Rethink your Startup Website: Make a Net, not a Funnel

Everybody tells you to build a funnel for your startup website. That is, have 1,2, or 3 pages that serve to take the site visitor from reading something that interests them to buying/signing-up for your product.

They are wrong. Here’s my experience.

A few years ago I wrote a small site called paycheck-stub.com. The potential traffic looked good, and I thought it might be fun doing a site with paycheck trivia. Since the topic was money-related, perhaps there were some people visiting that wanted to buy something. Specifically I was thinking about those payday loans you read about. You know, you look at last week’s paycheck stub and think “Gee. Sure would be nice to borrow 50 bucks before next payday.” My working theory was that people were looking at their paycheck stub and wondering what kind of loan they could get from it, what was their paycheck stub good for?

So armed with this theory, I completed the site, and sure enough, a year or two later I had a lot of visitors. The only problem is, they were not doing what I expected them to do. People were visiting, poking around a bit, then leaving. I had placed a couple of loan ads, but got very few takers.

Confused about how so many people could visit and still I was clueless about what they wanted, I logged on to the Hacker News IRC channel and asked the room “Can anybody help? I have a site I don’t know what to do with.”

After a very interesting sidebar conversation with a guy for about an hour or so — no, I am not trying to trick anybody, yes, I am always interested in making the content better, etc — we came up with a list of six or seven things people visiting the site might like.

“But there’s no way I can code all of that up based on the traffic and income of the site,” I moaned, “I have enough material here to spend the next three months trying things out, and the return from the site simply isn’t worth it.”

“So don’t do that. Just make some buttons with these items on it. When pressed, record it over in Google Analytics. Then you’ll know more about what people are looking for.”

So I made buttons. One button said “I want to create a fake paycheck”. One button said “I need a payroll system”. One button said “I need a loan” And so on.

Bingo. This simple idea, turning around the workflow from push-based to pull-based, changed my entire site and the way I think of sites in general. You see, like most startups, I really don’t know what people want, I just know what I’m offering them. I can’t construct too much of a theory about what they want and spend tons of time developing on my theory. Instead, I have to get some feedback from them as I go along. Otherwise I waste a lot of time and resources.

So the best thing to do is to engage first, covering as many of the angles of things people might be interested in as possible, then instrument the hell out of it. This was the beautiful thing Facebook did when they started. They didn’t want you to do anything but what you wanted to do naturally, they just wanted to pay close attention and help. The money comes later.

Now if you visit the page paycheck stub sample, I know that you’ll most likely read the entire page. Half the time you’ll go onto another page, usually “Example of a paycheck stub” Why? Because you are researching the format of a paycheck, that is, you have to make a paycheck for somebody and are trying to figure out how to do it on your own. Any click you make, including outgoing links, downloading templates, clicking on ads, or going off to Amazon, I’m watching. I’m carefully listening to your side of the conversation. In fact, I want to give you lots of options and watch what you do. That way I can learn more about what to provide you. Because of what I’ve learned, I’m able to remove most of the Google ads and just provide a link to a couple of nice online payroll systems. As time goes on, more and more ads disappear and more and more links for what you want appear directly in the text. That makes the site cleaner, more informative, and more naturally-flowing for the reader.

Every startup I have ever read about has to pivot at some point, change direction. If you’re thinking in terms of a funnel, the only thing a web presence is going to give you is a headache. You’ll know people leave at some point but you’ll never really know why. If, however, you’re thinking in terms of a really slow and difficult conversation, a net, then you have a shot at listening instead of talking so much.

Make a net, not a funnel. Funnels say you know what people want and are measuring how good you are at getting them there. Nets say you have no idea what they want and are interested in what they have to say. Once you are making something people want, then make a funnel. Until then, make a conversation.

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3 thoughts on “Rethink your Startup Website: Make a Net, not a Funnel

  1. Scott Golembiewski

    Hi Daniel,
    Great post! I agree 100%! Another thing you can do is usability testing, not sure if you tried that yet. I’m not talking about paying a company $20,000 like Google, and other big corporations do, just pull up a chair and sit next to someone who’s never been on your site and watch.
    You can take notes, jot down the little mumblings they make as they are browsing your site, and then go back and make small changes.
    Once you’ve done that, you look at your analytics and see a good click-through rate, low bounce rate, and a high conversion rate (whether its to sign up for a newsletter, or a click on an affiliate link) you can run the numbers and see if it would make sense to invest in some higher traffic ie: SEO / SEM / Social etc.
    Starting off with a net is wise, but developing a funnel based on that data is going to increase the revenue you make from the site, wouldn’t you agree?

    Reply
  2. Dimitrios Kalemis

    Daniel, excellent post. I think the same logic should apply to bosses and how they handle their subordinates. What’s more, what you write here encompasses the whole spectrum of human interactions and not just startup websites. Another example: Do we want our education to function as a net or as a funnel? Isn’t it better to reach out to children and young people the same way you propose to reach out to a startup web site’s visitors? I think you are on to something interesting, here.

    Reply

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