I’ve been doing some research lately on building websites for a political advocacy group, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP). I haven’t been posting lately because I went down a VERY, VERY deep Drupal, information architecture and SEO rabbit hole for the last few months. I would have written this post sooner but I really wanted to confirm a lot of my thoughts first with site traffic measurements. Basically, this is a story of how a very small political advocacy group went from zero to hero in roughly six months. This is going to be a long post so let’s get started.
What we have above is a chart detailing the last six months of traffic for APA for Progress. In return for my volunteer work with them, I asked that I be able to blog freely about the site’s growth and how I did it on basically a very, very tiny budget.
Be aware that the time period in the chart above begins the day before Obama’s inauguration so there is no bump from the political campaigning of last year. Also, the group had a very low number of new blog entries on it and was unable to get a bump from the campaign. Site traffic has grown from 91 visits a week to an all-time high of 2,356 about two weeks ago. The site is probably going to undergo a summer slump as many students will be on vacation but I expect the traffic to grow again during the fall. At the time I found them, APAP had suffered the loss of a previous Drupal site and was temporarily on a WordPress site as a stopgap measure. In other words, they were simply like many other tiny nonprofits in terms of the transitory nature of their IT assets.
First, let’s list APA for Progress’s online and offline assets:
- Email list of around 3000 people
- Facebook group of 1000 people
- APAP’s Volunteer Executive Director does offline organizing with college campuses showing a film about Vincent Chin
- Extensive contacts with Asian American political figures and the Democratic party
- Overcrowded WordPress blog (way way too many widgets)
With little money and no traffic, APAP had to figure out how to maximize their current assets. I ran into them as a way to work off my Obama addiction. I decided that they would make a great lab for many ideas swirling around in my head as to how nonprofits should carry out their advocacy campaigns on the Web.
Over time, I’ve had to seriously rethink the role that nonprofits can play on the Web. Most of the time, nonprofits like to use Web sites to promote their mission and monetize their traffic. It’s basically a 20th century industrial model akin to radio and TV. The nonprofit broadcasts and the donor listens. The problem with this model is that it’s a guaranteed way of falling straight into the black hole of mediocre web design and low site traffic. There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years given to email marketing and social media but primarily email and social media end up being used in the same way: to broadcast a nonprofit’s news and events. Just because your site has some moderate interactivity given you by an email vendor or your CRM, it’s not going to fundamentally change the nature of your site.
And unfortunately, much is made of social media’s ability to break up this model to the detriment of what I believe should be the cornerstone of a nonprofit’s online strategy: the Web site. Social media (in this case, Facebook and Twitter) simply cannot carry the burden of the work. It cannot generate traffic on a consistent basis and relies all too often on the most mercurial of personal relationships. If your nonprofit has little penetration with the right digital media rockstars, it’s difficult to get your message out there. This is not to say that your nonprofit should NOT have a social media inititative. If your constitutencies include young people, you should definitely have a Facebook fan page or Facebook group for your organization. You CAN use Facebook to drive traffic to your site but mostly for increasing traffic to your already popular blog entries.
What APAP needed was a surefire way of generating site traffic without hoping on hitting a social media jackpot and absent a compelling event that would organically drive interest in a nonprofit like APAP that dealt primarily with Asian American politics. It’s difficult to raise interest in politics regardless of your ethnicity if you’re not in an election cycle.
Because of this, I had to think about the assets that tiny nonprofits have. All small nonprofits are mostly made up of a collection of people interested in working on a particular issue. Their main assets are their fundraising and community relationships. This means that you have to grow and nurture those relationships into an online design. I’ve got a couple of “theorems” about nonprofits as a result:
- Nonprofits best serve as news aggregators due to their in-depth domain knowledge and consistent advocacy of particular public policy positions
- They don’t have the ability to produce news content on their own easily and should use volunteers to help them out
These two observations have a strong impact on the way I believe nonprofits should create their sites in the future. It suggests that nonprofits can use their staff to create a strong editorial “filter” on news items happening in their geographic catchbasin. It also suggests that they should use their existing community of volunteers to build out content that more closely matches their advocacy positions.
These observations simply hung in the air until I started thinking further about taking these observations and turning them into an operational plan that could be implemented into APAP’s website. After working on this blog for two years, I had learned a lot about SEO and was intrigued by the success of sites like the Huffington Post and Daily Kos. I thought to myself: what can be gleaned from those sites and be applied to nonprofits? Here are my simple recommendations that I think nonprofit websites should adopt from news sites.
- Big headlines get clicks
There’s no doubt that Huffington Post does an amazing job of organizing the front page of its site to cue readers as to the most important thing that they should click on. This type of headline design originated from drudgereport.com. In fact, I consider this to be Matt Drudge’s singular insight on website information architecture.
- Pictures next to headlines get more clicks
You’d think this was pretty obvious but it’s not. However, most commercial news site have adopted this as a standard. Great examples are Yahoo! News and MSNBC.
- Big pictures next to big headlines get even more clicks
If you need more data on this, I can give it to you but this is pretty much common sense if you accept the first two ideas.
- Give people an anchor to look at — i.e. headlines with pictures
This means putting all the big headlines and pictures into one area in a prominent portion of your Web site – just like the Huffington Post. You’re making it SUPER easy for the user to understand what he or she needs to click on. No more random clicking from users looking for the good stuff.
- Aggregate the news for your nonprofit vertical
Use the strong editorial filter function that is inherent in your nonprofit to rearrange the day’s news in terms of how it affects your constituency or policy goal. Act like your nonprofit cares about the world’s current events.
- The order of presentation for your news is YOUR value added
What makes your editorial filter stronger is the sense imparted to the reader that you are making it easy for them to imbibe your view of the world. This means you really mean it when your biggest 30 pixel high headline is really important.
- Tag, tag, tag, and tag again
Tags are one of the ways Google tries to understand your blog entries and pages on your site. Don’t forget this part. SEO is everything.
- Magazine-style layout is the future of nonprofit web sites
And ultimately, what you’re doing is creating a news magazine akin to Huffington Post. This is not the same as creating a newsletter. Newsletters aren’t done on an ad hoc basis like the front page of your website. They also don’t tend to aggregate news sources and are more about the internal operations of your nonprofit.
- Timeliness is everything
Like all news magazines, your website has to thrive on timeliness both for more referrals from Google search and for establishing a reputation as a competent and driven nonprofit directly immersed in the issues of the day.
- Allow your users to blog on your site
Yes, I know established nonprofits would fear this user-generated content the most. However, small nonprofits have very little access to paid staff and should consider this to be their secret weapon to establishing mindshare within their constituencies. That is, when you’re broke, you should adopt user-generated content.
So ultimately, my earlier two theorems and these ten tips combined together into the current site design for APA for Progress. I understand that these strategies would create a fairly radical shift in the way nonprofits organize and distribute their communications. It’s a user-centered model built on serving users with content that doesn’t necessarily originate from the nonprofit. Indeed, most of the people creating the content are not staff.
This has tremendous ramifications for the way a nonprofit will organize itself on the web. With the informal and highly opinionated nature of most user-generated content, it’s probably a good idea to include a disclaimer saying that your organization doesn’t necessarily share the opinions of its bloggers. It also means the traditional role of a communications director moves less from creating press releases to more of a “business development” role asking other blogs and nonprofits in the same policy space to syndicate content from the site by either linking to it or republishing. It also means using your contacts to generate good “gets” — getting good guest bloggers or having important individuals participate in conference calls to your membership or in live video conferences. There are many different ways to use traditional PR means to get more traffic for your site.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a remarkably labor-intensive endeavor. Writing content and/or getting people to write for your site is time consuming. However, it IS free. And when you’ve got more time than money, this is a fairly clear way of getting your nonprofit out there. Oh, and how much did this project cost? Less than $600 for the Drupal redesign.