What Is the “Second Act Slump” for New Web Site Projects?

Each spring, there’s a screenwriting contest put on by the people that run the Oscar’s. It’s called the Nicholl Fellowship — the top screenwriting contest in existence. If you win a Nicholl, you get $35k in prize money, for which you’re supposed to write another feature screenplay during the following year. So, you basically live on that money while you write. Not bad, eh? It’s highly prestigious, of course; if you win a Nicholl Fellowship, you’ve got instant (and significant) credibility in that field and can likely parlay the prize into a screenwriting career, if that’s your desire. Not only that, but if your screenplay is good enough to win, you’ll likely also sell it, which makes the prize even more lucrative.

I entered one other time, about 10 years ago, and plan to do so again, mostly because I enjoy screenwriting. Ideally, if I were in that industry, I’d probably like to write and direct my own films. But, for the purposes of the contest, one has to hold back from too much direction. The industry famously doesn’t like it when screenwriters direct (meaning offering too much direction-type language within a screenplay), although many movie-fanatics intrepid enough to get into screenwriting probably have natural tendencies to want to direct, as well. So, that can be a challenge. Yet, each year, many thousands enter this giant, crazy contest.

Screen Writing and Web Sites Are Related?

What I wanted to address here in this web design article, though, is a similarity I often encounter between the two fields. I call it the “Second Act Slump for New Web Sites.” The word “new” there is key, as this phenomenon applies mostly to new sites rather than existing ones.

Many years ago (mid-90s), I worked in a mall in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, at a place called The Museum Company. It was, as any retail mall job is, at times fairly soul-crushing. But, the people were nice, and at least in this store you did get to learn about art techniques and famous artists. The store sold replicas of things in museums, as well as other merchandise with licensed imagery. Monet posters, Miro ties, cuff links inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright designs… that sort of thing.

I got to chatting one day with an older co-worker, Lucille, about screenwriting. She said she had this “amazing idea.” Turned out it was so amazing, she wouldn’t reveal another word about it, except to reiterate how amazing it was. She never uttered a single thing more about the story, but definitely had a vision of grandeur in mind.

Later in the late 90s when I got into HTML and started doing web sites, I’d talk to people with similar takes on their visions. One woman was a fitness model who wanted an “awesome” web site. She couldn’t articulate what exactly it was about the site that would be awesome. Rather, she just said things like, “my site could be *so* amazing, so awesome … it could just be the coolest thing ever.”

Commonly, people (myself included) tend to conceptualize artistic projects in that very broad way. For example, if it’s a movie, you might have some general idea like, “I imagine a super-awesome movie about [fill in the blank]. It’s gonna be so amazing because the character is ultra clever and gets into insanely wild situations and narrowly escapes, and …” so on and so forth. So, in your mind, you build up this immense impression of greatness — thrills, excitement, etc. And that’s all wonderful; I’m not criticizing that part at all. I do it, too, and it’s often a part of the creative process.

But then you get to work on it. Maybe you’re doing a screenplay where you’re following a normal three-act structure. In the first act, you introduce your character and, since you’ve got such a clear vision of him or her, maybe the introduction comes out fairly easily. All’s well and good in creativity land…

Sooner or later, though (hopefully sooner) you’ll find that all of those vague notions of the character being “super clever” require specific examples. It’s not enough to simply have a character *be* super clever; that has to be demonstrated. Same for the “insanely wild situations.” It’s easy to imagine, in some abstract way, that there are unbelievable-crazy situations a character might encounter and narrowly escape from. But when you’re actually building out the story, you have to do the work of creating those situations and of imagining specific action and dialogue to undoubtedly demonstrate the cleverness. Moreover, these scenes should probably fit into the overall story fairly well.

Decoupling Conception from Execution

So, I’m describing two hugely different things : (1) the conceptualization, where you’re dealing with impressions and possibilities and the emotional impact that your screenplay / web site / project needs to have, versus (2) the actual, concrete specifics of all that. For reasons I’ll leave to psychologists to elucidate, one can fairly easily mentally skip over specifics and simply revel in the feelings you want to create in the end — and that’s a huge problem.

In screenwriting, there are infamous troubles that screenwriters get into, relating to the phenomenon I’m describing here. There is the famous “second act slump,” for example, which arguably relates to not having many of the specifics mentioned here fully established. It’s called this because you probably have a vision of your movie’s introduction (much of Act 1), and some idea of the outcome (vaguely, Act 3), but you don’t yet have the main action of the plot worked out (much of Act 2).

Now, Act 2 usually represents the bulk of the work. In a two-hour film, the introductory act lasts roughly 30 minutes, as does the final act that resolves the story. That leaves a whole hour of stuff in the middle — a chasm that you may not be able to cross without the turbo-charged rocket that is your main plot, substance, action, storyline, etc.

Hopefully, you’re thinking: Okay, Jim, you’ve pontificated about formulaic screenwriting for 28 paragraphs, even though you’ve never sold a screenplay. But, aside from that, what’s your point about web sites?

Okay, I’ll get there… First, naturally, much of this in the web world relates to new sites more than it does to existing ones. Existing web sites, while they may be in need of a redesign, usually have most of the specifics worked out in terms of content, functionality, and processes.

New sites, however, are blank slates on all fronts, and decisions need to be made about design, content, structure, SEO, marketing, and more. The point of this entire article is that it’s vital, at least when you’re working with a web development company, for the web site to address all of the specifics I’m speaking of here. There are two primary ways of doing so:

1. The DIY Approach

The first way is to do it yourself. Maybe you’re a company with a marketing director or an art director, for example. (Executives / owners also are okay for this step, but I tend to not recommend having corporate IT people take charge of this.) What you need to do is sketch out said specifics. What information, specifically, needs to be on this web site? How should it be organized? Who is your target demographic? What type of design might appeal best to that demographic? etc.

I could list out 50-odd considerations here, any of which may be more important to you than others depending on your company and goals. It’s tricky because, if you’re not a web developer, you may not know which considerations are relevant and which are not. And that can mean you’re not focusing on areas you should be focusing on!

Basically, though, if you’re driven enough to handle this, then chances are you’re going to do just fine.

2. The Web Development Company Approach

In this scenario, quite simply, your company hires a web development company to spearhead the planning out of a recommended architecture, design, and implementation of the web site. It will still be a collaborative process, of course. But, by having a web development company in the loop from the get-go, you’re getting the benefit of a considerably wider and informed perspective that will likely significantly affect the plan, and will likely save a lot of headaches. Obviously, this approach raises the budget, as it requires much more work from the web development firm — and, that budget item can range widely depending on the scope and goals of your site.

Which is Better?

What I can tell you is this: I’m writing from the perspective of a web development company. In this capacity, I get to peek behind the scenes of marketing operations of all shapes and sizes — from solo entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop shops to some fairly large corporate structures across the country. If I were to speak broadly and frankly about the specific barriers to success I encounter most commonly in the professional world, vis-a-vis web site planning and development, the list would include:

  • Doing things wrong — people screwing up a lot of things that they should not be, often building a messy situation that is unstable and/or difficult to maintain. This could pertain to the system / process the client has for posting content, the way design is handled, other back-office prep work that affects the web site, etc.
  • Overcomplication — expending extraordinary effort to do things when the same things could be done much easier some other way. (Similarly, failure to automate that which can be automated.)
  • Cringe-worthy information organization — ponderous, non-intuitive navigation schemes
  • Poor communication — bizarre wording, lack of marketing acumen and/or salesmanship, unclear language choices
  • Technical illiteracy — inability of administrators to organize files properly on a server, zero to low knowledge of basic HTML or CSS (two of the *absolute basics* in the online publishing world), fairly low appreciation for mobile platforms, fairly low appreciation for browser variety, fairly low appreciation for social media marketing, fairly low appreciation for how servers work, doing things like posting 5mb photos where 200k versions would work fine (and not understanding why that’s bad)
  • Inability to produce content — client lacks someone with an ability to easily churn out half-way decent copy on a regular basis
  • Myopic tendencies — excessively / overly focused on items so inconsequential that a reasonable person could not imagine why the concern exists at all (vs. big-picture thinking)
  • Inability to change — self-explanatory, but can affect a web site in many ways.
  • Insufficient design experience — site starts out clean, but grows unattractive over time as design best practices aren’t followed (likely due to a lack of tech ability more than it’s because of poor design ability). Related: Insufficient skill for producing graphics, and lack of knowledge of related graphics issues
  • No follow-through — (common in SEO plans) company does not take the recommended actions
  • The “Field of Dreams” Problem — unimaginably misguided belief that simply building / launching a web site (no marketing or SEO plan needed) will produce amazing organic traffic all on its own. Trust me: If you build it, they will NOT simply come.
  • Budget not commensurate with expectations — goals / scope unrealistic given budget restrictions, possibly due to a budget that should frankly be revisited for mid- to large-sized organizations.
  • Too busy — not enough time in the day to properly give attention to various needs of the project

Many of these are closely related, and often one is the result of another. The point, though, is that, if you’re good at *all* of those items (and many people today are very good at all of them), the chances are really great of your being able to scope out the specifics dealt with in this article. If not, you should outsource the work to a company that can take all of those types of concerns, and more, into consideration on your behalf in order to roll out the optimal web site and related systems / processes for ongoing success.

What needs to happen, in short, is a whole lot of decision making; the hard, substantive work of structuring the specifics of your vision needs to be carried out. I’m at a loss to think of anyone more qualified to take the lead on that than an experienced web development company.

I’ll leave you with a scene I’m reminded of from the movie Wonder Boys. It speaks to the artists’ / creators’ need to make decisions. To me, this means you have to do the work I’m describing here.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece adapted from “Hollywood Sign” by Gnaphron (Flickr, Creative Commons).