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How to create an effective website

Do you love your website? Do you feel it adequately represents the vision you have for your work? Does it draw people in and keep them engaged? Does it “convert” — meaning that it turns a casual viewer into someone who makes a commitment to buy your book, follow your blog, or sign up for your email newsletter?

I ask because I have been working with many of my recent clients on revamping their websites, and I have noticed some common themes. Today, I want to dig into them and share some advice on creating a powerful website for your creative work:

  • Be findable. Too often, I talk to an author, type their name into Google, and can’t find them. Consider how this can hamper any marketing they do for their work. Let’s say they meet an agent at an event, make a good connection, and on the train ride home, the agent Google’s the author, and… nothing. So the first step is this: have a website. Even if your book won’t be published for two years; even if you aren’t sure exactly what you want it to say. Start now.
  • Grab your audience with a compelling message. So often a writer describes themselves and their work as a laundry list of roles: “Father, husband, writer, soccer fan, accountant, and lover of ice cream.” A website is a place to hone in on the message that your ideal audience is desperately waiting to hear. People are busy, overwhelmed with news, links, and ideas. Be that one voice that resonates with them immediately. Craft a narrative that your ideal audience can’t ignore.
  • Focus on action. What is the one action you want someone to take? Most websites I look at display dozens of options for someone to take. What is the one thing you want a visitor to do more than anything else? Double down on that — make it obvious — and make it something that draws people in.
  • Make it easy to connect with you. This sounds basic, but too many people hide behind a contact form. They don’t provide an email address — instead they put up a form that (oftentimes) doesn’t work because it was installed 4 years ago, and not tested anytime recently. Post an email address. Perhaps even create a business phone number that routes into your regular number. I have posted my phone number on my website for years. Just yesterday, a potential client called me out of the blue. We had a great chat and I am now reading his manuscript and preparing a proposal. Where is the weak link in the chain for how someone can connect with you. If you have a contact form on your website — does it work? Where does it route to? How quickly can you get back to someone who uses it?
  • Make it easy to MEANINGFULLY follow you. Don’t list out 5-10 social networks if you are only really active on one of them. I can’t tell you how often I click on social media links on an author website that take me to a dormant account, a broken link, or a YouTube page last updated 3 years ago. Why bother sending someone to a dead end? Instead, direct them to where you are active, where they can experience you or your work in the most meaningful of ways.
  • Be of service. How can you help someone or brighten their day? Don’t just view your website as a brochure for something you are selling, use it draw people into a narrative, to help them in ways they didn’t expect, and have them say quietly to themselves: “YES! This is what I love.”
  • Less is more. Everything I share here is about focusing your website — creating clarity in the process. For yourself, and for those you want to engage. With most of the website work I do with clients, we strip away as much as possible. Everything we remove makes what is left that much stronger. Over the years, my own website has gotten simpler and simpler. Here is a behind the scenes look at my website redesign from 2012, and then another of my website redesign in 2014. Avoid dropdown menus, if you can. Read the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less to get a sense of the science and psychology as to why presenting too many choices can result in someone making no choice at all.

If any of this resonates with you, I would like to help you get started with refining your website so that it is more effective. It begins with clarity. Here is some homework — please do this:

  1. Choose an action you want your ideal audience to take on your website. This should be the main purpose of your website. Take out a sheet of paper, and write that at the top. Write it in big red letters — put little stars and hearts around it.
  2. Beneath that, list five ways you can encourage that action. It could be messaging, marketing ideas, or different types of experiences (eg: email newsletter, free download, watch a video, etc.)
  3. Now, take out some index cards (or Post-it notes). On each card, write out the other components of your website. The secondary items that relate to the main action. Put them beneath the piece of paper, and then prioritize them. Which can be combined? Which can be removed entirely? Which is more important than the others? Put those toward the top.

Now, take a picture of all of this and email it to me. You are now on your way to creating a more effective website for your creative work!

Thanks.
-Dan

  • DIYMFA

    OMG thank you Dan for encouraging authors NOT to use what I like to call the “stupid contact form.”

    This is super-important and I can’t underscore it enough. As someone who regularly interviews authors for my podcast I now have a rule that if I’m looking up an interviewee and it takes me longer than five minutes to find their info or they have a contact form, I just move on. Harsh I know, but it’s the reality. And some shows won’t even go that far to link up with authors.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand a writer’s hesitations to put a personal email address or phone number on their website but there are easy workarounds. For phone, a Google Voice number will mask your actual number and forward incoming calls to it. For email, just create a press@yourURL or media@yourURL address that forwards to your regular email address.

    Like Dan, I have had opportunities open up just by having my phone number on the website. Like just last month, I got a keynote speaking gig on the West Coast and they found me via the phone number on my website. Now I have a mini book tour set up around that event. Imagine if I’d left my phone number off my site!

    Great post, Dan, as always. πŸ™‚

    • Wow — thank you Gabi! LOVE the advice and examples you share here!
      -Dan

    • Pearl R. Meaker

      Hi Gabi πŸ™‚

      You said: “there are easy workarounds. For phone, a Google Voice number will mask your actual number and forward incoming calls to it. For email, just create a press@yourURL or media@yourURL address that forwards to your regular email address.”

      Where can I go to find out about these things and how to set them up?

      Congratulations on the speaking gig! πŸ™‚

      • DIYMFA

        Hi Pearl,

        For Google Voice you can go here to learn more: https://www.google.com/googlevoice/about.html

        For setting up a press email address it depends on what you use for email. If you’re like me and use your web server for email, you can just create a separate email for press (at DIY MFA we have a catch-all address: support@DIYMFA… etc.)

        If you’re using something like gmail or hotmail for your personal email address, you can just create a new account similar to your personal one but tack on the word “press” or “contact” (e.g. for a while we had a contact.DIYMFA@gmail email address that was our catch-all before we switched to the current set-up). From there, it’s fairly easy to set up your press/media email address to forward to your personal account.

        Honestly, I would only worry about the setting up a separate press email address if you’re so high-profile that you don’t want to give out your personal email address online. I put my own DIY MFA address on the website and the amount of spam inquiries I get are negligible compared to the benefits of getting those contacts.

        The Google Voice thing, though, was a HUGE help for me because it allowed me to put my phone number on the website without worrying that I was giving out my home line or cell number.

        Hope this helps!

        • Pearl R. Meaker

          Hi Gabi,

          Thank you so much for the info!

          Yes, I was more concerned about putting out my phone number than the email address, but both could be very good things to use.

          Hugs!

  • Pearl R. Meaker

    This is something I’m doing a lot of thinking about right now, so this post was very timely. I will work through your exercise but I wish I had someone to brainstorm through it with as I have no idea what action I want people to take. It’s the sort of question that always stops me cold and that I just never seem to be able to figure out on my own. Right now, the main purpose of my website is . . . ah . . . that I have a website?

    At the risk of sounding stupid, which I do quite often . . .

    Do people really frequent author’s websites?

    I have rarely gone to any author’s website more than once and that will be to find out the proper order of the books in a series or to check out their bio.

    I don’t sell courses or services, nor do I plan to. I don’t sell merchandise – I might someday if my books and fan base really take off – but I don’t yet.

    I have three books out (one is in preorder status) that are on all the major book seller sites, so that is where I expect people to go – to the place they can actually make the purchase.

    I understand needing a website and I’m currently redoing mine to make it simpler and more visually appealing. (Slow process, so right now the “old” one is still what’s active.) But both when I built the first one and now again with building the new site I wonder if it’s worth all the time and frustration.

    Do author’s websites really get used a lot? Do they really make a difference?

    Dan, what sort of feedback do you get regarding website use from agents, publishers, and others in the book business world?

    I’m seriously thinking about doing either your 3mon or 12mon program, Dan, because I am so totally lost and confused by everything “business” and I just haven’t been able to learn from ecourses and PDF workbooks. In fact, I spent most of the day yesterday looking over your program as well as working on what I want from a personal assistant – I’m planning on hiring one. I think I need to get “one-on-one” help before anything about marketing/promotion/and engaging readers is really going to sink in and be something I can actually understand and do.

    Thank you for all your hard work and caring about helping us creative sorts to get our products out to the world.

    • Pearl,
      Thanks for the kind words about the post! I like to think of it more as a “website” than an “author website.” Meaning, you don’t have an “author email address” or an “author phone number.”

      Your books are mean to touch people in a certain way. Perhaps you want to write articles that relate to the themes of your books. Or speak to groups about themes from your books. Or promote others who write books with the same themes are yours.

      Think of that BIGGER goal that includes the book, but perhaps doesn’t always require the book. Like, can you have a wonderful conversation with someone related to your book, without having them read it? Does that feel good? Do you want more of that?

      Thanks!
      -Dan

      • Pearl R. Meaker

        Wow!
        That makes sense! Yes, those sorts of things feel good and I would like more of that sort of opportunities.

        See, I’d never have come up with any of that on my own.
        Thank you so much, Dan!
        Hugs, Pearl

  • Sheila Lewis

    This post is so on the money, Dan. Many websites are a turn off, and I don’t want mine to be. Thanks for illuminating this process as I get started. I HATE those contact forms. I LOVE plain old email or easy contact. Most of us only have about 12 seconds of patience to respond, buy, or ask for a service or product. Sheila

  • Leslie Tall Manning

    So then, it looks like I will be trimming the fat off of my website this week. Thanks for giving me something else to add to my list. ; ) Actually, this is the best advice I’ve had in a week.

    As far as email goes, you can always have more than one email: One for close friends and family; one for professionals; and one for fans/readers/gawkers. It is good to get your name attached to as many emails as possible anyway so no one steals it. Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo. But I also like DIYMFA’s suggestion to use an email forward.

    I had never even thought of forwarding a phone number. I have an agent, and I’d prefer that eds go through him, so that may not be something I need to do at this time. Still good to think about. Thanks Dan!