Rethink Your Organization's Web Site
Rethink Your Organization's Web Site
Ways to ensure your site offers value to its visitors
January 30, 2006
Many organizations carefully deliberate before launching a new campaign, product, or program, but will add new features to their Web sites -- or allow old features to persist -- indiscriminately, without a clear idea of how, or if, those features provide a valuable service to their target audience.
Because they see Web content as harmless and impermanent, these organizations make changes to their site as if doing so had no impact on the site's overall success. Yet posting something online doesn't necessarily mean that you've added value to your organization's Web site, or furthered its goals. On the contrary, content and features that don't provide value will detract from your efforts by:
- Burying valuable services from your audiences;
- Wasting time and resources that could be spent on valuable services; and
- Diminishing visitors' confidence in your ability to understand what they value, thereby lessening their opinion of your organization and encouraging them to seek information or services elsewhere.
Getting into the Service Mindset
Anything you offer on your Web site, be it static content or an interactive feature, can and should be considered a service, and therefore held to the same standards you apply to any other service your organization offers.
In other words, everything on your site, down to the phone number listed on your "About Us" page, is a service to your visitors. Examples of services offered by most Web sites include:
- Providing contact information for the organization or for individual staff members;
- Supplying information about the organization and its work or areas of expertise.
Other services a nonprofit or NGO site might provide include:
- Publishing a directory of experts in the field;
- Aggregating current news from multiple sources;
- Providing a means for visitors to interact with one another or publish content;
- Supplying an archive of news and information from various sources;
- Helping site visitors comparatively shop for products and services.
Once you get into the habit of thinking of every feature on your site as a service, you'll want to ensure that every page of your Web site offers real value to both your readers and your organization.
Evaluating Your Web Site's Services
If you've designed campaigns and programs, you already have many of the skills you need to evaluate your Web site. You've spent time thinking about how to maximize the effectiveness of your offline campaigns and programs, and you've assessed their value to your organization. You can apply this same type of critical thinking -- along with some common sense and research -- to your Web offerings.
The keys are:
- Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because you're not a techie you can't make good decisions about your site.
- Don't think that you've added value to your site simply because you've managed to get something online. You wouldn't apply that kind of thinking to organizing a conference call or developing a campaign, so don't let yourself off easy with your online efforts.
On the other hand, there is at least one very important difference between the Web and your other services, and that is that the exit barrier for Web services is generally much lower. If your audience doesn't find what they're looking for on your Web site, they'll quickly search for something better elsewhere, particularly when it comes to content. But even with interactive services that require setting up an account, users can easily lose interest if they sense that they can find something better elsewhere. Because it's possible to try out most online services quickly -- and often at little or no cost -- loyalty may be less of a factor than with "real world" service providers like banks, auto repair shops, or couriers.
Thus, before adding a new feature to your site, search for comparable services on the Internet to make sure that what you plan to provide is unique, that it serves a real need, and that your organization is qualified to meet this need. You must truly understand how each of your services will contribute to, and differentiate, your site in order to ensure that implementing them will be worth your while.
Some Additional Tips
Think of user scenarios.
This is good advice for evaluating everything you do on your site, from providing a contact number to implementing more ambitious interactive Web applications. Imagine scenarios where someone might use your services. What are they doing when it occurs to them to go to your Web site? How do they first find it? What do they do when they get there? Think of as many scenarios as you can, involving as many different types of users as you can, and you will start to get ideas about how to make your site more helpful to your users.
Consider doing less and doing it better.
Are you trying to do too much with your site? Do you envy the large, labyrinthine Web sites of rival organizations? Consider the possibility that certain parts of your rival's site might not be getting that much use, and that you may be more effective by focusing on a small set of services that you can provide better than anyone else. Ask yourself: Is your site trying to do so much that you no longer know if your target audience is benefiting from the services you provide? If so, perhaps you should scale back.
Consider doing more.
Are there services your organization could offer more effectively or more inexpensively online? Never stop thinking about ways your Web site can do more of the work of your organization. You don't have to act on every idea, but keep track of them. Better yet, solicit input from your audience to spur ideas about ways you might better serve them.
Make it very easy.
When you do offer a service, make it easy to use. It can be tempting to just "put it out there" and see whether a service catches on, with the idea that you can improve things later if it shows signs of appealing to your audience. However, you will never know for sure if a Web service can work unless you commit to doing it well and removing all possible hindrances for your users. Consider this: If indeed the service fails, you don't want to wonder whether it could have succeeded if only you had made it a little easier, or inviting, for people to use.
Everything is connected, and small details matter.
Everything on your Web site is connected -- in more than just the obvious structural sense. Sometimes, improving one part of your site can lead to greater success in another seemingly unrelated part. Here are just a few examples of small adjustments that can make a real difference:
- Renaming one or two links in your main menu to make them catchier or clearer.
- Redesigning your search results page to encourage people to search again if their first search didn't yield good results.
- Displaying your listserv sign-up form more prominently.
- Simplifying a registration form.
- Making it easier and more inviting for people to contact you to provide feedback about your Web site.
As much as possible, sweat the small stuff.
Look at your Web traffic.
Web traffic reports can be misleading if they are not used carefully, and they are not always a perfect measure of success. Depending on your organization and its mission, you might have more reason to celebrate one or two important listserv sign-ups than a couple thousand page views. Sometimes, a poorly designed site can get more traffic just because it takes more mouse clicks for visitors to find what they're looking for. (Think of the last time you spent an eternity on an especially bad government Web site and how much traffic your frustration generated.) On the other hand, traffic stats can sometimes provide important insight into how to better promote some site features, and might even reveal some successes you were not aware of. The stats might also embolden you to eliminate some features that are not popular with your users.
Do not discount unintended audiences.
Are you getting a lot of listserv sign-ups from people with whom you never expected to communicate? That might tell you something about the content you are offering. In any case, remember that those unintended audiences can sometimes lead you to your intended audience. People are complicated and have varied interests: you never know when someone who does not fit the mold of your target audience might in some way take an action -- referring you to a colleague, posting a blog entry about your site -- that might help more of your intended audience find you.
It can take some effort, initially, to get into the habit of demanding that your Web site do valuable work for your organization and its audience. If you're not sure where to start, try selecting one part of your Web site -- or even one part of a page -- and take a step to improve it. Solicit input from colleagues, finding out from them if there are ways it might better serve your visitors. (Interns are a great source of input, too: because they're probably leaving in three months, they can be honest.)
Meanwhile, consider deleting or downsizing low-value features on your Web site. Is part of your Web site getting very little traffic? Is there a page that no one in your office seems interested in maintaining? If you can't bear to remove it permanently, tell yourself you'll take it offline for a month. Don't leave a note: if people clamor for the missing page, you can always put it back in a month. If no one notices it's gone, forget it was ever there -- and concentrate on improving something else.
About the Author:
Ryan Walker has been helping nonprofits with their Web sites since 2000. You can learn more about his services and the tools he uses at WebCommunicate.net
Copyright © 2006 Ryan Walker. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.