It’s been ten years since I started Bookswarm. In that time, we have designed and built a lot of websites. We have made a lot of mistakes. And we have learned a lot of lessons.

I sat down to reflect on all of our experiences, and to try and and identify some of the key lessons. So, behold, the result, which I have modestly chosen to call… Appleby’s Laws!

Law 1: It’s hard to create good content

The creation and uploading of content to a website is the one part of a project which is generally not our responsibility. That keeps project costs down for clients, and ensures that when we go live, clients have the skills they need to maintain their sites. However, lots of projects are still delayed or derailed by content. Late content. Insufficient content. Incorrectly formatted content.  Sometimes, simply bad content.

Whenever you think you need to start working on your content, it’s probably not soon enough! If you work on at least some of it BEFORE you brief your web designers, you will get a far better outcome to your project.

Law 2: Digital skills should not be taken for granted

There was a time when I naively expected that newer members of the workforce would arrive with a stronger set of digital skills, based on being digital natives and having been exposed to the wonders of the Internet their entire lives. I was wrong. Very wrong. While digital natives might be savvy with social media, and have highly developed thumb muscles, they are no more digitally skilled than previous generations. If anything, they take the technology for granted to a greater degree, and are less well equipped to roll up their sleeves when something goes wrong.

Skills like basic HTML, image editing and data management are still worth learning. An understanding of the fundamentals of how domain names work, what a digital certificate is and how to clear your browser cache is bound to come in handy at some point. And if you don’t know something, the mechanism to learn about that thing is right in front of your eyes (in other words, Just Google It!).

Law 3: Design is not a substitute for content

We can make a lovely-looking website, but if the content is sparse, badly written, badly edited or just doesn’t get updated often enough, the site is much less likely to achieve its objectives.

Having a realistic expectation of the amount of content that will be added once a project is launched will allow us to offer a much more effective design solution; if you tell us you will blog every week, and then don’t blog for six months, we will probably have designed the wrong interface for your needs, and your users will notice!

Law 4: Trying to create an online community will probably fail

Many times over the years we have been asked about adding forums to websites, or heard the dreaded phrase ‘online community’. Unless you have identified an interest group that is genuinely not being well served by existing online community platforms, the chances are the community you want to engage with will stay where they are, thank you very much.

If you do think you have identified a community that is not being well served online, make doubly sure that they really exist. And think really hard about whether a Facebook Group would be a better bet.

Law 5: “Build it and they will come” was never true

The notion that a website could organically establish itself and build an audience without marketing and publicity support was always tenuous, even in the early days of the Internet when the number of sites was exponentially lower and social media didn’t exist. Now, it’s naive in the extreme. Websites require support from a range of offline and online activities in order to establish themselves – PPC advertising, social media, online PR, and good old-fashioned things like putting the website address on printed materials. Websites will fail if unsupported, and your hard work (and ours) will have been wasted.

Law 6: People like free stuff

Competitions and other ways of giving out freebies are still an effective way to engage users and harvest user data (with appropriate consent, of course!). However, it will be a very superficial level of engagement, and many of the people who you attract will be serial competition enterers who have no interest in your brand or your product. If you haven’t explored this world, having a quick look around some of their online communities (where people share links to competitions and give each other the answers) is a real eye-opener. To some of these people, books are just another commodity they can win and then sell on eBay.

Law 7: The basics of e-commerce are easy, but the devil is in the detail

We can get a web-based shop up and running in no time. The basics are easy and the platforms for doing this are much simpler and more accessible than they used to be.

However, issues around shipping, payments, accounting, tax and fulfilment can throw a spanner in the works, and really do need thinking about early on in the project. We can help you with a lot of things but we can’t tell you how much to charge for shipping to Outer Mongolia.

Law 8: Social media is not for everyone

Social media is an inescapable part of the modern digital landscape – but too many clients persist in using social media platforms that don’t suit them. For example, I myself am rubbish at the Twitter #honestyisthebestpolicy.

No social media is better than the wrong social media.

Law 9: Everything is measurable, nothing is measurable

Everything about digital can be measured. Website traffic. E-mail opens and clicks. Retweets. Favourites. Shares. Views. It is possible to gain a good understanding of what is working and what is not working. Website owners have an almost unprecedented opportunity to analyse the reach and impact of what they are doing. Look at what types of content are most popular. Look at the best times of day to send e-mail updates. Become a data nerd.

However… these metrics can’t tell you everything about the impact of your website. They can’t tell you about the influence on potential readers when they’re browsing in a bookshop, or the warm fuzzy feelings your blog posts might give them. Don’t become too much of a data nerd!

Law 10: The end is the beginning

I have lost count of how many times I have said this to clients. The launch of a website may be the end of the website project, but it’s only the beginning of that website’s life. A website needs to evolve and develop; content which is failing to perform should be removed or changed, and strands that people respond well to should be reinforced. Make sure updates are a regular occurrence, work with your web agency to add new features and fine-tune existing features – and don’t let your website gather dust.

Disagree with Appleby’s Laws? Tell us why!