Designing a “Cooler” Nonprofit Website

My firm is often brought in to advise clients who want their websites to convey a “cooler” image. When I ask them to give an example of a popular brand they would like to emulate, they usually say Apple. “I want people to come to our website with anticipation,” one client said, “the way I go to an Apple Store.”

 Visiting the Apple Store is a great example of “a cool experience.” It also illustrates why the typical nonprofit’s website isn’t cool and why it won’t be—unless they embrace an entirely different paradigm.

 Think of your organization’s website as your storefront: the place where your external audiences encounter you first and make decisions about how to proceed. The paradigmatic model for most nonprofit websites is what I would call the Target store paradigm.

 The Target store paradigm is designed to serve a broad consumer demographic with a wide array of needs. The store must serve all of these customer types and needs at the same time, so it arranges products and signage in a well-organized, clean, and uncluttered fashion. The Target store isn’t trying to guide the shopper experience in any obvious fashion; its aim is to help each visitor find what is most important to them.

Target stores are highly useful and well designed for their function. But they are not “cool.”

Most nonprofit websites are based on this paradigm. When we interview clients about what they want their site to do, the list runs long. Typical agendas include raising money, gaining credibility with foundations, publicizing program offerings, and informing clients. Typical audiences include new individual donors, existing volunteers, clients, and program officers. For most of our clients, they will build one site and only one site, and it must serve all of these purposes and audiences at the same time.

Given that reality, the best we can do is to make sure everything has a place and that people can find what they are looking for. We can lipstick on some “coolness” factor: an interesting color and font, a snappy turn of phrase, an arresting image, and some more tricks. But in the end, it’s like putting up a few interesting posters inside a Target store.

What makes an Apple Store so different, so cool? Sure, they house great products. But many companies have made great products without creating the retail impression that Apple has. Apple made deliberate choices about what their stores were going to be—and just as important, what they were not going to be.

Below are three design decisions that Apple made and how nonprofits can learn from them as they contemplate redesigning their own web “storefronts.”

1. Customers can pick up the product.

The Apple Store pushes its tables full of laptops and phones right up to the front of the store. What’s “cool?” Getting people to try your product. What’s “boring?” Focusing on getting people to buy your product.

Nonprofits mainly think of their site as a place to get people to “buy”—either by donating, signing up for a newsletter, or just intellectually assigning value to the agency. Only a small fraction of nonprofit sites have devised ways to get people to “try.” This is a secret behind Kiva’s success: Its site gives users the opportunity to pick up this micro-entrepreneur, then look at another, fiddle with loan amounts, and more. Kiva didn’t need to write a lot of copy about how “innovative” and “dynamic” it was: It showed it by letting audiences actually engage with their product.

Are there ways that you can let people try out your “product?” One of my clients runs an educational enrichment program for at-risk youth and uses poetry as a key pedagogical tool. My suggestion was to hold an online poetry contest and let viewers cast votes. Another agency advances nutritional health among young mothers. Why not post a weekly challenge where viewers create recipes that meet a nutritional goal while staying within a certain budget? This exercise actively engages visitors; it also demonstrates the reason why that the agency’s mission is so challenging and needed.

2. Aim at one to reach many.

Apple Stores have established mass appeal, but it is easy to forget that they are very narrowly focused demographically. There are three Apple Stores in a tight five-mile radius between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. There are none in the rest of the entire city of Los Angeles. Apple deliberately targets the affluent, well-educated, trendsetting crowd; it knows that if it can win over that narrow audience, it will appeal to a broader demographic as well.

Nonprofits can do the same. One of my Los Angeles clients was a youth mentoring agency that connected professionals from corporations with at-risk youth. The organization wanted a typical Target store paradigm site that would have sections for individual donors, the community, foundations, government, and other groups. I encouraged them to aim for promoting its success with corporate partners such as Sony and Disney instead. All of the other audiences will take the cue.

3. Customize your follow up.

One of the most important design principles of the Apple Store is how the space is saturated with staff. If you’ve got a question, a live human being is only a few feet away, and that person is trained to provide immediate, friendly help. In this day and age of abysmal customer service, that’s very cool.

Similarly, a nonprofit’s website is only as effective as its follow-up strategy. What can visitors do to take a next step of engagement? Are there more interesting things to do than “Liking” a Facebook post or signing up for a newsletter? What if I’m interested in hearing more about some things, but not others? What if I have a question? If I sign up for your newsletter, does my name just fade into the recesses of your database, with no human contact? Put in Apple terms, does your website have a Genius Bar in the back?

All of that said, remember that not all nonprofit websites have to be “cool.” There is nothing wrong with having simply functional, well-organized, and attractive storefronts. But if your ambitions run higher, you can use these design ideas to change your approach.

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