Friday, September 29, 2017

Web redesign is a marathon, not a sprint

Over the years, I have been involved in a number of website redesign projects. Based on experience, I can say website redesigns require a lot of time, energy and effort when done well. I once had a Chief Information Officer recommend that I update an organization’s website every other year. Well, because of the amount of work and thought that should go into a project, I won’t ever recommend that. I do, however, think it is important to stay abreast of evolving web technology and continually assess if your website is meeting the organization’s needs.

Web redesigns can be an exciting time because have the opportunity to start fresh, to make changes that will improve your web user’s experience. Because I have handled both large and small scale web redesign projects, I have developed a list of tips to ensure a successful website redesign.

Do your research. The first and arguably most important thing you can do is, research. I typically have two goals when working on a redesign: 1.To ensure the elements of the website that website users want are highlighted and 2. To ensure the features/webpages that the organization wants to place emphasis on are highlighted. Google Analytics provides a wealth of information. So, before you start a redesign project, ensure you have analyzed the data in your analytics. If you haven’t previously set up Google Analytics for your website, do this first and analyze data for a period of time before you begin a redesign. From the data, you will want to know what pages are visited most, what pages are searched most and how users end up on your website. Heatmaps are also a great tool. Heatmaps can be used to show where users have clicked on a page, how far they have scrolled down a page, or used to display the results of eye-tracking tests. And, the results from a heatmap assessment can sometimes be eye opening. I can recall during one of my web redesign projects viewing the heatmap assessment and realizing that one of our main homepage features wasn’t very popular at all. It was a hard truth to come to know, but, important, because then, I had to assess how important said feature was.

Establish your goals up front and test assumptions. So many times, in an organization, website redesign goals are not well defined. So, before you begin any project, gather the key stakeholders and host a listening session to hear what could be improved on the website. And then, test those assumptions with data. For example, one manager may think the page for tiny teapots is the most viewed page and should be above the fold on the homepage or listed in the website’s most popular pages section or somehow otherwise featured. But, when you check the analytics, you may see that the tiny teapots page is not a highly frequented page. The manager may still make the argument that the tiny teapots webpage is an important page that you want users to go to. At this point, as the communications professional, you have to have the hard conversations and determine what you are trying to accomplish. Here, measurable goals are best. So, if you want to increase program registration for your largest special event by modifying your website, set that as a goal and make changes in the redesign that work towards that goal.

Don’t skip training. I can’t emphasize enough how integral training is. I once worked for an organization with a website of more than 500 pages, with content from a number of different departments. There were two editors of the content management system, though those two individuals were not subject matter experts for all the departments. After digging some, I found out that the departments were not opposed to having individuals from each department work on their departmental pages, but, they had never been trained to do so. After some initial user training, we moved the number of individuals trained to use the content management system up to more than 30 individuals from 2. What this meant is that there were more individuals to make revisions and provide content, more individuals to spot issues, a more robust site and more importantly, a site that better met the needs of the organization. In my book, that is a win.

Involve others in the process. The last paragraph brings me to my next point. Don’t be afraid to involve others in the process. Sure, web design is subjective and involving too many individuals could cause delays. However, not involving the right people will also result in delays. You have the opportunity when designing a new website to get buy-in from your organizational leaders. Don’t miss that opportunity. It is your role to guide them along in the process, but it’s important to see the design process as a collaborative effort as no one person has all the answers and your web users will appreciate you for it.

Develop a communications plan post launch. Now that you have your fancy new website, don’t forget to invest the time to promote the site. Before every website launch, I have developed a communications plan to announce the website launch for my audiences. In these plans, I have used e-communications, social media and more to share site features, website changes and provide how-to videos. For one website launch, that took over a year to complete, I used teaser images for the days in advance of the launch. It’s okay to take a victory lap. You did the work and now, it’s time to let the world see.

So, congratulations on taking the first step in redesigning your website. It’s an exciting time. Enjoy the process, involve others and take your time to ensure you meet all the goals you set forth for the project. Happy designing. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

When a disaster strikes, how do you know you are ready?

I was once asked how I felt confident that I could communicate with residents of the municipality that I work for if I had never experienced a major crisis. My answer was, “I am confident because I have put into place all the tools to successfully communicate in an emergency.” If you are a professional communicator who hasn’t faced an emergency in your current role, but, want to ensure you are prepared, here’s what I did and what you can do as well.

Established social media accounts, grew a following
Before we had a major emergency, recognizing the significant role that social media could play in an emergency, I established several social media accounts for our organization. As part of our overall efforts to communicate, over the years, we have grown a following on these accounts. Most recently, people have depended on these accounts for lifesaving information during and following Hurricane Harvey.

Developed an email distribution list
For a marketer, one of the most important things you can do is develop a strong email distribution list that is segmented based on preferences of the audience. Our email distribution list is critical to successfully communicating with the right people during an emergency. Our email distribution list allows us to geo-target messages ensuring that our core messages are getting to the individuals we are trying to reach.

Purchased lists to text in an emergency, grew that list
Nowadays, you can data mine for almost anything, it’s important in advance of an emergency that you use all available resources to ensure that you reach the largest possible audience.

Updated a 10-year-old website
Your first line of defense in an emergency is your website; it is the place you put emergency information, dispel rumors. We have all heard stories of websites crashing because of increased traffic following an emergency. So, putting place the proper precautions is integral and ensuring that your website is equipped to handle increased traffic demands and has special features that can be used in an emergency.

Planned for it
Most importantly, I planned for an emergency. In other words, I reviewed our emergency annexes and made the appropriate revisions. I drafted standard messages for use during an emergency and I talked to my staff about their role as professional communicators in an emergency.

In short, you don’t have to have experienced an emergency in your current role to be able to handle one, but, you have to take precautions to ensure you are ready.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Disaster communications don’t end with the event

Yesterday, I counted the hours I worked before and during Hurricane Harvey and it totaled more than 100 hours in about a week. I was running on adrenaline for sure. The long hours that you work before and during a natural disaster like a Hurricane, a flood or an earthquake don’t end when the disaster ends.

Residents of the local municipality that I work for are just beginning the road to recovery and many of them will continue for the coming days, weeks and months. Some of them lost everything. Their homes were filled with water, precious memories soaked and floating away with the stench that Harvey brought. While residents work to rebuild, the work of a professional communicator continues. In most cases, you have worked double or even triple the hours you would normally, had several sleepless nights, - maybe you even slept at your job for multiple days. All the while, you may have experienced damage in your own home that needs to be tended to or you may have friends and family that you need or want to help. But, the need to provide information to your constituents remains and probably even escalates following an event.

Following Harvey, residents want to know when their essential municipal services will be back. Things like garbage and recycling or water, electricity or natural gas are what they want to know about. They want to know when facilities will reopen. “Where are there grocery stores that are open,” one resident tweeted. These are the very things that will help them get their lives back in order, the things that give them a semblance of normalcy. School district PIOs are tasked with sharing key start dates for school. Hospital PIOs are communicating about their services and which facilities are open. The list goes on and on.

So, I applaud the communicators out there who have given their all, but continue to give even more. Hats off to those of you who are glued to your cell phones fielding media calls, who have Twitter & Facebook alerts set to chime differently on your mobile device and who can update a website in minutes of receipt of critical information.

The event may be over, but your work, is just beginning. The road to recovery will be long and your constituents are depending on you.