Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Chasing the Pitch

In baseball, anxious hitters often swing at pitches out of the strike zone. In many organizations, communications staff may feel pressure to chase an audience with similarly unsatisfying results.

What we’re seeing today, often in pursuit of younger consumers on the web and in social media, is not unlike the “gold rush” mentality that met the dawning of the internet era. Many businesses knew they just had to have a website. They weren’t really sure why they needed one, or what to do with it once they had one, but doggone it “we’ve got to get our website up!” Questions about strategy could wait until tomorrow.

A decade ago, in downtown Minneapolis, the city leveled a block of decrepit properties and replaced them with a garish Disneyesque mix of entertainment-focused businesses intended to bring suburbanites into the city. The problem was in the premise that people who are afraid of the big city – those who don’t normally come downtown – would change their behavior because a Hard Rock Cafe just opened. The project has been a colossal failure.

It’s always a good idea to keep your primary audience in mind when mapping out your communications strategy. While it’s perfectly valid to produce materials that are targeted at a broad demographic, the narrower the focus of your communications the better. This website is aimed at 18-25 year olds. That article is aimed at people who like to read 4,000-word stories. This invitation is intended for our friends with deep pockets.

Know who you are. Misguided attempts to broaden your appeal can backfire. Not only will you be disappointed in the response, you may alienate your devoted fans in the process. Sticking to a strategy with a tight audience focus will help you keep your eye on the ball.

Churn Baby Churn

A communications specialist at a Midwest university told me recently, “We’re putting out fires on a daily basis. Our department has six people to serve 15,000 students and we have no time to think strategically.” Sound familiar?

While too many organizations chase after the latest communications trends, adding ever more tasks to overworked staff, precious few seem inclined to ask: Why are we doing this? Or, better yet, should we be doing this?

Plan to make choices

Marketing should not be viewed as an all-you-can-eat buffet. If some is good, more must be better. It takes considerable discipline to take a step back and evaluate what is working and which activities are just distractions.

Practicing restraint requires having a plan – a communications strategy that defines objectives and target audiences, and sets priorities for the key messages and media channels used to reach them.

Economy of time

If time is currency, you don’t want to spend yours – or worse, your audience’s – foolishly.

In Kristina Halvorson’s excellent essay on The Discipline of Content Strategy, she writes: “Until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests.”

Do fewer things well

The benefit of taking time for strategy is that it encourages action with a purpose. It also allows staffers to shed activities that have been less effective, freeing up time to handle more promising ventures. The only downside to business as usual? Occasionally having to say “no” to colleagues. Or bosses.

By measuring your marketing efforts through a communications strategy, you’re more likely to provide valuable content that your audience cares about. And you can let the fire department handle the fires.

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Building a Solid Foundation

Website projects often start with a lot of enthusiasm. People are tempted to jump right to the “fun” parts of web design, getting excited about the potential new look, features and functionality. This is like picking out drapes and paint chips for a new house before a blueprint has been made.

People within an organization usually begin a website redesign with ideas for how to change the existing site. And while that’s a good place to start, the most valuable ideas should come from your site’s users. To improve your audience’s experience on the new site, consider the following:

Analyze your existing site

The first thing you need to know is what content your visitors are looking at. Your web host should be able to provide statistics on web page views and how people find your site. Google Analytics can also be installed on sites for free. Often, people are surprised to find which pages are being looked at and which are not. Ultimately, a thorough website content audit will answer two questions: What’s there? And, is it any good?

Gather insights, not just facts

Website statistics only provide information about existing content. Focus groups or one-on-one interviews can help identify needs that are currently unmet, or features that are difficult for your visitors to find or use. Focus on understanding your user’s needs rather than on current habits. Ask why they visit your site, what other sites they visit, and what needs are met there. What are they not finding on the web? Can you fill that need?

Users can also help you organize the site. Find out what categories they want to see in the main navigation, and what information they would expect to find in each category. While no two people will organize a website exactly the same way, look for patterns that will help you choose the best path to information.

Test your assumptions

Make time for usability testing. You don’t need video cameras, statistically valid samples, or white lab coats. Conducting a web usability test can be as simple as sitting with a test subject at a computer. Ask them to articulate their needs. Ask them to perform tasks. Then watch and listen.

It’s important to conduct usability tests early (and often) in your project. As web usability consultant Steve Krug says in his book Don’t Make Me Think, “Testing one user early is better than testing 50 near the end.” This allows for an iterative process in which your design continually moves closer and closer to the ideal solution.

By employing a process that includes data analysis, insights from your site’s users, and usability testing throughout, your new website will have a solid foundation. This provides the best chance of building a successful website, one which meets your audience’s needs.

Next, onto an even tougher problem: settling on a content strategy

– Claire Napier

Don’t Bury the Information in the Experience

The web allows designers to create interactive experiences that are not possible in print. However, it is tempting to let the “experience” get in the way of providing people with information.

Recently, as part of a site redesign, we conducted usability testing on a number of university websites. Many of the home pages featured a large section devoted to creating an interactive experience, with beautiful slide shows or video and elegant navigation. However, none of our test subjects explored these features, skipping straight to the main navigation.

This reinforced our belief that most web users, even first-time visitors, have a goal in mind when they enter a site. Users are usually looking for the fastest way to obtain specific information.

In my own experience, MySpace is a site where my need for information trumps my design sensibilities. I frequently use the music section of MySpace to get information on my favorite artists. These pages are usually a cluttered mess, with distracting backgrounds and poor visual hierarchy. But despite these disadvantages, I find myself turning almost exclusively to MySpace for information rather than to the artists’ official .com websites.

Why? Even with the less-satisfying visual experience, actual content is fairly straightforward and easy to find on MySpace pages.

When using the web to find information about an artist, I am usually looking for one of two things – music to listen to or tour dates. On an artist’s .com site, I am never sure what to expect. Often these sites require waiting for Flash to load and have cumbersome animated menus. Also, custom music players necessitate a learning curve for each one.

MySpace Music pages, on the other hand, have a predictable and basic layout with a limited number of options. While the components of each page may vary somewhat, everything is on one page. Once you’ve seen a few MySpace pages, the consistency of the available options makes finding information easy.

While including animation and interactive features can supplement the web experience, it’s easy to get carried away. When designing a site, I always try to remember that the users’ primary need is information.

– Claire Napier