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Back to Basics: How to Write a Great Website

There are simple rules to building an effective website. Let’s up your game.

Otto Pohl

Apr 25, 2023

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I review hundreds of early-stage B2B websites a year. Let me blunt: most of them need help. If you think yours might fit that description, read on: There are some simple rules that will make a dramatic improvement.

Before you think, Take a number! My todo list is already overflowing with other priorities. Here’s why a great website is so important:

  1. A website defines how ‘big’ people will see you. Do you want to look like an early-stage research project, or a company ready to sell product and sign deals with big industry players?

  2. It allows you to test your messaging on your own terms. You get to define and prioritize the benefits of your product, how much detail you want to use to describe it, and the societal significance of what you’re doing. This is your opportunity to paint the picture and pick the frame. Done right, your website can (at least initially) double as a messaging guidelines document.

  3. It forces you to think through your sales plan. To write a great website you need to think through exactly what you are selling to whom, and what steps you expect your sales funnel to contain. That’s a valuable exercise.

  4. It maximizes PR and marketing. A website is a crucial piece of most sales funnels. Bad website=leaky funnel=wasted marketing effort.

Rule 1

Target your website at today’s customers with today’s product.

Steve Jobs didn’t pitch the iPhone 2 when he launched the iPhone 1. Just because he would soon put a million songs in your pocket, he still sold the idea that you could put a thousand songs in your pocket as revolutionary. Your website should do the same.

Rule 2

Retroactive consistency is overrated

This is a corollary to Rule 1. If your job listing site is going to ultimately target all job seekers, isn’t it limiting future success by presenting it today as a service targeted only at Ivy League grads seeking math-based jobs? Here’s the thing: no one cares about retroactive consistency aside from you.

When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon, he made the website all about books. He knew he was going to be selling diapers and deodorant soon enough, but first he needed to succeed as a bookseller. Your website needs you to succeed TODAY. That’s how you get the right to still be around tomorrow. 

Rule 3

Social proof, or, We’re all lemmings

No one wants to be the first fool to fall for empty puffery. Also, no one wants to be the last person to hear about the hot new thing. So add lots of customer quotes, partner logos, and 5-star reviews. It’s like when you walk into a restaurant. You know how suspicious you are if you’re the only customer? And how excited you get if the place is bustling but there’s that one great table near the window still available? Social proof makes your website bustle.

Rule 4

Think about the taxonomy of your audience

This is an exercise that can take 3 minutes or 3 months: do you need to subdivide your audience so you can make separate pitches? If your product or service is relevant to both the defense industry and the medical industry, that likely calls for two separate interior pages outlining the benefits to each. Same if you’re building a multi-sided marketplace—each audience gets a page. But if you find yourself coming up with a half dozen or more audiences, chances are you’re getting too narrow.

Rule 5

Websites are an action verb: they exist to get visitors to DO something.

Your website is a tool, and its purpose is to move visitors down the conversion funnel. Somehow these people found out about you, and they’ve come to learn more. Before they leave, do you want them to book a meeting? Download a white paper? Whether it’s to close the sale or just get them to sign up for news of your launch, don’t let them leave without selling the next level of engagement. Sign Up. Learn More. Book a Call.

Rule 6

The store is for customers, and investors want to see it

Imagine you are considering investing in Home Depot. Sure, you want to look at the financials, but you’re also going to walk into the store and decide whether you could imagine shopping there. You might also want to watch other customers and see how excited they seem to be. The website is your store. So by really nailing your value proposition on the website, together with ample social proof as a stand-in for customers you’d watch at a physical store, you’re telling an important part of the story an investor (and potential employee) needs to believe: yup, I can totally see why this target audience would love this product. You’ll have other opportunities to tell other elements an investor needs to believe (the opportunity is huge, progress is substantial, the team is amazing), but minimize that on the website. After all, you never walk into Home Depot and see a banner that says “Corporate profits were up 12% last quarter!” (Only exception to this rule is if you’re a long-scale research project, and for the first few years your investors effectively ARE your customer.) If you feel the need to address investors or employees, do that in the About Us or Careers section. Be brief, and invite them to reach out to you directly with more questions.

Conclusion

Here’s my mantra: Communications is strategy. If you’ve carefully thought through who you’re trying to influence, and why they should love you, and what you want them to do, you’re well on your way to defining success.

And don’t forget: Websites are easy to change, and they don’t need to cost much, or almost anything, at first. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a one-page site built in Squarespace. Just give the process an amount of time & resources appropriate to your stage, and iterate regularly.

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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