3 Things Every Professional Association Website Needs

10 Mar 2016

When the prognosticators and digital trend-makers talk about Web design, professional associations are often treated like the middle child: ignorable, irrelevant, an afterthought. Far too many Web agencies consider association websites “online brochures”––unworthy of strategic investment or modern design.

But, of course, that’s nuts.

After all, there are thousands of professional associations in America. And they often exert enormous influence over their industry niche. They create communities, innovation, and influence local, state, and the federal government.

So why, then, do so many association websites stink­­––and why, oh why, do most Web agencies refuse to treat association’s like their corporate counterparts?

Because most agencies don’t understand the challenges associations face.

In the interest of changing that, we offer three things that every professional association website needs­­––and one or two things that would make nice stocking stuffers.

1. Delighting Architecture  

The lifeblood of any association is its membership. Without members, there’s no point to the association’s existence.

In other words, every association’s website’s primary goal is to delight its members. And in our experience designing websites, delight appears only if the website architecture is spot-on. Architecture––more accurately, “information architecture”––is how your website is structured as a whole, how each page is laid out, and how each piece of content relates to one another.

If information architecture is essentially your website’s blueprint, it should be designed to answer those questions as quickly, thoroughly, and interestingly as possible. But for far too many association websites, there are six front doors of varying sizes, no windows, and an attic where the patio should be. This most certainly doesn’t delight members.

In fact, architecture that doesn’t meet members 90% of the way can actively upset them­­––and send them away feeling unsupported by the organization’s whose very purpose it to support them.

Poor website architecture implies a poor understanding of your users. Meanwhile, good architecture:

  • Serves up content precisely where it’s expected.
  • Takes a user by the hand and leads them, invisibly but purposefully, on a journey.
  • Strikes an elegant balance between “finding what you need” and “discovering something new and wonderful.”

Associations often get architecture wrong because of the “forest for the trees” conundrum, which goes like this: Association staff are so close to their daily work––so wrapped up in the minutiae of running the organization––that they can’t see how their membership actually needs and wants to use the site.

That’s why associations should partner with seasoned Web agencies. Sure, having new, dispassionate eyes on your website helps. But even more helpful are agencies that know how to  help associations reorganize their operations in order to align with their members online.

For Example

We recently worked with an organization whose old website featured nine top-level menus––one for each program they managed. (Hint: Nine is way too many.)

After spending many hours with this organization––talking to staff, members, donors, etc.––and conducting some user research, we discovered that only three of the nine primary programs were driving traffic, producing significant donations, and garnering engagement.

So what did we do?

We put those three items at the top of the new website’s architecture. The remaining six, after our discussions, were reduced to three––with three being completely phased out when it was clear they had negative ROIs.

When redesigning their website, associations should work with Web designers who are as much business consultants as digital technicians.

2. Usability Testing

I mentioned this a moment ago, so let’s dig deeper:

Usability testing is exactly what the name suggests––i.e., formal testing of a website’s ease of use. We record the user’s clicks, the time they need to complete the task, and other metrics––and then add a qualitative element by asking the user about their experience afterward.

Very few organizations, including associations, invest in usability testing.

What a shame! Usability testing offers one of the largest ROIs in Web design. It regularly reveals insights the association never conceived of––the “unknown unknowns.”

Usability testing is an epiphany breeding ground. Its benefits include:

Not Throwing Out the Baby with the Website

When redesigning an existing association website, it’s usually unnecessary to start from scratch. In fact, it’s not unusual to discover that the old website is full of quality content. But it’s poorly organized and displayed. Re-using content saves time and money. (That’s a good thing.)

Minding the Gaps

Your website has gaps––i.e., chasms between your content and the content your users want. Sometimes the gaps are tiny, sometimes enormous, but there’s always at least one. Usability testing of an association website often illustrates that, while the association knows its industry backward and forward, it doesn’t account for the diversity of its membership.

Some members know a lot; some know very little. How do you deliver an optimal online experience to both types? Testing will tell you.

3. Seamless Integrations

No man is an island. And neither are websites. They talk to each other.

For associations, this usually means the website connects to a Membership Management System (MMS) or Association Management System (AMS).

The advantages of such a connection include:

  • Allowing users to log in to the MMS/AMS to access their personal data
  • Empowering associations to, via the login process, collect member information
  • Providing exclusive content that encourages new member sign-ups
  • Using it to register events, access “gated content, and submit forms, etc.
  • In some cases, pulling data from the MMS/AMS into the website itself in order to personalize content

But no matter what MMS an association uses, it should integrate seamlessly with the website. If your website and MMS aren’t in harmony, members will quickly notice the disconnect. Make sure your website and MMS/AMS are working together to meet your members’ needs by employing a savvy Web firm that has created the same integrations countless times.

The Takeaways

  1. Associations are unlike any other organization in the economy, and thus deserve custom websites built by experts.
  2. Architecture is the surest way to address your audiences’ needs online.
  3. Usability testing uncovers otherwise-unknown insights into how your association should be structured online, and it offers the best ROI in the world of website design.
  4. Seamless integrations between websites and third-party systems (like member or association management systems) are critical and require an expert hand.

Nick Weynand

Founder, President, & Strategy Director

Nick is TradeMark's founder, president, and the Director of Strategy. He's seen everything the Internet has to offer.

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