Turbo Charged Web Sites

May 15, 2006       Craig Causer      

For an organization laden with seminars, policy programs, leadership development initiatives and conferences, the August, 2005 launch of the refurbished Web site for the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute was more than a welcome addition. The revamp was hardly a quick fix, as the organization worked more than four years to adequately represent its content while achieving ease of accessibility.

One of the main goals was to be able to list the policy programs by name on the homepage, explained Jean Morra, Web producer at the organization. “I have on the white board in my office, my personal philosophy, which is, ‘It doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what the user thinks,’” Morra said.

“That guides our whole operation here. When we were redesigning our Web site — the old one was about five years old and it was horrible — it represented an organizational design,” said Morra. “The content was divided up between organizational departments or groups more so than for a user, someone who wouldn’t know the difference between a seminar and a policy program.”

The Aspen Institute’s new site is an example of a nonprofit utilizing best practices for better online content, according to Tom Williamson, vice president of professional services for the politics and public policy vertical at Internet solutions provider Kintera. Williamson outlined various best practice tips for boosting online content and usability.

Organizations should avoid what Williamson termed as “wonk-speak” by tailoring communications to a level that all visitors and users should understand. Nonprofits that conduct a lot of policy, wonky-type work in terms of research and white papers, should try to present that information in a sanitized fashion. Policy papers are important but they speak to a different audience than your general advocates and fundraising audience, Williamson said. The general user who is interested in your organization’s mission should understand the site.

Your Web site and email communication should follow the same methodology, Williamson continued. Email should originate from a human being and include personalization whether it’s from an executive director or a prominent industry expert. Williamson cited the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as an organization that conducts a lot of higher-end research and policy work but, to reach a larger constituency regarding environmental issues, breaks down issues such as global warming. The NRDC developed a separate part of its Web site, called Save BioGems (www.savebiogems.org), which communicates environmental issues to a grassroots population through the stories of hot spots, or BioGems, around the world. Posting animal iconography specific to those regions further helps people identify with each issue’s impact, Williamson said.

For the Aspen Institute, it is attempting to become more accessible and a little less formal on more common ground, including the homepage or stories and articles. But the language, as a whole, remains pretty formal, Morra said. With the program descriptions and the policy program work the language is still very much academic.

“The policy programs wouldn’t stand for dumbing-down material,” Morra admitted. “We may switch the focus to a more conversational tone but we try to avoid jargon. Once you get into the work of the program, we assume, for example, that people who are on the energy and environment pages are involved in that field and the deeper you go the longer and denser pages you’ll find.”

Before constructing a site, nonprofits need to identify specific influencers and engage them. Influencers can include constituents (who are they?), the media (which outlets?), researchers (at what level?), etc., Williamson explained. You want to use simple but different strategies in developing a conversation via the Web for each one. Ultimately, offer some kind of element that shows how the constituent’s relationship with the organization has been beneficial.

Keep strategy simple and focus on the big picture by starting with a strategy and not the tactics. Really define your strategy and goals — not how you’re going to get there — then define your tactics, whether it’s a campaign or technological perspective, for example. Your end goals need to drive the process for getting there.

“Nonprofits need to remain holistic through consistency in their markets and with their brands,” Williamson added. “Carry it through your direct mail, e-communications, Web site.”

That design and message needs to be on target for the entire organization, for all of the channels that a person could run into. “It’s not always exactly the same but it needs to be consistent in its overall message. Where you run into problems is that different departments have different goals. It’s about achieving those goals while staying under the umbrella of one message,” said Williamson. “Development people will have different goals than program people. All of your goals are important but you have to remind yourself that all of your sub-goals need to support your main mission,” he said.

Actions speak louder With all of the advertising tools available to executives nothing beats the old standby of interest generated by positive word-of-mouth reviews. The cyber-equivalent would be friend-to-friend communication, otherwise known as viral marketing. Providing tools to make it easy for people to tell a friend is an effective way to expand the organization’s reach and mission and bring people back to the Web site, Williamson said.

The March of Dimes’ (MoD) annual WalkAmerica event functions similarly to that of many online events, particularly walkathons. People arrive at the site through referrals from the workplace, family members or from mentions in the media. “They come to walkamerica.org and they register to walk and immediately they are prompted to send emails to their friends, either asking them to walk or to donate to their walk,” explained Patricia Goldman, vice president of e-business at the MoD in White Plains, N.Y. “The viral component is definitely a big part of why we like people to register online. We find that it helps them in their fundraising.”

Registrants have the option of sending out default emails that talk about the mission and why it’s important to give to the March of Dimes or they can opt for composing customized emails. Users can craft individual emails or bulk send 200 at a time.

The MoD tool allows users to input cash and checks that each walker has received in addition to the electronic payments that have been secured. That flexibility resulted in $7 million in electronic donations between PayPal and credit cards for the 2005 event. If you examine the total of what people used the tool for, it was more like $13 to $14 million since it can be used as a personal management tool as well as an electronic fundraiser, Goldman added.

Even when those who register at the Web site do not raise funds online there is a silver lining. “There’s also a good percentage of people for all of these nonprofit events who register online and don’t fundraise online. That’s still great for us as well because they do their own data entry.”

Regardless of the online activity, nonprofits should be responsive and responsible, Williamson said. That activity includes sending out some form of immediate automatic notification acknowledging that the action was received and thanking them for their participation.

“If a constituent gives to an organization online and receives a thank you, that becomes the new standard for that constituent. So if they go back and make another donation to a different organization and don’t receive anything, they’re going to be less likely to give again to that organization,” Williamson added.

There’s not one benchmark for every organization. Some very active organizations might send four or five messages to different segments per month. Smaller organizations might produce two — for example, an action alert and a monthly newsletter. The key is to understand your constituents. Williamson advised that organizations should be communicating with their constituents at least once a month but remain vigilant so as not to burn out their list.

Best practices on the Web should always be followed up by measuring success and failure, according to Williamson.

“What are you looking to accomplish, more traffic or email sign-ups? Find the measurable aspects within your goals. That way you can fine-tune what you’re doing on the Web and in your e-communications.”  DRFE