magazine | Mar 29, 2021 |
Can you get more out of your website?

What does your website say about your firm? A lot more than you might think. For advice on captivating the client from the first click, we asked pros who specialize in perfecting the digital footprints of interior designers.

Ask designers about their websites and most will groan. They have one, but the mission statement feels out of step with how the firm has grown, or the work on display is out of date. “It’s always a work in progress,” one designer told me recently, explaining that she struggles with striking a balance between articulating the value her firm brings and veering too far into abstraction. “You reread it and you’re like, ‘That’s true, but what does it really mean?’” While we were chatting, she noticed that a recently hired employee wasn’t listed on her site. “See? Never done.” 

That frustration with a firm’s perpetually unfinished website is not uncommon. “I think sometimes a designer’s business evolves faster than their site,” says Susannah Charbin, founder and creative director of The Beaux Arts, a branding and web design agency that specializes in the luxury interiors industry. “When you’re fitting all of your creativity and passion into creating things for other people, it’s hard to create the time and headspace to give that back to yourself.” That disconnect can lead to countless missed opportunities if prospective clients misunderstand who you are or what you do. “Your website is your home online,” she says. “The primary objective of a website is to attract clients, but it’s [also] about authentically conveying your brand story and effectively showing your positioning: the scale of your work, the types of projects you take on.”

Justine Clay, a business coach who helps creative entrepreneurs grow and attract the right clients, says those who come to her for help with their sites often know that something bigger is not working (much like a client who says “I need to repaint” may be using a small task as a stand-in for a larger one). Fixing the website feels like a tangible way to solve your firm’s problems—but if you don’t establish your business goals first, you’re just papering over the cracks.

“The first question I always ask is, ‘What action do you want your prospective client to take?’” says Clay. “And, ‘How can the site help achieve that goal?’ The website is the tangible thing they want to get out of the process, but you have to get all of the positioning and messaging right first in order to have a website that is beautiful, clear and succinct. It’s your number-one marketing and sales tool.”

Clay wasn’t the only one to drive home that a great website is central—even more important than buzzier marketing tools like social media. (If you thought staying active on Instagram was enough to make up for letting your site languish, think again.) “So many designers put most of their energy into Instagram because that’s where they are getting a lot of attention—or they see other people’s successes on the platform and think it’s the right channel for them, too,” says Ericka Saurit, a former interior designer who founded Saurit Creative in 2020 to offer digital marketing to fellow home industry creatives and brands. “But while it’s important to put the right narrative about your brand [on Instagram], we tell our clients that their websites could be working harder for them than they think.”

Designers often mistakenly view their website as an obligation—something they just need to have, says Clay. “But really, it’s the purest articulation of their business model, their message, their positioning and their process,” she explains. “They think it’s a digital shingle, but it’s actually everything they are, expressed succinctly, which means they need to do the work on their business before they create the website.”

Another common (and understandable) misperception among designers is the idea that your site functions primarily as a place to showcase your work. “Creative professionals often use their websites [simply] as online portfolios, which is such a lost opportunity. Sure, people can see what you do, but that’s all,” says Clay. The way she sees it, not utilizing your website as a comprehensive marketing tool means letting dream clients slip away. “The job of your marketing is to get people to your site, and the goal of your site is to be a filter and a guide.”

Every decision that goes into the design of a website is meant to communicate who that designer is. We’ve worked with designers who want to communicate that they are expensive, so that people who just want help with curtains don’t reach out.
Susannah Charbin

So, how do you go about creating a site that can do all that? The answers lie in both web design and content development, with a three-pronged goal for attracting new clients: showing up in their Google search results, having a user-friendly site that resonates with them, and encouraging them to take action. Charbin likens the first step in the process (building a site that ranks high enough in search results that clients can find you) to the construction phase of a project—you have to make sure it’s built properly and the structure is sound. Her priorities aren’t always what you’d think, either. Yes, there’s SEO to take into account, but these days Google also values features like site speed, accessibility and mobile optimization when configuring results. “It’s a lot of technical stuff behind the scenes,” she says. “There’s more of an emphasis on making sure websites can be accessed by everyone, whether that’s how it looks on your phone or designing the site so that people who are visually impaired can navigate it.”

The similarities to designing a home don’t stop there. “In the same way that quality finishes transform a home, every detail of a well-designed website has been taken into consideration—how the color scheme interacts with your photography, typography,” says Charbin. “If you want to look expensive or friendly or approachable, a font can communicate a lot.” Top-notch photography and graphic design provide a strong foundation; from there, her team looks for ways to make the site feel personal and unique while meeting user experience expectations. 

If you’re planning on redoing your site, Saurit suggests starting with the “about us” statement. “Write that to someone who is completely unaware of who you are,” she says. “You get to say, ‘This is who we are, where we come from, and how we work.’ Add that to your homepage and your Instagram profile and it becomes part of the narrative you’ve created for your business.”

If you have the messaging down, but the site itself needs an upgrade, don’t be afraid to try the DIY route first. “Most of the designers I work with have a vision [and] a sense of the aesthetic, and know how they want the site to flow—they just don’t know how to do it,” says Saurit. “With easy-to-use tools like Squarespace, you can build a site in an afternoon. You don’t have to be afraid of breaking something, they have great help files and customer service, and you definitely don’t have to know how to code.” 

That said, Clay cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach. “Don’t pick a template and then reverse-engineer your message to fit the template,” she says. Instead, organize the flow of information you want to achieve, then tailor the platform’s tools to match your vision.

Function comes first for Saurit, who ticks off a list of must-haves—how you work, where you work, and whether or not you are accepting new clients—that should appear throughout the site. You should also assume that some visitors will arrive at your site in unconventional ways, bypassing your homepage. “If you think about what a normal site looks like—there’s a landing page, an about page, a contact page, and a portfolio, projects or gallery page,” she says. “Are they still getting a sense of who you are, what you do and why you do it, no matter where they land [first]?” 

Some designers also add a process page, a strategy Saurit recommends in some cases: “I think that’s important but not essential—it depends on your value proposition and how much of that is tied to educating your client about what the relationship will look like.” Clay has no such hesitations; she says outlining a firm’s process is an essential step that helps clients build confidence and understand next steps, as well as a tool to set boundaries and expectations from the start. “You’re training a client on what they can expect by working with you, and it’s a quick opportunity to position yourself as the expert in the relationship rather than the person someone has hired as a pair of hands,” she explains. “Your website can do all of those things.”

Whatever you choose to communicate, try to do it clearly. “Designers have a beautiful way of talking about their work, but to anyone else, it can sound like another language—too off-putting or complex,” says Saurit. “Just as clients can’t read plans, they also can’t read the design language. [Removing some] of that and adding things that feel more practical and accessible is an easy fix.”

Pairing engaging and informative text with photography helps offer a 360-degree view of a designer’s work. “I know it’s not always possible, but people like to see before-and-afters, because they want to see what you’ve done,” says Saurit. The same effect can be achieved through storytelling. “Prospective clients want social proof, but it doesn’t have to be a testimonial,” she adds. Captions that explain how long the project took or what the client was looking for can add a layer of understanding about the kind of transformation the website’s visitors can expect. from working with you “By explaining that the client’s intention was to create a cozy environment and showing the outcome, that’s something they can get behind. You’re not just showing them a gorgeous new home office—you’re telling them a story.”

For designers feeling stuck, working with a professional can ease the process considerably. That professional may not be a programmer. Yes, some of the work is the web design itself, but much of it is guiding a designer through the soul-searching required to craft copy that defines who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why their work is valuable. “Our clients come to us with a beautiful portfolio—that’s a piece of art in itself,” says Charbin. “Our job is to create the environment that art sits in.”

Marketing is about connecting with people in a way where you can be authentic. I had a client who was tortured by writing a blog or newsletter, but for her, doing an Instagram Live was easy, so that’s what she did to connect
Justine Clay

However, she emphasizes that building a designer’s website isn’t just about crafting a shell around beautiful imagery—it’s about developing a site that will help you achieve your business goals. For example, if you’re looking to expand beyond being the only face of the business, how do you communicate that you have a design team, and that the client might not work with the name on the door? For a recent client, Charbin suggested that the firm build a more robust “about us” page that spotlights all of the team members, not just the lead designer. She has also built sites that create separate pages—one for the principal and another for the design studio as a whole, with text that speaks to how the team operates. 

“Our clients know who they are and what they want to present, but they need a partner to draw out all their thoughts and encapsulate that in the look and feel of their brand,” she says. “The way that we work is very similar to the way our interior designer clients work, even down to the process of creating a website. They are talking to clients who know what they want to achieve, and then help them tease that out into the overall vision. There are a lot of parallels.”

Sometimes even the coaches need coaches. Clay says that she has built ongoing consultations with outside experts into her cost of doing business—a practice that was incredibly helpful when she made upgrades to her own website. “When you’re doing it all on your own, you’re in a hall of mirrors,” she says. “Having someone who helps you see your blind spots, asks questions you wouldn’t think to ask, and will say, ‘I wouldn’t do that, and here’s why,’ is always an investment I’m willing and happy to make.”

Once you’ve nailed the structure and the brand storytelling element, it’s time to consider how you want prospective clients to interact with your site and, by extension, you. A good place to start is making it easy to connect with you. “We don’t necessarily keep all of the contact information hidden [away] on a contact page,” says Charbin. Consider including a phone number and email address visible in the footer menu on every page, or integrating inquiry forms throughout the site so that someone looking at a project can open the form right there instead of navigating to another page.

The key to success is developing a web presence that takes a prospective client on a journey—one that effectively encourages them to prequalify as they opt in for the next step. “You’re sharing your process, learning more about them, and finding out if they’re a good fit, time- and personality-wise, so that they are already a qualified prospect when they book a call with you,” says Clay. “By the time you’re on that introductory call, you don’t have to explain—or sell—what you do.”

For example, Clay’s own website directs would-be clients down one of two paths: “I want people to either join my newsletter or book a call with me. There are two options, because not everyone is going to be ready [for the business coaching call right away]. But by [signing them up for] a newsletter and offering them things that they can do right now without hiring me, I’m top of mind when they are ready, whether that’s two months or two years down the line.”

“Every decision that goes into the design of a website is meant to communicate who that designer is,” says Charbin. “When potential clients see something of quality, an unqualified lead is less likely to inquire, because you’ve made clear the quality of your work from the beginning. We’ve worked with designers who want to communicate that they are expensive, so that people who just want help with curtains don’t reach out.”

Clay encourages designers to take the plunge and include a substantial questionnaire on their contact page. “Everyone is freaked out by the idea, but it is the single most underused and impactful change you can make,” she says. “If someone isn’t willing to answer 12 questions, they’re not going to be an ideal client. So if that turns them off, hooray, I say.”

The questionnaire can also prompt some soul-searching that demonstrates your firm’s value before you’ve even connected with the potential client. “I have found that when people come to an introductory call with me after filling out a questionnaire, they often say, ‘I’m so appreciative that you asked those questions, because I hadn’t asked myself those questions yet,’” says Clay. “It gives people a sneak peek into the process—and for the right people, it will build confidence and trust.”

How you direct a prospective client to answer your questions can make a difference, too. For touchy questions—queries like “What’s your budget?” or “What’s your timing?”—Clay suggests offering a drop-down menu of options instead of an open field. “Everyone says, ‘I don’t know,’ when asked about the budget—so give them a range,” she says. “But if you don’t want to do projects that are just a powder room, don’t put ‘$10,000 and under’ as a choice. Give them ranges based on the services you want to offer, so that they can’t go below your bottom.” 

To suss out a client’s timeline, she recommends a more general range of options—something like “yesterday,” “in the next three months,” or “I’ve got all the time in the world.” Here, too, you can tailor the choices you offer to suit the way you work. No interest in quick-turnaround jobs? Make the speediest timeline six months and you’ve subtly educated that client on what to expect if they choose to work with your firm—or helped them disqualify themselves if they’re looking for something you can’t or don’t want to offer.

Clay suggests that designers also include spaces for clients to freewrite on their questionnaires—especially when it comes to the topic of motivation. Here, the questions you ask can tell the clients just as much about what you value as their answers will tell you about them. “Asking, ‘How would this improve the way you feel about your home and your ability to feel supported by this house?’ helps them start to envision what a designer can do for their quality of life,” she says. She also encourages designers to ask, “Why now?” to get clients talking about the gap between where they are, where they want to be, and what the solution would look like. “Then, on the call, you can speak to the things that are important to them and explain how your process supports them,” adds Clay. “Getting inside your clients’ heads and [figuring out] what’s put them off until now [can help you identify] what would make it easier for them to move forward.”

Of course, clients want to get inside your head, as well, and the way most designers have chosen to make that happen is with a blog. For more than a decade, the blog has been a hallmark of many design
businesses—beloved by some, and loathed by perhaps just as many. The good news for all the resentful bloggers out there who are only doing it for SEO? You can stop. 

Yes, blogging still has upsides, like creating a trove of content that might turn up in search results. But the online landscape has shifted plenty, too. “Having a lot of information on your site is going to help people find you from a search point of view, but if the content isn’t valuable or doesn’t complement the story you’re telling, I wouldn’t have it on there,” says Saurit. “The way indexing works, it may take six months or more, but if you are in tune with your value proposition and creating your content around that, you will eventually rank higher for those things. Unless you have a budget for SEO, focus more on creating a beautiful, sincere, authentic site that speaks to your brand. If people are looking for you, they’ll find you.”

It’s not that SEO doesn’t matter, it’s just that there are new ways to check that box without the time suck of blogging. “If you have 10,000 words or more on your website, Google puts you in the ‘expert’ category, which impacts how they rank you,” says Clay. “If you don’t want to do a blog, create resource articles instead [to hit the word count], and then include phrases that clients are searching for in order to find you on every page.” Platforms like Wordpress and Squarespace have SEO keywording baked in, which allows you to rename pages on the back end or add more hidden keywords for each page, giving you an added boost.

That doesn’t mean you should bail on content creation altogether. While a great website can work harder for your firm than most designers ever imagined, its impact is far more powerful within an ecosystem of other tools. That means you’re still on the hook to create something, even if it’s not a blog post. “You’ve got to have a strategy that encompasses all aspects of where people are,” says Saurit. “At the bare minimum, have a beautiful site that’s informative, easy to use, describes what you do and showcases your work. And if you can, capture and send emails. Then, take all of that content and share it on social media—Instagram at minimum, but also Pinterest. It doesn’t all have to be new content, though. You can also reuse and repurpose bits and pieces across platforms.”

For Clay, having a blog still holds a certain appeal—and if you’re in the same camp, there are ways to leverage that content for maximum impact. For example, each of her posts becomes a newsletter, a practice that has helped her hone who her ideal clients are, what they care about and what they aspire to. “If a client articulates a problem or challenge, it’s fair to assume that other people have those concerns, too,” she says. “If you make it your business to write about the things that are important to them, you don’t need to think about SEO at all.” 

It can also be helpful to remember why you started blogging in the first place—and that your blog isn’t just a tool to get you noticed by Google. “A blog is a way to communicate some personality behind your brand,” says Charbin. “It’s somewhere for clients to go and get the feeling that they’re having an intimate conversation with you.”

With blogging, consistency is key. But if you’ve got a handful of older posts collecting cobwebs in your archive, there are a few workarounds—starting with removing the dates from them so it’s less obvious that you haven’t written a new one in months. A section on the site where you can write about the stories behind your projects has the same effect—and you don’t have to update it every two weeks. 

Testimonials are another compelling way to drive up the amount of copy on your site, though they are harder to repurpose into newsletter or social media content. In order to get meaningful feedback from past clients, give them a framework to follow so that you don’t wind up with a paragraph of platitudes. “A good testimonial says, ‘Here’s where I was before, here was the transformation, and here are three tangible benefits I’ve received by working together,’” says Clay. “People talk about their processes, and that’s important, but you’re also selling an outcome.”

If all of this content creation sounds exhausting, there’s a silver lining: There are ways to develop a site that showcases your unique talents that requires you to struggle through a draft only once. “If you’re not a writer and don’t want to churn out a blog post every week or two, create beautifully designed resource articles that people can download,” suggests Clay. Consider creating thoughtful posts on what clients need to know about working with a designer, parts of the design process they often misunderstand, or costly mistakes a designer can help them avoid, which will boost your site’s word count while also educating prospective clients.  

That said, it’s worth investing in quality content if you go this route. “In this day and age, you have to provide value,” says Saurit. “Whatever you’re giving them—whether it’s a gift guide, a seasonal refresh guide, or a document on what to expect when you hire an interior designer—it should tie back to the value of your business. You’re providing this service for free in exchange for an email address that gives you entry into a person’s inbox, which is pretty sacred.”

A genuine approach, above all, is what will shine through. “It’s OK to not be a blogger,” says Clay. “Marketing is about connecting with people in a way where you can be authentic. I had a client who was tortured by writing a blog or newsletter, but for her, doing an Instagram Live was easy, so that’s what she did to connect.”

“If you do a blog well, it can be a great thing,” adds Charbin. “Some interior designers have grown whole businesses through their blog. But unless you can run it properly—posting frequently, and with internal team support to make it happen—it’s better not to have one.” 

There’s another approach to all of this: an analytics-driven strategy espoused by Justin Page Wood, who has been designing minimalist, no-fuss websites for interior designers for more than a decade. “I’ve looked at the data to see what’s working and what’s not doing anything for the business,” he says. “I see higher engagement when the site is clear about what the designer’s specialty is, and then clients want to see photos that connect with that unique specialty.” Everything else, he argues, can be stripped away in favor of directing the would-be client to fill out a form and schedule a call. 

Wood’s websites are intentionally lean. “The biggest thing I see is too much information, which leads the client to not know what to do,” he says. “Sites with less content tend to perform better: If a website that had three photos said, ‘We do interior design for doctors in Dallas,’ and had a button that read, ‘Fill out a form to schedule a call,’ that’s going to do better than 99 percent of designer sites out there. You can show them everything once they call.”

That doesn’t mean you have to take every call. Wood uses a three- to five-
question form to weed out wrong-fit clients. Like Clay, he suggests providing drop-down answers that speak to your preferences (i.e., under the question “Where do you live?” give only options for cities or states where you want to work; under “What’s your style?” include only ones you like). Then, take the call with anyone who fills out the form. The one topic he doesn’t recommend asking about directly: the project budget. “Even if a client has $1 million to spend, they don’t want to say that initially, but there are ways to work around that,” he says. Instead, he asks leading questions about how many square feet, or how many bedrooms or bathrooms the home includes. 

Your blog, an archive of your portfolio, the press you’ve gotten and awards you’ve won—your prospective client doesn’t care about any of it, he says. “None of that secondary stuff gets clients,” he insists. “Blogs and press clippings just end up being a distraction.
I recommend putting anything like that in the footer, if you have to include
it. That way it’s still accessible, but not distracting the client from scheduling
a consultation.”

Oh, and once you’ve uploaded your photos, written your copy and built the form? Ignore the site, as long as the calls keep coming in. “It’s a set-it-and-forget-it thing,” says Wood. “Maybe you’ll need to update a photo from time to time, but if [the site is] working, let it do its thing.”

No matter what school of thought you ascribe to, your digital footprint is essential—and probably being underutilized.

“The website is not just a way to get new clients. We’re also figuring out how it can support the growth goals of the business,” says Charbin. “It should show your best projects, your strongest visual identity, and then ensure that everything else around it—email, social media, offline documents and presentations—reflect that branding so clients are connecting with that across all touch points.”

Despite the many approaches to building out a designer’s website, there is a core universal truth: The messaging and processes you create should reflect the kind of relationship a client will have with your firm if they choose to move forward. Honesty really is the best policy. “It’s like a dating profile,” says Clay. “Don’t say you’re easygoing if you’re not!” 

Homepage image: © DragonImages/Adobe Stock

This article originally appeared in Winter 2021 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

Thank you to our Advertisers