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Three-And-A-Half Essentials of Association Website Design

Associations come in all stripes—trade, professional, philanthropic. And they’re more nuanced organizations than their corporate counterparts—a hearty mix of fundraisers, lobbyists, analysts, communicators, and educators.

So why do most association websites stink? Why do most association websites end up as digital brochures—lifeless, paint-by-number, predictable?

One theory: Most web designers don’t understand associations. And so they end up delivering whatever’s in their “Basic Template” folder. After all, it’s nearly impossible to delight audiences with association website design when you don’t understand the people you’re trying to delight.

We’ve built websites for the largest professional and trade associations in Texas. Along the way, we’ve come to understand the crucial design and content decisions that lead to success. Here’s part of our thinking.

1. A Point of View

Why does your association exist?

At the start of a new project, it’s the first question we ask. Why does your association exist? It’s a big question, tricky. We aren’t curious (yet) about your goals. We want to get underneath your goals to understand—and to help your entire staff to understand—the reason you come to work every morning. What’s the point?

Once you’ve answered this—once you know the point—it’s a quick step to identifying your Point of View, which is simply your association’s way of seeing the world. First, state what you believe. Second, effortlessly move your association through the world because you already know what you believe.

Why does any of this big-picture question-answering matter? Because it affects your entire website. It affects your brand choices, your content choices, your workflow, etc. Knowing precisely and in concrete terms what your association strives to do makes all related decisions easier—and more appropriate.

2. Intentional Architecture

Now, we dig into your specific goals. And those goals get translated into design decisions. Our head of User Experience, Mike Steckel, loves quoting fellow design-obsessive Jared Spool:

Design is the rendering of intent.

The architecture of your website—i.e., the placement, arrangement, and relationship between pieces of content—should be intentional. There should be a reason your menus are named that. There should be a reason you use four images on your homepage instead of three. There should be a reason your website integrates with your MMS but not with your event management software. And so on.

Association website design—perhaps more than any other sector in our economy—needs a sophisticated design touch. Associations have to balance the (sometimes competing) needs of multiple stakeholders. And they have to continuously demonstrate their value to their members and supporters. So the architecture of an association website is really just a collection of very important decisions.

Here’s an example:

You’re the California Broccoli Farmers Association (not a real thing). In your state, there are 1,000 broccoli farmers. There are another 5,000 companies that want to sell stuff to those farmers. Between the two, you have 6,000 potential members.

But for one reason or another, your membership has stalled at 476—fewer than 10% of your maximum potential membership. And your board has, wisely, decided that increasing that percentage is your major goal.

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How do you use your website to get there?

Well, you’ll likely want to structure your site in a way that appeals to non-members—both farmers and vendors. This means your homepage may be dominated by your big-ticket benefit statements, hopefully rendered in an engaging, delightful way (e.g., videos, animation, infographics, etc.).

Next, you’ll want to make sure the membership sign-up process is as easy and rewarding as possible:

  • Maybe you’ll simplify your sign-up form(s).
  • Maybe you’ll break out the registration process into bite-sized pieces.
  • Maybe you’ll add a little “progress meter” that shows a broccoli floret growing larger with each step completed.
  • On the payment page, the user sees and feels how seriously you take their security and privacy.
  • Once their registration is complete, they see a short stop-motion animation video explaining how they should get started with the CBFA.
  • Meanwhile, your marketing automation platform sends your new member a welcome message with relevant links. You also invite them, automatically, to your next Lunch-and-Learn seminar.
  • And also meanwhile: Their information instantly makes its way into your membership management system.
  • And also meanwhile: Google Analytics has recorded a few users who got to step #2 in the signup process but then abandoned it.
  • And luckily, you’ve designed and deployed some great retargeting advertisements that’ll follow around these abandoned-members.

Whew. And that’s not even considering the fact that, for some associations, growing membership is far less important than retaining current members.

You probably get the point by now: One decision—e.g., We want to increase our membership—has countless implications. You deserve digital design that is as strategic as it is well-executed.

3. Interactivity

Truth is, if your website doesn’t let your members do anything, it’s still basically a digital brochure (even if it’s the most beautiful brochure). The source of the Internet’s awesomeness is that it lets you, the user, do stuff. You don’t just read and look; you respond and converse and click and analyze.

Interactivity is a dual challenge.

The source of the Internet’s awesomeness is that it lets you, the user, do stuff. You don’t just read and look; you respond and converse and click and analyze.

First, interactivity requires the help of a bunch of (very smart) developers. They’re the ones who build things, who turn your wishes into concrete, functional applications online. They’ll build the seamless integrations between your website and your CRM, MMS, marketing automation platform, payment processor, etc. (And make no mistake: Your integrations had better be seamless, secure, and supported.)

Second, interactivity requires a boundless imagination. Your association needs to decide what it would like users to be able to do. There are the common, obvious things: sign up for an event, pay member dues, record continuing education hours, etc.

But what else? If physics and time were no object, what kind of experience do you want to craft for your members, prospective members, donors, partners, vendors, etc.?

So in this sense, you’re being asked to unlock the power of digital technology. Sounds like a daunting endeavor! But with the right partner, it becomes easier to identify the opportunities to use your website to power-fuel your association’s goals.

3.5. Mobile-Responsive Design

This one gets only a half-number because you probably know this already: You have to have a mobile-responsive website—i.e., a website that is designed for each device (desktops, smartphone, large TVs, etc.). If you don’t have a mobile-responsive website, you’ll get fewer visitors and you’ll irritate the ones you do get.

Are we all on the same page? Mobile-responsive is a non-negotiable must-have. And if you have budget to do only one thing online this year, spend it on making your website mobile.

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