Web Watch: Relaunching a Grand Old Web Site
Since the 2008 elections, the Republican Party has been revisiting its image with an eye toward appealing to young people and independents. As part of that process, it recently relaunched ?GOP.com, with a new design, updated content, a social-networking component and social-media integration. Fire up your Web browser and check it out — I'll wait.
It's pretty, right? The new site has a bold, clean design, and it's a big improvement from the previous GOP.com, which looked as dated and out-of-touch as the Grand Old Party itself is lately accused of being. It also features a lot of great interactive components — integration with Facebook Connect; the ability to set up a profile, share photos and videos, and connect with other GOPers; opportunities to share thoughts and comments; and frequently updated blogs written by party leadership — that should attract site visitors and keep them coming back regularly.
The already-legendary Obama campaign has set a high bar for Internet communications in the political sphere (and pretty much every other sphere), and the new GOP.com finally looks like it's playing in the same league.
Given the spiffy new design and smart tools for engaging people online, you might be surprised to hear that the launch of the new site in mid-October 2009 resulted in some less-than-positive buzz. Many would-be visitors had trouble accessing the site, and critics were quick to point out a few notable gaffes. Some of the critiques had more to do with politics than with Web best practices, but others were well-founded and illustrate important points that nonprofits should keep in mind as they redesign and relaunch their Web sites.
Content is still king
The day that the new GOP.com launched, the Web was alive with snickering commentary about some strategically unfortunate gaps in its content. Most notably, a page titled "Future Leaders" was left blank — when you clicked on the link, it returned a blank page, leading to amused speculation about the lack of future leadership in the Republican Party.
Site administrators moved quickly to put some content on the page, but the short-term solution — "Who are the future leaders of the Republican Party? You are …" — wasn't as robust as it could have been had the site content been in place before launch.
The Web design clearly was ready to go at the site's launch, but the rest of the site wasn't yet up to speed. When you're developing a Web site, be sure that the process of writing copy for the site is on pace with the Web development. Otherwise, your audience could eagerly flock to your beautiful new site, only to find that all of the pages are still "Under Construction."
Talk to your audience
Once the new GOP.com went public, it quickly became clear that some aspects of the site were missing the mark on a critical component of any good Web site: a focus on the audience.
For example, at launch, the site featured a blog written by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, titled What Up? To their credit, site administrators quickly realized that the attempt to appeal to young people colloquially was falling flat, and they changed the title to Change the Game (and, subsequently, Steele's Blog). But for some, the chance to make a good first impression and pique visitors' interest already had passed, and despite the quick change, technical issues meant that the original title still was visible in many areas of the site.
That said, some aspects of the site do a good job of speaking to the audience, like the primary navigation, which features clear, simple calls to action: "Act!" "Discuss." "Learn." The key point to remember when developing your site's content or site map is to put yourself in your audience members' shoes: What will be most intuitive and appealing to them? Are you using the right words? Will your titles and content inspire them to learn more and visit again?
Test, test and test again
Some of the launch problems GOP.com experienced can be prevented by a well-managed "soft launch" — a private launch during which site creators invite a discrete number of users to join the site, check out the features and report back on any issues they discover.
The GOP.com team might well have conducted a soft launch, but if so, it seems it didn't invite enough users or allow enough time to surface important issues. One notable example: The day of launch, site visitors stumbled across documents containing all of the site administrator information, including instructions, logins and passwords. Had there been a sufficient soft-launch phase, one of the test users could have spotted this potential security breach, and someone might have pointed out the implications of a blank "Future Leaders" page.
GOP.com officially launched in beta — a designation often used with Web applications to indicate that the creators are still testing them and working out the kinks. It's a good way to get your Web site rolling and find out how everything will work when you suddenly have hundreds or thousands of site visitors. But in this case, the new GOP.com might have been better served by launching sooner and more privately, letting a smaller group of users weigh in before going public.
A soft launch also has the added benefit of beefing up your site's content: By the time the general public sees it, your initial users already have begun posting photos, having conversations and connecting with one another, which makes new users feel that they're joining an active community.
What's the takeaway here? No matter how nice-looking and professional the design of your new Web site, a hurried or poorly handled launch can take away from its impact. Don't forget how important the content is, keep your audience in mind and use a soft launch to test things out before you go prime time. And when in doubt, consider bringing in an expert. You wouldn't try to design a Web site by yourself without professional experience; by the same token, it's wise to bring in professional writers or information architects to take your site to the next level.