10 Takeaways from 50 Association Website ReviewsJune 14, 2016
ASSOCIATION SITES OVERWHELM WITH INFORMATION, OFTEN TOO MUCH TO EFFICIENTLY DIGEST
Our circuit through 50 of the largest associations in America was thrilling at times, but the sheer volume of information on the sites left the visitors (well, us) frequently overwhelmed. Only rarely did an association stand and declare its mission in a powerful and compelling way. The further we marched through the list, the more we realized that associations are largely stuck in a narrow visual and verbal vocabulary. Below is a summary of what we saw along with some breakthrough sites that are shining examples of better communications.
1. It seems like one design strategy fits most.
The proof is in the exceptions, like CTIA on the right, not the rule. Let’s look at the “rule.” Our catalog tells us the association vocabulary includes a fast-moving rotating marquee in the upper left but hardly ever all the way across—in order to squeeze more stuff to the right. Never waste a pixel! The balance of the page is divvied up into chunks—dozens of them all clamoring for the visitor’s attention. Click on a link and the result is the same medley of information units deeper into the site. The result? This design strategy tosses the responsibility for parsing the information back to the reader. CTIA does the opposite exceptionally well. Yes, we found other gems on sites when we leaned over and into the “sale bins” (microsites, infographics, terrific reports) but those gems were few and far between.
2. Publications and news lack editorial simplicity.
Every association we met in our tour is an aggressive publisher. We know your members value information highly, but we also know the rather disorganized presentation of your research, your news and white papers, your books and videos causes members to wonder "Which of all this is relevant to me and my job?” Generally, associations are not giving members much help establishing relevance. Publications are typically arranged by mediatype—books, research, magazine, video, etc. The US Chamber of Commerce site does an effective job of curating thought leadership and presenting it in a way that is both easy to get through and persuasive via their online newspaper, Above the Fold.
3. Not all sites “sell” membership hard enough.
Because associations are non-profits, profit is measured differently, but make no mistake, associations are big business. Gaining new members and retaining existing members is paramount. Only membership is the solid confirmation of the effectiveness and, therefore, relevance of an organization whose mission is based on shared purpose. Therefore, making the mechanics of becoming a member easy, making the benefits of membership compelling (beyond a standard bulleted list of benefits) and making the association appealing and distinct from other competitors for the member dollar must be the goal, right? Yet the majority of join or membership pages we reviewed fall flat in either salesmanship or ease of use. The National Association of Home Builders does all of these things well, even quantifying the difference it makes.
4. Advocacy matters most when it is understood.
Associations advocate on Capitol Hill or in other places on behalf of their members, but believe it or not, a lot of your members have no idea what you do on the Hill or how you do it. Most Americans outside the Beltway have no idea what goes on in the halls of power and, as a result, don’t think very highly of the business (Ignorance breeds suspicion, suspicion breeds hostility). Sites could help with tutorials and a clean outline of the association’s legislative, regulatory and social agenda. We’re amazed at how few do this well.
5. The human element is often lost or underplayed.
We all know how important shared experiences are to the life of a member; therefore, it should be obvious that stories are told and the benefits of networking are shown. But mostly sites talk about networking rather than share the experience. Words are the least effective means of communication. They are difficult to process and require constant attention. Pictures, movies and animations are, well…a thousand times better. Often, the sheer volume of meetings in large associations can be bewildering. Organizing this calendar is step one. Bringing the human side of experience to the fore is step two. Remember, your member is your profit and retaining members is retaining profits. Should your meetings be “advertised” on your homepage? Of course, but only to lead the reader to a separate portal about the organization’s networking events. The NEA (National Education Association) is one shining example of humanizing the offering through their president’s Blackboard.
6. Content, yes. Engaging content, not so much.
In 1971, the Nobel-winning political scientist and economist Herbert Simon addressed the new realities of an information rich world. He said “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” On the sites reviewed, information abounds, but there is a lack of engaging and memorable content. The American Petroleum Institute guides readers through their tale with an interactive infographic that explains the path of oil, from exploration, to your car’s gas tank. Connecting that infographic with the other appealing maps on API’s site could tell a fascinating story. All the raw commodities (sorry, couldn’t help it) are there.
7. Associations are slow to value visual (v. verbal) communication.
In business and elsewhere we no longer have (if we ever had) readers, we have scanners. Sites, again like API, are quickly adopting charts, graphs, images, tables, maps, videos and other tools to share substantive information graphically. But more sites are still filled with too many words. The best sites have moved from text heavy to visually balanced.
8. Mobile and tablet friendliness is uneven.
We’re very pleased to see many associations recognize the imperative of a consistent brand experience across all devices. But more than half of sites reviewed ignore the mobile experience. Quelle horreur! More and more of us access the Internet on the move and the desktop experience needs to move with us, as do the mobile friendly offerings of the US Chamber of Commerce and American Psychology Association.
9. Special occasions demand special attention.
All too often, in the 50 association sites reviewed, we saw milestone events like rebrands, anniversaries, major advocacy achievements and new strategic plans presented within the standard templates of the site. We’d suggest that these special occasions deserve special treatment. To this end, the 100th anniversary of The Optical Society’s founding was a site for sore eyes.
10. The sea of sameness offers opportunity.
At the bottom line, we saw too many association sites that look, feel and sound similar and fail to earn and keep member attention. So, what’s the answer? Break the mold. Rethink both your site organization and presentation. In our reviews, for example, we posited that the (1) homepage, (2) events/conferences page, (3) resources/publications page and (4) membership pages would be an association’s most important and valuable pages. If a site overhaul is not in the cards or budget, the best place to start is on these pages. Consider these important room renovations as an alternative to the tear down/rebuild from scratch option.