How to write a website creative brief
Do you want readers to spend more time, read more stories, register for more services, or buy more products from your site? Of course you do. What you need (in addition to great content) is a standout website design that spotlights your brand and meets your readers’ needs so well it’s like you’re reading their minds.
A good Web designer can do this for you with a combination of inspired creativity and rigorous usability that will steal readers and dollars from your competition. However, unless you’ve hired one of those rare mind-reading designers, you’ll need to help them out with a deeply researched, clearly written strategic document called a creative brief.
A creative brief is like a requirements document, but it’s for your Web designer rather than your developer. Before we get into the step-by-step building of a creative brief, it’s useful to know what a creative brief is not:
- Something you can copy and paste
- A fill-in-the-blanks form
- Easy to write
If you are doing a cosmetic redesign of your website without extensive functional changes, the website creative brief can actually serve as most of your requirements document. If you’re doing a full redesign, it is a necessary companion to the requirements document.
So, what are the components of a website creative brief? My favored approach includes these steps:
- Big picture
- Website objectives
- Who is the audience?
- Unique selling proposition (USP)
- Brand character
- Mandatory items
- Success metrics
This is where you give the designer high-level background information about your business, using declarative statements: “This is what’s happening” and “This is what we want to do about it”. Don’t forget to explain the biggest obstacle to success. Keep the big picture to a paragraph or two.
This is a paragraph or two summarizing the important business objectives or outcomes you expect from your site.
It isn’t a feature list.
Instead, your objectives should explain the ultimate goals and/or criteria for success of the redesign. These might include statements like:
- Get readers to double the amount of time they spend/content they consume on the site
- Make people want to organize into communities on our site
- Increase subscriptions to our premium content section
Think hard about who your real competitors are. Some competitors may be online only. You may want to check out this article on benchmarking your site against competitors. List each competitor and include at least the following information about each:
- Traffic rank (use compete.com or Quantcast for comparative traffic numbers)
- What they’re doing (notable product or advertiser initiatives)
- Strengths and weaknesses
- How is the competitor putting pressure on your readership and revenue
- Which sites or components of competitors’ sites meet your audiences’ needs?
- What is the perception of your brand vs. competitors?
- What sets your brand apart from your competitors?
- How is the content on the site unique, distinguished from any other content that’s available on other websites?
The designer needs to know a lot more about your audience than demographic data from your media kit. They need to get inside your readers’ heads.
If you don’t speak face-to-face with a representative sampling of your readers regularly, then spend a few hours doing so before beginning this exercise. Do not fall into the “focus group of one” trap. You’re not designing a site for yourself – you’re designing it for your readers. You are not a valid proxy for your readers.
Here are the kind of questions you might answer for your designer in order to paint a clear picture of your audience and what they care about. (Add your own questions that make sense for your publication):
- Detailed demographics (but don’t stop at that!)
- What do they read?
- What motivates them, frustrates them or makes them laugh?
- What kind of house do they live in?
- Are they customers? Prospects?
- Do they love our publication? Hate our publication? Why?
- How does the publication fit into their lives?
- How often do are they online?
- What do they do online?
- Do they visit competitors’ sites? Which ones?
- What should the users’ first thoughts be after engaging with the site post-redesign?
- How Web-savvy/technically sophisticated is this audience?
- What are the needs of this audience that must be met by the site? What solutions are they looking for?
- How strong is our brand equity with your audience?
- Who is the secondary audience?
Ideally, you’ll be able to develop two or three “personas” from this exercise. A persona is simply a character you synthesize from knowledge of your audience. It’s exactly like writing a character description in a novel. Check out this article by the masters of personas and all things conversion-related at Future Now for an excellent overview of the persona process.
What is the single most motivating and differentiating thing you can say about your website to the target audience to make them act in the desired way? The USP concept is old, but it still works:
Your USP must say to your audience, “use this website, and you will get this specific benefit.”
- The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique—either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made by competing publications
- The proposition must be so strong that it persuades new readers to register or subscribe to your publication.
Tests for your USP:
- Does it immediately communicate precisely what you want to say?
- Does it contain a fact about the brand you didn’t know before you started writing? Is it surprising or thought-provoking?
- Does it contain a strategic insight?
- Does it contain a benefit to the reader?
- Do you believe it?
If the answer is ”no” to any of these, your USP isn’t very compelling.
Coming up with a killer USP for your brand isn’t enough. You must be able to back it up, and show why readers should believe you. Make a list of factual statements that substantiate your USP and make it credible. Do not list extra USPs or facts that aren’t related to the USP.
If you are redesigning a website for a 100-year-old publication, digging into the subtleties of the brand may seem like a silly exercise. Everybody already knows what the brand is, right? If that’s your situation, it’s imperative that you get out of the office and talk to actual readers to get out of that rut. You are sure to learn a lot of useful things about your brand and what your audience thinks about your current site.
Describe your editorial voice. That’s the way you speak to your readers and will largely determine how those readers feel about your brand. How do you want people to feel about the brand after they’ve used your website? What should be the audience’s #1 takeaway from the redesigned site?
Use strong, direct, language. Avoid jargon at all costs. Don’t use a 3-syllable word when a 1-syllable word will do.
Every publication has certain items that cannot be left to the discretion of the designer or that inform the creative direction. It’s important to spell these out.
For example, do you have an editor who is so well-known that she is the de facto “face of the magazine”? Well, you’d better tell your designer.
If your number one goal is growing your email list, you may include the item “subscription form on every page”. Your designer, if he’s good, may push you to justify that or suggest another way to accomplish the underlying goal of increasing subscriber growth.
Maybe you need a certain ad unit to always appear above the fold because of advertiser commitments. Getting these right up front will save you frustration and lost time later.
How will you know if the design was successful? You need some success metrics. Some metrics you might consider include:
- Increase in user engagement metrics such as pages per visitor, time on site
- Increase in registrations
- Increase in revenue (if your site has an ecommerce product)
- Increase in community activity such as comments posted
The brief is not the end of the process
The creative brief should be … brief. Though you will spend hours thinking, researching and writing it, resist the temptation to show all that hard work to your designer. Boil it down to the essentials, avoid jargon, and try to throw some creative sparks the designer can use to start a flame.
After your designer has had a little time to read and digest the creative brief, have a brainstorming session. The purpose of this session is to start the flow of ideas and get your designer inspired and excited about the project. To that end, avoid killing crazy ideas the designer has or hard-selling any ideas from the business side. In the middle of this creative ferment, it's key to keep the discussion on the path marked out by the creative brief.
I guarantee that you'll get a better website design if you use a creative brief. It will also force you to re-evaluate your brand and its possibilities. That alone makes writing a creative brief a worthwhile endeavor.