous experimentation is not easy. But in contrast to the complexity of a major website overhaul it is infinitely more manageable. And if you want to maximize the positive impact of a website budget, you’ll most often do far better—that is, you’ll make a much greater impact toward meeting business goals—spending it incrementally through experimentation and incremental changes than you will on the typical website replacement route.
Challenges of evidence-based change
I have no expectation of seeing an end to this website replacement bias anytime soon. Even when marketers embrace the idea of pursuing data-driven, incremental change, they may face pressures that prevent its practice.
Another obstacle is the clunky and cumbersome nature of the traditional content management system (CMS) that powers most websites. Tools like Wordpress and Drupal solve a lot of problems, to be clear, but their complex intertwinement of interdependent database and file system content storage, navigation logic, visual “theme” layer, and content administration interface holds marketers hostage, and sometimes seem to force wholesale website replacement. Fortunately there are new technologies and trends emerging (e.g., the headless CMS, JAMstack) that are empowering a growing cadre of agile marketers. And again, we’re not necessarily talking about wholesale replacement of a CMS. Even the aging monolith CMS systems can be leveraged for incremental change, sometimes continuing to provide value well down the road, ceding some roles to more agile-friendly technologies.
Where we are headed
New technologies and tools, along with a growing general awareness of the weakness of traditional approaches to digital marketing as a whole, are behind a trend toward evidence-based website management. I hope to play a role in expediting the adoption, because I don’t like to see waste.
Do you have a website replacement project on your marketing roadmap? Consider, at least, an alternative, incremental approach. Ask yourself if your time, energy and budget might be better allocated toward gathering useful evidence and implementing incremental change rather than on rebuilding your site in its entirety. If you’re honest with yourself, you may conclude that the time has come to adjust your approach.
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