Updated: Aug 26, 2022
There are some things about creating websites that nobody tells you about until you have already jumped in with both feet. After being involved in developing a lot of websites over the years, I wanted to share a few tips, some of which I had to learn the hard way.
But first let’s talk about food. Menus to be more precise. Menus in New Orleans Restaurants to be exact. In the old days, if you went to a white tablecloth restaurant in New Orleans, you were handed a menu the size of a phone book. They also had phone books back then. On page-after-page, they described every dish in loving detail, whether anyone had ordered it in years. Ham in Aspic anyone?
Today, you can read most menus on your smartphone. Times change and we no longer spend 30 minutes thinking about what we are going to eat.
Websites have changed too. Here are six trends that can help produce a website with impact and maybe save you money at the same time.
It’s A Billboard, Not A Storage Unit. This is the biggest change in website design over the span of my career. The first ones we created were like those enormous New Orleans restaurant menus. We tried to archive every document we ever had right there on the website. Now websites are carefully curated to contain just enough information to make you want to contact the organization to learn more. Picture a successful billboard. In the 10 seconds it takes you to drive by it, they make you remember them and contain enough information to act on it later.
TICK..TOCK…CLICK. The average person spends less than a minute on a webpage and more than half of them spend less than 15 seconds. Your website may be lovely, your pictures may be breathtaking, but you are not an art gallery. You are a nonprofit. If people take the time to seek you out, they want to know more about your organization. Make those few seconds they spend with you so memorable they want to stay on your page.
Hi, I’m _____. Related to #1, when people hit your landing page, let them know right away what you do and why. Nonprofits are terrible about burying what they do in flowery, vague language. As a donor, I wonder, are they ashamed of what they do or are they not sure what they do. Think of it this way: Two guys show up at your front door. One says, I’m the plumber. The other guy says, I empower homeowners with hope by engineering win-win solutions that facilitate fluidity throughout their living spaces. Which guy do you let into your house?
Your Website Designer Ain’t Superman. A great website really needs three interconnected elements:
Technical: While web design software, like WIX and WordPress, have made website construction nearly idiotproof, it is still a technical process. Someone who understands coding, can integrate online donations and other outside programs, set up your analytics, and make sure your email doesn't get blocked can save you a lot of heartbreak later. Increasingly, security concerns are the main reason to bring in technical expertise.
Design: Van Gogh would have made a terrible software coder. But he could have made you one memorable website, am I right? Websites are visual and someone with a strong visual sense can work magic. It's more than just pretty pictures. It is about the layout of the site, and the way the fonts and graphic look contributes to your story.
Content: To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the almost right word and the right word is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Words matter more on a website than any other material you produce. Words are what cause people to act when they get to your website, whether that means donating or contacting you to learn more about your mission.
As you've probably noticed, these three areas require three very different skillsets and very few people have them all. Your IT guy may save the company from hackers every day, but no one expects him to paint or write ad slogans.
For example, I usually focus on website content for clients. I find the right words to convey a message and how to combine them with visuals to tell a nonprofit's story effectively. I have created websites by myself (including this one), but my strength is on the content side. Most website creators can handle the technical, visual and content demands, but how many of them are unicorns who are masters of all three? That's OK, if you understand the strengths and potential weaknesses of your website developer.
You will find that most website creators can handle the technical, visual and content demands of a project, but they almost always have one area of real expertise. When you contract for a new site, it is important to know what you are getting (and what you are not) when you hire a developer.
5. Measure Twice/ Cut Once: Time really is money. I've seen nonprofits pinch every penny on their website projects, and then go over budget because of revisions and misunderstandings over design concepts. Time is often the most expensive part of a website update. Multiple revisions or conceptual changes at the end of the process are an added, unexpected expense. The nonprofit sees this directly if they are paying by the hour or, more often, paying penalties for multiple changes. But even with a flat fee, the nonprofit pays indirectly. The website launch is delayed. Sometimes the developer has to put your project on the shelf to take care of other client deadlines.
You avoid this problem by getting your messaging down first. What are you trying to say on your site? Be as specific with the wording as you can. Talk through the design with your site developer before launching construction. Don't drag your feet reviewing drafts. Your developer will thank you and your budget will thank you.
PS. the most frightening words in website design are, “the board has a few comments.”
6. It’s about you but it’s not about you. Too many nonprofits use their site to push information out at people. That’s backwards. Your site should invite people into your world and, if they want to find out more, it should show them how. Sometimes that can be a subtle difference, but the way to get it right is to design from the perspective of your audience. What will they want to know and how can you give it to them in a way that is easiest for them. This is especially true for your donation page. Pretend you are a first-time donor coming to the page. What do you want to know and how can it make it easier for you?
Planning a new website update? Let’s talk about adding meaning to your message and telling your story for donors. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.