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Spending Your Website Dollars Wisely

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December 20, 2007

The Sustainable Non-ProfitTeam_KarenRoberts.jpg

by Karen Roberts

Nonprofits need to be fiscally responsible to their donors. But cutting costs shouldn't come at the expense of communicating effectively. What's more, in a time of ever-expanding media choices and niched ways to reach your target audience, using marketing dollars wisely is getting tougher. No surprise, then, that the Web site which not too many years ago was considered a frivolous add-on is now the centerpiece of any organization's communications strategy — or should be. Web sites can be costly to set up and maintain, however, and many organizations try to save money by delegating responsibility for their site to the IT department, an intern, or even a volunteer. In a world in which anyone wanting to learn more about your nonprofit will check online first, that's a mistake.

A Web site delegated to someone with little or no professional Web design expertise not only is more likely to miss the mark than a professionally designed site — it may alienate potential donors, volunteers, and your corporate partners. A truly effective site is welcoming, upbeat, and professional. It's persuasive, not patronizing. The same is true of the content on your site. It should be written from your visitors' perspective, not your organization's, and should tell them how they stand to benefit by giving to, joining, or volunteering for your nonprofit.

"How your Web site is organized, looks, feels, and sounds can mean the difference between impressing a potential donor and turning him or her off," says Sherry Bruck, president of Harquin Creative Group, a full-service marketing firm with a history of working with nonprofit clients, including Girl Scouts USA, the March of Dimes, and Aging in America. "Working with a professional who is committed to your project will make the process faster and more efficient, saving valuable time and money for you and your colleagues."

To help streamline the process, we've blocked out the Web development process in five simple steps:

Step 1
: Survey the field. Take the time to look at different Web sites, both in and outside your field. Note the sites you like and find easy to use, and think about how they're organized and designed, as well as the kind of functionality they offer. In addition to the basics (i.e., site-wide search, crisp graphics, e-newsletter/blast option), do they include audio and video, searchable databases, and/or Web 2.0 tools? The functionality of your site — what visitors can do there — is the single biggest determining factor in what it will cost.

Step 2: Create a site map. The site map is what Web site designers use to create the "architecture" of a site — the way content on the site is organized and linked together. At this stage, it can take the form of a Word document, a diagram, or even a sketch. Keep it simple and don't worry too much about how it looks. As always, think about your potential donors, volunteers, and partners first and your organization's communications goals second. Try to imagine how visitors to the site will look for information. Distribute the site map to stakeholders within your organization and plan on two to three rounds of revisions — it's a lot easier to change things at this stage, when time is plentiful and costs are minimal. The site map should be approved by all stakeholders before proceeding to the next step.

Step 3: Compile your copy and image assets. This is an important step — and one that can be difficult for large organizations in which copy and images are created and controlled by multiple departments. At the same time, many people think that copying and pasting content from existing sources is all they need to do. Not true. Gathering the information and giving it to a professional copywriter is essential. "The messaging, tone, and voice of your Web site must be consistent," says Bruck. "This is not the place to cut corners. The attention span of the reader is much shorter on the Web, which means your copy needs to be compelling, relevant, and concise."

The same holds for images on your site. Emphasize quality over quantity. Hire a professional photographer if resources allow (or use images from a good stock photo house if they don't), make sure every image on the site is relevant to your message, and be sure to give yourself enough time to track everything down.

Step 4: Design the look of site. This is the fun part. The hard work of planning, organizing information, writing copy, and finding photos is done and now it's time to design how the site will look. Make sure the designer you hire is a professional graphic designer, as Web design (in contrast to Web programming) is more about marketing than it is about information technology.

Step 5: Development and coding. This is the stage at which your programmer or Web developer takes the designed pages and breathes life into them. Once the functional areas of your site have been activated, give yourself a couple of weeks to test everything and check links. Then test and check them again. Only then is your site ready to be launched.

When designing a Web site from scratch, many organizations will weigh the costs and benefits of a customized content management system (CMS). Only you and your colleagues can decide whether the added expense of such a system — and they tend to be pricey — is justified. Generally speaking, however, the more content you have and the more you plan to change or update it, the more you'll need (and want) such a system.

Another way to cut down on costs is to avoid the latest in bleeding-edge technologies and tools, whether it's Flash animation, a blog, or multimedia content such as podcasts and videos clips. All of those require specialized skills and/or extra people to create, feed, and maintain them. "Ultimately, you must decide if Web bells and whistles are essential to advancing the mission of your organization," says Bruck. In other words, just because your nephew can create a YouTube-type video for you, doesn't mean it's the best communications vehicle for you.

And that's what it all comes down to. People's information-processing habits are changing, and a Web site is one of the most important tools in your marketing and communications toolbox. While your site doesn't need to be complex, it does need to be professional. So don't skimp on it or cut corners. The money you save by doing it on the cheap could end up being far less than the dollars you never receive from potential donors who visited the site and decided to send their support elsewhere.

Karen Roberts, media relations director for Harquin Creative Group, has worked in the broadcasting and media field for the last thirteen years. She started her broadcasting career at Bravo in Toronto and moved on to program development at Sony Music in New York City. For the last seven years she has worked in local news, most recently as an anchor and lead reporter for Cablevision News in the Hudson Valley.