After having essentially the same conversation with clients (and friends, and my dad) over and over again, I’ve come to the conclusion that almost no one considers the most important element when they set out to create a new website (or mailing list for that matter).

###So what’s the #1 most important thing about your new website?

Drumroll please . . .

The Purpose.

Yes, capitalized. And in red. It’s that important, but it is usually completely ignored.

You may be thinking that this is really really obvious, but do you actually have a specific, short answer to the question “What do you want visitors to DO?”

I bet you don’t! But don’t feel bad, because MOST PEOPLE don’t.

In this article, I’m going to help you figure out the answer, and therefore The Purpose.

###Typical (bad) answers I get when I ask “What’s the purpose of your new site?”

  1. Blank stare
  2. “Well, you know, to have a website”
  3. “Everyone else has a website so my business needs one too”
  4. “So people can find me”

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that #1 is the most common by far. People think the answer is so obvious that the question must be rhetorical. Well it isn’t!

You need to have a short, concrete answer to the question. Even though it may seem seem silly and obvious, The Purpose will shape everything you do for the site. So if you don’t know what it is, you’re shooting in the dark, and your results will show it.

Until you’ve thought through this seemingly-obvious but not easily pinned down aspect, do not invest more than an hour on anything else about your site. And definitely don’t start worrying about what it will look like or what colors it will be!

People tend to skip right over The Purpose and go right to the design when they’re starting, and usually if you go in that order you’ll have to redo everything once you figure out that what you’ve done doesn’t work directly for The Purpose.

###What are some good goals?

  • Sell something online
  • Sell something in your brick-and-mortar store (yes, those two are DIFFERENT GOALS)
  • Click on the ads
  • Simply know about or find me (ie a resume site)
  • Sign up for your mailing list
  • Sign up for your RSS feed (a good goal if your website is a a blog without a mailing list)
  • Tell friends about your site (not a good goal unless your site is a one-off project meant to go viral in the short-term and then die)

###Implementing The Purpose

So let’s say you look at the list above and you pinpoint “sell something online” as the primary point of your website. What does that mean?

It means that the most important thing on your site should be shopping.

And what do I mean by that?

I mean that when someone lands on your homepage, they should be able to buy something from you. If it takes 3 clicks to get to the “shop” section of your site, you’re doing it wrong.

If the first thing they see a whole bunch of social media stuff and personal blog posts? You’re doing it wrong.

Let’s try another Purpose. If you’ve decided that what you really want people to do is “sign up for your mailing list,” then guess what?

The most important thing on your site should be a signup form. Meaning it should be big and on your homepage. It should not be in the footer!

###In doubt about what to do?

The easiest way to get this right is to identify someone else who does your Purpose well and copy them.

If you’re selling online, there’s no one better to copy than Amazon. The amount of money, time, and effort they spend getting their site to make visitors buy stuff is literally unachievable for the rest of us.

If your goal is to have users click ads, look into niche websites. “Niche sites” are websites whose entire purpose is to get traffic and convert those visitors into ad clicks. Niche Pursuits is a good blog that talks about the business model, where on a page ads convert best, etc etc.

If your Purpose is to sign people up for your mailing list, check out sites that talk about mailing list conversions. Social Triggers is a great example of a site that is getting lots of signups and has done tons of research and optimization on what forms convert the best. Check out what he’s done and do it yourself, and you’ll be well on your way.

###But beware of distractions

If you’re thinking that the above is pretty simple to implement, you’re right.

The problems start when you get distracted by bells and whistles and silly web things. Before you know it, you’ve added a Facebook like box and your Twitter stream and who knows what else, and those things start to steal attention from The Purpose.

There is no good reason why Facebook should get equal real estate with your mailing list signup form, for example. Or why you should prominently feature your blog posts about your cat if your website is trying to sell hats (that aren’t related to your cat).

It’s a good idea to sort of “take inventory” of your site every so often to make sure that what you’ve got is still working directly to meet The Purpose. If you find that you’ve strayed from the path, just throw out all the random crap that’s accumulated (or move it all into an “about me” or similar page and off your homepage) and go back to prominently asking people to do what you want them to do.