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Are users having a sweet experience on your organization’s website? It’s OK to admit you’re not sure. Here’s how to get the most out of a website redesign.

By Kathryn Deen

Heres’s a little website story. Spoiler alert — it starts out a little scary but has a happy ending.

When Chris Okenka clicked on Turnaround Management Association’s website to apply to work there, he thought he reached a bad link. “I thought it was a mistake,” says Okenka, now design and brand marketing manager for TMA, and a recipient of the 2016 Association Media & Publishing Emerging Leader Award. “I thought I was in the wrong spot. So I Googled it and quickly realized I was on the home page.”

After Okenka landed his job with TMA, what do you think was one of his first initiatives? He spearheaded a website redesign for “I don’t think people would have taken us seriously for much longer,” Okenka says. “First impressions really mean something for a website. By not being responsive with the old site, we would have lost a lot of people trying to access our content.”

Because it was a major project for the small staff, TMA teamed up with Bates Creative and Unleashed Technologies. The outcome of two years of effort was impressive, landing them a 2016 AM&P EXCEL Award in Website Redesign.

“The website redesign is really helping engage our members,” Okenka says. “It has helped our membership and visibility efforts. Now we have something to be proud of and rally behind.”

Websites have never been more important for associations, says Amanda Jennison, marketing director of Bates Creative, which has worked with more than 100 organizations on their websites during the past four years.

“Everyone is constantly connected to their digital devices, so it’s a unique opportunity for organizations to stand out,” Jennison says. “It’s really all about the omni-channel experience and how your brand is communicating across all touch points, and the website is the central point.”

If you’re wondering just how effective a website overhaul can be for your association, take a look at the American Osteopathic Association. Its overall readership jumped about 45 percent and its number of new users increased by 40 percent in the two years since it transformed its The DO magazine website at, into a 2016 EXCEL Award-winning site, says Brooke Johnson, director of digital strategy for AOA.

Plus, reader engagement is up. AOA has seen growth in the number of conversations website visitors are having on the site about relevant topics to their field, and they’re even suggesting story ideas and offering to contribute content.

“Your website is your face to your members and your public face to the world,” Johnson says. “Ultimately, our goal is to be a trusted resource that communicates that we know them and understand their needs. If it doesn’t, you risk frustrating your member, potentially sending them elsewhere to find that content.”

Position your association for success by following these crucial tips to get the most out of your website redesign.

Involve Key People Early On

You don’t want your website committee isolated from the rest of your association; it will save time and effort if you involve the right people from the start. That way, you don’t have to backpedal and make major changes if another department finally sees what you did and doesn’t like it.

For the AOA’s redesign, Johnson assembled a web team as part of a larger marketing team and got everyone with a stake in the project on board early on, including subject matter experts, content specialists, and users.

Similarly, for TMA’s overhaul, Okenka’s website committee got buy-in from chapter executives upfront, as well as the association’s membership, marketing, education, and technology departments.

Study Audience Behavior with a Journey Map

Learn everything you can about your audience to produce an effective website.

To get to know its audiences, the AOA invested in audience research, including member surveys, qualitative and quantitative focus groups, and a web-focused research segment. “It has been very valuable in helping us understand the challenges our members face and helping them succeed,” Johnson says. “That sets the stage.”

AOA used member feedback to develop journey maps showing how a typical user from each audience group progressed through the site, determining the type of content AOA needed, Johnson says.

“Don’t dive into the architecture and design first,” Johnson says. “Set the stage.”

Think Mobile First

Mock up your web design for mobile devices first; then adapt it for desktops, laptops, and tablets. After all, the majority of your website traffic — 60 to 80 percent — is likely on mobile phones, says Thomas Sanchez, CEO and cofounder of the digital agency Social Driver, which has worked on 50-plus association websites.

About 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, while 51 percent own a tablet computer, and 78 percent own a desktop or laptop computer, according to Pew Research conducted in November. “This really is a phone-first world we live in, so we start with phone-first framework,” Jennison says. “It’s easier to expand and build upon it, working your way from small to large. You want to ensure your website looks good across all devices.”

Remember to resize your windows appropriately so people don’t get frustrated pinching and zooming to see your content on their screens, Okenka says.

Keep it Simple

The term information overload has been floating around since the 1970s, referring to the anxiety people get about the massive amounts of information constantly coming at them, especially on the internet today.

“Sometimes, associations build everything they can possibly think of into their website,” Jennison says, “versus brands that are successful, which are fast and flat.” Jennison holds up Google’s simple, clean home page for inspiration, versus Yahoo’s information-heavy landing page, loaded with tabs, photos, and articles.

Similarly, Okenka felt bombarded with content when he first visited TMA’s site in 2013; it hadn’t been redesigned in a dozen years. “There was no hierarchy or clear system of navigation,” Okenka says. “There was a single link for everything. It just didn’t work. It was hard to find anything and had light visuals. It was like a file cabinet that housed everything the association didn’t know what to do with.”

The key is not to throw everything up front at once. “If everything’s important, nothing’s important,” Okenka says. “You have to figure out your hierarchy. Once you figure that out, it’s a homerun.”

Okenka recommends chunking out your content into first-read, second-read, and beyond. “We realized that people weren’t reading our long emails and articles or really long headlines or event titles on the website,” Okenka says. “It taught us a lesson in brevity. Our members are super busy. They are on the go. Give them the facts. Give them the data. You can follow up with more information later.”

Keep it Consistent

Your association may have several chapters around the nation or even the globe. Sometimes, that can cause brand inconsistencies on your site if you’re not careful.

“One of the challenges we see in working with associations and their websites is that there are often siloed departments that want to own a piece of the website,” Jennison says. “It’s really critical before an organization starts down a website redesign process to take a look at the content structure and remember who the end user is. You want to make sure it’s all consistent across the board.”

With more than 50 chapters and 9,000 members, TMA wanted each chapter to develop its own webpage housed under the TMA banner, while maintaining the look and feel of the global organization. TMA set up a way for each chapter executive to log in to update sponsorship logos, upcoming event information, and newsletters as often as they’d like, while on the backend limiting the chapters’ permissions so that some settings and aesthetics weren’t adjustable.

Ensure a seamless look by keeping text styles, colors, and other design features the same on the chapter and global pages, Johnson says.

Make the Website an SEO Winner

What’s the first thing people do when they want more information today? They Google it, of course. In fact, the biggest drivers of traffic to your website are search engines, social media, and then email, in that order, Sanchez says.

“Search engine optimization is a huge opportunity for associations, whether it’s the issues they’re advocating for and they want to build a policy, or grassroots campaigns to advocate for that issue,” Sanchez says.

Feeding the search engine’s algorithms with strategic page titles, links, tags, and more can give your page higher rankings in a search, in turn helping more people find your site. That’s why tagging your content with popular search phrases is better than using technically correct jargon.

For instance, when Sanchez worked with the American Academy of Otolaryngology, he advised them to use “ear, nose, and throat doctor” as an SEO-friendly term, as opposed to ENT or otolaryngologist. “When it comes to SEO, you have to use the words that your audience is using,” Sanchez says. “Otherwise, they’ll never find you.”

Adding content or making small changes won’t always let you get the right ranking, Sanchez says. If your software is out of date or you’re not keeping up with Google algorithms, these could be keeping your site from being easily found.

Cross-Promote from Social to Site

While your website is king, social media is becoming increasingly important as a tool to support it.

“We use social media as a channel to drive traffic to our websites,” Johnson says. “So we promote and market a lot of our content on our social media channels, but it’s leading people back to the website at all times.”

About 69 percent of Americans use social media, according to Pew Research conducted in November. Facebook is the most popular, used by 68 percent of Americans, followed by Instagram, 28 percent; Pinterest, 26 percent; LinkedIn, 25 percent; and Twitter, 21 percent.

“Always tie them back and forth to support each other and not compete with each other,” Johnson says.

Make it Easy to Update

A lot of websites are built on very powerful, proprietary content management systems, but no one remembers how to add or edit content, Sanchez says. Complex sites can discourage staff from making frequent updates needed to stay relevant and timely.

That’s why Sanchez recommends using an open-source content management system to build your site. For instance, WordPress runs some of the biggest association websites he’s seen because it’s easy to log in, edit content, and create new pages and data visualization tools. Plus, it keeps up-to-date with your software updates.

“It’s much more flexible and more cost effective,” Jennison concurs. “For proprietary systems, you might need to rely on a partner or outside expert to make updates because it’s more complex.”

Okenka chose the open-source system Drupal for TMA’s site. “It’s very much what you see is what you get,” he says. “It’s easy. We didn’t want people to learn or memorize code or do the tedious things that a web designer would do.”

Launch it Thoughtfully

It’s important to have a marketing rollout plan in place to properly announce your new website to your members. Why? Even good change can be met with resistance if it’s not properly explained and presented.

Websites can take longer than planned, so build in some extra time to test and troubleshoot your site before announcing it to the world. Large associations should expect to invest at least a year in a redesign, Jennison says.

Monitor and Sustain It

Your work is never finished when it comes to your website. “It’s like a living, breathing beast that needs attention every day,” Okenka says.

TMA has weekly website meetings to make sure everything is running properly. As they create new content, they evaluate the best home for it on their site. “It has to be purposeful and strategic, so if it doesn’t fit the hierarchy, we need to question it or figure out where it needs to be held,” Okenka says.

A huge mistake some associations make is investing all their effort upfront to launch a new website, but then they let it crash and burn, Sanchez says. “If you have a big, ambitious project and find a vendor — but haven’t put in place a sustainability plan to factor in cost of ownership and time it takes to keep it up and running and working — that can be the project killer,” Sanchez says.

Keep in mind, you need to regularly upgrade security and back up data. Plus, your site will need attention if you have big surges of traffic, create new policy initiatives that require a new landing page or microsite, integrate a new customer management system, or have to adjust your formatting when new mobile devices come out.

All that being said, the website redesign process can also bring new insight to the surface, directing your association’s future on a larger scale. “The best thing that happened for us through the redesign was it led us to really analyze our organization at the global level, break down some silos, and figure out our true priorities,” Okenka says. “We realized we needed to be more chapter-centric. It led to a re-examination of strategic planning from our CEO for our marketing, branding, and goals. It started with the web redesign and then led to this list — and we are still working on it.” 

Kathryn Deen is a freelance writer. This is her first article for Signature.

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