Special Report: Microsites Maximizing

April 1, 2005       Craig Causer      

Nothing is more relaxing than stepping back from the rat race to spend a quiet weekend at a serene bed and breakfast or an historic inn. For more than one rural property in Massachusetts, the homespun charm is woven online via microsites thanks to a nonprofit organization — The Trustees of Reservations (TOR) in Sharon, Mass.

As the oldest statewide conservation organization in the country, TOR runs several microsites for its enterprises and programs, some of which include alluring weekend getaway or function enterprise properties. In addition to its main Web site, www.thetrustees.org, it has utilized microsites to promote locations including The Guest House at Field Farm in Williamstown, Mass., and Castle Hill at The Crane Estate in Ipswich, Mass.

“The microsites that we’ve developed are either for enterprises or programs of the organization. And, they are their own entities,” explained Matthew Selby, communications director at TOR. “For example, we have two bed and breakfasts specifically run in historic homes. Each of those has its own Web site. They are targeting a different audience — people who are looking for a place to stay — than the main Web site, which is targeting people who want to walk our properties or wish to donate.”

A microsite is a unique Web site that contains a specific functionality and is often a segment of a larger Web site. It is designed with targeted objectives in mind and is housed at a URL independent of the home page. Many microsites mirror the branding and design of the larger organizational Web site.

TOR target audiences are reflected in the nonprofit’s online figures. During the fourth quarter of 2004, the main Web site, www.thetrustees.org, recorded approximately 214,500 user sessions and 52,000 unique users. During the same period, microsite http://guesthouseatfieldfarm.thetrustees.org saw 6,000 user sessions and 2,600 unique users. Fellow microsite http://castlehillfunctions.thetrustees.org accounted for 16,700 user sessions and 7,600 unique users.

Since the microsites are associated with the organization’s enterprises, the sites are promoted through the brochures and marketing materials produced by the specific facilities as well as cross-links from the main Trustees Web site. At the same time, there is no real branding that links the microsites to TOR’s home page, Selby said, although the organization is still “in the process of figuring out all of the branding.”

TOR has been using the microsites for more than two years and it leans toward keeping them simple. Once its microsites are up and running, the organization will make changes to them, but for the most part, they tend to remain static, Selby added. The sites are a combination of in-house and outsourced work.

“Not only have the microsites proven to be effective in communicating with people interested in our properties, but we also use it to promote our Highland Community Initiative, which promotes the conservation of the Highlands region of Massachusetts,” Selby said.

Microsites are very effective in communicating with donors, activists and all of the other people who go to nonprofits for information, said Shayna Englin, fundraising practice manager, Mindshare Interactive Campaigns LLC in Washington, D.C. It is often the best way to handle online communications with the types of people who are more and more interested in specific and targeted types of information.

Giving people a specific place to go online gives them a closer connection to the organization since the way they are introduced online is geared to their specific interest, Englin explained. The microsite can offer much more to do around a specific issue, whether it’s seeking donations or rallying people to write letters to their local and state representatives.

“Microsites should be branded like your main Web site but I’ll say that with a caveat. It’s always related to what you’re hoping to accomplish,” Englin advised. “The other strong trend is that some big organizational brands become diminished. What happens is that an organization might become more made up of people who know more about the programs and projects than they do about the main organization,” said Englin. “For some organizations that’s fine. Other organizations have an interest in promoting their broad organizational brand. In that case, people are still going to build their perception of the organization based on the projects but it’s important to brand the project sites such that it’s clearly a program of a specific nonprofit.”

For the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), branding is not an issue. Whether it’s a campaign designed to cater to household pet lovers, seal supporters or dolphin defenders, its microsites are easily identified by the IFAW brand along with messaging encouraging action.

“Basically, our microsites are a streamlined mechanism for visitors to speak out on the issues quickly and efficiently,” said Michael Mahoney, online campaigns and marketing writer at Yarmouth Port, Mass.-based IFAW. “So for someone who comes in with a specific purpose, we want to make it easy for them to come in and do what they came to do.”

Currently, the most significant campaign is rallying people to help end the hunt of baby seals, and IFAW is now working to build a microsite around that issue. With the seal campaign, its goal is to build an activist movement, Mahoney said. If someone spots one of its ads or promos and is logging on specifically for the seal campaign, the nonprofit wants to be able to drive them to immediately take one or multiple actions. The key is not bogging the microsite down with copy. It’s about a simple message and then a way to take action, Mahoney added.

To accomplish this end, the campaign will feature prominently on IFAW’s home page with a spotlight story and a link going directly to the seal microsite. PSAs are scheduled to promote the site and banner advertising will be utilized as well.

All campaigns eventually come to an end, which begs the question: How long can an organization keep a microsite alive? Mahoney said that it plans to test the seal campaign’s life span by changing some of the content once the main rush is complete.

“[Microsites] definitely have a shelf life and it helps to combine them with media hits, promotions. If things are buzzing in other mediums, that’s when you want the microsite to be going,” Mahoney said. “I wouldn’t want to build a site and not have any promotional activities.”

Song and dance

Sammy Davis, Jr. proved that with a little song and dance he could make the sun shine on a cloudy day. In its attempt to support the FACT Act, which would require drug companies to make public all the results of their clinical trials, Consumers Union is turning to a snappy song and animated dancing pills on its microsite to do the trick.

It might not be the stylings of Sammy, but the lyrics sung at www.prescriptionforchange.org are quite poetic:

It’s a life-enhancing miracle but there’s something you should know.

It may cause:

Agitation, palpitations, excessive salivation,

Constipation, male lactation, rust-colored urination,

Hallucinations, bad vibrations, mild electric shock sensations

But it’s worth it for the drugs I need.

“It’s not unusual in the sense that it is doing what our microsites do, but it is a little unusual for us because it has a song,” explained Kathy Mitchell, research coordinator at Consumers Union’s Southwest Regional Office in Austin, Texas.“When you go to the microsite you immediately see what we’re trying to do. When you click on the song, it will play but the page behind it will change as well. When you click off the song, you’re on the page that lets you take action immediately. It’s about giving people something fun in addition to information that will allow them to take action.”

Entertainment aside, the microsite is like all of Consumers Union’s microsites in that it respects peoples’ time by allowing them to cut to the chase and move toward action, Mitchell said. At prescriptionforchange.org, that action is a page that allows the user to personalize a message about prescription drug safety and send it to the appropriate member of Congress.

Promotion of the site was done primarily through emailing its opt-in members, although some advertising was used for external promotion, Mitchell explained. A link was provided on Consumers Union’s home page, and at press time the microsite had been live for three days and 40,000 people viewed the song.

“We decided, well in advance, some high priorities for us,” Mitchell said. “If we have depth of expertise, we can see our way to a winning strategy and there’s a way for people on the Internet to effectively contribute, then it becomes the kind of thing that we would put a microsite up for.”

Two years ago the organization made the decision that financial privacy was one of its most important issue areas. Its microsite, www.financialprivacynow.org, has been up for almost two years now. Mitchell said that while the nonprofit has yet to take down one of its microsites, it is clear that day will come. To some extent it depends on the level of activity that the individual sites are generating and what is going on with each campaign, she added.

Micro-managing TV

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is known for its direct response television spots and has used that prominence to feed its microsite. www.myaspca.org was a site that was developed around DRTV and was designed as a very donor-centric site, explained Betsey Fortlouis, manager of membership communications at the ASPCA in New York City. The site is relatively static and its primary goal is to accept donations for the ASPCA. At the microsite you can give a donation, view a little more about what the ASPCA is doing and watch the DRTV piece and the celebrities promoting the organization.

The myaspca.org microsite has been up and running for a year and traffic has been high. According to Fortlouis, 30 percent of its online donations are coming in from that site. These donations are from monthly donors, as the myaspca.org site requires users to sign up with a credit card or electronic funds transfer.

The ASPCA has developed another microsite, this one geared toward children. The animaland.org site has a much more animated feel, which appeals to kids but lacks the same type of branding of the nonprofit’s more mature sites.

“With animaland.org, I don’t think the branding is there quite so much,” said Fortlouis. “But it’s for children and children are going to associate with us in a different way than adults. Adults that are going to microsites designed for them have most likely visited our other sites first.”

Many viewers must first visit television programs produced by Oklahoma City, Okla.-based Feed The Children (FTC) before being provided the information to access the organization’s microsites. FTC matches its microsites with specific television programs. By reaching out to potential donors through television it has acquired an audience for which it can list specific URLs on screen and direct people to those microsites. That way it can go back and track specific donations for each program.

A recent example took place during the tsunami disaster in South Asia. FTC posted a microsite at www.feed.tv/tsunami, which helped raise money that aided in sending 3.2 million pounds of relief supplies to the stricken region. The nonprofit was able to quickly analyze its microsite and make changes and tweaks when needed, noted Josh Beasley, spokesperson for FTC.

“We don’t want to muddy the waters, so to speak, by having people go from the homepage to a microsite when one of the main functions is to track people’s response from the television program,” Beasley said. “We want to know where the contributions are coming from and what are the causes of those contributions. Is it direct mail, television, word of mouth? If they go to www.feed.tv/tsunami, it’s almost guaranteed that they saw it on television because we don’t market it any other way.”