Sunday, February 26, 2006


So you're redesigning your 2

We all have a lot to say. Not all of it needs to go up on every website. Instead we must focus on the information and functionality that will make our primary audience feel that they have come to a credible site to do the activity they come to do. I use that word "feel" for a reason.

Web credibility is so important and so hard to understand that Consumers Union actually launched an entire web credibility project (with its own website) to research the things that make a site credible to its readers and encourage sites to abide by standards of credibility. Our most elaborate and interesting study came out way back in 2002 and hasn't been replicated, so I am still using it (knowing that 2002 is an internet lifetime ago). The 2002 web credibility study identified a gap between what really makes a site credible to readers and what readers think makes a site credible.

The project has always surveyed web users--who report that a site is more credible if it has a good privacy policy or corrects its mistakes--but in this case they asked web users to use websites and answer questions during that process.

The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.

The study also found that people felt a site was more credible if it was easy to use. If the information is well organized or the function is straightforward, people feel better about their experience—even if they never actually read the information that you post.

This study introduced me for the first time to the Stanford Persuasive Technologies Lab--I find this name very creepy--where researchers try and figure out details of those visual cues that carry a feeling of credibility. In the end this is probably where the art lies--and I do believe there's a lot of art involved. As long as the art doesn't get in the way of the activity your people come to do or the information they seek, then a site's artistry can make a very positive contribution to the feel of credibility.

For example, at Action for Healthy Kids, strong photos of kids faces dominate, while the navigation is focused on getting people onto their state team (a clear, primary purpose). At the National Coalition Against Censorship we see a beautiful entry page with some very sexy topics (including things like pornography and violence), but you have to click through that page to find the site itself and the site organization doesn't follow the teaser topic list.

It may not take an artist to give you the visual cues you need if you can identify a simple motif or image that will appeal to your audience specifically. The ACLU of Texas wanted to reach out to moderates and conservatives in Texas with some common sense reforms. But the ACLU sometimes has a credibility problem when it reaches beyond its core liberal base in a conservative state like Texas. Texans may not automatically believe things the ACLU has to say.

On the other hand, defending the bill of rights is truly patriotic, so the organization focused its web design on a simple flag motif that highlights its patriotism while posting a range of information appealing to all kinds of Texans. This may not be enough to offset the beating this organization regularly takes from the shock jocks, but it probably helps give site visitors a good feeling about the ACLU’s real commitment to serious and credible work.

If you suddenly find yourself part of a site design committee, or you are asked for ways to improve your organizations existing site, or you have just hired a consultant to help you develop a new web site—there are some online resources that might help you sort out the many small and large questions that will come up along the way.

Groundspring has put up a page of guidelines and tips that strikes a good balance between information to help you navigate the big decisions and information to sort out the details. For a list of site design topics and reports that will remind you why you hired that consultant in the first place, visit Web Site Tips. If the headline “How to Use .htaccess, mod_rewrite, and Related (for Apache)” doesn’t give you a headache, you might also like Shirley E. Kaiser’s related blog Brainstorms and Raves. Nancy Schwarz has some great commentary and links for nonprofits about web site development here. And for some common sense tips that can help you avoid mistakes, both small and large, visit Jakob Nielson’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


So you're redesigning your 1

There's a lot of information about site design on the internet, and an endless array of designers and consultants ready to help you (mostly for a fee) as you prepare to set up a site or revamp an existing site. Its enough to make a poor nonprofit staffer's head explode.

I've put together a few websites now (for different nonprofits) with external consultants, internal controversies and design committees. Any one of these can lead your site down a path to failure--take them all together and you get the nightmare that is probably the average nonprofit staffer's experience of site development. Perhaps I'm an incorrigible optimist, but it doesn't have to be this hard.

When I start a new web design project now, I start with the questions
  • "who is this site for" and

  • "what are those people coming there to do."

  • Then I ask myself
  • how can I best enable the main activity people come there to do, and

  • how do I make the surrounding information credible to the audience coming to do it.

  • Throughout the process I just keep reminding myself of these questions so that the myriad small things that come up don’t distract us from the goal.

    The first question is probably the hardest. If your answer to that first question includes everyone from experts in your field to activists on the street and elderly people clicking away at home, then you will have a hard time developing any design that is going to be easy to use and credible to everyone. So maybe you need more than one website!

    Consumers Union has two very different websites devoted to changing the prescription drug marketplace. The first, Best Buy Drugs, is primarily for people seeking better information about the medicines they take. The audience will be disproportionately older people and they come to the site to read about their medications. We hope to change the marketplace by showing people through credible, comparative studies that they can enjoy better health and save money by avoiding certain designer drugs. If they take that information to their doctor and get a different prescription as a result, we have succeeded.

    We also want to change the marketplace through legislative reforms (Congress and the states), and created a completely separate site for this, Prescription for Change. We simply place the logo for Best Buy Drugs in the information section of the site. This site's audience is broader--anyone who is disturbed by drug company lobby power, misrepresentations, and secrecy. I'm disturbed, and I just see the terrible ads on TV! The site design is entirely focused on directing viewers to state and federal action, with supporting information under "news" and "learn more" tabs.

    Having multiple sites can be controversial, and it can get out of hand I suppose. We have a lot of sites, and I often wonder if I will know when we've reached an upper limit on this practice. But this solution can help you resolve some difficult decisions and make your site design process easier and more focused on results.

    Once you have focused on your audience and the activity they expect to do on your site, you can start to cut away all the extraneous information and functions that will distract your readers and make navigation more difficult. But lets leave that discussion for Part II!

    Saturday, February 18, 2006


    Benchmarks for success

    M&R Strategic Services and the Advocacy Institute last week released a first of its kind study giving nonprofit advocacy groups a reasonable set of metrics by which we can measure the relative success of our online political programs.

    It does not attempt to measure the extent to which politicians are moved by email and phone communications from our members. For that assessment, we must go elsewhere. But it does highlight the continuing importance of email as a primary way to solicit online political activity, and the importance to all our online activists of a credible, layered political strategy (including offline volunteer tactics, good media strategy, lobbying).

    First, I must state for the record that M&R provides consulting services to Consumers Union. I know these guys. They won't mind my saying that the major findings--based on actual system data for 15 nonprofits and three large tool vendors--are unsurprising. If you send more email to more people, you can generate more communications to legislators. And if you spend more money you can build a bigger email list and raise more money.

    That said, even experienced online organizers will take away some real lessons:

    Because a study of this size and scope is beyond most of us on a day to day basis, I'm thrilled that M&R and the Advocacy Institute issued these results. I've conducted pieces of this analysis at different times, and our internal results confirm most of their major points. We see better results from email that speaks to people in terms of where they live, and issues or interests don't seem to matter as much as you might think (see post on this topic). Paid promotion through carefully selected email partners performs far better than other promotions, although we've had some email that tanked. A big chunk of our list (about a third) reads our email but doesn't take action much.

    Nonprofit organizations can use this study to benchmark our own results and find the areas where our performance is perhaps below par. The authors illustrate each section with sample activity by a specific nonprofit that can be used as a model, and close with "Best Practices."

    That said, I wish the study had taken its "Best Practices" a couple of steps further. Understandably, the authors did not attempt to identify why certain individual messages performed better than others, although their statistical results defy conventional wisdom. I generally preach that shorter emails perform better than longer ones. For these nonprofits message length was not determinative except that the message shouldn't be too short (under 250 words). Nor did writing grade level seem to matter. Day of the week matters somewhat, but time of day didn't seem to matter.

    But the study touches on something that matters a great deal. Strategy.

    Here we get less helpful guidance. The authors note that you must define your goals, learn about your audience (I would say audiences), understand your tools, be relevant, and integrate online tactics with other tactics. That is all excellent advice, but if your organization does not routinely run volunteer-based grassroots campaigns, it might not be that helpful.

    I've said before that people will open your emails, read and take action if they believe that your strategy is likely to bring success. We are all tired of feeling like our side is losing. We are exhausted by constant, defensive battles. We want to win something for a change. But we are also all quite sensitized to hooey--happy happy joy joy re-spinning defeat into victory.

    What does it take to communicate a real strategy for real success? I'm going to make this sound easier than it really is. First, believe in your ability to succeed. Second, analze yourself, analyze your opponent, and analyze the terrain between you. Take out a calendar and actually lay out key dates that affect your campaign (legislative session dates, major holidays, election dates, corporate board meeting dates, study committee meeting dates, filing deadlines for ballot initiatives). Add to this calendar the timing for online communications from your e-activists that might influence different targets and move your campaign forward. Then add to it things that offline volunteers can do, things other organizations can do (your allies) and things your opponents are likely to do. Identify the best moments for offense, and the likely moments for defense. Finally look at your internal capacity and start to pare down the things you want to do to a core calendar of things you can actually pull off. Now, you have a strategy to communicate to your list.

    If each volunteer activity (whether a simple email action or a complex field endeavor) actually helps put pressure on a decision maker, bring in a needed new ally, or split off a problematic opponent, then your volunteers and e-activists will gladly dive in and do what it takes. You will see the results immediately in your open, click and action rates.

    I recommend that we all pay attention to the study, and use it to improve the ways we communicate our successful political strategy to our members! Thank you, M&R and Advocacy Institute!

    Saturday, February 04, 2006


    You're standing in a bar...

    A great email has a great subject line, a quick, sharp formulation of the proplem and proposed solution, and a brief landing page with the action people can take. This is harder than it sounds.

    When we know a lot about a topic, its easy to over estimate the amount and type of information that people want to know before they will help us move reforms on that topic. If we are communicating by email, its important to distill out the key points that will generate a sense of shared urgency--and not overload people with our expertise.

    To get back to basics, I often imagine myself in a bar--its crowded, noisy, and distracting. Standing next to an interesting new colleague, someone says, "so, what are you working on these days..." and I know I have just a moment to convey to this person (who I like and want to like me in return) the most compelling thing about my current project. Suddenly I've reformulated the wonky, detailed policy proposition I started out with as a real problem with easily identifiable implications for my new friend, and my strategy sounds fun and potentially successful. All in a couple of quick sentences delivered in a strong tone to cut through the surrounding chatter.

    This simple, mental roll play works for me because it changes my relationship with my audience from one of writer/reader to that of an active participant with my new acquaintance in a conversation. I must first figure out in a blink how to spark some interest and then draw out further conversation from that interest.

    It also works because it takes advantage of the enormous power of our brain's unconscious congnition processes--the process that allows us to just say something, without thinking about it ahead of time, and its perfectly...right. In his recent book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell identifies this power of rapid cognition with the "zone" described by athletes or the insight certain art experts enjoy instantly when they see an artifact.

    "Whenever we meet someone for the first time, when ever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we're faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second part of our brain," he writes. I believe this applies directly here. The things we say and do directly, without thinking too much ahead of time but with the benefit of our years of experience and knowledge of a topic, are often the best formulations we can create.

    Once I feel like I've formulated the problem and my strategy in a couple or three quick sentences that would inspire a new friend in the bar, I make sure that I've identified the most positive aspects of my work that encourage optimism, and I try to frame a subject line around that optimism.

    This week I got a great email from MoveOn. The subject line was so simple: "Amazing." I must confess that I don't open all my MoveOn email, but I opened that one. What was amazing? Did something good happen? God knows, I want to have some good news the way things are going these days. I opened the email just to find out what was amazing. And the first line told me that MoveOn's last fundraising appeal brought in more than the goal. Now I didn't contribute to that fundraising effort (in fact, I didn't even know about it, no doubt because I didn't open the previous email), but I experienced a small, warm feeling anyway that something amazing had happened that would help MoveOn do amazing work in the near future. Amazing. You may even feel just a shade of that positive feeling as you read this paragraph. That's the power of a good subject line, and the power of a positive attitude.

    Your activists want some good news; they want to know that their actions count, and they want to see some progress--even if its only progress to a fundraising goal or a supportive editorial in the daily paper. In order to give people a positive but honest assessment of the impact of their participation, you will eventually need to start measuring that impact in more creative ways but I'll save that for a future post.

    I find that examples help, so here's an email we sent last month that resulted in a good open rate (over 30%) and a reasonable action rate (over 10%).

    Dear Kathy,

    Last year, more than a dozen states passed strong identity theft laws. Now Indiana will join them and bring you the right to control your credit information so that thieves can't open new accounts in your name.

    Take a moment now to support newly filed legislation that will help you defend against identity theft.

    Dozens of security breaches at major banks, data vendors and retailers put millions of people at risk of identity theft in 2005. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that almost ten million are victimized each year. When an identity thief has the right information about you, he can open new credit accounts in your name and just start charging. The mess takes years to clean up and can cost you a fortune.

    But Indiana is about to change all that, with your help.

    And please, tell your friends to take action too. State legislatures are just now getting started, and now is the time to show support so that legislation will quickly move and pass in 2006. Don't delay!

    In the coming year, you will be part of a movement to pass bills in states, hold legislators and corporations accountable, and show the media the human faces demanding financial privacy, clear disclosures, fair credit card contracts, better cell phone service and much more. We can successfully pass major reforms together. Take a look at what these incredible people, with just a little help from Consumers Union, accomplished in 2005!

    Gail Hillebrand
    Consumers Union
    1535 Mission Street
    San Francisco, CA 94103-2512

    I hope others who write a lot of email will chime in here with other good examples from their own experience--emails that got a good result and can show us all how to improve our work.

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