You can find countless online tools out there that will help you build a website. From WordPress page builders to a standalone CMS (content management system) like Squarespace, there’s no shortage of help for non-designers or developers to create a site for themselves. And within those tools, there’s a heavy emphasis on design. Colors, themes, photography, typography are all front and center. And those details are, of course, important. But when it comes to your website, design will only take you so far.

If your website is all style and no substance, it won’t work like you want it to work for you. Beyond acting as your online home and a necessary extension of your brand, your website is a tool to connect with customers. Visitors should have easy access to learning who you are, what you do, and how to work with you when they reach your site.

As a result, content should always drive design—not the other way around.

So before you even think about choosing a CMS or creating page layouts, you absolutely must focus on content.

Successful communication from your website demands a dedicated process of thinking, planning and writing. It’s not the most glamorous part of the site-building process, but I’d argue it’s the most important. If your content doesn’t communicate, your site won’t do what you need it to do.

Below I’ve outlined a 5 step process to help you ready your content for your website’s design and build stages. If you’re in process of building your site or getting ready to start, this process will make your work much more manageable. And even further, it will facilitate an end result that puts your customers and their experience with your brand front and center, which is exactly what you need to do to build trust, loyalty and lasting relationships.

1. Solidify Your Messaging

Before you sit down to create any website content, you should have a clear vision of your message to the audience. Who are you talking to, and what exactly are you trying to say?

Your first goal is to clearly define your brand’s overall message. Once you do, you’ll have a standard to guide all of the content you create. You’ll have something to measure against and help keep you on track throughout the process.

To get to the heart of your message, think through these questions:

  • What message do you want to convey to visitors with your site?
  • What emotion or impression do you want them to draw from their experience? To stay with them after they leave?
  • How should you craft your language in order to convey your message and emotions? Any specific words or phrases that support this?

2. Outline Your Functional Requirements

Another thing you should have a good handle on before you even attempt to build your site is the functionality that it would require. Knowing exactly what your site needs to do will help inform your content decisions, as well as design decisions coming down the road. Your CMS, theme and plugins, for example, will all need to be chosen with these functional requirements in mind.

In order to determine what function your site requires, think about what you want your audience to do when they get there. Do you want them to read your blog? Sign up for an email list? Purchase products? Take time to think through the actions you want people to take, and from there you can figure out the functionality required to make them happen. For example, if you want your audience to be able to schedule appointments, you need to include some sort of scheduling functionality.

Knowing your functional needs will not only inform things like plugins you need to install, but also content that’s required with this functionality. Maybe your scheduling requirement warrants a dedicated scheduling page, for example. No matter the specifics, a grasp on your site’s function is essential at this stage.

To determine your site’s functional requirements, consider these things:

  • What is the purpose of your website?
  • Once you get visitors, what do you want them to be able to do?
  • What kind of functionality is required to make that possible?

3. Plan Your Content

At this point, you know the overall message you want to send and the function your site requires. So your next step is to get more granular and plan your content in more detail.

At this stage, your goal should be to create an outline ofall the content your site requires. This way, when you get to the point that you’re ready to write, there’s a clear plan laid out for you. This should take more time and effort than steps 1 and 2, but the time you spend here will make the writing process smoother and less daunting when you get there—especially if this is a new experience for you.

To get a content plan in place, consider the following questions:

  • What content is best to support my overall brand message? For example, marketing content? Blog posts? Employee bios?
  • What does your audience need to know about you and your offerings to go from potential customer to actual customer? For example, service descriptions? Personal background information?
  • What logistical information does your site require? For example, phone number? Address? Terms & Conditions?

Once you’ve brainstormed all the content you need for your site, it’ll be helpful to translate it all into a checklist to follow when you start the writing process. Taking that step will go a long way toward saving time and energy when you get there.

Quick Tip: I’ve put together a workbook that will help you with this entire process. You can find that at the bottom of this post.

4. Map out Your Page Structure

In the last step, you planned out all the content you’ll soon be writing. You should now have a clear picture of what your content will look like on your site once it’s published. So your next big task is to organize all of that content into a clear page structure that’s easy for customers to navigate.

To be clear, when I say “page structure” I am referring to:

  • The number of pages on your site
  • The names of all of your pages
  • The order in which you arrange pages
  • The specific locations for all of your content

To determine your page structure, follow these steps:

  1. Using your content list from step 3, determine what pages your site requires. Which content can go together? What needs its own page? (Tip: try to stay under seven pages in your main navigation.)
  2. Choose what to call each page. Keep names as straightforward as possible. The goal is to make it easy for visitors to find what they need.
  3. Map out a content plan for each page. Take your list from step 3 and break it down even further, aligning each item with a page from your site’s structure.

5. Write Your Content

At this stage, you should have a clear picture of all the content that needs to be developed to complete your site. On one hand, this is the simplest part of the process because I have no instruction for you other than to put your head down and start writing. But on the other hand, I know that’s easier said than done – especially if you have little experience with writing in general.

The good news? The work you’ve completed in the previous steps has given you clear and simple direction, and guidelines to work with. You can trust that the time you’ve put it in so far will lead you in the right direction.

So your goal in this step is to simply sit down and begin.

Get Started

Keep in mind, there’s a lot of time, energy and thought that goes into this process. In fact, entire industries are built around helping people to do all of these things for their companies.

So take your time. And know that what you plan now can change, if and when it needs to. The nature of the web is that it provides almost endless flexibility, so you will not be stuck with what you do now forever. This work doesn’t ever need to be “perfect.” It should grow and change with you. And if this is a process that feels intimidating or overwhelming, by all means, keep things as simple as possible.

Once you’ve worked through each step, you will have completely prepared your content for the site-building process. You’ve put in the work, which will go a long way toward ensuring your site communicates clearly and can be navigated easily. This leads to customers that seamlessly find what they’re looking for and take action.

Download the Companion Workbook

In order to lead you through the process, I’ve put together a handy workbook that provides space to work through all 5 steps. Simply download, print, and do some thinking, planning and writing in the space provided. You’ll be guided through the entire process, and in the end, you’ll have a complete, strategically developed content for your website, so you can move on to the site-building process and move on to bigger and better things.

Get your download now:

Download the Content First Workbook