Image source: James Royal-Lawson on Flickr
At the Ad Council, we’re incredibly lucky to work with some of the top thinkers in the advertising, media and digital fields. We’d like to share that knowledge. So, in addition to hosting our free events, we’d like to share insights from professionals who have caught our eye and can give some practical advice.
First up? An interview with George Weiner of Whole Whale who knows a ton about web development and digital strategies for nonprofits. And, he was the CTO of DoSomething.org for seven years, helping to build their community of over 1.5 million young people. Not bad, right? We talked to George about ways organizations can improve their website and ROI.
Ad Council: How do you know when it’s time to rehaul your website?
George Weiner: You want a straight answer? Redesign your site every two and half years. No matter what. I am partially kidding here because there is no one size fits-all answer here. It’s like asking, how do you know when it’s time to take out the trash? When it smells. If year after year, you’re adding new content and your SEO isn’t growing, it’s time.
AC: You work with lots of nonprofit clients—what’s the most common mistake or pitfall that you see?
GW: Wearing sunglasses at night. By which I mean, not setting up the right metrics and goals to properly analyze what’s going on. If your organization is hoping to raise awareness about a health-related cause, you might value downloads of informational pamphlets, views of an educational video, or signups to an informational newsletter. If you’re seeking corporate sponsorships, you might value downloads of informational pamphlets, views of an educational video, or signups to an informational newsletter. If you’re seeking corporate sponsorships, you might prioritize submissions of a corporate inquiry form. Identify the most important pieces of information that you’ll want to check regularly. Before you even think about touching a custom dashboard, you’ll need to do some serious thinking about what metrics are most important to you. Identify the KPIs (key performance indicators) that are the best proxies for your mission — the data outputs that best predict your desired organizational outcomes.
AC: Do websites even matter anymore? Should the focus be on integration with your social media channels?
GW: I’m very bullish on the long-term value of websites–it’s the one asset you control. It’s your own permanent address where people will always find you and will survive the current wave of innovation. You don’t own your Facebook page or Twitter account. But you own your website. That being said–you should be thinking about every single medium and the way your content relates to it. NPR has done a wonderful job of transitioning from radio to other channels, like podcasts, etc.
AC: Okay, rapid round–what are the most important metrics to track for the following:
1. Fundraising (“donate here”)
GW: Don’t just track your damn “donate” button and stop there, okay? I’m less excited about this as a standalone metric—it’s like you’re treating your website as a glorified brochure (“don’t have a conversation with me, just give me money”). A nonprofit should go beyond that–you want to further your mission.
2. Branding (“we’re a leader”) or awareness building (“don’t smoke”)
GW: First, don’t fall for the “last click attribution” fallacy—figure out how you made your conversation. Also, set goals for time on your site. For example, tally every time someone spends over five minutes on your site and why. And decide which pages matter and track that. Maybe it doesn’t matter if anyone went to your homepage–the valuable stuff is on your other pages.
3. Advocacy (“call or email”)
GW: Get very specific about the particular action and then measure the hell out of it. If it’s to “Call your Congressmember,” you can add code to your “call button” to track demographics. Are more men or women calling? What type of mobile phone are they using? Also, Google Analytics now allows you to do some demographic tracking.
AC: Which gets us to A/B testing. Is that a must?
GW: It’s sort of like Maslov’s hierarchy of needs—take care of the basics first. If you’re not properly tracking your website, don’t bother with testing. Focus on that first. Or if you’re small–less than 10,000 visitors/month, don’t worry about it. But if you’re a bigger nonprofit, testing can make a huge difference—it can translate to a 20-30 percent conversion increase! Experiment with a little bit of everything – your headlines, words, visuals, layout. You can do this with programs like Optimizely.
AC: What is the most important component of A/B testing?
GW: Content! Say it with me–content is king. If there is no text on your site, people won’t do what you want them to do. Promote one call-to-action and be concise–use bullets.
AC: Talk about your golden rules for acquisition. What’s the best way to get a user to join your cause, sign up, donate, or whatever?
GW: It has to start with a value proposition—why the hell am I going to give you my email? What am I going to get out of it? A lot of organizations take a very passive approach “sign up to get our newsletter!” You need to appeal to someone’s emotion and what they want. At Do Something, we’d design campaigns where it was impossible for the user to escape giving us their email. We’d do it any way we could—popups, polls, surveys. And then we’d test it six ways to Sunday.
AC: Common mistakes?
GW: Once you’ve got someone in your camp—you made the conversion–I rarely see organizations segment. Do you send the same email to your volunteers, donors and newly signed up? It’s like buying the same holiday gift for your Mom and friend – you’d never do that. But for some reason that makes sense for emails. That’s absurd.
AC: Pet peeve?
GW: What drives me nuts is when organizations ask for too much too soon. They want your name, your zip code, your interests. You can get all that later—get them to like you first. Any new field you add, you’re guaranteeing a drop off by 10 percent. If the reason for the field is “because we want to know,” cut the field. You know you’re lazy and won’t even analyze those data anyway.
AC: Best advice on email capture?
GW: Some of the best advice I got was from Do Something’s Board member Reid Hoffman (co-founder of Linked In). He’s brilliant and yes, I was always incredibly intimidated by him. He told me, “don’t you dare ask for any piece of information if you’re not going to use it to help the user’s experience.” Meaning, if you’re going to ask for a zip code, you better damn well make sure you’re giving that person something relating to their geographic location. If you ask for their last name, you better send them a freakin’ belt with their name embroidered on it. Don’t collect data just to collect data.
AC: We know the basics of Google Analytics–what’s new?
GW: Right now I’m sort of obsessed with attribution modeling. If you only look at the most recent way a visitor came to your site before converting (i.e. donate, sign up, etc), it can be misleading. It’s like skipping the whole romantic comedy and only watching the last 10 minutes of the movie when they live happily ever after. What about the first 80 minutes? The same can be asked about conversions–what about your other channels? Facebook? Twitter? An email? How did they help with the final conversion? How many days did it take that user to convert? How many interactions did they have before subscribing to your email or donating to your cause? With limited time and resources, nonprofits need to be as efficient as possible with their marketing efforts.
Feedback loops are also a must. To make data actionable you need to have a feedback loop, not a spreadsheet. Pick three metrics that matter most to you, get a summary and read it regularly. Once you build the dashboard, you can automate it to send you daily, weekly, or monthly reports. So, when you pull together your list of KPIs, you’ll want to keep in mind what time frame you’ll be looking at. You may only need an update on referral sources every month, but you may want to check your site’s top content posts every week. No matter what your KPIs are, choose a date range that also includes a comparison to the past time frame for your scheduled emails. After all, a number without context has little meaning.
AC: How can a nonprofit put their website numbers in context so they compare with their peers?
GW: Google Analytics now has benchmarking tool which is super freakin’ exciting! You can look at different verticals (i.e. “green living and environmentalism”) and compare your web traffic to averages. If you want to compare your site to someone else’s–you can use tools like Quantcast or Alexa. Just type in the website url and you’ll see their time on site, pageivews, bounce rates. You should do it for your own site, by the way.
AC: Who do you think is doing it right? How can you learn from them?
GW: I don’t like this question because it invariably leads to the “charity: water” problem–where organizations simply copied their site because they liked it visually. Bottom line–you need to design for your audience and your content. Though we are biased, TheLamp.org is a site we just redesigned to match the mission and purpose of the organization.
AC: You became the CTO at Do Something, and over your seven years you must of learned a lot. What’s the major takeaway?
GW: When an organization makes technology a focus, you can accomplish amazing things. Many organizations don’t understand the business they’re in. CEO Nancy Lubin fundamentally understands that Do Something is a technology platform first. And to accomplish their core mission—make the world suck less—they have to have the right kind of team and talent.
AC: Parting words of wisdom?
GW: Don’t be intimidated by the rapidly changing digital landscape. We all start as beginners, the only mistake you can really make is to stop learning.
Want to learn more?
Join us for an Ad Council-NTEN webinar featuring George Weiner of Whole Whale on Wednesday, April 8. Email us at [email protected] to RSVP or to request more information.