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Your Website's Dirty Little Secrets - 1/24/2012 -

If your website isn't delivering value, don’t blame the technology.


By Anne Hegland

An association's website is its most significant communication and marketing vehicle. Yet, it also is the most overlooked. Why?

"Don't blame technology," says Frederick Faulkner, IV, principal, AIE Digital LLC, adding that people—and staff—are among the barriers to improving an organization's greatest value proposition: its website.

Faulkner, former manager of digital marketing at the American Bar Association (ABA), along with Amy Peebles, director of strategy for the organization, outlined five key problems that lead to website neglect in a session titled, "The Dirty Little Secrets Why Your Website Isn't Delivering Value." The co-presenters drew from their own 14-month experience serving on a team that helped redesign ABA's website to provide strategies to address each challenge.

In addition to people problems, the other four challenges include lack of urgency; leadership needs vs. organization needs; lack of understanding about the content ecosystem; and lack of integration across communication channels.

These five challenges, he says, represent the 800-pound elephant in the room. "It's the stuff you all know exists and no one wants to talk about."

1) Lack of Urgency

An organization's website usually does not get attention until there is a problem.

The CEO and other leadership may be focused on other issues, and in the meantime, members are accessing your website 24/7, 365 days on their mobiles, tablets, and web browsers. Ignoring the website will lead to a decline in its value proposition in the eyes of members.

"It takes a monumental moment like the members complaining and bickering," says Faulkner, before redesigning the website becomes the number-one priority. "Somehow, you have to find ways to pull the website up to a higher priority," he stresses.

2) People Problems

"Let's face it, technology projects don't work that well because of the people that implement them. It's not because the technology doesn't work," says Faulkner, who points to other staff-related obstacles, including organizational silos, skill set deficiencies, and lack of accountability.

He emphasizes the importance of investing in developing staff skills—project management in particular. "If you're not investing in improving the staff's skill set, they will not find ways to help with your website” he says.

Lack of accountability or ad hoc governance of a website also impedes improvements. "Who owns the decisions and who gets to implement the decisions? It’s the dichotomy that exists between the directors of communications, marketing, and IT. Having that partnership in place will help resolve the accountability issue. If they’re not working together, the technology will not serve you,” Faulkner says.

3) Leadership Needs vs. Organization Needs

Here is where conducting a member needs analysis proves beneficial.

"You have to keep the leaders happy because they run the organization. But they don’t always represent the masses; they have a different engagement level within your organization.

"There’s the decision point where you say, ‘Do we do what our leaders want and suffer the consequences of the masses, or go with the research we have?’”

The member-needs analysis, says Faulkner, is "the only way to combat leaders and their assumptions."

4) Lack of understanding about content ecosystem

How many different ways do you want your content—your value proposition—to be found and shared? Your members may or may not know exactly how to get there and the varying ways to consume it.  

For an association or its publication to be the authoritative source for its industry, there must be an understanding of the content ecosystem. "It's about how content goes out; how it is shared between channels (i.e., mobile, social networks, etc.); how it is consumed by members and even non-members."

5) Lack of integration across communication channels

Is the editorial content of your website written in the same tone as the organization's other communications? Do they reflect each other graphically as well?

Addressing the Challenges

So what can an organization do to overcome these challenges and improve the website's value proposition? The ABA’s Amy Peebles said key questions must be asked and answered by a web rules team comprised of representatives from across the organization.

To move forward, the group must first identify who owns the website. "At the ABA, for a decade and a half, we had no owner and we had a site that reflected that,” says Peebles.

In the case of the ABA, "we had an owner, who isn’t necessarily the person who makes every single decision,” she says. It was determined that there are many content owners throughout the organization, while IT owns the backend management. Identifying these "owners” answers other questions, like who will be publishing content directly to the Web, and who needs training?

"One of the things we talked about a lot was not just the skills needed to use the new content management system, but also how to write for the Web. It’s a different skill set, she says, adding the ABA developed an ongoing certification for those who publish to the site to ensure the quality of the posted content.

Content strategy, Peebles points out, is one of those topics on which those in the association world agree. Yet, most do not have a content strategy. "It’s not just a publication strategy. It’s a question of are we publishing the right content? Are we repurposing the right content and thinking about how to repurpose it to the chapters?”

This leads to the question of whether the workflow is working optimally. Are you wasting lots of time, energy, and tools, or are you editing and distributing the content in the various ways members want to receive it? "Think about the reasons people are coming to your site. Focus on your competitive advantages,” she adds.

Finally, Peebles stressed the importance of monitoring website metrics to help an organization ensure it is providing the content visitors want, delivered in their preferred modality. Tracking how many are coming to the site, who they are, and other metrics will help website owners modify content as necessary.

Anne Hegland is editor in chief of AAP News, the newsmagazine of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Association Media & Publishing thanks her for covering this event for our members who were unable to attend.


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