Isaac Newton is dead.
Lately, we’ve been having a lot of conversations with clients who are interested in building new websites. And that’s great. But the first conversation always ends with the words that every web development company hates to hear: “Could we just throw up a placeholder page in the interim, so people can find us before the real site gets finished?” And that is a very bad idea. On the surface, a placeholder site makes a kind of sense. The client has a business and that business needs a web presence during the time it takes to build a fully-featured site. They can use a placeholder site to establish (some) credibility, capture potential customer information and start to establish SEO. In practice, this never works out as planned. Case-in-point: a couple years ago, we were working with a large South American company that wanted to build a site. We started the discovery process and were nailing down a feature list for the fully functional site. It looked like an exciting opportunity. The company had multiple product divisions, all of whom would eventually need websites and apps. Naively, I had visions of a South American office for Dressler. Then the main client asked if we could do a temporary landing page. “Just something quick, one page, maybe a paragraph of text.” Foolishly I agreed. This “one quick page” soon became the Bataan Death March of projects. We burned through design hours as one design after another was killed by different internal stakeholders. You see, they hadn’t yet agreed upon a marketing strategy (part of the Discovery phase) or a single point of contact who would guide design (part of our Scope of Work). So our sad little page needed to run a gauntlet of strong and sharply different opinions. Once the design was agreed upon, three weeks later, the feature creep began. Page was added to page, feature to feature, until finally we had Frankenstein’s monster. The site was unlovable, without internal consistency, and managed to dissatisfy all internal stakeholders just about evenly. The client hated it. We hated it. Eventually, they decided to go with another vendor for the full-up site. And I couldn’t blame them. I blame myself for agreeing to the placeholder page. I’d like to say that was the last time I ever made that particular mistake. But I believe that any mistake worth making is worth making at least five or six times. Given this vast experience, I feel qualified to share a few ways every placeholder page project ends up being a disaster: 1. No process Why would we need a process? It’s only one page! Let’s just get it done! Sorry, but process is the only thing that separates man from beast. You need (at the very least) a timeline, set reviews, an agreed-upon list of features and a single point of contact or you are in for a world of pain. 2. No timeline “As soon as possible.” That’s a timeline? Wrong. That is an open-ended commitment. You have essentially committed to do everything your client asks until they declare the project “complete”. A hard delivery date is the only thing that can save these projects because that will also force the clients to get their proverbial ducks in a row. 3. No ducks, no row Because this placeholder page is going up quickly, you might imagine that the approval process will be fast-tracked. Wrong. This page falls outside of your client’s planned marketing activities. That means that no one is comfortable signing off until it’s been passed all the way up the ranks, usually without explanation. That South American client? Their CEO killed one version of the placeholder page after it had been fully built because no one told him it was a placeholder. “Where are the product pages and the technical specs?” he demanded. 4. No efficiencies Every client wants to believe that all the time and money they’re spending with the placeholder will not be wasted because “we can apply all this to the final site.” Sure, why not? After all, the design you came up with in a day without a brief or discovery or stakeholder interviews is definitely the best design for the site, right? And the code that went into this three to five page jerry-rigged monstrosity will definitely be repurposed for a fully functional site, right? And the navigation that was a complete afterthought after the client added in four extra pages, that’s definitely the best UX, right? (Note: multiple instances of sarcasm in previous paragraph.) 5. No scope You think there’s a scope. It’s a placeholder. One page. A paragraph of text and the logo. Only, this is a brand new client and you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot, so when they add in something extra, you agree. And agree. And agree. So what should you do if a client insists on a placeholder page? Send them this link: http://launchrock.co/ and then get back to your discovery phase.