So your website is a disaster, or non-existent! Don’t panic, this is not uncommon at all. Even if the website was cutting edge when it was designed two or four years ago, styles change. If your website is not meeting your needs, it may be costing you supporters – or even direct donations. If the election (or year end fundraising period) is more than a few months off, it’s probably time to face the dreaded website redesign process. Or perhaps your organization or campaign is just off the ground, a splash page worked in a pinch but now you need a full site.
How do you get a beautiful new site that meets your needs, on time and on budget?
First of all, figure out your needs and your budget. Do you need a custom-crafted website, or is a template-based site good enough (or perhaps the best fit for your budget)? We have a new product, DemCampaignSites.com designed for Democratic downballot candidates that need a simple affordable website for their state legislative or municipal campaign. It’s harder to find a solution like this for non-profits, because non-profits tend to be more unique and individual than campaigns. So if you’re a non-profit, you’re probably going to need more expensive custom work, unfortunately. The more customization you need, the more developer and designer time it takes, the more it costs.
Before you enter the custom design process, one of the first things we recommend people do is read up on the latest web design trends. Some trends are backed by data that shows that certain styles perform better – but many are a matter of personal preference.
Some bad-idea-yet-prevalent website design elements: the research shows that carousels or sliders don’t get much traffic at all past the first slide. Worse yet, they can confuse or annoy your audience and make it really hard to use on mobile devices. Should I use a carousel? NO. It may seem like an easy way to appease multiple stakeholders, but it just doesn’t work in practice. If you need to fight this out, show the evidence. Also stylistically it just looks clunky and dated.
In 2014, Internet usage on mobile devices exceeded that of PCs for the first time and we’ve never looked back. If your website is fairly old, it may have problems on mobile devices. You’ll want to make sure viewers on cell phones and tablets still have a great experience using your site. Don’t forget to make sure your donate pages and action/signup pages are all mobile optimized too, or you’re leaving money on the table! You may need to do some tweaking to the templates in your CRM for this part.
Particular audiences may have even higher percentages of mobile users too, so it’s important to think through what your audience is or should look like. If your fundraising emails and the donation pages on your website don’t take this into account, your organization’s budget could be losing out.
In terms of web design, think responsive. This means your website will adapt to the width of your screen, so it will appear different on a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop computer but it’s all the same website underneath. This makes more sense for most campaigns than going to the trouble and expense of building a mobile-only standalone website. In fact, you may consider designing “mobile-first”, designing for a mobile device as the primary user of your site.
Websites loaded with everything and the kitchen sink not only look terrible, but also they are hard to use. Consider using dropdown menus and/or simplifying down the structure and navigation of your site so it is clear where everything belongs, and the site is easy for people to use. This will help for people using mobile devices too, but make sure your menus don’t have so many nested levels that they become impossible for small devices.
Do not let your site become a camel (horse designed by committee). Throwing a search button onto a poorly designed site is not a good solution. Neither is loading up the front page of your site with every single item of content on your site — when everything is the focus, then nothing is the focus.
Before you start on design for the new site, think about what the goals are for your website. For most campaigns and nonprofits alike, it’s usually primarily to collect email addresses (and cell phone numbers if you plan to run a SMS text messaging program) and secondarily, donations. All else flows from that — once you have their email and cell number, you can stay in contact and spread your message, ask for donations, volunteer signups etc. But if you try to have the website front page be all things to all people, you’ll wind up losing on the goals you really care about at the end of the day. Note again that carousels don’t work and are not a solution to this.
Think about your audiences. For political campaigns, it’s usually supporters, opponents, and media. The majority of undecided voters will not come to your website unless you’re running a paid campaign to bring them in, or if it’s a hotly contested primary and active Democrats are educating themselves on all the candidates. When designing your website, remember the 3 key things you need: votes, volunteers and money. Websites are not really a persuasion medium, although you do need basic “about” content, and issues etc. for people to look up. Websites are a great medium for leading supporters into volunteer signups, or supporters into donors. But above all, you need their email address – because you can always go back and ask them to donate or volunteer another day. Don’t forget to include press releases, a media contact person, and a high res headshot for reporters on deadline to download. For opponents, do nothing: but make sure there isn’t anything confidential on your website for prying eyes to see. Assume your most dedicated readers are your opposition.
For non-profits, it’s much the same — people who go to the trouble of googling your organization or going to your website are probably already likeminded (or hate-surfing), unless you’re running ad campaigns or have search engine optimized (or are running a free Google ad campaign via a grant) on some issues. I suggest focusing more on bringing supporters into your boat than convincing them to be on the water in the first place. But do have basic info about who you are, what you do, how people can donate, volunteer, attend local meetings etc. Especially if their donations are tax-deductible, make that clear! Also keep in mind that the media needs to know how to get ahold of somebody when they’re writing a story, and keep in mind that if you have opposition, they probably will be checking out your website regularly too.
Once you’ve got your goals identified and your audiences in mind, you can start thinking about what the site content should be. To figure out what should be on your new website, take a look at your existing site and figure out what’s important/unimportant/missing. Look at similar organizations/campaigns and your competition too, that can help clue you in to what you haven’t thought about. Think about your audiences, what they want to see and what you want them to be able to do. This is a good time to make a list of sites you like, sites you don’t, and WHY. That will be invaluable to your site designer later.
Also you’ll need to identify the stakeholders of this project, and how your approval process is going to work. Who needs to see designs and give feedback? If there’s more than one decision-maker, who has the final say when they don’t agree? If you can get the politics worked out before you begin, then you’re much less likely to get caught in an unforeseen bind. Also as mentioned before, get to know their particular tastes, no point in wasting time and money going in an artistic direction they will not like.
Figure out your budget, and key deadlines. This ties into one of the previous steps — when you figure out what other sites you like, go ahead and ask them how much they spent, and who built it (+ whether they’d recommend them). Note that some of this is public information for federal campaigns; you can dig through FEC reports to find out who did the work and how much they spent. Also many campaign and nonprofit websites will have a site credit at the bottom (or in source view if you’re looking at the HTML). Especially if you’re not sure how much your site should or will cost, getting numbers from other nonprofits or campaigns can give you an idea of what a Ford versus a Cadillac might cost. Try to compare apples to apples – if you are or will use NationBuilder, look at other NationBuilder sites. WordPress integrated with Action Network, EveryAction, Salsa, Convio, NGP VAN, BSD, same thing.
One more thing to consider in terms of budget: there’s a tradeoff between speed, quality, and cost. Pick only two (or sometimes just 1!). Understand what you’re getting and what you’re giving up.
Sort out your technical requirements. What are you using now for your CRM (email/donor management/activism software) and CMS (website)? (Definitions in the appendix if you’re unfamiliar with these terms). The pain of switching may or may not be worth the additional features and/or lower price dangled before you. Also, sticking with the current CMS for your website means you don’t need to deal with the headache of how to handle older content/whether it can be moved to the new system or not. If you like your existing CMS (assuming it’s a reasonably modern and robust one like WordPress or Drupal or Joomla), look for developers that have experience with that particular CMS. If this will be your first CMS, look for something that will be easy to use for you, is open source and has a large developer community (so you aren’t locked in to your existing vendor). A custom CMS (or CRM for that matter) will make it harder to switch or change things later. The problem with using a simple site builder like Wix or SquareSpace instead of a full CMS is that you’re locked into their system.
Also whatever your CRM is now, ask your CRM vendor for recommendations on website developers that work well with their system and nonprofits or campaigns like yours. If you’re using something like Constant Contact + PayPal, consider whether now is the time to make the leap to a true CRM.
Once you’re ready to start talking to vendors, go back to the list of website developers you built by researching sites you liked, and talking to your CRM vendor for recommendations. I recommend reaching out to up to 3-4 of them directly, having narrowed down your list from the millions of developers out there by getting pre-recommended choices. A formal RFP process can cost way more in your time and theirs, and you could wind up with a worse result by missing out on popular vendors that don’t bother with mass RFPs, and only hearing from firms large enough/with the cost structure to support dedicated business development staff to deal with RFPs.
When you’re talking to developers, ask for examples of their work and style (if you haven’t already seen it). This is why choosing based on sites you like is such a good idea. Web development is as much art as science, and if you’re a Monet fan you don’t want to wind up with Jackson Pollock.
In terms of price, make sure you understand what is included in the project and what is not. Will the site be responsively designed, or are they building a separate mobile site? Will they do email templates and other customizations to your CRM to match? Is that a part of the project? What about custom graphics for social media, search engine optimization of your new site, etc.? Are domain names, stock photos & other graphics, website hosting included in the price or not? What about ongoing support? Also is their project budget a firm number or estimate — if it’s an estimate, what happens if they go over hours?
Ask for a timeline in addition to the budget — so you can get a sense of how long their process will take, and whether it lines up with your key deadlines. If you need something immediately and their process takes time (understandable), ask for a splash that can be rolled out very quickly while they continue work.
In terms of hitting deadlines, one of the best things you can do is to have your prep work done before the project begins. Sort out what content you want on the website and what you don’t, gather up all your (high resolution) photos and make sure you have rights to use them, high res versions of your logo and branding materials, collect up all the logins they will need. Gather up your design ideas, your list of sites you like and sites you don’t. You can work on developing missing content pieces as they work on designing and implementing the site, make sure they are not waiting on you for content. Also, be prompt on design feedback throughout the process, as it’s usually an iterative give-and-take. But they will be stalled out at several points if they do not hear back from you.
What happens after the site is launched? Make sure the site is easily updatable by your team, and any appropriate level of training needed is built into the project. You do not want to be at the mercy of somebody else’s schedule when you need to update your website quickly, even if you do have an ongoing support relationship with the vendor. Did they build search engine optimization into their process, so that search engines will quickly crawl your site and deliver traffic? Consider paid advertising as appropriate to deliver an audience to your site as well.
Also sort out what you need to protect your website — regular backups, security precautions etc. What happens if/when the site goes down in the middle of the night, or it gets hacked? Was ongoing or emergency support included in the project, or is it an extra? Make sure you know who is handling the webhosting, domain name registration etc. and you have the logins to make sure that it’s paid for and renewed yearly. Also make sure you’re prepared for success – if your organization or campaign gets a moment in the limelight (hello spotlight on CNN or viral video!), will your website and especially your donation processing software be up to the challenge? Note that you should pay the extra amount to have your website be https instead of http. Not only does this make your website traffic more secure (important for online donations, email signups etc.), but Google now ranks secure websites higher in search. To migrate from http to https is usually a simple and cheap process, but make sure your website vendor is prepared to do this for you as a part of the project.
Note that as previously discussed, most of your audience will be people trying to accomplish a task: folks wanting more information on you and/or to sign up, people wanting to donate, press on deadline trying to get your contact info, opponents researching you. If there is nothing in your website that is “sticky”, then people will not likely be making return visits. This may be ok – having to produce a lot of fresh content for your website might not be the best use of your time, given that content on social media could be reaching a much larger audience. If there is no blog or regular news section on your website, expect repeat visitors to slow to a trickle. Even if you do have regular fresh content, do not expect a large audience to come to your website unless you cross-post to social media and/or run paid advertising to draw an audience.
If you have great original content on your blog and are looking to find a larger audience, you might want to also consider cross-posting to Medium or DailyKos or other user-generated-content based sites. You may find a much larger audience that way.
Finally, if you love your new site and your vendor, spread the word! The progressive community does better when all of us use best practices and have awesome sites that get the word out and DON’T cost an arm and a leg. If you want your vendor to be around in a couple years when you’re ready to redo your site, help ’em stay in business by referring them to other non-profits and campaigns. 😉
Ready to begin on your website development or redevelopment journey? We’d love to discuss our progressive non-profit website design and Democratic political campaign website design services and how we can help you.