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How I created 3 great websites in 2 days

Late this afternoon I put out the following message on Twitter, writes Robert Clay of Marketing Wizdom: “Have created 3 stunning websites in 2 days. Used to use vastly expensive web design co who took 6 months to achieve fraction of the same result.”

The tweet immediately excited massive interest. Several people wanted to know what software I had used. A professional web designer from South Africa responded “Impossible … send URL’s please,” which of course I did.

One person said “Wow, three websites in 2 days = impressive!” He then asked me how I achieved such fast website building and how much I’d charge to create a CMS website for him. My response to him, and to anyone else with the same question, is that whilst I can build websites rapidly and very competently, it is not what I do, nor is it a service I am ever likely to offer.

The best I can do is explain what I did and how it came about. So here goes …

In the past I used vastly expensive web designers …

In the past I believed that web design, to be any good, should be left in the hands of the professionals. When a valued client needed a new website a couple of years ago, I immediately suggested a web design company with an excellent reputation, who had developed and refined their own content management system over many years. I had known the owner of the company for nearly a decade, and also knew several of their satisfied clients. So I recommended that they do the design.

The company was briefed in October 2007. They came up with a proposal at the end of November. The proposal was finally approved and the company started work on a “functional specification.” This went backwards and forwards a few times until it was approved in February 2008. It took four months to get this far.

I commissioned a first class copywriter to come up with the copy, based on a 20-page master document we had already created. The copywriter turned the job around in a few days, and the copy was ready to go by the end of February. No problems there. He did an excellent job.

Based on a briefing from the graphic designer who had designed my client’s visual branding, the web designers came up with a mockup of the proposed home page early in March. It went backwards and forwards numerous times before we were happy with it. In mid-May the design was finally approved. It had taken 7 months to reach this stage.

From there the web designers set about building the website. This involved building the main menu structure, which then couldn’t easily be changed, and a series of page templates based on the approved design. They also had to integrate a blog, the means to show random testimonials, random team profiles and a few other small refinements. This took another 6 weeks.

Finally, early in July 2008 we took delivery of the unpopulated website. It had taken 9 months to get this far.

We then added images and copy to all the pages, which took about a day. A few days were spent testing and tweaking the site, and getting the bugs worked out. The finished result was presented to the client and approved. And in mid July it went live.

But all was not well. Fifteen months and many £ thousands after starting the project, the blogs still didn’t work, the content management system was clunky with a dreadful user interface and turned out to be a real pain in the backside … and the client was not happy.

Then I discovered WordPress … and everything suddenly changed

While all this was going on, someone recommended that I look at WordPress. I had looked at it casually some 2-3 years earlier, but wasn’t overly impressed at the time. It was suggested that I should look at WordPress + Bluehost + Woo Themes.

I looked into all three, and was very impressed this time. Set up an account with Bluehost. It was hassle free and only took a few seconds. Transferred my domain across, again a painless process. Within a minute or two I had installed WordPress using tools provided in the Bluehost control panel, and was ready to go.

The back end of the WordPress Content Management System turned out to be VASTLY superior to that used in the very expensive website described above. Yet anyone can install WordPress, and it costs nothing.

I added some pages. It was both easy and intuitive. Arranged them in the order I wanted. Set up my preferences. Downloaded some useful plugins. Found some attractive design themes, many of them available free of charge. Uploaded the ones I liked to the site. Experimented with them. Settled on one I liked and started to build the site.

Even as a novice it took me less than a day in total, excluding ongoing tweaks to the copy. My only outlay was for a few stock images from iStockPhoto, but they weren’t expensive at about $3 apiece (now $5). Within a day I had an excellent website up and running using a very robust platform that was also used by millions of others. And it cost me next to nothing.

Over time I discovered other attractive themes and useful plug-ins that could add extra functionality to the site. I eventually decided to switch to a premium theme. But at $20 a year, it was hardly expensive … and if you’re reading this now at marketingwzdom.com, you’re viewing the final result right now.

I started my blog. Within its first month it ranked in the top 2% in the world. The site is professionally designed, looks good and gets frequent compliments. In its first 7 months it attracted some 150,000 visitors from 90 countries, and ranks within the top 5% of sites in the world. And that’s without even trying.

The WordPress content management system is also extremely robust. And intuitive. I couldn’t say either of those things about the so-called professionally designed website described earlier, even though the developer is considered to be one of the best out there. My WordPress installation made that system obsolete overnight.

Which brings me to the subject of my tweet …

Three new sites in just two days

Having seen how easy WordPress was to use, my partner was often frustrated by the complete ineptitude of some of the web designers she’d had to deal with on behalf of her clients. Trivial matters were often blown up into big issues, and simplest tasks were made to seem impossible to perform.

So when her sister needed a new website for her business, my partner offered to create one for her. As recently as a year ago she would never have dreamed that she would ever be able to put a website together, let alone a decent one. A client for whom she produces newsletters also needed a new website, so she offered to put that one together too.

She initially spent a few days putting the sites together using some free WordPress themes, and getting up to speed on WordPress in general. I felt they needed to look more professional and wasn’t keen on the typography, but found that it was’t too easy to customise them.

Around that time I heard about the Canvas theme from Woo Themes. I checked it out and was very impressed by its capabilities as described on their site http://www.woothemes.com. I suggested to my partner that she should use the Canvas theme, which can easily be customised in dozens of ways.

A few days later we needed a new site to promote an upcoming joint venture with one of my clients. By now I knew exactly what was entailed in putting together a WordPress site, and knew what Canvas was designed to do. I knew I could get the unpopulated site up and running in a matter of hours using WordPress and Canvas.

I then discovered that Woo Themes offers something called the Woo Themes Playground, where you can set up a free account and experiment with any of their themes as if it were installed on your own site. I signed up and in an hour or two had pulled together a really nice customised site using Canvas. And yes it turned out to be every bit as good as claimed.

First website — Sunday

I bought the Canvas theme. It was $70. Within a few minutes my partner’s sister’s site had been switched to Canvas. I spent an hour or two setting up the navigation, pages, posts and styling for the theme, deciding which pages should have three columns; two columns or be full width. In Canvas this is a doddle to set up. It is also extremely easy to set up custom navigation. The theme is a joy to use.

Using Photoshop I came up with a nice full width header image. I’ve been using Photoshop since 1990, soon after it was originally launched, so it only took a few minutes to do this, even though I only use the program occasionally and am now somewhat rusty with it. Loaded the resulting image onto the site. It looked great. Tweaked the colour scheme so that it complimented the header image. Then arranged to meet my partner’s sister to get her feedback and tweak it while we met. That was two days ago.

She liked the design immediately. We spent a couple of hours tweaking it here and there over a coffee. She was delighted. Within hours we had accomplished a whole lot more than the professional web designers had achieved in 9 months, at a cost of £ many thousands. It’s now just a matter of adding the copy and images, which doesn’t take long, and the site will be ready to go live.

Second website — Monday

The following morning, i.e. yesterday, I had arranged to meet a colleague and my joint venture partner to decide what we needed to include on the joint venture website. I decided to create the site there and then in the meeting. This would have been inconceivable a couple of years ago.

We met at a hotel and used their Wifi to connect to the web. I set up a new account with Bluehost. Within a minute WordPress was installed and ready to go. Uploaded the Canvas theme, and we were in business. By now I knew my way around the theme’s customisation options, so it took no time to get up to speed on the finer details.

We decided on the fly which pages would be needed. We created them there and then. We also set up some special blog post categories to use within the navigation, and created several dummy blog posts for each of the special categories to check that the navigation worked as intended. It did. A few minutes later we had created the navigation menu structure using a combination of pages and categories — very easy to do with Canvas.

In fact I learned that Woo Themes’ custom navigation menu set up has impressed WordPress to such an extent that they have delayed the release of WordPress 3.0 to incorporate this functionality into the final release. I can confirm that it revolutionises the construction of navigation menus. You decide what pages or categories you want to use, then just drag and drop them into the sequence you want, edit display names as appropriate and click save. Job done.

We then tweaked the menu descriptions and words a few times. Within a few minutes we were all delighted with the result. Then it was a matter of finalising the look and feel of the site before we went our separate ways again.

I looked through various images I already owned to see if one could be repurposed as a full width header. Found one that was perfect. Cropped it to size. Uploaded it. It looked great. We decided to blend it with a cityscape image to communicate the right message at a glance.

Looked for a suitable cityscape image from a stock image library. Found the right one almost immediately. Bought it there and then. Fired up Photoshop. In a minute or two the two images were blended together (one of my colleagues said he’d had to pay £ thousands in the past to achieve a similar effect) and I added some text to the banner.

Uploaded the banner image to the site. It looked great. Tweaked the colour scheme on the site to complement the header image. Again it really only took a few minutes, and we had a result we were all delighted with.

I gave my colleagues access to the back-end content management system. One of them spent a couple of hours today copying and pasting the appropriate text. It took five minutes to link the site to a third party payment processor. The copy now just needs tweaking, refining and editing. And we need to select and add a few images to lift the pages before the site goes live.

Once again, we accomplished in well under half a day what the web designers took 9 months to deliver … and every part of what we created in that short time works exactly as it should, unlike the vastly expensive web site I described at the beginning of this piece.

Third site — Monday Evening

The third site? When I got back from yesterday’s meeting my partner asked me to help her with her second site. I started after dinner yesterday evening, and the job was completed before I had to go to bed. I spent an hour or two this morning working out how to incorporate an image slide show on the home page. Figured it out with a bit of delving. And hey presto the job was done. And she was delighted.

The end result? 3 great looking websites in less than 2 days. They still need to be populated with copy and images before going live. But that’s not a big job. The point is that using WordPress and Canvas we have accomplished three times as much in two days as the professional web designers managed to accomplish with just one site in 9 months, and at vast cost.

Can anyone create a decent site in half a day?

Can anyone turn out really decent sites this easily? Yes, but with a couple of caveats. Whether the end result looks professional enough to impress is down to your eye for design; flair for colour selection and ability to arrange the elements in a visually appealing manner. An attractive and intuitive user interface also makes or breaks the design for me. Not everyone has those skills and abilities, including plenty of professional web designers. And not everyone has the tools to hand that I had, like Photoshop and Easycrop, or the knowledge of how to use them to produce a particular result. And not everyone will start the task with the workable plan in their head, that I had, from the moment they start using the tools.

I should also point out that when I say “create a site” I’m referring to building a fully functional but unpopulated site. Copy and images would still have to be added. But this is no harder than using a word processor. And if the content has already been planned and written, it doesn’t entail much more than copying, pasting, and uploading the relevant images from your computer to the site. The most time-consuming task, in my experience, is finding the right images to use.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with WordPress, Photoshop and image libraries it might take you a week to achieve the result I was able to produce in half a day. But that’s still way better than the months, vast cost and endless frustration entailed in using some of the traditional web designers out there who still (unwittingly?) use obsolete methods to achieve inferior results at vastly inflated costs. And once the first site is up and running, it won’t take you long to set up a second one based on what you learn from the first one.

People who already know WordPress, Woo Themes’ Canvas, and many of the other good premium WordPress themes won’t be particularly surprised by any of this. But lots of other people will, I’m sure, be shaken to the core. Based on the responses to my tweet earlier, and the considerable interest it generated, this really does change everything!

If you’ve had experience with WordPress and can recommend certain themes or plugins, please share your experiences by leaving your comments below.

Update: Since this piece was written I have moved the Marketing Wizdom site across to Canvas as well.

Please share your thoughts and add your questions to the comments below. I’ll try to provide as many answers as possible in my future online videos, seminars, workshops, masterclasses and blog posts.

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