We recently saw a Facebook post in which a clutch of nonprofit communications professionals commiserated with each other over a shared experience: developing a website.
“Honestly,” some may ask. “There are a million websites. How tough could developing a site be?”
Let me put it into perspective. Have you given birth? To sextuplets? Have you climbed Mt Everest? On horseback? That’s the level of challenge we’re talking about.
But why, in a world with so many websites and so much advice is it so often so painful? We think the blame lies evenly between web developers and their clients.
Too many web developers promise too much and neglect to explain the mountain of work a website build entails for both parties in a bid to get the business. Then they try to minimise the development hours to maximise profits. Many developers don’t care about your search engine results or the user experience as they are long gone by then. They simply try to build a website that looks good, meets the brief, has some functions and doesn’t fall over. Few are great communicators. Fewer still come to the project from a marketing perspective.
The clients on the other hand are obsessed with cost, glacially slow to make decisions, start from a position of blissful ignorance and lack a clear vision of what they want.
Thus, in our longest ever blog post we present to you our advice on how to make your website development (relatively) painless and result in a site worth visiting. Please note – building a website is still on par with giving birth to a solitary child or climbing Mt Everest on foot. Everything here is based on our experience building sites for clients in the real world, for real money, with real deadlines.
Set your sites high: your website should be your best performing employee. Don’t even bother to develop a new website if it’s not going to be a dramatic improvement on your existing website.
Your next website should: take donations, payments, bookings, memberships and queries. It should act as a tour guide, giving visitors thorough tours of your facilities programs, staff and clients.
Your website should act like a spruiker drawing people to you via great search engine optimisation that lands you on the first page of Google. Suddenly strangers are calling.
Your website’s resources should act not just as a library or archive but be an instant demonstration of your authority and expertise. Get blogging.
A comprehensive media page with media contacts, spokesperson bios, media releases, key policies and platforms, imagery and video will help your website act as a publicist.
Many nonprofits struggle to recruit well. How well do you present your work culture to prospective employees on the employment section of your website? Are all the jobs listed and described? Are your benefits, policies and procedures there? Will I see testimonials – preferably on video – from happy existing staff members? Can I apply effectively online? Get this right and suddenly your website is an HR assistant.
When you build a website that is more than just a brochure on the World Wide Web it extracts more value from the time and effort you’re about to invest. It also justifies a greater investment in the first place. You will never hire an employee that can do as much for you. And your website does it for you 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the next five to 10 years. Keep that in mind as you hold your breath to assess the developer’s quote.
Consider a suite of websites. Rather than creating one website that captures everything you do consider creating a series of sites, allowing you to group and highlight one aspect of your business at a time. This is particularly important if you have a complex offering to the world. Some clients we had offered everything from child care to aged care, ESL classes to STD testing.
Like humans, Google would like to understand exactly what your site is all about and that’s difficult if your site contains everything from the 2005 annual report to the results of the recent car raffle. Spin off some big campaigns or services.
We followed this advice at Hootville by creating standalone websites for our six training workshops. We did this to maximise the search engine optimisation for each training workshop as well to give us the opportunity to promote the hell out of one particular service at a time.
Relax – six websites does not equal six times the budget if a common structure and design is maintained.
Pictures tell 1000 words: we are highly visual animals and only becoming more visually-orientated in this online world. What we are trying to say is your website has to look hot. Taylor Swift hot. One Direction hot. Dame Helen Mirren hot. George Clooney hot. Puppies playing with kittens hot.
Invest in photography that will make your website shine. You probably don’t have that on hand so you’ll have to invest in fresh photography, stock photography or a combination thereof.
It is easy to mock the stock but increasingly there are images available that look like real people in real situations. Stock photography has the advantage of allowing you to know what you’re going to get before you get it. That said, authenticity is pretty hard to beat so if you can invest in a photographer to capture your essence your website will be the beneficiary.
Similarly any great website will utilise high-quality, brief videos. Use them to provide testimonials from clients. Use them to give a tour of your school or aged care facility. Use them to allow prospective students to meet their future teachers. Video works.
Questions to ask your prospective website developers:
How long have you been developing websites? Call us ageist but don’t hire someone without real experience in developing websites and managing projects. Your nephew is NOT the right person for this job. Nor your niece.
Do you have a preferred content management system? We’ve blogged about this before but all our websites are developed using WordPress as the content management system (CMS). The CMS is the software that allows one to build and update one’s website. It’s the system through which you will add words, pictures, new pages, navigation. Many developers are very attached to just one content management system and we do not present ourselves as experts on all of them. We will say this however – we have never needed to do anything for any of our clients that WordPress would not accommodate. No matter what you want your site to look like, whatever you want it to do, someone working from their mother’s basement has created the technology that will work beautifully with WordPress. For every problem someone has published an answer.
WordPress is so sophisticated it is actually simple to use. We regularly meet nonprofits that use antiquated, second-rate CMSs which makes simple updates so frustrating and time-consuming that they rarely bother.
Warning: if your prospective developer says that they have their own special content management system that they and they alone have developed, pack up your possessions and back out of the room slowly. That is a deal breaker.
How will you ensure that we get good search engine results? Ultimately search engine optimisation (SEO) is your responsibility but there are many things a developer can do to create a strong foundation for great Google results. This might be beyond developer’s skills or interest. It will certainly add to the time they will need to devote to your site so don’t be surprised to be presented with this is an optional extra.
What features would you recommend? As noted at the top of this (outstanding) blog post your website should be hard-working with features and functionalities to lighten the load for the humans in your organisation.
Unless you are particularly web-savvy you need a developer with ideas suggestions and the ability to communicate them.
A good developer has thoughts on what you might need. He or she should not be prescriptive but they should have ideas and recommendations. Don’t expect them to be au fait with every plug-in / app you mention – there are too many to be familiar with them all.
Do you provide the graphic design for websites? While you may have to supply some key aspects of your website’s aesthetic such as logos and colours, it is desirable that the developer work with a graphic designer with whom they have worked before. This makes the process smoother.
Do you provide copywriting? Usually our clients provide the words to their website. Usually these words are not optimised for websites in terms of search engine results, objectives or tone. If a developer can recommend a copywriter or editor it may lift the quality of the user experience. That said, be sure that that person is the right one for you. Unlike graphic design it is easy for you to hire your own gun copywriter and have them work with the developer.
Can you help us develop the sitemap? A sitemap maps how your content / information will be categorised. It’s crucial if you want your site to be logical and predictable to visitors. Some developers are very passive and work with the sitemap provided by the client. This is unlikely to be the best possible sitemap.
As always, you want your developer to suggest improvements to your sitemap. These suggestions might be small – suggesting you create a section called Publications in which all your newsletters, annual reports, brochures will reside rather than have them scattered across the site.
The suggestion may be a smarter way to present the array of services that you offer, perhaps grouping them according to audience or geography. An experienced developer who cares about the user experience can come in very handy.
Do you work alone? There are some very clever clogs out there but it would be unusual for one person working alone to develop a great website for you. He or she properly needs a team of people to deliver you a great site. That said, you need one person who can take responsibility for this long, complicated undertaking.
How long will it take? We generally take between 12 to 16 weeks to build a site. Certainly it is possible to develop a website faster but that takes a firm commitment from both client and developer. Do not think that you make yourself a more appealing client by suggesting a six or 12 month timeframe. This immediately suggests to the developer that you are not urgent or serious and creates the real likelihood that you will be placed on the back burner.
We all know that we leave things to the last minute, so by giving yourself 52 weeks to develop a website you’re really saying let’s do nothing for 40 weeks and then have a rush to the finish line. You need your new website now so get on with it.
Do you provide training so we can update our own website? A good developer should be able to provide training for your people so that you can take over the day-to-day running of your site. We go to great lengths to avoid creating dependency with our clients which is another reason we use WordPress. It is so simple clients are able to make 92% of the updates themselves and choose between us and 100,000 WordPress-savvy developers for the remaining 8%. Once again, if your developer tries to lock you in to working with them for the rest of time fake a severe illness, change your name and leave town.
We mentioned at the outset the blame for website development lies equally with client and developer so…
Here’s how to be a perfect client thus placing 100% of any blame at the foot of the developer:
Go the whole hog: have you ever eaten at a new restaurant, found the service to be perfunctory, the food mediocre, the experience unmemorable and then returned six months later to see if it had improved? Of course not. Who has time for that? It’s the same with your website – it needs to impress people from the first visit.
Many nonprofits are presenting themselves to the world with a website that is third rate. It is time for a dramatic upgrade, so do not waste your time and money by opting for a site that is somewhat better than your current site.
Don’t kid yourself and tell the developer that you want a new site with some improvements and that you’ll get around to the rest of it in a year or two. You won’t. Your visitors need your site to be fantastic now.
And yes going the whole hog creates more work, more decisions and potentially more headaches. That’s showbiz.
Develop clear briefs: some of our prospective clients come to us with nothing in writing about what they want. Others seem to have borrowed a brief from NASA. Ideally you should have a draft site map, a list of features and functionalities, some key search terms for which you would like to rank well and a short list of exemplar websites that can be used as a guide. That’s a good start.
The exemplar sites do not need to be in your sector or even in English – they just have to embody some traits that you would like to see on your site. Note – this should be beyond simple aesthetics. Perhaps they have a fantastic homepage design you want to emulate. Maybe their booking system is A+.
Explain in writing the key audiences and priorities. Eg: “we target 18-24yo school leavers looking for vocational employment. We need the site to encourage them to book a phone appointment with our sales team.” This should influence design, copy and technology choices.
Spend some money: do not in your first telephone call with the prospective developer, ask her how much it costs to develop a website. At the very least, resist this because it makes you look like a rube. It is also a very difficult question to answer as the developer has no real idea as to the scale or size of your prospective site. It also signals to the developer that you don’t give a damn about quality only budget. And while we’re talking money – and yes we are biased – your website will be the best investment you ever make in a staff member so don’t scrimp.
If you have a tiny budget – anything with only four digits – be upfront with the developer. In all likelihood he or she is self-employed and doesn’t have time to waste on proposals that will amount to nothing.
Hurry up: nonprofits are notoriously slow at making decisions. They are collaborative by nature and very risk averse. Creating a website is the culmination of hundreds of decisions big and small. To run each decision – about the template, the features, the functionalities, the words, the imagery, the colours – past a dozen people at a weekly meeting is entirely unrealistic. 100% of our clients have promised us the materials we need to build their site by a certain deadline and 92% of them have failed. Another reason to hurry up? Your current site is bollocks.
Stop caring about everybody else’s opinion: decisions should be made by the smallest number of people possible, ideally people with some idea of what is possible from a website. Asking random colleagues, competitors and consumers for their opinions will simply solicit opinions – not knowledge. It won’t make your site any better. You don’t need 12 people debating whether a button should be green or blue.
Do your own research on third-party applications and providers: this is a little technical but consider this: let’s say you drive a Honda. How nice for you. If you stop to think about it you understand that while Honda might make the panels for your car, the engine, the steering and the transmission it probably doesn’t manufacture the radio, the windscreen wipers, the tires and other lesser components that add up to your Honda. Honda executives had to choose the radio, the windscreen wipers, the tires from an array of third-party providers. As you drive to yoga in your Honda, you don’t care. It’s a Honda. It’s the same for your website.
Many third party providers can provide donation-taking technology. We love GiveNow. There are many email marketing options. We love MailChimp. You’re going to embed videos onto your new website (we hope) and we recommend using YouTube or Vimeo. These are all third-party providers.
Choose the right third-party providers and you’ll provide your visitors with a seamless experience and your website editor with high functioning mental health. Choose the wrong ones and your website will be clunky to use in a nightmare to manage. Of course your developer will make recommendations but it’s up to you to independently research every choice. There are plenty of fora and sites on which nerds gather to bitch so you shouldn’t be short on information.
Stay in touch: the erstwhile client and faithful developer should talk twice or three times a week. More than that and you will be a pain in the backside. Much less than that and you risk being lowered on the list of priorities. Note: clients understandably judge a website based solely on what they can see from the user’s perspective. That’s the tip of the iceberg and developers work very hard behind the scenes to make a website look and perform as a website should. Some aspects of web development are simple but others can take painstaking hours. Visible progress can be slow, especially at the start of the project.
After launch: a new website is a bit like a well tended garden. For a while you can sit back and enjoy the view but if you don’t maintain it your oasis soon becomes a jungle. You might need to do some simple tasks such as raking leaves and watering plants but eventually you will need to prune and replant. Here endeth the metaphor. What we’re saying is you need to monitor your website’s performance, constantly add new content, kill the old, and ensure that the website is reflecting your status quo and meeting the expectations of visitors.
What your new website needs more than anything is traffic. There are two ways to do that: 1. Google and 2. email.
Of these two traffic drivers by far the more important is email. While Google will direct people to you once, email has more chance of bringing more people to your site more often for repeat visits. Whatever day you send out your email telling people that there is new and interesting content on your website will be the busiest day for your website. We promise.
Be ambitious for your new site – it is your window to the world. Give it the time, money and attention it needs to be a knockout.
Select your developer well. As with romantic relationships, your fate is predominantly in their hands.
Dive into the digital world. There is no shortage of advice, information and reviews out there. Become an informed client to get the best result.
Employ your website. Think carefully of the role your website fills, the tasks it can complete and the business objectives it can help you achieve.
Peruse some of the sites we have developed. If you like the look of them you know what to do. Call Brett and arrange a meeting: 0414 713 802.
And please – share this post with others if their website act needs improving.