Designing a new website or redesigning an old one ranks as one of the most important marketing strategies you can execute for your business. I recently took myself through the entire process, and in the course I got an education. Here are five lessons learned that really paid off in a website that I love and for which I continue to receive compliments (and, most importantly, inbound leads.)

1. Do your research. Educate yourself on the latest trends in web design. When I was planning my website, I immersed myself in web research. Since I planned to have my site built on a WordPress platform, I looked at perhaps more than 100 themes and examples of sites that used them.

Get to the point where you can identify several websites you love so much you’d like to emulate them. Look both inside and outside your industry or niche. For example, I looked at dozens of writers’ websites. But I found most of them to be atrocious. Instead, I loved the sites of graphic designers. For each website you like, make a list of why you like it, as well as how you’d improve it. Website designers tend to be visual thinkers, and so they’ll really appreciate this work. And you’ll have a much better idea of what you want.

2. Write a plan. By spelling out your goals clearly, you’ll not only know what you want, but you’ll be able to evaluate your results in the end. Set aside time to think about your objectives. Schedule several sessions for this task, because you’ll want to refine your plans over time as you clarify your goals.

I was amazed at how many designers thanked me for putting my thoughts into a plan. Most of them said that prospective clients often had only a fuzzy idea about what they wanted in their website, which in turn made it harder for them to create an accurate proposal.

The elements of my plan included:

  • Audience: Who are you aiming your site at, what do they care about, and how can your site provide them with something of value?
  • Site objectives: What do you want the site to do for you? What actions do you want visitors to take?
  • Functionality: What do you want to be able to do on the site? Add updated content? Display your products or creative work? Interact securely and privately with clients? Keep in mind that most users will visit your site using a mobile device; so make sure it uses a mobile-responsive design.
  • Look and feel: If you already have a brand identity, the site will probably serve as your flagship branded communication. If you don’t, your website will define it. Make sure the designer understands your brand personality and can translate it into the look and feel of your website.
  • Problems: Think of all the problems and issues with your current site that you want this new site to solve. I wanted a much better method for keeping my portfolio updated. So I needed a new system to capture samples and display them consistently, easily and elegantly.
  • E-commerce: Do you plan to sell products, classes or events on your site? Do you need special forms other than a standard contact form?
  • Video: Do you want to post videos or external news feeds?
  • Designer/Developer: What do you want the designer/developer to do? Some tasks you may want to delegate include helping you choose a theme, making recommendations on a platform (e.g., WordPress, SquareSpace, etc.), doing the backend development and coding, setting up a blog, optimizing your site for search, searching for and selecting photography, uploading the new site to the host, training on how to use the site, providing a usage manual (very helpful later when you’re adding content and images), and future maintenance and upkeep.

3. Establish a budget and timeline. You can spend anywhere from a few hundred bucks to tens of thousands of dollars for a site. But you get what you pay for. If you set a range for your budget, you can narrow your search to those designers working in your price spectrum and not waste your time (or their time) with designers or agencies you can’t afford. Build in more time than you think you need.

4. Create a shortlist. Once you’ve written a plan and established a budget, start looking for designers. Get referrals from friends and colleagues. If you belong to a professional or trade association, ask members for referrals. Do you admire the websites of some local firms? Call and ask who did their site and whether they’d recommend them. Cull your list to about three designers.

5. Choose carefully. Send your plan to each of the candidates and ask for a proposal. Then you’ll be able to compare their proposals equitably. Schedule a meeting with each, if not face to face, at least on the phone. Don’t discount your gut feelings about intangibles like personality match. After all, you’re entrusting your primary marketing portal to them, one you’ll be living with for next three to five years. Ask to see their portfolio and look at their work carefully. Ask for and check references.

Following these five steps should help you find a great designer. While that is just the beginning of the design process, it should put you on the right track for eventual success.