The Vanguard View: Insight for Association Websites

Implementing Website Governance for Associations

Posted by Ray van Hilst on Wed, Apr 08, 2015


Shane-Diffily-HeadshotToday’s guest post is by Shane Diffily. Shane has over 15 years' experience in Web Governance & online operations. As author of the first practical guide to Web Governance ("The Website Manager's Handbook"), Shane has also been published by A List Apart, Smartinsights & Forrester Research. For free Web Governance downloads and resources, visit


Web Governance is a discipline that describes how to manage an online presence in a controlled and orderly way.  Put simply, web governance describes:

  • What will be published on your website (and what the quality of the content is)
  • When it will be published
  • How it will be published

The principal benefit is that web governance delivers operational stability associations need to focus attention where it’s really required - on the organization’s online goals.

So why is it that member organizations & associations often struggle with this critical piece of proper website management?

The clue is in the name.

Association - An organized body of people who have an interest, activity, or purpose in common; a society. (Merriam-Webster)

In contrast with the command systems typical of a corporate entity, “associations” are by nature far less rigid and operate based on consensus with multiple priorities and initiatives competing for attention.

Indeed, an overly robust approach to governance could backfire badly in an organization where participation is essentially voluntary.

And yet, some type of unity is still needed.

Lead by enticement

The trick is to lead by enticement; by creating a system of management that is so good that competing departments and stakeholders actually prefer to follow your direction.

Some great examples of this can be seen in Higher Education.

Like member associations, universities face a huge challenge in managing diversity.

Not only are such institutions exceptionally heterogeneous (with numerous independent schools & colleges), they are often geographically distributed, with scores of publishers clamoring for attention.

In such a set-up, weak governance is easy to spot.

When no-one can say what is or is not allowed, everyone does their own thing.

The result is a huge variation in the quality of the online experience, with disastrous downstream effects. For example, as poor content and other errors proliferate, your reputation is undermined with a knock-on effect on donations, patronage and applications.

3 Key Factors for Success

Happily, the last few years have revealed examples of organizations that have succeeded in addressing this challenge and settled into a long-term, optimized state of operations.

The good news for us is that we can use them as examples of web governance that works.

Putting it all together, the 3 most important factors that emerge are:

  1. First, to appoint a single team as the nominated leader for online activity within your organization.
  2. Second, to insist on balancing operations, such that your web team has all resources it needs to expedite its management burden, including people, tools & budget.
  3. And third - and most importantly – to make a specific investment in the tools, training and time needed to support the many stakeholders who contribute to web.

Done well, these three factors will deliver a governance system that is so responsive and of such high quality, that stakeholders come to prefer it as a means for getting things done.

Support your staff as well as your users

Some great examples of this approach can be seen in organizations like Harvard University, University of Bath in the UK and RMIT University in Australia.

Browsing their websites and these examples, what you discover is that the quality of support they provide to internal staff (including documentation, access to tools and training) is easily as good as the material they create for the public.

More than anything else, this demonstrates their commitment to getting governance to work.

And such an approach does need not to be very expensive.

A number of years ago I helped a large research organization achieve cohesion in its online presence simply by creating some “how to” guides, setting up a few training days per year and ensuring the central team had enough time to call devolved publishers and chat about issues.


The result was an increase in the quality of content – and a new respect for the web team as online leaders.

Act now for competitive advantage

Now I won’t kid you.

Implementing such a system may not be easy – especially in an institution where independence is jealously guarded. In that sense, the back-up of senior management is absolutely critical.

But a willingness to push such an approach, combined with a little extra investment, the benefits will speak for themselves:

  • Instances of errors and embarrassing content will fall.
  • Cost of supporting and repairing issues will decline.
  • Satisfaction of users and internal staff will grow.

Indeed, the truth is that as traditional disciplines like design and content begin to decline as differentiators for online, competitive advantage will increasingly depend on the quality of your web governance.

In short, those who are best at online in future will be those who are best at management, because they will be the ones able to react most quickly to new circumstances, at the lowest cost and in a predictable way.

So, as they say, failure is no longer an option.


Special offer: Save 50% on new online classes in Web Governance

Shane Diffily is the internet's leading specialist on Web Governance. Save 50% off Shane’s new online classes in Web Governance & Product Management.

In a series of 4 highly visual and engaging videos, these classes equip you with the hands-on expertize to:

  • Design a system of online management that ensures clarity about leadership & authority.
  • Maintain quality as more people publish more content more frequently.
  • Write a Business Case that persuades executives to invest in web operations.

Use code “Vanguard” to sign-up up now for 50% off - or watch Video 1 for Free.

Click here to take the online class.

Topics: web governance, best practices

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