Can you continuously improve your website?
From broken links to automated testing, learn how to continuously improve your website’s “hygiene” with Sarah Durham and Rory Tucker.
Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Durham, and I’m here today with Rory Tucker. Welcome Rory.
Rory Tucker: Hey Sarah. Thanks for having me. I’m pretty excited.
Sarah Durham: I’m going to give you all a little bit of background about Rory. He is on the team at Advomatic. Advomatic.com is an agency that builds and supports websites for nonprofits. It’s been around for about 15 years. Full disclosure, I have a vested interest in Advomatic, but that’s not why I invited Rory here today. Rory has been building and managing websites for about 13 years. He’s got an amazing stockpile of skills ranging from project management to user experience to development, website apps, making the impossible seem possible online. Rory lives in Squamish in the West Coast playground of Canada with his two sons and he is an incredible mobile photographer on the side for fun, so you should check him out on Instagram. What’s your Instagram handle?
Rory Tucker: @RoryTucker
Sarah Durham: @RoryTucker. But we’re going to talk today about websites and how nonprofits think about their websites and, in particular, how you can make sure your website is getting better and better every day. So let’s dig in. Rory, you know a lot more about websites than I do I think. But I want to share with you an idea that I have in my mind about websites. Tell me if you think this is accurate. It seems to me that websites are a very different animal than a lot of other types of communications that nonprofit people have to deal with. And my experience with websites is that a lot of people tend to think of them most frequently when the website is kind of really broken and what they’re thinking about is how to build it. So they’re anticipating this kind of huge rebuild process, or they think about their website after it’s built or when it’s, you know, kind of functional mostly in terms of updating the content, like the news or what’s going on on the homepage or maybe fixing something that’s like horrifically broken. Is that the right way to think about the website?
Rory Tucker: I wouldn’t say it’s the right way to think about it. That clearly is the way that a lot of people do approach it. They plan, spend a lot of effort building it, then they think that will update the content. It has the functionality we need to take donations or what have you, and if something gets broken we need to get that support. But you know, once you have gone through all that planning and you’ve launched your website, you have an opportunity to do a lot more to it than just look for broken things or update that content. And that’s where we’re trying to help our clients moving forward is to understand that there’s an opportunity to do a lot more than just fixing, you know, issues or supporting them as they change content to the site.
Sarah Durham: So what kinds of things should they be doing? What would you like to see if you could wave a magic wand and help nonprofits leverage their websites really more powerfully to advance their missions? What would change?
Rory Tucker: Yeah, well I think maybe I could just back it up and just talk about some of the main things that they are doing. I mean obviously as they add content they might need some support in that. Many times they might be using other third party applications or services to help function on the site, you know it might be for taking donations or adding membership and they would get issues with those. Something might break. Obviously that’s an opportunity to get some support and help. And if they’re adding their content and they struggle with something in there, there’s something new that they want to do. They can get their support that they may not be thinking about security or they hear about it but don’t really have much knowledge on that. And so that’s another one that falls into that realm is taking care of the security updates. That’s making sure that your content management system is up to date. It has no vulnerabilities, you’re not in breach of any legislation or something along that line. And those maybe are ones that are more obvious and are people more well aware of ultimately what we’d like to do is help them with this idea that absolutely we’ll take care of that. And in some of those cases, like the security, you don’t need to think about that. You don’t need to be an expert, that you can have experts that manage that for you.
Sarah Durham: So you need somebody who is paying attention to that. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a consultant, but security updates are a real thing. They’re happening all the time. Somebody’s got to be staying on top of that.
Rory Tucker: Absolutely. And a lot of times there are people that have a lot of jobs and roles within, you know, their position at their organization and it’s hard to stay on top of all that. So it’s nice to have someone who is well aware of that and can be proactive knowing when the issues are happening instead of getting a red flag and after the fact addressing them as soon as possible. And that’s, you know, part of the thing that we would like to do.
Sarah Durham: And your earlier point about technical integration, like having your CMS talking to other systems. I think for nonprofits it’s often Salesforce or Raiser’s Edge or Convio systems that are talking to donation processing or talking to other third party systems. Those integrations, do they get broken when WordPress or Drupal or other systems do updates or security updates? Are they likely to break or are they usually pretty stable?
Rory Tucker: It will all depend on how it’s integrated. So those services are generally, they’d look after their own security, they’re updating as well, but what happens is how it’s brought into your site to function within your site. That can create opportunity for things that need to be maintained or kept up. And it would depend on who developed your site and how they did it. Sometimes there’s ways that are more appropriate to take, I suppose you could say. In some of those cases that it’s not such a big deal when there’s a change or an update if the developers have done something in a more hacked way, and I’m not saying hack as in, you know, bad hacker connotation we often get, but just an approach that just worked at the time. Maybe it’s based on budget constraints. That’s where you have some issues potentially a change on the other provider, Salesforce, or someone else could change the whole way your site works and then your site effectively is broken even though that functionality still works. So those are things to look out for. And sometimes, yeah, it’s never the intention, but it has happened where a site set up in dissed, it isn’t set up in a way that can sustain or manage a change from that third party.
Sarah Durham: So oftentimes, you know something’s broken on your site because somebody tells you, somebody tries to make a donation and they can’t make a donation, they send you an email or something like that. But that’s a scary way to find out something’s broken because by the time you hear about it, chances are a lot of other people experienced that broken issue and didn’t tell you about it. How do you recommend an organization stay on top of those kinds of things so that when something’s broken it gets identified quickly and addressed proactively?
Rory Tucker: Yeah, great point. I mean that’s the thing is sometimes if you’re not going to react until someone tells you it’s far too late and you may have had a dozen other people before that person who have had the same issue and haven’t said a thing, so how long has that been happening? There are tools and ways to monitor that and going into a situation with someone where they can do that for you, that they can actively use tools but go in and check. There’s a number of scripts and other processes that you can use to do it in a more automated fashion. In our case, we’re able to just monitor website and take care of that stuff and be proactive and preempt any of those issues. Can’t catch everything, but you can definitely set up systems so that you can manage that stuff and see it before that person. Because again, by the time you hear from someone, a fair chance that it’s happened to a number of people that haven’t talked about it and it’s been something that’s been sitting there for a while.
Sarah Durham: So automating testing, whether you do it yourself or you work with a partner seems like a really useful thing. So you’ve talked about a couple of things that are maybe reactive, like when something’s broken or things that you know are going to happen that you have to be prepared for like updates to a CMS or updates to security. But let’s talk about some of the proactive ways an organization should support it site. As I said earlier, the obvious one is just adding fresh content, making sure that there are reasons for visitors to come back, that you’re reflecting what’s really going on in the organization. But what other kinds of proactive ways should a nonprofit be trying to continuously improve their website?
Rory Tucker: I think that’s a great term is talking about that continuous improvement. And what types of have evolved, they used to be just basically brochures and then we were able to add functionality so you could take, you know, fees and capture data and a number of other things. So it became a little more interactive and people would engage with it. And nowadays that every person out there is using some sort of web application, whether it’s social media or other websites. And there’s all kinds of engagement and user expectations and they change and they evolve really quickly. And so what we know that maybe your organization, your mandate hasn’t changed, your organizational goals haven’t changed, but sometimes the user expectations have changed.
Sarah Durham: The world has changed.
Rory Tucker: Exactly. And so your website that you just launched one year ago was wonderful and great, but all of a sudden everything’s shifted. Or one little thing has shifted and now someone comes to your site and it’s just not working based on what they’ve seen other places. And it’s stuff like that, that you made a major investment, you’ve done lots of work and research and planning, but things just shift. And so all that stuff we talked about before are the table stakes. The things that you need to just address. What you can do is be prepared to help evolve your website and use technology because you’ve made this investment and you have this information and the functionality there that with small iterations sometimes they’re bigger iterations, you can continuously improve that site so it meets users’ expectations. It adjusts for any new goals or requirements that you might have on your side. Maybe you’re bringing in a new system or you need to do some sort of migration to another tool. Again, those were probably fairly obvious, but there’s a number of the things that by watching your site and understanding the landscape changes and what users want, we can make small changes, big changes, what have you, to make sure that your site works well for the users and it meets their expectations and, you know, keeps up with the times.
Sarah Durham: I think nonprofits really benefit when they have a practice internally. When the staff has a practice of reviewing the website at a regular cadence to not only really go back and reread it. I mean, to your point, sometimes we build these things and they’re great when we went live with the site, but a year later the world has changed or maybe the organization has changed and if you haven’t actually visited certain pages on the site, kind of forget that you have these features or you wrote this copy that’s no longer right. Use the word iterative. I think it takes an iterative mentality. There’s a great visual that Dave Hansen Lang, who is one of the Senior Developers at Advomatic created that I love. It’s like a graph that shows all the work that goes into a build and it kind of spikes at the top and then there’s this kind of huge dropoff of the work afterwards or, or not even the work, but the attention that’s paid to the website afterwards. It’s almost like people exert so much effort into the build that they forget afterwards about a lot of the site. But the iterative approach you’re talking about and some sort of cadence of weekly or monthly reviews to see what’s in there is probably the best way I know of to try to avoid that happening.
Rory Tucker: Yeah, 100 percent. And what that will do from a budgeting perspective is that you’re able to know how much you’re gonna spend and spend it in a gradual flow instead of having these large spikes. And then the site starts to, I don’t wanna say fall apart, but it starts to show its age and so on. But if you’re investing as you go along, then you’re able to maintain your site, keep it up. I mean, Facebook and Amazon, all these sites that we can’t compete with their budget and the number of developers they are throwing at everyday adjustments. But we can take that approach and that philosophy and apply it to any site from our, you know, biggest organizations to some of the smallest ones. And then we just find a way within their budget to say, let’s do this. Let’s look after the issues we talked about in the beginning, security and so on. But let’s leave an opportunity for us to make sure that we iterate and evolve that site as it’s required.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, and as the person who’s managing a lot of Advomatic’s clients as they’re making these updates to their site constantly, I think you see this a lot. There used to be this mentality that I think is starting to go away, that the way you budgeted for your website was every three years or four years, you budgeted a lot of money and you basically threw out the old site and you built a new one, so maybe every three or four years you spent, you know anywhere from 50 to $250,000 to build your new site. These days it’s like a monthly retainer and you’re constantly iterating, constantly improving so that you never really have to throw out that old site. Or do you? Are there situations where you would throw out the site?
Rory Tucker: Yeah, I think there might be some, but that would be worst case scenario on the build side and my colleagues who work in that can attest to it as well that ultimately there’s been a lot of work and like I have used it before investments and that’s an investment of time creating content and money into creating your site. Last thing you want to do is throw that out. We’ve seen organizations that have large amounts of data and information on there and ultimately if you can just port that over, for lack of a better word, keep that without having to move it from platform to platform or from version of your content management system to the next version. There are ways, and I mean sometimes there’s complications, but ultimately there’s ways to think about how you can iterate and build, keep your site up to date, but not having to wholesale move everything and start from ground zero. So I think nowadays that we’re seeing some really well created content management systems that are very scalable and allow for that. And I think that’s the exciting thing now too, to talk about this budgets, to say, no, you don’t need to think about it that way, put some thought into it, create it with a good foundation, and then you can just continuously scale and build upon that and you will get a far greater return in the long run based on those improvements.
Sarah Durham: And I think it’s much more sustainable for somebody who works on a small team. If you’re a one person communications team or you’re even a part-time communicator, the idea of blocking out maybe an hour a week or a few hours a month and dedicating those to the website to whatever has to happen either technically or on the front end of the site or content, it’s probably much more sustainable than what it takes to recover once that website’s gone off the rails.
Rory Tucker: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you talk to your dentist and it’s about, you know…
Sarah Durham: Hygiene.
Rory Tucker: Yeah, right? And so you do that and then you don’t have to go in every two years for a major, you know, dental upgrade. And so it’s that hygiene and that process and using that same analogy, you know the dentist you don’t have to worry about all the things that they know they’re the experts to help you and when we have some of those organizations that people are busy with their role doing a lot of other things, it’s like I know I need to do my maintenance, I need to keep up my hygiene but how do I do that? And that’s where you know in our organization like Advomatic or someone else was able to do that for you. And you don’t have to think much about that. But it, also, for me it makes me think about those people that are in charge of the website. They often are busy with lots of other roles. They have lots of things to do and keeping the website up and working is one of them. They are looking at it often from their perspective, how it’s going to work for my job. And we talked a while back about how when you build a website for an organization, you tell them that it’s not your website, it’s actually your user’s website. And when you have that perspective of just trying to do your website for your job and keep things working as it relates to how you want it to work, you’re not always thinking about your members or the people that are visiting your site and want to do stuff. And so that’s the other part. Putting that hat on to think about from the user’s perspective is another thing that you don’t want to add to your daily list, but that’s where organizations like ours are able to come in there and say, look, we’re going to monitor your site, we’re going to help you meet your goals and objectives and we’re also going to work for the user to make sure that your site is, you know, doing things that is a benefit to them and ultimately when your users are getting an effective experience on your site that it’s going to be better for the organization long term.
Sarah Durham: There’s like a Venn diagram I’m picturing as you’re talking. One circle is what the organization wants to communicate, all the things the organization is doing, all the ways the organization needs people to engage with it. That’s one circle. The other circle is what you’re talking about, the user’s experience. What do they want? Why did they actually come to this website? Did they want to get information? Did they want to take an action? And the sweet spot is that overlap.
Rory Tucker: Yeah, exactly. That is the exact diagram. And on the way you want to showcase that and it’s that sweet spot, that area to have that crossover. And it’s really easy for any of us to be stuck in our perspective of what you know, our job is and what we’re trying to do to not always think about someone else’s position and what they’re trying to get in there. But ultimately that’s where we come into play. We can take that on too. So we can act as advisors and help our clients, especially when we’re aware of those objectives on their side, and we have the holistic view and we can come in and say, yep, this is great. We know that this is what our users want. This is how we can nudge things so that it’s effective for everyone and help along that area. Ultimately it’s our role to take on a lot more responsibility, but we have the capacity and the experience to do that. And ultimately, you know, we’re there to be partners for our clients so that they can be responsible for the website, but not having to spend every day of the week looking at it. Then they can do the rest of their job.
Sarah Durham: So as we wrap up, if you’re listening to this podcast, I hope what you’ll take away is that it’s important to think about the support and the maintenance of your website as an opportunity to continuously improve it and to make sure you’ve got team, whether that’s in house people or technical advisors or supporters, whether they’re volunteers or an agency who can round out your bench. So if you’ve got great tech chops, who are the people around out your bench in other areas? If you’ve got great content chops, who rounds it out, technically, we will link to the Advomatic website in the show notes. And Rory Tucker, thank you for joining me today.
Rory Tucker: Thank you. It’s been great.