Is Your Not-For-Profit Web Focused?

2006-01-26
The Triangle Technical Journal

Once upon a time, just having a Web site put a not-for-profit (NFP) at the forefront of technology. Back then pages were static, functionality was limited, and the user was an afterthought. But to quote Bob Dylan – "The times, they are a-changin'." Users have matured; technology has evolved; and functionality is required. Instead of being satisfied with just finding out a little bit about who you are and where you are located, users now expect the Web site of a NFP to be a "one-stop-shop" – they want to be able to update their contact information, buy a book, sign up for an event, make a donation, and participate in an online community.

That being said… it is time to ask yourself: "Has my organization adapted to give my users all the information and options they want?" And I'm not just talking about the technology - it is also about workflow. To truly offer a positive user experience, you need to make sure that tools work properly; that content is timely and appropriate; and that your site continues to evolve as your audience's needs change. This is not a "build it and they will come" endeavor – which has been discovered by many NFPs the hard way. To be successful, it is imperative that appropriate business resources are allocated once the technology has been installed to maintain the application so that it remains relevant and useful.

And a key part of keeping the application relevant and useful is to write, edit, and revise the content regularly so that your Web site doesn't get stale. Over the years, companies have proven over and over that print collateral just does not easily translate into the bite-sized content nibbles and page flows required for the Web. To be a Web-focused NFP, you must first recite the following mantra: "Content is king." Then you must be willing and open to dedicating the resources necessary to populate your Web site with relevant and appropriate content – which can mean rewriting everything from your marketing collateral to your product descriptions.

It's no secret – every page on your Web site requires at least some content. It may be directions on how to get to your office, a reprint of an article originally published in a publication, instructions on how to fill out a form, a description of a product, or summaries of programs and events. No matter what it is, your content needs to be easy to find, relevant, and up-to-date. And to accomplish this, consider the following:

  • Include resources for producing, reviewing, and updating Web content in your business plans. Take it one step further and put it into appropriate staff job descriptions and objectives.

  • Train staff so they feel comfortable working with the Web tools for managing content on your site.

  • Set up a content review process. Be sure to designate a single point of responsibility for each area of your Web site.

  • Communicate your Web goals to your entire organization, and make sure your staff and constituents understand their importance.

Not to stand alone, a king must always have a queen. And on the Web, commerce is queen (even in the world of the NFP). In fact, most NFPs already sell products or collect monetary donations, and with customers becoming more and more comfortable with online transactions, NFPs would like to move this commerce to the Web. By allowing customers to purchase physical products, download documents and media, and register for online courses and Web seminars, the NFP is becoming more effective and efficient in its outreach.

But that is not to say that there are not issues to consider when moving to online commerce.

For example, physical products require an infrastructure to fulfill orders and manage inventory. What happens if your book on the lives of tree frogs becomes a hot bestseller because it was showcased in a very popular blog? Will you be able to handle the hundreds, or even thousands of orders that come in overnight?

And downloadable products require Web systems that are robust enough to handle increased traffic due to an influx of users trying to simultaneously access a PDF document in response to an email promotion. You don't need to be offline when your tree frog book is getting so much attention!

Finally, online courses and Web seminars have multiple facets – they require a system for registering for the offering, and then another system for managing the course or seminar once it is purchased. Courses are often maintained in a Learning Management System (LMS) where users can come in and out of courses over a set period of time, and view their transcripts. Live Web seminars require a real-time multimedia interface as well as someone to coordinate the speaker and audience logistics.

Now, that I have covered some basics in becoming a Web-focused NFP – it is important to reiterate that this is not an "if you build it, they will come" endeavor. The content and commerce opportunities on your Web site are not going to get noticed unless you put some effort into marketing. The first thing to do is to make sure that your Web site URL is prominently placed in all your print material. Make sure it is on your employees' business cards and in their email signature lines. For different print promotions, set up short, unique URLs (e.g., www.mycompany.com/sale) so that you can use your Web statistics to determine how successful your print campaign is at driving customers to your Web site. And let's not forget the merits of email being used as a tool to direct users to all that wonderful content you have invested in for your site. For example, consider sending:

  • Short, targeted messages, to a small group of highly qualified prospects from your constituent database, directing them to a specific page or area of your site (e.g., send a description of an event with a link to the home page for the event to those in your database who attended a previous similar event)

  • Short, targeted messages, to a larger group of somewhat qualified prospects (e.g., send a description of a book with a link to the book's ecommerce page to those who have identified themselves as being in a specific demographic)

  • Longer, e-newsletter format emails, which include lots of links to lots of different things on your Web site, to a large number of prospects from a wide demographic.

And new tools are coming out all the time. They allow you to send emails in both HTML and text format, track results, and offer users the option to subscribe and unsubscribe. While using them is becoming simple, coming up with new strategies and ideas for email campaigns takes both organizational commitment and resources.

After reading all of that, feeling a bit Web-unfocused? Ready to jump on board? Don't worry – it's possible… just establish a plan of action. Ask yourself. What obstacles are in the way and how do we overcome them? Does management lack information about how important the Web is to your constituents? Does your staff lack the skills or understanding to be able to manage content easily? Then think about ways to educate and enlighten your organization to the ways of the Web and its benefits to your NFP. Once you've got your bases covered, jump in with both feet. Not only will your organization appreciate it, but more importantly, your users will.