Ensure Long Term Success For Your Firm's Next Website

Large law firms have historically accounted for their website budgets as a one-time expense. Firms spent to build a website with the latest bells and whistles, only to neglect it, resulting in a depreciating asset. Without maintenance, this process of expensing a website inevitably repeats itself because marketing technology and a firm’s business constantly evolve. The expense cycle, as many firms have learned, quickly results in a stale digital presence that has a fleeting impact.

As with any other asset that sits on a firm’s balance sheet, this cycle of spending, not maintaining, then spending again is not a sustainable way to create long-term value in any “investment,” much less in the firm’s most public-facing presence. By viewing a website build as an investment — which, by definition, requires a maintenance plan — firm leadership can avoid the large catch-up payments in the form of an entirely new website every few years.

A well-thought-out maintenance plan equips firm leadership with the ability to evolve as today’s software life cycles evolve. Investing in a large-scale website works best when you do your research and use a disciplined approach. Here are six pointers to help you get started:

1. Develop detailed audience personas, and keep them up-to-date. To spur engagement on your site, you need to optimize the experience for the people using it. Segment your audience, and dive deep into their specific content needs. Be sure to review and adjust your personas over time as your website’s target audience evolves.

2. Find a development partner, not a quota-driven vendor. Your website’s success and ability to increase in value hinge on your development firm. Most law firms have a relationship with their development firm for at least four years, so it’s vital that you work well together and that the development firm holistically understands your law firm’s objectives.

Look for an experienced, creative development firm with a proven track record of innovation and exceptional client support. A great development partner will ask the right questions to help you assess the requirements of your website.

Be wary of vendors that promote the latest cookie-cutter product or have historically deployed platforms, only to announce that they won’t be supported months later. Also, be careful to avoid future-proofing your website by buying into a large-scale marketing technology solution. Chances are high that it will be a different product by the time you’re ready to use those advanced features, and you’ll find yourself back in the expense cycle.

3. Set a realistic budget and timeline. For big law firms that are serious about digital marketing, the upfront investment in a modern, differentiated website starts at $500,000 for design and development. A firm should ideally budget 30 to 40 percent of that figure annually for maintenance and enhancements. It’s important to plan for and be transparent about this investment in annual maintenance.

If you don’t have the appropriate budget right now, be honest with potential development partners about these limitations so they can reasonably assess what you can achieve. Most experienced development partners can work backward from a budget to help you maximize your investment from the start.

It’s also important to be realistic about your timeline. The design and development process for a typical firm website takes six to 12 months, meaning that by the time the site launches, it’s already supporting technology that’s at least six months old. Don’t let the schedule slip beyond a year. Beyond this initial launch, expect to enhance the site within the first six months of it being live.

4. Use an incremental, iterative development strategy. Building in a modular fashion allows you to continually enhance your features over time. You want to work with a development firm that understands this approach and is continuously evolving its product and service offerings. Plan to work closely with your development partner to determine which features you need and when you need them.

5. Go mobile from the start. Mobile optimization is no longer a luxury; the foundation of your site should be mobile-friendly from the beginning. Make sure your partner understands your mobile aspirations from the outset and has the expertise to build a site that’s optimized for mobile.

Firms that have evolved their websites by either redesigning using responsive web design or adding a secondary, mobile-friendly version are beating the competition. Conversely, some that have ignored the mobile shift have been severely disadvantaged by developments like Google’s so-called “Mobilegeddon,” which gives preference to mobile-optimized sites in mobile search results.

More importantly, responsive mobile sites optimize the viewing experience for mobile users and allow them to digest information easily and painlessly.

6. Employ analytics at every stage. To deliver and maintain a user-centered website experience, you need all the information you can wrangle. Work with your development partner to set up this capability from the start. As soon as you start measuring areas like visitor traffic and user experience norms, you can begin making intelligent content decisions and forming a personalized experience based on the needs and desires of your target audience.

Firms can make interacting with their websites a great experience for the people who matter most and become relevant, sought-out resources for their audience. After all, audience members will choose the firm that understands their needs, paying for any investment in the website many times over.

This article originally appeared in Bloomberg BNA.