All About Web Sites: Day 1 of 6

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this week and next week, I’ll be running a six-part series on web sites–what to know, how to make your web presence successful, and other points to consider. In case you didn’t already know, I’ve been professionally designing and developing web sites for about ten years, and I’ve been programming computers since the mid-eighties when they didn’t even come with hard drives. (Ah, my Commodore 64 days… *g)

Today, I posted a massive essay on web sites over on the Manuscript Mavens blog, detailing:
* How to determine whether you even need a web site
* Determining the purpose of your web site
* Who should create your web site, and how
* What your web site should do and how your visitors should act

Here, I’d like to go into greater detail on these points, and will be discussing for the first time ever, my real-life Creative Brief I send to all potential clients. (This is proprietary information, so please don’t copy anything I say without providing credit. K?)

A Creative Brief is a document consisting of a series of questions that help the client–and, subsequently, me–figure out the precise goals of the web site and how best to achieve them. The six main sections are:

1) Message and Image
2) Marketing and Promotion
3) User Interaction and Content
4) Aesthetics and Competition
5) Technology and Hosting
6) Content Administration

* All About Web Sites (MM blog)
* Website Series, Day 1: Message & Image
* Website Series, Day 1: Follow-Up Q & A
* Website Series, Day 2: Marketing
* Website Series, Day 3: User Interaction & Content
* Website Series, Day 4: Aesthetics & Usability
* Website Series, Day 5: Hosting & Technology
* Website Series, Day 6: Administration

So, get out your pen and paper, and let’s start with today’s topic:


1. What is the message you wish to convey to your target audience through your web site?

If you were a bar, the message might be: “We are a fun, cowboy-themed club where y’all can come get your line-dancing on.” If you were a hospital, the message might be: “We are a safe, respected environment filled with caring professionals ready and able to help your child fight leukemia.”

But you’re not–you’re a writer. Doesn’t matter. You still need to know what message you want your web visitors to take away when they visit your web site. (If you don’t know, chances are good their overall/first impression will be something entirely different!)

2. Define the overall goals/purpose of your web site.

To provide information? To collect contact emails? To promote your upcoming book signing? To sell your new release?

Know all your goals. Put them in a list. Arrange them in order of importance.

3. Is there an active positioning statement for the product/brand? If so, what?

The product is not your book. The product is you. And the brand is what describes you.

A “positioning statement” is a marketing term for a single sentence describing what you do, for whom, and why (what need you address/solve.)

Ex: I write wacky paranormal romances for commercial fiction readers in order to entertain, cheer, and amuse them.

What do you write? Who for? Why? (Why from the reader’s perspective, not yours.)

Now, you need one for your web site. (The above was a Career Plan bonus. *g)

Ex: provides authors with contact information, story excerpts, and writing tips.

Remember, this step is for YOU, and will not be printed on your web site.

4. What is the core benefit of your company/product to the consumer?

In the writing world, why should the reader plunk down $8 for your book? Or check it out from the library? Or even bother flipping through if a friend foists it upon them?

Is it scary? Hilarious? Riveting? Literary? Entertaining? Educational? Thought-provoking?

What does the reader get out of your stories?

And now ask yourself: what does your web visitor get out of your web site? Is it the same thing, or something different? Why or why not?

5. Who is your target audience? What are their online preferences and connection speed? Why do (potential) customers choose your books/blog/website?

Ann B. Ross has a different target audience than Christopher Paolini. The former has adult readers who may prefer larger type and might have slower internet connection speeds. The latter has younger readers who may be using fast school computers and appreciate a more graphic-intensive web site.

Who reads your books? Who comes to your web site? Are they the same people? What are their demographics (age, income, gender, location)? What are their psychographics (values, lifestyles)? What are their web-browsing behaviors (brand loyalty, purchasing patterns, bookmarking and revisiting habits)?

6. What kind of image do you want to portray?

Remember, if you don’t decide this in advance and purposefully execute a plan to achieve it, web visitors will make their own interpretations. Determine your image carefully.

Ex: professional, formal, light-hearted, expert, conservative, imaginative, creative, humorous, caring, fun, silly, hip, girly, manly, childlike, progressive, friendly, casual, serious, trustworthy, knowledgeable, dark, mysterious, inspirational

7. Do you currently have any logos, slogans, or graphic design elements that you wish to incorporate into your web site? Are there any other graphic or photographic considerations you have before creating a web site?

If you decide to create a slogan, list your idea(s).

EX: “Stephen King: The Master of Horror”, “Debbie Macomber: Wherever you are, Debbie takes you home”, “Sherrilyn Kenyon: Mad, Bad, and Immortal”

Remember, you do not need a slogan, but if you choose to have one, please make sure it is both relevant and memorable.

Graphic considerations for my web clients often include custom photography and corporate colors. In your case, you might want hand-drawn elf artwork to complement your fantasy series or soft pastels to better reflect your flowery romance, etc, etc, etc.

Decide, and add it to your list!

Also, don’t forget to visit my detailed web site essay on the Manuscript Mavens blog!

YOUR TURN: Any questions or comments so far? I will check the comments frequently today and respond to anything you ask. Confess: Did you really make a list and work through the questions? If you feel comfortable, please share!


  1. December/Stacia - Reply

    Wow! Since I’m trying to build a Stacia Kane site, this is extremely helpful (I probably can’t afford you, unfortunately.)

    I hadn’t thought of some of these!

    1. Message: These are smart, fun, exciting books, and the readers are important.

    2. Purpose: To promote the series, to provide information, to make the readers feel important, and to give them a chance to learn more about the characters and the world the books are set in.

    3. I write smart, sexy urban fantasy for readers who want the familiarity of the genre with a different twist. enables readers to immerse themselves more fully in the world of the books and provides a focal point for news and information.

    4. A good time, hopefully! An afternoon reading about peple they like, people they would want to know or be like, doing things they wish they could do. Web visitors get to learn more and expand on that reading experience with deleted scenes, free short stories, etc.

    5. Hmm. Ages 20-40, roughly? People who like urban fantasy and romance, people who like horror. Readers are probably well conversant with the internet and have decent web speeds and a few bells and whistles, at least when they surf from work. They choose my books because the story and characters appeal to them and they like the mix of humor, horror, and sex.

    6. Spooky, sexy, but fun.

    7. Yes, I have a logo, from the book cover. I’ve been toying with “Sinfully sexy urban fantasy” as a slogan but I’m not sure it’s right.

    Is there anything you think does or does not work for slogans? Any colors you think are overdone?

  2. Diana Peterfreund - Reply

    I think slogans are pretty overrated. When you’ve been in the business for several decades and you have an established title, like Stephen King’s, then yeah, maybe you can whip it out, but otherwise, to me it just smacks of overpriced consulting committee “mission statements” and posturing.

    When my web designer did my website, he made it to match the then-cover of my book. Well, I’ve had two covers since then, so now my website looks like I got some very fancy original artwork done for it. Lucky me! The other thing we did was incorporate other images from the books — the gates from teh original cover, the doors and stonework from the hardcover, and of course, the Rose & Grave symbol, which is featured on the paperback covers. Everything in the site showcases the ‘world’ of the series.

    I don’t think my product is “me” –it’s most certainly my books. Specifically my series, and that is evident in the entire design, as well as the title.

    When my designer and I were working on the site, we took inspiration from our favorite author sites. Kelley Armstrong’s site is all about her Otherworld series, and Allison Brennan’s site makes it easy for the industry types to find her and figure out who she is. I love that. And I’ve always loved Lauren Weisberger’s site as well. It’s simple, but it showcases her humorous voice (she has a list of bad reviews of her book listed under “people I paid to say nice things who clearly never received the check”). I used elements of all three.

  3. Erica Ridley - Reply

    Hi Stacia! So glad the post was helpful. Great answers so far!

    Is there anything you think does or does not work for slogans?

    The most important thing for slogans is to make them memorable and relevant.

    Memorable means short (ie the Debbie Macomber example is stretching the limits) and relevant meaning that even if the only thing they know about you is your slogan, they know about your books.

    Yours would definitely work!

    Any colors you think are overdone?

    I would worry less about so-called overdone colors and more about finding that happy medium between legibility and complementary branding.

    If you’re going for a dark tone, make sure it’s not so dark that visitors can’t easily read your content or figure out what’s going on. Easy is the name of the game.

    If you’re avoiding, say, “black”, simply because you’re afraid too many other urban fantasy writers are using black, then that’s not a good enough reason. First and foremost, you have to do what’s right for your brand. And secondly, you have to keep reader expectation in mind.

    EX: As much as I internally snark some of the more ridiculous shirtless-Fabio and barefoot-heroine Regency covers, I know it’s a historical the second I see it. I like historicals, so the book goes directly into my cart.

    Likewise, when a reader comes to your site, you want them to think, “Ah, this author writes dark, sexy books” right off the bat. Be creative, but choose your aesthetics based on that goal.

  4. Erica Ridley - Reply

    Diana: I agree that slogans are not necessary. I do not have one myself. However, I do feel that if an author chooses to have one, it’s important for it to be as relevant and catchy as possible.

    Matching the web site to the books is an excellent branding idea, as is comparing to competitors. That’s actually the topic of one of the upcoming posts!

  5. December/Stacia - Reply

    Thanks, Erica!

    And thanks for the thoughts, Diana (although I know they weren’t directed specifically at me.) We’re using the logo in some way on all of the books in the series, so I’m going to design the site around it at least as far as images go.

  6. Ann Aguirre - Reply

    Erica, you are the most detail oriented person I know. You have all these graphs and flowcharts and lists…

    I have NO idea how you do what you do. It seems like voodoo.

    I saw your whatchacallit… storyboard? On another post, and I was like DANG. Who knew there was so much to all this? Seriously.

  7. Erica Ridley - Reply

    LOL, Ann. Thanks. I think. It might be a sickness. It’s definitely voodoo. =)


  8. Vicki - Reply

    I’m so glad you’re doing this post. I did both my website and blog using templates and while I like them I would much rather the two went together.

    This is going to be great and helpful info. 🙂

    Off to the Mavens now.

  9. Bill Clark - Reply

    Yay! Erica seems to have made it home safely!

    *Bill has been holding up airplanes all weekend – he exhales loudly*

    I know I shouldn’t be asking the obvious question (Stacia tiptoed around it, but I’m the proverbial china shop terror), so you probably know I will anyway.

    Cost. Tell us about cost. There are a lot of less than optimal people in your business, I suspect, but they probably charge the same as or more than you do (whatever that may be). How is a person to avoid getting took?

    Do reputable designers charge by the project or by the hour? What is a fair hourly wage for a guru such as yourself (OK, OK, we all know you are boyond price, above rubies, and all that, so let’s talk about gurus in general, not you in particular)?

    Also timeframe: should a good guru get you up and running in a week? A month? The twelfth of never? (Assuming you’ve done your part by filling out the survey questions.)

    Tweaking – that fuchsia that looked so good in theory looks like hell onscreen…how much time/money should one allot for necessary improvements?

    Ongoing review: should a good guru be in touch with you every so often to meet your changing/expanded/newfound needs? How often? Is this type of service a la carte or part of an ongoing arrangement?

    Self-service: since most of us pump our own gas, can we also fiddle with our own websites? Or is this just a sure-fire way to throw more business to the guru when the whole thing crashes and burns?

  10. Bill Clark - Reply

    Oh, and ray for the gurumeter! One-third of the way there! You are smoking!! (No, no, that’s *not* what I meant, and you know it!)

  11. Erica Ridley - Reply

    Vicki: Hi!! And thanks! =)

    Bill: Nope, I don’t get home until Thursday night. But where there’s Internet, there’s blog… (or something. *g)

    Cost. Okay. This is a tricky subject. It’s like saying, how much does laser eye surgery cost? Well, there’s some licensed doctors who do it for $400 per eye. And there’s others who do it for $4,000 per eye. And of course, there’s all the space in between.

    The best way not to get taken is to make sure of two things:

    1) That you get multiple proposals from multiple sources, for comparative purposes.

    2) That the proposals detail exactly what you’re going to get for your money; what you have to provide, and what you’ll own when the contract is over.

    EX: If the proposal says, “Website: $3000”, I have no idea if this is a gyp or a steal. If it’s for a basic no-frills design and half a dozen HTML pages, you’re getting taken. If it’s for an interactive, database-driven web site with user login features, dynamic feature-filled content and web-enabled content administration, buy buy buy! =)

    So it’s hard to say. The best example I can give is if you go to a builder and say, “Hey, I’ve got this empty lot. How much will you charge to build me a house?”

    The first thing the builder will (probably) say is, “Depends on what you want!”

    Web sites are like that, too. You could probably find a college kid to whip up something basic for $500, or you could go to an ad agency and get one with all the bells and whistles for over $50k.

    A small business or an ex-corporate freelancer would be in the middle. More experience than the college kid, and lower prices because of no physical overhead.

    Not sure that helped, but I did try to answer. =)

  12. Erica Ridley - Reply

    Charging by the project or by the hour depends on multiple variables, but no matter which way your contract is written, you should have a darn good idea of both before the first check exchanges hands. So, if Designer X charges $100/hr and says your web site will take 10 hours (obviously these numbers are for ease of math *g) then your estimated total is $1000.

    If the contract is a flat $1000 and something goes wrong that’s not the designer’s fault, they better have those circumstances written into the contract or they’re taking all the risk. Conversely, if it’s an hourly project and the designer doesn’t stipulate which elements are their responsibility (not charged) and which are yours (charged), you might end up paying a lot more.

    For example, in all my contracts, it says I will never charge for extra work necessary due to bugs/typos/etc on the part of myself or my employees. However, if rework is necessary due to the actions of the client or the client’s emissaries (web host, etc) then I would have to charge for that.

    Guru hourly wages can range from $50/hr to $150/hr, with some being above or below that, depending on many variables, not the least of which is what you’re contracting them for.

    Timeframe totally depends, much like the “building a house” metaphor. How big is the house? Is there a basement? Will you request blueprint changes after construction has started or design changes after the wallpaper is up? Etc.

    Tweaking and maintenance should also be dealt with in advance, in the contract. Same with self-service. The programmer needs to know ahead of time if you plan to futz with the HTML (they can design accordingly) or if you need them to build a content editing wizard, or if you plan to just email them when you need updates.

    Much of these questions are dealt with in later sections of the Creative Brief (we’re just on Image, today, Bill, jeez! *g) but there’s some answers. =)

  13. Bill Clark - Reply

    Thanks, Erica! Your answers are excellent, and obviously deserving of a post of their own (hope I didn’t jump the gun too much here, though I probably did). I like the empty lot/what kind of house do you want? analogy.

    Having done a fair bit of consulting myself (not in this area, but in not-for-profit fund raising), I am well aware of how widely cost and quality can differ from one person/company to the next. My general MO was to charge a daily rate, plus expenses, for a pre-agreed number of days a month for the duration of the project. Successful completion was always a guaranteed given; the actual results of any particular day or week or month were not.

    Other people in the field would take a percentage of monies raised (unethical in my view), or employ banks of telephone solicitors (extremely cost-ineffective, IMO), or create large cadres of paid or volunteer staff (mistaking motion for action, it seemed to me). It always annoyed me to see potential clients opt for a glitzier, more expensive, and less effective approach – particularly when, as often happened, they would call me back a year or so later to ask if I would be willing to step in and pick up the pieces.

    I guess what I’m saying is that there’s no substitute for expertise and experience. Word of mouth, track record, personality fit – these, I would posit, are what one should look for in *any* type of consulting experience.

    That said (*g), I know who *I’d* opt for if I ever needed professional help – er, in web sites, that is! 😉

    P.S. I assume distance makes little or no difference, right? I mean, even though you’re in FL and I’m in CT, you can still be my guru?

  14. Erica Ridley - Reply

    LOL, yes, the logistics don’t matter. A good portion of my business comes from out-of-state. =)

  15. A Paperback Writer - Reply

    Very informative. I’m glad I’m not doing a website until I get a book to the accepted-by-publisher state.
    Two things I’m glad of:
    1) that I have good friends who can design websites “for fun.”
    2) that the image thing isn’t much different from my whole childhood background in commercial art and silk screen printing. Apparently, designing a website’s look isn’t all that much different from figuring out what you want on a tee shirt.

  16. Isabel - Reply

    You are amazing, Erica!

    Any books you recommend for someone who wants to familiarize herself with basic HTLM coding and website building?

    HTML For Dummies, maybe?

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Erica Ridley