Thursday, May 10, 2012

11 Lessons Learned from Building a Non-Profit Site

I recently worked with a non-profit to re-design and re-launch its website from the ground up. Because it was a pro bono gig, I ended up leading the project and working closely with a developer and a designer (both volunteers too) and doing a lot of the legwork myself. In other words, I got my hands dirty...really dirty. But it was fun and a great learning experience on how to operate with no budget and no staff.

Here are some tips and learnings from this project.

1. Plan the Site: If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. Before hopping on a computer, we considered the layout, page structure and how users would navigate across the site. We sketched this out on paper. While we didn't develop full-blown wireframes, my IA friends would be proud.

2. Audit the Site: We audited the existing site content to determine what to keep and what needed rewrite. I built in Google Docs a spreadsheet that allowed us to catalog what was on every page, how often it needed to be updated, and if we should keep it for the new site. Because it was a Google Doc, we could all collaborate on this task. One of the problems with the old site was the previous team had a "let's publish the kitchen sink because we have the content" philosophy. That proved problematic because the old site did not have site search. But our new mantra was less is more.

3. Talk to your Target Audience: Knowing your audience's needs will help set the content strategy and layout. No primary research had ever been done on the target audience for site development. So I deployed a very simple online survey with a Google Doc form (Google Docs is free and was awesome for this project!) that was emailed out to the user community. It had only 3 simple questions in order to increase the response rate from participants. It asked when they visited the site last, how frequently, and then a list of about 20 content/feature items they were asked to check all that they wanted to see on the new site. This was invaluable for us to prioritize the new site's features and content areas.

4. Study Site Behaviors: Actions speak louder than words. In addition to the self-reported survey, the web analytics from the old site was a treasure trove of insights. Looking at the Google Analytics data, I identified the most popular content on the old site. Unfortunately, links to external tools and downloadable PDFs did not have event tags on them so we had no idea how popular they were. One of these was the online donation link so it was a bummer that we couldn't see how many clicks it got. But we were able to see how many donations came in from the 3rd-party online payment system. Also, if your site has site search, it's worth exploring the search logs to see what people are trying to find on the site and informs content development and navigation design.

5. Learn from Others: We conducted a competitive assessment on similar sites. Because they didn't really have direct competitors, it was more of a "comparative" analysis of what others had on their site, nomenclature used, and navigation menus.

6. Make Navigation Easy: Navigation menus should be intuitive and easy to understand. Don't forget people read left to right and top to bottom. The nomenclature analysis from the comparative assessment is also helpful here. It's not always good to come up with a snazzy name for something if no one understands it, so it's worth accounting for social norms and making sure you use target audience's words, not internal team's.

7. Know the Key Stakeholders: Most of the content was going to remain static or updated infrequently upon site re-launch. However, a couple of pages had content that would require periodic update from a group of key stakeholders in the organization. It was critical to get buy-in from them for their areas of expertise. Past attempts for their active participation failed. I suspect it was because no one ever addressed the following:

  • What's in it for them? "Website management" was never part of their job description.
  • Have we done all we can to make their involvement easy, but sufficient?

So we setup a special meeting to give this group a preview of the site. We also figured out how to motivate and encourage participation from these key content creators. We re-designed key parts of the site to minimize the need for lots of fresh content frequently, while still making the site useful and appealing for site visitors. There were too many "ghost towns" and "coming soon" signs in the old site. So, we created simpler templates for this group and also had people on the tech team who would help them take their raw content and upload it to the site for them. Also, providing period reports on site activity in their respective areas of the site made it tangible for them and excited them. ("Wow, 60 people visited my article in first 24 hours?")

8. Make Design Visually Attractive:  Non-profit does not equal non-design. The designer I worked with redid the color palette and also introduced more high-quality photos for the entire site. Buttons were standardized. A consistent CSS was applied and followed by content managers. All of this gave the site a more professional look and feel.

9. Don't Forget about Search: Sure the site looks nice, but what do search bots see? Even without the aid of a search agency, one can employ basic SEO best practices for free on your own. The web is full of basic tips for tags, meta data, page titles, etc. In terms of content development and copywriting, Google's free keyword tool is helpful for identifying high search volume terms. Related to #6, use words that are intuitive and user-centric, but also SEO-friendly. Lastly, be sure to do a Google search for your site and check what is on the search results page to ensure there are no unexpected surprises.

10. Get Analytic: It is critical to make sure the site is configured properly with a web analytics tool. The free version of Google Analytics is great. Our new site was built in WordPress, so it was easy to install the plug-in for Google Analytics. But that is not enough. As I mentioned above, we lacked any data on external links and downloads. So, I did some custom onClick event tagging on all of these in Google Analytics. We also installed a site search box, so I also enabled site search in Google Analytics. Both were easy to setup and well worth the insights we will get to inform content needs and navigation issues for future releases!

11. Market the Site: If you build it, they will come...only if you promote the site. Launching the site required heavy lifting, but don't stop there. Email blast the customer base or at least the same folks who were asked to participate in the survey so they know their feedback wasn't wasted. Put flyers in the hallways and cubicles around the office to get the staff pumped up. If there's a newsletter, mention it in that. When workers are talking to customers on the phone, mention the new site. And most importantly, work on getting all internal stakeholders to think about the website when they announce, email or snail mail something out to the community by also putting it online and directing users to the site for more info. This will start changing people's behaviors to visit the site more often.

What have you learned working with non-profits?


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