The Vanguard View: Insight for Association Websites

The Single Biggest Complaint About Your Association Website - And How To Fix It

Posted by Chris Bonney on Tue, Apr 18, 2017



We’ve been building websites since 1998. We’ve been working with associations exclusively for over 10 years. I am personally in my 17th year of working with associations and their websites. Over nearly two decades, a lot has changed on the Internet. Advances in mobile, search, social media and online video are just a few of many improvements we’ve all enjoyed.

But no matter the year. No matter the latest and greatest new, new trend. There is one thing and one thing only that members of associations of all colors, stripes and sizes have complained about consistently.

What is it?

Don’t tell me you haven’t heard this one:

“I can’t find what I’m looking for on your site!”

And so there it is. The one thing. Users not able to find your valuable, timely, relevant content. They can’t seem to find what they’re looking for. It just seems to be missing or behind too many clicks or even sometimes hiding in plain sight but unfindable because the jargon used (or just simply poor copywriting in general) isn’t leading them in the right direction. In this age of Google and on-demand mobile content – this is obviously a big miss.

The reasons associations end up in this situation are many. Some common ones are no single vision for the website, lack of accountability for the content’s location, poor content management system, no ongoing governance plan and, in many cases, a simple lack of in-house Web design knowledge.

There is good news, however.

There are some things you can do today to help make your important stuff more findable. In fact, we’ve outlined five key fixes below. Feel free to comment with questions or provide other ideas that could help your association brethren.

1. Check your nav bar

Your navigation bar is the first place members look to get oriented to your site’s structure. Do your navigation buttons reflect your organization’s org chart and hierarchy?  Or do they reflect the way your members intuitively might think about the content? Virtually all redesigns we do for associations are initiated because the former is true. How can you tell? If you’ve got more topic-based button names like “advocacy” and “membership”, you might want to rethink your architecture. Could phrases like “Attend and Learn” or “Connect” or “Be Heard” serve as more intuitive buttons to your members instead of what you have now?

Wait…you’re telling me you don’t have the power to change the navigation button names on your site without engaging your web developer and spending some budget? Shouldn’t be that way. Or, at least, it isn’t that way for many.

2. Improve your site search

The second place a user will go to see if they can find what they’re looking for is your site search box. Have you tested the most popular keywords that users search your site for to ensure the right pages are showing up? Do you know your top visited pages and content for the past 12 months? Not sure how to do that? Check out your Google Analytics. Then it’s a matter of optimizing the key pages you need to show up for each keyword. Each site search algorithm is different, so you’ll need to check with your CMS vendor to see what you need to do to raise the rank on certain pages. The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. Spend some time with your site search. Supercharge it.

3. Purge the old stuff

I will be the first to tell you not to assume that just because a piece of content is old that you should ditch it. Even content that sometimes never gets viewed can still be valuable to some, so don’t assume all old and never-viewed content is a no brainer to be jettisoned. Why? Well, you may be the only place on the Web certain content (viewed regularly or not) can be found, so you don’t want to compromise your authority in the industry by taking down one-of-a-kind content. But…that’s generally the exception in most cases. Take the time to inventory the PDFs, PowerPoints and news items on your website to make sure they still have relevance. If not, they must go so you can make room for the content that really matters.

4. Write better copy

There is a way to write for the Web. Since it’s true users scan and don’t read your website, it’s important you keep things simple and concise. The key for us here is to say that good copywriting ensures a few things:

  1. People understand what you’re trying to say and – hopefully – know where to go NEXT on your website.
  2. You’re not bogging down a user with fluff before you provide them the real meat they are looking for.
  3. Your site search (see #2) can index and rank your pages correctly, hence making the site search an effective function for users

5.  Create user paths

As stated in #1, many sites are topic-based in nature. And that’s okay. But to complement that you’ll need to also consider that actions you’d like your users to take. In other words, on one hand you’ll be presenting content based on what someone wants to view and, on the other, you should be providing a content flow (or path) for what someone wants to do. So, yes, someone will want to view a news story, but they want to register for your event. Two different experiences. Do you have user paths set up on your site that easily walk your members through each step of your desired conversions? If not, that’s a no-brainer fix that will go miles and miles toward a better experience for your users.

In closing

Your website is your association’s virtual headquarters in the eyes of most of your members. The purpose of your website is to provide valuable, relevant content in a timely fashion to those very members. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, then what is the website for, really? When you think about it that way, it is surprising that the number one complaint over almost 20 consecutive years is that members can’t find content on their association’s website. The upside of that is: it’s a great opportunity to show some immediate value and relevance by employing any or all of these five remedies to your website today.


Topics: website redesign, association websites, complaint

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