Recently, I have had several conversations with leaders of nonprofit organizations concerning the management of their digital assets. Unfortunately, I’m sensing a disturbing trend: There seems to be a misconception that nonprofit websites are immune to the evolution attendant to all other digital platforms. Specifically, the misconception that the “strategic” role that websites play in the visitor and donor decision-making process is exactly the same today as it was ten years ago.
The market’s use of social media and online platforms changes so quickly that it seems silly to expect the role of an organization’s website to remain unaffected by the “moving parts” of digital advances occurring all over the web. Here are three, outdated ways that some organizations still view the role of their respective websites – and how that old role has long since evolved:
1. Some organizations still view their website as the optimal landing spot to get audiences to act in their interests
(FYI: The homepage now generally functions as a repository for unassailable facts)
Let’s say that there is a new movie coming out and you’re thinking about going to see it. If you’re like most members of the digital age, then you’ll likely search for a review in The New York Times (earned media), or check out the movie’s score on Rotten Tomatoes (peer review)…but you probably won’t look to the Warner Bros. website to determine if the movie is actually any good (Here’s the model behind why that is).
However, you may visit the Warner Bros. website to learn matters of unassailable fact (e.g. cast and crew information, run time, rating, plot overview, etc.) On factual matters, the producing entity is considered by the market to be the expert. On subjective matters relating the quality of the experience – or, even, if the experience is worth the investment of one’s time and money – the market generally does not consider the producing entity to be as credible of an attesting source as impartial third-party endorsers.
The same is true for the websites of nonprofit (and most other) organizations. These pages often serve as repositories for unassailable facts – they are the places audiences go to learn more about where you’re located, what you do, and about your mission and social impact. Indeed, this information plays a critical role in the decision-making process, but it is hardly the active role that some organizations still ascribe to websites from the pre-social media era.
2. Some organizations still believe that their own website analytics hold the key to understanding digital behaviors
(FYI: Social media platforms often play a leading role in informing visitation and donor-related decisions)
At IMPACTS, a significant part of what we do is leverage data to deploy “intelligent” digital advertising. Often, when we share online campaign-related data with an organization, they are challenged to reconcile the quantity of impressions being delivered with their website’s Google Analytics (or like application) data. This is because we refer persons with a propensity to be influenced by social media to social media sites instead of an organization’s website.
We do this because we possess significant evidence (proprietary to each client, but generally applicable across the board) that there is a large segment of the market more likely to “act in the nonprofit’s interest” when they are sent to social media sites. (Remember: Not even close to everyone who looks at your Facebook Timeline or Twitter account is necessarily following you.)
This leads to widespread-website-strategy mistake #2: Thinking that your own website analytics tell anything more than a small fraction of the story concerning digital engagement. Unfortunately, we cannot control Facebook (and when it comes to our relationships with our online audiences, Facebook controls us (see the cartoon under #3)). Moreover, from an optimization perspective, analytics are only capable of partially informing existing content preferences – they fail to diagnose if the existing content is optimal in the first place! (So, these numbers have always been diagnostic metrics, NOT key performance indicators).
Strangely, many organizations that fancy themselves “data-driven” proudly invest in back-end, retrospective assessment tools (e.g. analytics). And, yet, these same organizations don’t seem seem to think twice (or even once) about first benefiting from even the most basic of front-end evaluative tools (e.g. A-B testing) before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new website.
In the overall scheme of things, your organization’s website analytics play a very minor role in indicating the efficacy of your overall digital engagement strategy.
3. Some organizations still prioritize bells and whistles
(FYI: If acting in your nonprofit’s interest isn’t easy, online audiences have neither the time nor inclination to figure it out)
What is the single most important action that you want online audiences to do in the interest of your organization? Now consider: How easy is it to tell from your website that this is THE most important behavior that you are requesting of your audience? And even more importantly: How easy is it to carry out this action? What about on mobile platforms – where more than 50% of a zoo, aquarium or museum’s high-propensity visitors access information?
Perhaps making a donation is a priority to your organization. If so, is it the single most important thing on your website? Many organizations bemoan their lack of success engaging online donors…all the while relegating a donation request to a tiny button in the top right corner of their home page competing for attention with all sorts of digital “noise.”
Organizations interested in maximizing their online effectiveness don’t create virtual games “because they’re cool,” chase industry awards, or develop super-sexy widgets as a display of their technological prowess; instead, they unrelentingly focus on making it easy for online audiences to act in their interest.
For many organizations, selling admission is a critical component of their financial plans. We live in a world where you can buy an airline ticket from San Francisco to Tokyo on a smartphone in less than 60 seconds, but it frustratingly requires five long minutes to purchase a ticket to some museums on the same device.
Some organizations have entered into long-term agreements with ticketing providers and are apt to shrug their shoulders and excuse their bad practices by saying, “Well, there’s nothing that we can do about online ticketing. We have a contract.” As a reminder: To the market, this is a “you” problem. The market doesn’t know that you’ve signed a contract with a company that doesn’t meet your needs – only that you’re not meeting theirs. (Which is especially strange when you consider that in this situation, their interest is to act in your interest!)
We easily accept that social media evolves and even platform uses change – but, to some organizations, there seems to be something sacred and untouchable about the role of their websites. Like all digital platforms, its purposes, strengths and weaknesses change over time. Organizations that recognize these changes will be best able to utilize this valuable tool to support both their business and mission objectives. Those that resist the inevitably of change will continue to witness the decline of their online audiences. In sum, organizations will benefit by developing a digital strategy and evolving their websites to meet changing needs and expectations – rather than building strategy around the outdated role and “rules” of a website.
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About the author
MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore