Tough Love: Making Your Website Work Harder For You
An Association's website needs to be useful to its intended audience, easy to navigate and easy to find. Easier said than done! This is an abridged version of a Hillwatch column that appeared in the Sept/October 2001 issue of Association & Meeting Director magazine.
Just about every association now has a web site. Lets face it, if you didn’t have one, you would feel a little passé.
So you spent the money! The site cost more to build than you thought and more effort to maintain than the initial budget. Now you are being told the site is old looking and needs to be updated. And here is your problem.
Your site is not used nearly as much as it should be. Not enough members come to your site. It doesn’t attract the outside audience you expected. The media hardly ever visits. And to add insult to injury, it has increased your communications costs - not reduced them.
You are not alone! Many associations don’t get the mileage out of their web site that they should. You should stop taking it lying down.
The Internet should allow Associations to do old things in new ways more effectively, quicker and cheaper.
Each day more Canadians use the Internet. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, 3 out 5 households have at least one regular user. Those of us using the Internet are on more often and we stay on longer. Even those in society who were lagging (seniors and low-income Canadians) now show accelerated growth rates. If your members happen to be above average in income and education, you are reasonably assured a high proportion are online at work, home and even on vacation. And, a growing number have high-speed access.
With respect to public policy issues, the campaign of ideas has now clearly migrated to the Web. This is now where political staff, public officials and the media go first for information on an issue.
There is a new class of engaged and concerned citizenry prepared to take action over the beliefs. The anti-globalization protest in Quebec City was only the most obvious example.
A new standard in web sites to reach and create this engagement is being created. These practices have been prevalent on the US scene for two years now, and are just taking hold in Canada.
If your members don’t have much in common with environmental activists and anti-globalization protestors, don’t get hung up on the point. The organizational methodologies and technologies pioneered by the activists can and will be usefully adapted to the activities of mainstream associations – and the best of these are easy to understand, easy to use and cost less than their off-line equivalents.
If used properly, the Internet can work for you. If your association does not get proper traction from your site, it usually boils down to three problem areas – content, design and/or marketing.
Your content may lack basic information, be too long, too short, badly formatted, dull, missing its target audience, out-of-date, irrelevant, or indulgent.
Your web site may be slow to load, hard to read, have confused navigation, and be over-designed.
A reasonable design and good content are essential but no guarantee of an audience. Next to user-friendly software, the high tech industry’s biggest lie is: Build it and they will come!
You may be missing a site marketing strategy. It should be done on an on-going basis and takes as much time and effort as building and maintaining the site.
So what should you do?
Start by re-thinking your Association’s Internet strategy.
The goal of your Internet strategy should be to make your web site useful to its intended audience, easy to use and easy to find.
Here are a few things to do towards those objectives.
Get to know your cyber neighbourhood
Every Association site exists within a fluid but map-able cyberspace neighbourhood defined by industry driven and/or issue driven sites. That represents your competition and some potential allies. Objectively compare yourself to these neighbours. Are they more likely to attract traffic and engage that traffic’s attention? Hillwatch considers this so important that we have developed our ownE-Impact Benchmark to help our clients competitively rank themselves on a host of quantitative indicators. This positions them and helps drive the strategy.
Decide what you want to be
Is the purpose of your site advocacy, member focused (transactional), community building, branding, or communications? Most associations lack the time, intellectual capital, and budget to have a site excelling in all these areas. Pick the one or two categories most important to you and then benchmark your site against the best domestic & international sites in these categories.
Decide who you want to attract to the site
You don’t need everyone to visit your site - just the right people. For associations this usually includes members, potential members, some politicos & their staff, certain public officials, key media and certain members of the public. Attracting them takes a marketing strategy that combines search engine optimization, links & affiliates, viral marketing, and selective off-line promotion. Since most associations have well defined target markets, they can have an affordable, effective site marketing strategy but it takes expertise, effort and consistency. Cookie cutter approaches don’t work. Get help getting started, then do as much as possible in-house.
Save some money
The Web site can be the public face of your organization but digitization offers more than that. Use an intranet to allow members to communicate and consult with each other or keep informed on association activities. Get ruthless about paper, envelopes, and stamps - use e-mail newsletters and downloadable documentation. Encourage member self-service. Let them register for events or buy materials on-line.
Measure, track and test
You can use survey, member focus groups, facilitated group discussions and story boarding to test out your content and design concepts beforehand. Develop benchmark indicators to track how well you are doing. Experiment with different approaches until you find those that best meet your needs.
You want more of the right type of traffic. They should stay longer on your site. They should return on a reasonable frequency.
So go ahead. Apply some tough love to your web site. Make it work harder for you.
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