Setting Up Website Operations For Success

When working with marketing leaders at healthcare groups, I find that your frustrations with the website team most commonly center around three main problems, in this order:

  • Speed. “Our web team is slow to respond, slow to get started, and seems to take forever to build even simple projects”
  • Price. “We regularly receive surprisingly expensive invoices, often for things we don’t understand”
  • Quality. “We just aren’t that happy with the level of creative and quality coming from our web team”

These problems are frustrating enough on their own, but the real problem comes when they end up hurting new patient volume and patient experience numbers. Suddenly, marketing performance is down, you start to panic, and you are distracted from your more strategic/impactful responsibilities. That’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your organization.

While there are sometimes nuanced reasons for problems with your website team, the problem more often lies with project organization, planning, and/or execution. Here are a few of the major themes I see:

You aren’t taking a team approach, or your website team is poorly constructed

Good websites are built with a mix of thoughtful content, creative graphic design, and effective code. Because the talents and skill sets associated with each of these trades are so different from each other, you should be building a team to run your website vs. expecting it to come from one person. At a minimum, your team (whether in-house or outsourced) should include:

  • A Designer. This is someone who is creative, expressive, humble, and web-savvy. Ideally, it’s someone who grew up on the Internet and has actually written some code, because they’ll better understand what users expect and how to design things in a way that makes a developer’s life easy.
  • A Developer. You want a coder who is smart and capable of problem-solving (hint: most are). What is harder to find is someone who also has people skills – good communication, humility, and speed/efficiency.
  • A Project Manager. PMs have a very different skill set and a different mandate than designers and developers. If you read what Paul Graham says about Makers vs. Managers, you’ll understand that a PM is critical in making sure all of the interruptions are handled and prioritized, so that the more technical resources can spend more time in a flow state. Web-savvy PMs support their designers/developers by shutting down incompetent requests from external stakeholders, while also holding designers/developers accountable to results and timelines in a way that only someone who really understands the technical bits can.

That’s a minimum team of three to get the job done. In reality, a web team will run much more smoothly if you also have:

  • An Architect or Content Strategist. It’s not the pretty graphics or the solid code that makes a website perform – it’s whether or not the core messages of the website actually motivate action. That’s the world of information architecture and storytelling, which is typically handled by someone with a title like one of these.
  • A Content Writer. While Content Strategists and Architects worry about core messages and user experience, Content Writers actually tell the story. These are the folks who write blog posts, pillar pages, and patient resources. It’s time-consuming work, especially for those who haven’t developed the skill, which is why it deserves its own role. (And no, AI is not going to replace this, at least not completely.)
  • An Art Director or Creative Director. Designers work best when they are guided and pushed by someone with much more creative experience. Without this, they tend to flounder and go down rabbit holes, or they fail to progress toward their true potential.
  • A Junior Developer or Content Manager. Not all code tasks are created equal, and your more senior developers will quickly get bored with solving challenges that are beneath their skill level. If you have enough work to justify a second code role, give your senior developer the gift of having someone they can mentor (and of course, offload the “production” tasks).

To be clear: This second group of roles is optional, but these are actually hats that NEED to be worn. If you don’t have someone trained to do them, that means YOU are going to be responsible for them (or perhaps someone else on your team, who is a similarly inappropriate fit). Of course, hiring all these people is a lot of payroll to stomach unless you are building a large volume of sites, which is why you should plan to outsource these activities until you reach a certain scale/pace. 

A word about outsourcing

If you run the numbers, you’ll see that you should outsource ALL of your website activity until you have around 15-20 sites to manage. At that point, you’ll have enough ongoing maintenance work to justify having someone on staff who can handle website updates (typically a content writer with some code savvy).

When you are building approximately 20 new sites per year, it starts to make sense to build an internal web team (though it won’t be complete until you are north of 50 sites per year). Those first few hires should be made in this order:

  1. Content Writer (w/code experience)
  2. Graphic Designer
  3. Project Manager
  4. Senior Developer
  5. Junior Developer / Content Manager
  6. Junior Designer

Once a strong team is in place, the next problem I see often is:

Your website team isn’t aligned on vision or expectations

Whether you’re working with an in-house team or an agency partner, it’s your job as the leader to make sure each player is aligned with the mothership in terms of vision and expectation. In order to do that, you’ll need really clear answers to three questions:

  1. What does success look like? Imagine you are sitting down with your team 2-3 years from now, and you are all REALLY happy with how not only the website but the entire marketing effort has been going. What has happened that made you so happy? Describe it as vividly as you can, so folks can start to see where their efforts fit in.
  2. How do we measure it? Beyond the verbal picture, make your vision real with numbers and metrics. How many new patients are you bringing in? What does conversion rate look like? How are you measuring patient experience, and what levels have you reached? Where are you ranking organically? How much are you spending on average to acquire a new patient? Be clear about where you’re at now, and where you’d like to get to. You’ll find that simply talking about these numbers aligns people with what really matters to you.
  3. Who will do what? Negotiate both up-front and continuously (at least 2x per year) with each player to reach an agreement on what they will be responsible for, the pace at which they will work and the standards of quality that they will adhere to in their work product. 

Once the team is aligned on these questions, the real trick is to keep them aligned. You’ll do this primarily through over-communication – in other words, repeating yourself. A LOT. Speak to your team about this during project kickoff. Ask them about it during your check-ins. Bake it into your performance metrics. Have them say it back to you. As Patrick Lencioni teaches, you’ll know when you’ve communicated enough because your people will start mocking you for it.

If you’ve got the right people in the right quantities, and they’re all mostly aligned in terms of vision, you might still run into the third problem I commonly see, which is:

You’re not providing the support your team needs

This can be a tough one to hear when you’re already working 50-60 hour weeks. It’s also tough to hear because 90% of leaders believe they are an “above average” leader (a statistical impossibility). But the reality is that leadership is a skill like anything else, except that we never went to school for it and probably haven’t spent much time getting deliberately better at it. This is a problem because, without support, teams run inefficiently (at best), and may even start to break down culturally.

And so, if you’ll allow me, here are a few specific things you might do to better support your website team:

  • Invest heavily in training and onboarding. Make a very long list of things a new employee needs to know, and regularly add to that list as you notice deficiencies in the people you have hired. Don’t just focus on job skills, but also on what the organization is doing and how they will interface with other stakeholders. When your next employee starts, go through each item on the list with them in excruciating detail. Do the training over Zoom so you can record it, and plan to make those videos available to the next person who starts. Have the employee you are training write up what they learned as a way to save you time, make the learning stick more for them, and provide additional training material for those who will come behind them. In general, the onboarding process should take at least 2 full weeks and could take as many as 6 before the employee is given any amount of real work to do.
  • Take ownership for brand strategy. As a marketing leader, your most important job is brand strategy. You should be obsessed with understanding the types of patients you’re targeting, what messaging resonates with each, how that varies at each location you operate, what the competitive landscape looks like, and what your group brings to the table that is different from others. You should be doing actual research to validate your assumptions here, and your findings should be documented in ways that your creative team can build from. Without a clear brand strategy (including guidelines and examples to follow), your team’s creative work will flounder.
  • Corral stakeholders. Nothing escalates cost and delay in a website project quite like late-stage feedback from unexpected stakeholders. This is to say nothing of the boring/bland work that always comes out of a “design by committee” process. Do your website team (and yourself) a favor and do the political work to suss out all of the input you think is going to come up front. Then, once the project is running, do whatever you can to keep these voices contained or at least summarized.
  • Learn how to give creative feedback. You’ll be playing a role in the creative process, and that means learning to communicate both direction/inspiration and critique. The most important thing here is just to do it, as I’ve seen far too many projects ruined by leaders who hold their tongue than leaders who say the wrong thing. Remember that creatives are literally trained by enduring critique from their peers and teachers, so they’re very accustomed to it. That said, you should also understand that you hired an artist with a particular style/approach, and the results won’t be nearly as impressive if you are constantly asking them to step outside of it. Finally, take some time to learn the language of design. Try to move beyond “it doesn’t pop” and learn to be specific about what you think needs to change. Expressing how something makes you feel (or should make you feel) is a good start.
  • Share the why. It’s very easy in a web project to get focused on the deadlines, the pixels, and the code, which can lead to boredom and frustration. Take time to remind your team of the WHY behind what they’re doing. “We are helping people feel more confident in their smile. We helped over 10,000 people feel better about themselves last month” or “We helped provide hope by restoring mobility to 3,000 patients this quarter” or “We helped recruit 7 new team members to our organization, which helped our overworked staff and will provide great career growth for those who joined.”

And so, in summary, the biggest problems with most website development teams are: (1) They aren’t taking a team approach, (2) They haven’t taken the time to align the team, and (3) Their leaders aren’t providing the support they need. Fix these things, and you’ll find that you’ll be much less distracted by “fires” in the web department and much more capable of (blissfully) focusing on your higher-priority activities.

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Dallin Harris

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