Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.

You fundraise, you shoot, and you fundraise some more. Years pass, and still, you toil. Finally: a finished film. And then, the question: “What about a website?”

You aren’t a website producer — you make films. Still, you know you need a site to help market your work. But websites aren’t free, and if you want yours to look good, chances are you can’t just have your friend’s 15-year-old son do it for you. So how much should you spend? What will it take? And at the end of the day — how will you know if it was worth the expense?

To answer these questions, we first need consensus on what, exactly, comprises an effective documentary website. Below I’ve rounded up a few recommendations based on my own experience. In the coming weeks, I’ll reach out to filmmakers, web producers, designers and awards organizations, and offer their perspectives. We’ll look at examples, and hear from fans of documentary film. Finally, I hope to hear from many of you — the filmmakers. After reading this series, I want you to get a clearer idea of what it takes to create a site that dramatically extends the reach and impact of your film. Then, with this foundation in place, we’ll look at the question of cost.

So let’s get to it. I submit that creating a great documentary website requires the following:

1) Plan Early — Plan for your website at the outset of the filmmaking process, therefore integrating website production costs (such as digital rights clearances and web production staff) into your production budget and fundraising process. Translation: your website is not an afterthought, either financially or creatively. If you plan for your site upfront, you’ll be ready to launch the site early enough to build an audience for your film before its release (and your site will have enough search engine visibility to continue attracting new interest).

2) Goals Before Graphics — Any money you spend on your site will be wasted if you can’t define the return that you and/or your funders expect on your/their investment. For example, if your primary objective is to sell DVDs, you will make different choices when designing your site than if your primary goal is to advocate healthcare reform (e.g. a big “sign the petition!” button at the top of the homepage won’t help DVD sales). While you may be tempted to zip past this strategic planning phase and go right into decisions about colors and features (“let’s have a podcast!”), trust that taking the time to define your goals upfront will pay off in the long run.

3) Hub and Spokes — Your site is the hub of a grassroots campaign to build interest in your film — an online calling card around which discussion and engagement can take place. Accordingly, it’s critical that you take the time to figure out online engagement strategies, which could include building a strategic presence on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, or creating partnerships with popular blogs, websites and/or organizations related to your film. In other words: it is not enough to just launch your website and wait for the “hits” to start piling up. Your audience is already swimming in media choices, online and otherwise — you need to earn their attention. The biggest cost in this arena is your time, or the time of someone you deputize to oversee these activities on your behalf.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be in great shape. You’ll be prepared well ahead of time for the expense of the web production process, and will be able to fully leverage your site as a strategic component of your marketing efforts. The site will be designed to emphasize those critical actions you want your audience to take — whether it’s purchasing your film, promoting it to friends and family, advocating a particular issue position or anything else under the sun. And you’ll invest your time and resources on targeted activities that maximize your audience’s engagement.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what others in the field have to say — from filmmakers whose sites have won critical acclaim, to producers and designers who create documentary sites, to awards givers. And I hope to also hear from fans of documentary film: What sites have caught your attention? What makes a great documentary website?

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Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.