In the grand scheme of the digital age, thank goodness the 90's and early 2000's are behind us. Don't get me wrong, we wouldn't be where we are today without GeoCities, America Online, and MySpace.
However, I'm very glad that we have moved away from the notion that every organization needs a website, just to have a website.
Today, your website is your number one marketing asset. It's the first place people look to learn about your organization and take advantage of all that you offer.
Your website plays a central role in lead generation, the sales process, and customer retention. For associations and other nonprofit membership organizations, their website is how they keep members engaged and informed.
Though the early Internet mindset is in the rearview mirror, many association executives and boards think about colors and design when people talk website planning. Some may consider navigation, but after that, the ideas wane.
Ensuring that your website is cohesive and intuitive is a great start, but it only scratches the surface of what you need to have a website that keeps your member engaged over time.
Balance the Needs of Members and Your Organization
Before launching into tactical changes that you should make to your website your organization has to consider the audience you are trying to impress. Who is driving the content? The answer is simple â€“ your members and you. Let's dig into the complex relationship between these two answers.
Your members will be using your site every day (hopefully) and you should place a premium on their preferences and demographics when constructing your association's website.
For example, if you are targeting millennials, they are often arriving to your website looking for social networking connections. Research showed that the number one action 50% of millennials take on a non-profit website is to connect on social media. If this is your one of your audiences, take that audience-specific data seriously.
However, while members' wants are important, don't let them get in the way of innovation. Just because your members have not thought of something yet, does not mean that you should provide a certain type of value or solve your audience's problems in a specific way. It is usually not the job of members to think of innovative solutions for the association. That's yours. As Henry Ford said, â€œIf I'd asked people what they wanted, they would've said a faster horse.â€
What Makes an Engaging Association Website?
Every association will take a slightly different approach to developing, launching, and managing their websites. How much content you have, the history and politics of your site, and how many audience segments you are targeting will all impact how you layout your association's website.
With goals for how members, prospective members, lawmakers, the media, and donors will interact and get value from your website, creating a site that keeps people engaged can seem like a daunting project for association leaders.
Next, we'll boil an effective association website down to its most simple parts. Regardless of your industry and audience, here are four areas that every association must pay close attention to when creating a website.
Goals: Include Strong Calls to Action
A common thread among association online strategies is that websites exist to get people to take specific actions. These include joining, renewing, registering for an event, and downloading industry research.
How can you get website visitors to meet your goals for your website?
While people fly through websites and online content, their eyes always land on visuals, particularly bold clickable buttons. An effective design makes use of these calls to action (CTAs) to create a visual hierarchy to call out the content and actions that are important.
Calls to action are important because they provide a logical next step for the reader. Important calls to action on an association site would be things like "Join," "Now, Sign Up," and "Learn More." Don't let these buttons get lost amidst dense text. Make them pop with good design.
Pro Tip: Don't get so caught up on making them pop that you abandon brand cohesion or user experience.
If you've recently published a white paper, create a call to action to download it. Not only do these images get attention, they also prompt action. Use them to lead prospective members to self-qualify and show interest.
Consider a host that greets you at the door of a party and suggests a logical next course of action, "The food is in the kitchen, please help yourself." CTAs are your greeting. If you're not using them, you risk your members or prospective members abandoning your site without taking the actions that you want them to take.
Value: Provide a Peer-to-Peer Community
A strong online community is one of your top member acquisition and retention tools. It helps people connect and stay connected in between conferences. The discussions, resource libraries, and peer-to-peer social network in your community provides a place for members to help other industry professionals.
The member community component of your website is also one of your most valuable member benefits. It provides a one-stop source for exclusive members-only content, conversations, and access to experts.
Getting Found: Learn Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
This is a very important aspect of a website because without it, the people in your target audiences won't find you nearly as easily. Your members may know about you, but people may not link your organization's existence to the issues that you fight for. Consider these situations:
- When a lawmaker Googles an issue
- When a journalist is researching a piece on your industry
- When a member is looking for a resource or tool
- When prospective members want to know more about a challenge he or she is facing
- When a member of the public wants to learn more about an issue
In all of these instances, where is the first place that people will look for answers? That's right, their favorite search engine!
Search engines rank websites based on the search company's proprietary algorithm. While none of them offer up the exact formula for high organic placement, Google has shared that quality content, as determined by visitors, is important. That means social shares, inbound links, time on page, and numbers of pages visited factor into the search equation.
To rank on the first page of the search engine results, you can hire an expert who stays on top of the search engines' constantly changing qualifications, or you can invest time and energy in learning about keywords and content. To get you started, here's the abbreviated version:
- Search engines will decide if your content is valuable by the interaction people have with it.
- Make your headlines count. Use important keywords and phrases people will search for as headlines on your page.
- Tag the images you use with keywords.
- Use a variety of keywords but don't keyword dump. Nobody wants to see the same word repeated over and over.
- Refresh your website with new content often.
- Drive people to your website by linking your social media posts to your internal content, not the other way around.
- Link to quality sites and hope they link back.
Knowing how to leverage on-page and off-page SEO is one of the most important digital marketing skills at associations.
Member Experience: Optimize Usability
If you've ever been on a website where you're fumbling around looking for information, you know how frustrating that can be. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, most visitors stay on a page 1-20 seconds. Don't lose a prospective member because they can't find something they need.
For that reason, you'll also want a good search feature. A bad search only leads to frustration. There is no sense in offering your visitors a tool that doesn't work.
Additionally, develop and test a navigation bar that makes sense. Take notice of those areas of your site that are most often viewed and pull them out of a drop down. This avoids frustration when members want quick answers.
Association Website Takeaway
The most effective association websites are more than a collection of images and text. They are built around specific goals. Along with providing exclusive ongoing value, so that members return to your site often, they leverage higher engagement to increase conversions on the calls to action that are important to your organization.
However, taking steps to ensure that your website is usable provides the foundation for both your members and your company to benefit from an engaging website.