Why do we call the gift that keeps on re-gifting a “white elephant”? The answer may surprise you, and along the way it offers a valuable lesson about productivity for your website.

It’s Good to Be the King (or His Pet)

In the lands where such beasts could be found — India, Sri Lanka, Siam, Burma — a rare white elephant was once a venerated animal, prized for its pale complexion, housed in regal comfort, attended by a corps of handlers, fed the finest foods. To own a white elephant was a sign of high social status, and kings and princes and poobahs showed off their white elephants to impress their awestricken guests.

Problem was, these elephants ate a lot. And took up a lot of room in the Taj Mahal. And made prodigious piles of elephant poop. And didn’t do a lick of work (unlike their ordinary gray cousins, who were busting their elephant butts). So when they were in ornery moods, Asian kings of old would make a grand and showy gift of a white elephant to the king of some distant land. The rival king couldn’t refuse — the white elephant was too “valuable.” But he knew it was going to eat him out of house and palace. The gift of a white elephant could ruin you.

Sound Like Anybody You Know?

Or anything you know? I’m thinking specifically of your website. Like the venerated white elephant, many websites chew up resources, demand constant attention, and don’t pull their weight in the kingdom. Think about it: If you have a website, your ongoing costs likely include domain name registration, site hosting, content creation, site updates and maintenance, problem resolution. Not to mention the investment you’ve already sunk into the design and development. A website takes cash, and it takes resources. Shouldn’t it be giving something back?

Let’s Do Some Heavy Lifting

Your website shouldn’t just stand there, it should do something. It can save you money — reduce the number of information requests that have to be answered by a person, for example, or deliver documents in PDF format to save printing costs (and trees). It can make you money — through traditional e-commerce, lead generation, or simply by serving as an integral part of your marketing tool chest. In the best case, your website will both save you money and make you money. Do you know how hard your site is working? If not, it’s time to find out. Eight Trails’ website assessment is a good place to start.

“The audience is everything.”

A website should be designed to meet the needs of the site user, not the site owner. Too many companies forget to think like their customers when they design, organize, and develop content for their websites. They create a site designed by committee, organized by company structure, written like an annual report. (If you suspect your site might be one of those, use the checklist in my post 10 Danger Signs of an Underperforming Website to find out.)

There are a number of tools available to you to get to know your site users — web analytics, online surveys, focus groups, user interviews, live user tests, competitive site reviews, clickstream analysis — and the ones you should use depend on the type of information you’re seeking. But doing any of them is better than guessing.

Test Early and Often

If you have an existing site, find out how well it’s meeting your users’ needs. Nothing makes your site’s problems — and often the solutions to those problems — clearer than watching a real live user struggle to find something or make sense out of your clever name for a feature or a website section. You can learn a lot from simple testing in your office, or Eight Trails can do testing for you: We recruit subjects, design a test, moderate the test, and write up the results and recommendations. You’ll end up with a list of immediately actionable items that will improve your site for your users and make it work harder for you.

If you’re redesigning a site, there are opportunities to test before you begin — to gather perceptions and expectations — as well as throughout the design process. Test the designs on paper, test the prototype, test the beta site, test, test, test. It’s simple, cheap, and will yield immediate return.

“If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Peter Drucker, who I’ve quoted in that subhead, must love the Internet. It’s the most measurable medium in our marketing tool chest. What do you want your site to do for you? Are you trying to increase qualified sales leads or decrease telephone information requests? Sell products online or drive traffic to your physical location? Define your goals for your website, then measure the results: Regularly review and compare statistics, clickstreams, and offline results like phone calls and store traffic.

Put Your Elephant to Work

Don’t end up in the history books as the king who was driven to ruin by a white elephant. Plan, test, redesign, maintain, and measure your website to make that beast work as hard as it can for you.

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