Wimpy Web Sites Get Muscle

February 15, 2006       Craig Causer      

Listen to me now and believe me later — nobody extolled the virtues of pumping up more than the masters Hans and Franz. Wimpy Web sites shouldn’t expect immediate Schwarzenegger-like development a la Hans and Franz, but there are a number of methods nonprofits are utilizing to trim down and muscle up online.

In 2001, Middletown, Ohio-based Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD) ran its Web site on the backs of volunteers. The volunteers were willing and able but the coordination was lacking and PPMD’s site became disorganized and difficult to navigate, according to Pat Furlong, executive director.

The organization wanted to look informative and professional in helping patients. Muscular Dystrophy is a catastrophic illness, Furlong said, and people seeking information on a Web site might not be able to see through their tears let alone be able to figure out where to go for information and how to make sense of it all. At the time, PPMD was lacking something crisp, clear and easy to navigate.

“We were not thinking strategically,” Furlong admitted. “We were thinking that we had to get as much information up as quickly as possible without thinking of how it looked, who our audience was and what they were likely to gain from the site.”

Before its site, www.parentprojectmd.org, could evolve the organization had to experience some organizational growth. The organization began under the name Parent Project and morphed into Duchenne’s Parent Project. Based on lobbying and working with governmental groups, it realized that it had to be more representative of the umbrella disorder. Following a change to Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, the nonprofit opted for the more compact PPMD.

PPMD placed a priority on updating and informing the community regarding news on muscular dystrophy. Its current site regularly updates scientific and medical information, a service of which Furlong is particularly proud.

“We’re trying to maintain the integrity of who we were and our warm relationship as a community in keeping things cohesive and collaborative,” Furlong said. “At the same time we’ve grown up and become more polished.”

Part of that shine comes from developing fundraising strategies that make use of online giving. PPMD has recently married fundraising events with the Just Giving online gift tool, including sponsoring PPMD’s Run For Our Sons team committed to running the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2006. With an online pledge system in place, participants signed up for the marathon and conducted their fundraising online.

The community-centric site has also tied together people through a threaded message board, which allows people to target information that is relevant to them. Furlong also posts to her blog a minimum of once every two weeks. The PPMD Web community has written to Furlong expressing that her blog has been “helpful.”

Add in the capacity to handle email blasts and the new PPMD site is proudly flexing its new form.

Prior to the revamp, the site was seeing between 10,000 and 15,000 hits per month. That figure has doubled, with 30,000 hits becoming a regular occurrence.

“It’s been a dramatic improvement,” Furlong explained. “We made the investment because the Internet is the first entry for most people seeking information about a catastrophic disease. In a time where it’s very difficult to validate sites and the information that you’re receiving, we have now built a consistent source of support for our patient community and that’s important. Our database has doubled so we’ve definitely seen the return.”

Nonprofits should have an email newsletter as an element of their Web site and not just because it can reduce the cost of a regular mailing, advised Reid Carr, president of Red Door Interactive, an Internet presence management company in San Diego, Calif.

“You need to stay in front of people and it helps them to stay in touch with you,” Carr said. “E-commerce is a great way to get registration for events and to receive donations online. Ultimately, those two activities will culminate in a user database, which then can be used for targeting.”

Much like a steady course of diet and exercise results in flab reduction over time, many organizations gradually morph from scrawny to brawny on the Web. Carr cited the example of San Diego nonprofit Mama’s Kitchen, which gradually has added e-commerce to its site. People who visit www.mamaskitchen.org can now register for events or pay for tickets online, Carr said. Its email marketing includes the option to sign up for Mama’s Gram, a monthly e-newsletter. Mama’s Kitchen recruits online and allows people to make gifts online, appealing to both desires to help — via time and money, Carr added.

“We went through a thorough process where we ripped apart the original Web site and asked ourselves some tough questions,” explained Edith Glassey, director of development and communications at Mama’s Kitchen. “We just organized it so that it would be user-friendly. We went through a process that was as simple as using index cards to see what we had currently and then shuffled them around. We created a master template of the contents of each page.”

Since 2000, when the organization didn’t possess so much as an email address, Mama’s Kitchen has evolved a third version of its Web site. The current version is the result of a Web communications committee that was formed in 2002, with the goal of producing a more dynamic and user-friendly experience. Glassey is responsible for the site but relies heavily on the work of a team of volunteers. Realistically the organization knows that it will have to invest in a Webmaster who is a paid staff member, Glassey said, but for now the organization is enjoying the services of its volunteer Webmaster.

While volunteer involvement has remained, Mama’s Kitchen’s use of PayPal to conduct online fundraising has gone by the wayside. Glassey wanted fundraising integrated with the organization’s donor software program. The plan was put on hold in 2004 and in 2005 it switched to Raiser’s Edge so that the donations could be recorded in the donor records. Mama’s Kitchen had been collecting approximately $4,000 per month online for the months November and December, 2004. That figure jumped to approximately $40,000 in Web transactions for the months November and December, 2005 when the new system was implemented.

With a $1.8 million budget, Mama’s Kitchen has started a new fiscal year with an eye on giving its Web site another facelift soon.

“We started this project in 2004 and now, two years later, it’s time to revisit it so that at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007 we’ll have a new look,” Glassey predicted. “We’re in competition with a lot of nonprofits so it’s important to always keep it fresh and dynamic.”

E-Creatine

Building muscle takes more than popping a couple of creatine capsules and downing a protein shake. It’s accepting your wimpiness, evaluating your weaknesses and targeting solutions. So, exactly what is a wimpy Web site?

According to Sarah Durham, principal, New York City-based communications firm Big Duck, a wimpy Web site is one that doesn’t present the information a visitor wants immediately, easily and attractively. For instance, a would-be donor, foundation or corporation should be able to easily find your mission statement, program info and confirm how to contact you. A potential client or program participant should be able to easily and logically find program times, buy tickets to an event, or find basic information in language they can understand.

Unfortunately, Web sites often grow to contain plenty of less relevant content that makes navigating confusing and distracts the visitor with info that isn’t helpful. For a Web site to take a big step forward in a short amount of time, consider rebuilding the site in phases, Durham said.

“Phase One should happen quickly (4-12 weeks), and should include only the core info your primary audiences need, without too much distraction,” Durham explained. “We recommend outlining the Web site’s primary audiences and objectives in a strategy brief and developing a simple, clear site map before any writing, design or code work begins, to help ensure everyone inside the organization is on the same page. In later phases, add interactivity, password-protected areas, secondary content…whatever else you feel is important to supplement the visitor’s basic needs and build in stickiness.”

When an organization is starting from scratch, creating a Web presence can be like throwing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich against the wall. If you toss it up next to a Picasso it’s a mess, but on a blank wall its going to corral more than a few eyes.

The Little Orchestra Society (LOS) readily admits that its original Web site was designed to provide the organization an immediate Internet presence. Subsequently, the LOS went through a process to evaluate all of its communications platforms and created a new style guide using a fresh logo, corporate colors and refined writing boilerplates.

“The Web site naturally needed to be updated to reflect this change in the brand identity of the organization,” said John Kordel, managing director of the LOS. Also, with the rapid advance of Internet technology, the original site soon dragged behind the times and lacked the user interfacing that our audience had come to expect. Today’s consumer expects to find up-to-the-minute information on the Internet. In the area of performing arts, tickets must be available 24/7 online. Our old Web site did not accommodate this. The Little Orchestra Society’s new Web site features online ticket ordering, updated concert information, concert hall seating charts, and concert-related activities and interesting facts.”

In addition to the latest concert update information, LOS’ site makes accessible a season calendar, directions to events, online DVD sales and educational activities. It provides educational downloadable .pdf activities that relate to each concert, giving families added value to LOS’ adult and children’s concerts.

Traffic has increased exponentially since the new site has gone live. Between June and December, 2005, the site saw nearly 20,000 visitors, a four-fold increase compared to the same time frame with the old site. Telephone sales from people visiting www.littleorchestra.org have increased from $800 to $8,000. Online ticket sales through electronic payment currently account for more than 25 percent of all ticket income for the organization. Online sales did not exist until the new Web site was created.

Too many reps

Before its current site launched in October, 2005, New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Cross-Cultural Solutions ( CCS) was operating three Web sites — its master site as www.crossculturalsolutions.org, and sites for two of its programs, Intern Abroad and Insight Abroad. After experiencing the performance of all three sites for a few months, it was determined that there were some branding concerns.

“With Intern Abroad and Insight Abroad we ended up losing focus on the flagship volunteering program,” admitted Kam Santos, senior manager of communications at CCS. “In creating these two separate Web sites we were almost competing with our own information. We streamlined a lot of the information, which allows people to better see the differences in our programs.”

The umbrella name of Cross-Cultural Solutions now includes the two programs. The nonprofit’s site has undergone a change in programming code and followed up on an intermediate that began in early 2005. A tweak in some of its use of color and the site was shiny, new, and more encompassing.

CCS offers a number of different programs but in the end it’s important that users are constantly kept aware of larger efforts of the organization, Santos said. “You’re always going to make modifications to your programs and your Web site, you just don’t want to lose sight of communicating exactly how those varying programs serve your organization as a whole,” Santos added. DRFE