I am not an expert on building websites, or anywhere approaching one. I don’t know my C++ from my html.

However, I have managed a fair few website projects, and I still find them quite a frightening prospect.

Unlike social media, websites are widely considered to be essential, and the most visible presence for any organisation. Their shop window; the first point of contact. This often means lots of heightened expectations and sometimes a few misguided ideas at the outset.

cake shop window

Websites are an organisation's shop window - it has to be right

Some years ago I led on the launch of a new website. It went badly wrong and I feel terrible about it to this day. But I learnt some very valuable lessons.

The organisation in question was a charity (guilty) without much money (double-guilty) and I was bamboozled by a colleague into thinking the answer was a custom CMS. This really was back in the days when I knew nothing. On such a tight budget the whole thing was fraught with risk.

Worst of all, I failed to convince the client that they needed to use the website more effectively, and not just for broadcast. That because it was new, they couldn’t simply expect lots more visits and a top search ranking. The technical solution was less important than the content they published.

It’s something of a cliche, but I wished I had undersold and over-delivered.

Between Durham and Surrey on a separate work trip I must have stopped five or six times along the A1, to look at Google analytics and craft an interpretation of the website’s effectiveness that the client wanted to see, but just wasn’t there. Particularly just one week after launch.

I had been inspired (and was perhaps made over confident) to take on this ambitious project following a conversation some time beforehand with a hedge fund manager. The hedge fund manager explained that he owned a chain manufacturer, a radio station and a variety of other large, disparate businesses. He explained that he was the master of delegation and organisation. He knew nothing about chains or broadcast media (although I suspect he read a lot about them), but he knew the importance of finding the right people to manage the opportunities he bought into.

Unlike the hedge fund manager, I only thought I was the master of delegation. In reality I hired the wrong people, was too trusting, optimistic and didn’t read or listen to enough of the advice that was out there.

The site ran way past the allotted launch date, and we, the agency, lost hundreds of man hours on the project.

All of this would have been bearable however, if I had managed the client’s expectations. If they were happy or at least ambivalent about the project, we would have had a half decent starting point to help them understand how to use their website effectively. But even after launch, the expectations kept coming while their confidence in the site dipped further, despite the fact that by this time, technically, the site was in much better shape.

This was a formative experience for me; like falling off a bike for the first time.

However the experience taught me the value of managing expectations. Nowadays I am mostly to be found underselling the power of websites, while actually trying to make sure they are as effective as possible.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/pikaluk/