Why Do Website Relaunches Always Turn into Humongous Shit Shows?

Because 1) websites are inherently complex 2) the technology is always underappreciated, and 3) the process requires buy-in by armies of stakeholders who mysteriously appear from the shadows of your organization to try and veto your forward progress, usually at the last minute.

This is why when you utter the words “website relaunch” to experienced marketers, most will shudder in dread. It’s why websites can sit around for years gathering dust in the face of all of the obvious reasons a business should continually invest in the cornerstone of their digital marketing. This is why colleagues at your company so often hate your website and why you, the marketer, feel paralyzed to do anything about it.

Want to do something about it? Read ahead.

The bottomless rabbit hole of complexity unmasked by “simple” website relaunches

What is a website?

A website is a collection of years upon years of effort by your writers and marketers to create the best content they can. It’s the digital user experience of your company. It’s the face of your business. It’s your brand.

Your website is thousands of hours of SEO tweaks, java script embeds, and clever marketing hacks. It’s the platform for integrating your entire suite of analytics and optimization tools.

It’s the bio of your company’s president that always needs to be updated. It’s a backlog of tickets, improvements, bugs, PSD designs, and requests stretching out for years. It’s many thousands of lines of code (every one of which needs to work every page load and be secure). It’s a stack of technology a dozen layers thick: Linux, MySql, PHP, Redis, Solr, Varnish,  xHTML, CSS, JS, Drupal, WordPress.

It’s days upon days of debate in conference rooms about ‘what’s the most important thing!’ for your business to say.

Your website is all of these things, and if you are doing it right, it is changing and evolving every day.

Your website is all of these things at once, and all of these things are what you are staring down every time you think about relaunching your website.

Your website needs to be simple for your users, but holy shit is it complex for you.

Your website is not a toy

I attended the University of Illinois for two years as a CS major (before dropping out). UIUC is a serious engineering school in the middle of farm country that graduates thousands of civil engineers, “mech-e’s”, computer engineers, and computer scientists every single year. Mosaic, the world’s first web browser, was invented at UIUC by a CS grad student named Mark Andreessen.

While I was a student there do you know what the undergrads called web applications?


In other words, not ‘serious’ engineering. No compiler, no complexity, you could learn it by reading books on the weekend. Too trivial to waste time on at a serious engineering program.

I’ve been in the website industry for ten years and I’ve been lucky enough to work side by side with some of the very best software engineers in the world. Anyone who thinks your website is a toy, not a medium where one runs into serious engineering problems, is not in touch with reality.

You know what’s hard? Writing code, under deadline, that needs to launch and perform reliably for every single visitor in the face of traffic spikes that will multiply 10X or 100X or more during the usual course of business.

Oh, and you are working on a team with three front end designers and three engineers making code and configuration changes. And you are dealing with the complexity of a fully featured CMS and the entire stack it comes with it.

Websites are in no way a solved problem. Making great websites and digital experiences requires very smart, very clever designers and engineers working seamlessly together. It’s a serious design and engineering effort, and if you want to do it right you need to treat that undertaking with the respect that it requires.

The graduates who learned how to build “web toys”? They are now in huge demand.

The army of stakeholders who appear from the shadows to veto your forward progress

You know who cares deeply about your company’s website?

Every single person who works at your company.

From the 20 year old intern who sends the link to their parents, to the CEO trying to win business, everyone has a stake in your website being awesome, and each of them will have an opinion.

Because you know who they are comparing you to? Apple.

But here is what marketers don’t talk about: Apple’s website first looked like this:

It took Apple a decade of iteration to make an awesome website:

Awesome websites are a journey, not a destination. No single sprint, relaunch, or single engagement with even the hottest design firm will ever deliver what you want.

Want an awesome website? Be agile

At Pantheon we are lucky to partner with some of the world’s best web teams, and we get to see how they work first-hand. Here is a quick acid test to see if your approach to designing and building websites is likely to yield awesome results:

  • Do you have success metrics defined for your website?

  • Do you know who in your organization owns the metrics of success for your website?

  • (Followup question) Are they empowered with the authority they need to drive decisions needed to succeed?

  • Do you have a killer web team on board, either hired as part of your internal team, or as an external agency?

  • Do you have your technical basis covered - deployment, scaling, and security?

  • Is your web team able to deploy new features to your website on at least a bi-weekly basis?

Not there yet? You are not alone. Most teams are not able to do this. But it is possible to get there.

Your greatest challenge will be an internal one, so get ready for it. Your job will be to rally your company behind a creative process that they are a stakeholder in. A process that has iterative deadlines and launches, but no finite end destination. You will need a killer web team. You will need the right set of tools.

Pantheon will be there to help you find the way.

Topics Digital Agencies, Content, Education

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