Avoid Web Site Stagnation
If you worked in corporate America before you decided to help make the world a better place, you probably experienced the Internet revolution of the ’90s first-hand. If so, you probably chuckle today over the sweat you and your colleagues poured into those first basic Web sites: “Should the navigation go on the top? Left? Right? Where can I find a 13-year-old who can program this thing?”
It’s hard to imagine that early Internet powerhouses such as Amazon.com were founded as recently as 1994. Overnight, it became apparent that an online presence was essential to seem credible in the corporate sector.
As a communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits, we’ve found that mission-driven organizations, by and large, have arrived at the Internet party more than fashionably late. Today, I chuckle recalling meetings during which board and staff members at mid-size and large organizations insisted, “Our donors won’t ever be online” as recently as a few years ago. Even those who built sites in the late ’90s rarely built or budgeted for something more dynamic than a static site — essentially a bare-bones online brochure — until a few years ago. Most of the small to mid-size nonprofits I’ve spoken with say they built their first Web sites sometime between 1998 and 2003.
But as I’m sure you’ve found, the Web is no longer an “I’ll get to that later” item on a nonprofit’s agenda. These days, surveys reveal that significant numbers of direct-mail respondents will visit your site before making a gift, and board members even point out typos on obscure Web pages. Even the most die-hard, abacus-using Luddites in your organization admit that more and more Americans use the Internet every day, and that your Web site may play an influential role in a donor’s or client’s relationship to your organization.
As a result, many organizations are revisiting the Web sites they originally built and realizing it’s time for a serious upgrade. But because the Internet is still a relatively new medium, many struggle to know how and when to upgrade, and how to budget for their online future.
Which leads me to the Web site I’ve been asked to review for this month’s column: www.peckham.org, the Internet home of Lansing, Mich.-based organization Peckham, which offers job opportunities and training to people with disabilities. Peckham uses its Web site to market both its business operations (manufacturing, distribution, logistics, etc.) and its human services.
I suspect that when Peckham built this site back in the day, it learned a few lessons from its for-profit counterparts. The site utilizes a few tried-and-true Web design techniques: using colors to define unique areas of the site; having a search, phone and e-mail option on every page (often called “persistent navigation”); rotating photos often enough to be interesting but not distracting; offering visitors graphical and text-only versions; and having a clear call to action with the relevant contact in every area. The organization has one a great job weaving its mission statement throughout the site (I read it on about four separate pages the first time visited the site — which I think is terrific), and donors can give via a secure feature online.
At the same time, this site suffers from a series of decisions that make me suspect it was either a “loving hands at home” project (i.e., built by a volunteer, not a pro), or created at the dawn of the Internet and not yet updated to reflect current best practices. Specifically, it uses a splash page (those introductory pages you used to see before you got to a site’s home page), and its design emulates a more corporate style — integrating imagery such as globes and buzz words as key visuals. Google searches using terms that should yield good results, such as “Lansing Michigan call
center” reveal low or no rankings, which suggests that search engines are picking up copy in the site but are having a hard time identifying what Peckham’s keywords are.
How to upgrade
Peckham would benefit by having the site’s current content redesigned and recoded by a professional who could update it using today’s standards and techniques. That update would include making sure that the site works on both Mac and PC platforms and in varied browsers; that it uses language and coding to optimize its visibility with search engines; and that donors, clients and other key visitors can find what they’re looking for via more user-friendly navigation design.
Lastly, given the nature of its work, Peckham might have a terrific opportunity to shift the site’s language and design away from “what we are/what we do” toward “what supporting our organization can do for you.” By using more audience-centric navigation, copy and visuals, Peckham can allow its donors and other visitors to experience the organization more intimately, rather than as outsiders looking in.
Sarah Durham is founder and principal of New York City-based communica-
tions firm Big Duck. Contact: email@example.com.