The end of the website as we know it

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On Tuesday, I attended Association Palooza III, a gathering of some 100 association executives confronting the future of digital. The event included 3 sessions about the digital landscape (websites/mobile/social), but I’d like to focus on just one: The End of the Website as We Know It.

Sure, it’s a provocative title – and the debate was too. Conversation and questions were inspired by session speakers Reggie Henry (CIO, ASAE), Dave Coriale (President, DelCor), Russ Magnuson (CEO/CTO, Results Direct), and facilitator Katie Atkinson (President, Results Direct).

This post is not a summary of the entire session – the conversations were intense! – just a few of my key takeaways.

First, a quick polling of the audience, to set the stage:

  • Less than 10% think websites are on the way out.
  • Less than 10% – albeit a different contingent – think members want more mobile services.
  • Less than 10% use personas.
  • Less than 10% have a content strategy (way less, actually).
  • Less than 10% think their association’s value proposition is clear.
  • Less than 10% – again, a different audience segment – think the value prop is too broad.

Evolution of Websites in the digital landscape

Reggie, long a proponent of mobile, observed that the world is [constantly] changing how it communicates. It’s imperative that associations right-size the communication channel for their specific member audiences.

Today’s website is a far cry from what it looked like in the early 90s. Russ described that evolution as brochure > gadgets > forms > kiosk. Just take a tour through the Wayback Machine and you’ll see for yourself!

Russ further noted that if you could cut open a website, like a tree, you’d see rings of investment. Investments like staff, CMS upgrades, integrations, and so on. But the website isn’t growing like a healthy tree, despite that investment. What’s preventing growth – in usefulness and revenue and member satisfaction?

Perhaps what’s missing is a content strategy. Noted Dave, early websites weren’t accompanied by content strategy plans. Even now, when associations go through CMS selection, they don’t develop a content strategy to support the CMS. Associations must match business goals to content, or the content is just there taking up valuable space, likely preventing members from finding what they really need.

Without a content strategy, right-sized communications, and accessibility that empowers members to do what they came to do, digital properties can flat-out wreck the customer experience.

A market of one

Perhaps the question of the day was this one from Reggie: what does a market of one look like? Because that’s who associations are marketing to now – the individual member, not some nebulous group of blue suits.

Reggie recommended personas as one way to help you narrow your focus, so you can clarify your website’s purpose and audience. Personas can help identify your audience segments, their behaviors, and their needs.

Russ emphasized that behavior trumps profiling [through surveys] any day. By analyzing behavior, you don’t need to survey members on their wants and needs (which they may not be able to explicitly detail anyway). Rather, behavior provides evidence for decision making, and can help your association earn the right to more directly market to that member. You can use that behavioral evidence to further clarify the individual member’s needs and desires, providing a truly personalized experience.

To develop personas of your user groups, Dave suggested drilling into what a day in the life of your users looks like. Are they on the road or behind a desk? Do they take 5 minutes for lunch, or an hour? Reggie went even further; sit in on their meetings and watch them in action, in their offices. What do they struggle with? What do they need that they don’t have?

Another tool for developing for personas is a focus group. Sure, it’s a time commitment to conduct and analyze a focus group, but it’s direct input from your membership that’s difficult to acquire in depth in any other way.

Once you’ve developed personas, you can (and should) use them to inform your content strategy, said Dave.

Ultimately, said Reggie, the association’s task is to build digital properties that help the user do what they came to do, and nothing more. If they came to your desktop or mobile site to join, it has to work simply, on any platform. Let them join, and don’t immediately start cross-selling them into conferences or books. 

The age of Easy Pass

One audience member described the Easy Pass lifestyle. You can drive the Eastern seaboard with one device. You set it up, and you don’t have to think about it. Why can’t association websites provide that same experience, without misdirecting or overloading members?

Then there’s the opposite of easy: Amazon. Yep, it came up as an example more than once. But Dave revealed that Amazon’s ease-of-use is actually horrible, particularly for new users. Yet, Amazon delivers value, and so people learn the system over time; they forget how hard it was to use in the beginning.

However, they may not be invested in taking the time to figure out how to use your website if it gives them too much trouble or too little value. You have to deliver enough value to make them want to learn your system – or simply design a better user experience from the start.

Oh, and stop comparing your site to Amazon.

It’s not just your website that should be easy; it’s also your mobile website, your mobile app, and your social communities. Katie observed that it can be intimidating to engage across all of these platforms, but those platforms – at least in the user’s mind – are melding. Declared Russ, there’s only one platform: the one the person is using right now.

While you’re designing easy-to-use experiences across all these platforms, said Dave, pay special attention to business rules. They’re usually what get in the way of having happy users. For example, if you want a visitor to fill out a form, don’t ask for everything you could possibly put in your database; get only what you need, and get the rest later. The visitor will be happier, and you’ll have a good starting point for building that relationship (and analyzing behavior). 

Coincidentally, Taco Bell is pushing the envelope on this topic, as reported in Associations Now. Is it the end of the website as we know it, or should we all just run for the border?

Association Palooza III was presented and sponsored by Results Direct and DelCor.

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