microsite noun an individual web page or a small cluster of pages which are meant to function as a discrete entity
The web is filled with microsites. It seems that every campaign – and sometimes every target audience for a campaign – has a microsite for it. For many people, it's the default request when they want something new published on the web.
As a digital professional – whether you're a project manager or designer or content strategist or CMS developer or something else – make your default response be "no." Instead, build the case for needing one to better serve your users' needs and your business goals. Of course that means knowing why they do not make make good business sense most of the time – and when they do.
Bad reasons to make a microsite
Let's start with when you should not just rush off and build a new site when asked.
1) A stakeholder/executive/client asks for one
If you keep making microsites just because someone asks for one, you need to look at your processes. The people making the request have goals. They are experts in whatever it is they do. You are an expert in making digital products. You can help them meet their goals. But not if you blindly follow their direction. Ask questions instead to uncover the problem and guide them to a solution.
One time my web team had a request for a new microsite because that's what had always been done before. When I talked with the stakeholder who requested it, I found out that the sites had never resulted in many applications for the program. We talked about the target audience, their needs, and the business goals. This time, we added just a few pages to the main website and created a promotion plan. They ended up with a record number of applications for that year's program. Much less work for better results.
2) You need something done in a hurry
Is it really faster to make a whole new site, get people and search engines going to a new URL, and having a plan for what to do with it when that need no longer exists? If so, you have big problems, my friend.
3) You don't have a way to add new content to your main website
Like number 2, this is a symptom of a bigger problem. And you're not alone in having it. Have a heart-to-heart conversation with someone who can solve the problem of having a website that cannot be updated. Frequent, timely updates are a feature of website, not a nice-to-have option.
Good reasons to make a microsite
Notice I didn't say "never make a microsite"? That's because there are good reasons for having them. David Hobbs has made a Microsite Checklist that you can print and keep handy for the next time it comes up (because it will!).
It might be OK to make a microsite if any of the following statements are true AND you have a stated business goal.
1) The target audience is very focused and has needs that are different than your main website
Occasionally you have a niche audience to serve, and that audience would not likely go to your organization's main website in search of the information. But if that audience is merely a subset of your usual audience, you may be better off addressing their needs on your main site with content explicitly targeted to them along their journey.
2) Content and goals are different than your main website
As with a niche audience, you may need to publish content that is wildly different from that which you normally publish. Notice I use the term "publish" here. Think about your website as a publication. If it were a magazine, would you have a special issue devoted to this content? A spin-off magazine? If so, then perhaps a microsite is the right answer. If it's more likely a column or an article in a regular issue, keep the content on your main site.
3) A campaign is part of a coalition of multiple organizations and needs a home outside of any one of their main websites
Sometimes you partner with other organizations and so you need branding and content that is different than any of the individual organizations. Likely you also have a niche audience and unique content and goals too. Still, follow the rules of planning and governing when creating this kind of site. Have a plan for what happens when the partnership dissolves.
4) Piloting a new CMS or process
Trying something new? Go ahead and spin it up following that new process or build it in a new content management system. Just be sure to have a plan for what happens next. If it's successful, how will the content be incorporated into the main site? If it's not successful, what will happen? It's never alright to leave a website to rot on the world wide web forever. (Sometimes we do say never.)
Have a plan and a model as guides
To stop the madness of constantly multiplying microsites, you need a strategy for adding new content. That strategy probably involves a domain and content model. And you need to have that BEFORE the next request comes in.
There is never a good time to take a step back and work on your strategy. But if you can manage to work on your models a bit at a time – like when someone asks for a microsite – before you know it, it will be easier, faster, and more effective to add content to your existing website or spin up that new microsite that really is needed.
Oh, and all of these reasons to have a microsite can be used to audit your existing sites. Make a list of all your sites (you will likely be shocked by how many there are and how long it's been since some were updated or accessed) and evaluate them based on this list. Then make your consolidation plan.