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Upgrade your website's usability, enhance your bottom line: 3½ ways a great online user experience can help your organization right now

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To attract and keep the attention of busy people - donors, members, executives and employees - organizations can't afford to miss opportunities to make their lives easier with great online experiences. There are 3 ½ ways that great online experiences can benefit your organization right away.

1. The REAL branding 101: It's about great experiences

I hear many clients - and a disheartening number of the agencies that serve them, people who should know better - talk about branding online, and about branding, period, in terms of logos, colour schemes, and fancy page headers. They're doing themselves and their clients a big disservice.

Your brand is not your logo; nor is it your colour scheme or even your name. Your brand, ultimately, is about experiences - the experiences that people have as donors, as members of your organization, and as participants in your events. It's the experiences that reporters have when they're highlighting your activities in the media.

Certainly, to align with your brand, your website should look like the rest of your communications. You should use colour and your logo consistently across different media. But that's less than half the story: Your brand online is your online user experience.

A brand experience, whether its online or not, has 3 different dimensions:

  • Aesthetic - this is the sensual dimension of the brand: how it tastes, what it smells like, what it looks like.
  • Meaning - this is the social impact dimension of the brand. For instance, fair trade coffee has a meaning above and beyond what the coffee tastes like or how effectively it perks you up.
  • Benefit - this is the "what's in it for me" dimension. Associations, for instance, that offer opportunities for professional advancement and accreditation speak strongly to the "Benefit" side of the branding equation.

Different brands may use different recipes, different measures of each of these key ingredients, but the base ingredients are always the same.

What experiences does your website offer? Does your arts organization website look like an accountant's? Does your professional association, which meets in four star hotels, have a website that reminds people of a church basement? These are obvious ways in which user experience can undermine your brand.

Does your website communicate the impact your organization has in the world, or the personal benefits that people get from belonging to your organization? Does it communicate these strengths in ways that connect with people emotionally, with clarity, and with a sense of immediacy?

It has to, if online experiences are going to support your brand, instead of subverting it.

2. Great experiences inspire people to take action and help them live that inspiration

What do you want your web visitors to do? Answering that question will drive your organization's success online and it should drive your user experience. In fact, answering that question well is the first step to creating an effective online user experience.

Specific answers, that people can really act on include:

  • Donate to us
  • Join our organization
  • Volunteer

But what I often hear are answers like:

  • Increase people's awareness
  • Educate people about the issues
  • Help people learn more about what we do

Good answers? Not so much. Being informative is good. Being informative AND affirmatively inviting your visitors to take the next step is good online user experience. A good user experience will include a strong call to action - one that's highly visible, that's clear, that connects with people emotionally and that has a sense of urgency to it. After that, get out of your visitors' way.

Good user experiences are simple and easy to complete. Classic mistakes include:

  • Asking for unnecessary information on sign-up forms
  • Calling for multiple steps during registrations
  • Requiring people to print and mail forms that they can fill out online

Great user experiences go further. They:

  • Reach out to visitors
  • Remind members when it's time to renew and provide one-click access to easy-to-complete renewal forms
  • Tell donors what their money did
  • Inform previous event attendees about the next event
  • Enable volunteers to connect and collaborate
  • Let people who love what you do tell the world about you

Great online experiences make your key actions speak louder, and strengthen your organization immeasurably. They can improve your fundraising success by thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars. They can grow your membership and volunteer base by dozens, or hundreds, of people, and can sell out your events. Great online experiences make your organization stronger.

3. Treasure in your own back yard: The hidden value of lost and found productivity

Good usability pays for itself, sometimes many times over. A recent study by the reported an average 83% return on web projects devoted to redesign of usability.

The report also notes that the average mid-sized company could gain $5 million a year in employee productivity by making improvements in their company's employee-facing web tools. Not a mid-sized company? Well, maybe improving your staff web user experience is only worth about $500,000 a year.

How much time does your staff spend each day on the following tasks?

  • Looking for the information they need to do their jobs?
  • Communicating new policies and procedures to staff and volunteers?
  • Preparing reporting for donors and other funding sources?

And how much is that time worth if you value it at its fully loaded cost - $40 to $50 an hour if you factor in wages and benefits, and also take into account the value of having your staff contributing directly to organizational tasks, rather than spinning their wheels on unproductive tasks.

The productivity gains you can get from improved user experience are the easiest money that your organization can find. They don't depend on finding new donors or volunteers. Your organization can make these gains right away without relying on factors beyond your control. And they're gains that improved ease of use can create right away.

3 ½. Two-way experiences provide strategic insight to help your organization adapt and grow

Creating great online experiences is about making your web presence easy to use. But it's also about choosing the right kinds of experiences in the first place. The web isn't just a medium for telling your story and pitching your cause. It's a two-way medium, and you're missing a major opportunity if the online experiences you provide don't take that into account.

When you give your constituents the opportunity to share their stories with you and with each other, you gain the opportunity to learn first-hand how their attitudes and opinions shape their behaviour around your organization. You'll learn where you're serving your constituents well and where there's room for improvement. And these are huge insights that can help you strategically guide your organization for years to come.

When people talk about "Web 2.0" and "Social Media," they're talking about online experiences that help to open up that conversation, things like:


Does social media pose risks? Sure it does. Not every experience is right for each objective, or every organization. Key things to consider when you craft your social media approach include:

  • Culture - organizations with a top-down, hierarchical culture are going to have a hard time adapting to a more open-ended, egalitarian social media.
  • Capacity - social media, like everything else, requires resources. You need to make sure your organization can find them.
  • Audience - if your constituency isn't on Facebook or Twitter, it doesn't make sense to put resources there. You need to understand a little bit about your constituency before you begin. Research pays.

The risks that exist are manageable, but they do need to be managed. And if they're managed well, not only do you gain insights that you wouldn't find any other way, you also gain the opportunity to turn your constituents into online advocates for your cause.

Kent Wakely is managing partner of Fruition Interactive, a company that creates compelling online experiences for clients that generate exceptional return on investment, and open new strategic opportunities. He has been dedicated to creating great online experiences since 1993.

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