6 Ways to Build a Better Website

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With the upsurge in mobile apps and offerings, some organizations have left their websites stagnant and outdated. Big mistake. Websites are often the first places potential attendees visit to learn more about you. If you want attendees to understand the value of and story behind your event, you need a website that’s visual, organized and mobile-friendly. Here are six steps to help you build a site that’s all those things and more. C.J. Alvarado of Bamboo Creative, the company that manages Web design, social media and digital branding for the annual Thrive Conference, stresses the importance of determining how you’ll distinguish your event from others before beginning work on a website. The competition from an increasing number of niche conferences makes this first step more essential than ever. Start by defining the reasons you’re holding the conference, the value it will add to your audience and the event components that carry a wow factor guests won’t find elsewhere. This set of goals—the driving force behind the event—should be evident online as well as in all marketing and promotional materials. “With sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter, we’re connected. You have to make the assumption that your audience is already connected with your keynote speaker,” says Alvarado. “You’re not going to be the only destination where your audience can connect with the people you’re using to help sell your conference.” For that reason, booking big-name speakers is no longer a surefire way to boost attendance. Best-selling Christian authors Rick Warren and Lee Strobel will speak at Thrive in Roseville, Calif., next May—a huge selling point, no doubt—but the team behind the event’s website and digital strategy say stellar headliners aren’t the sole reason for Thrive’s 3,000-plus attendees. Long before a religious meeting sees record-breaking registration numbers, planners must establish the event’s distinct identity. Photos and videos that convey the event’s atmosphere play a powerful role in a person’s decision to attend. Indianapolis-based Engage, an event for worship staff and volunteers, uses a prominent three-photo slider on its home page to emphasize testimonials from past attendees and promote aspects of the conference, such as a live concert that’s open to the public. Additionally, a media tab provides access to photos, videos, printable posters and downloadable graphics (including a Facebook cover image) that can be shared easily on social media. Eric Baker is the Web manager for Crop Hunger Walk, a series of volunteer-driven fundraising events organized by religious groups to help end hunger around the world. He says a website should answer two big questions visitors will likely have: Why would I want to participate? And what can I expect from the experience? “We do that largely through visuals, not a lot of text,” says Baker. “That’s been a shift for us—making the detailed information available but lifting up the visuals first and foremost.” Alvarado, too, encourages the use of visuals to help potential attendees understand where they fit in. “When they first see the site, they should see an attention-grabbing experiential piece that answers the questions, ‘Do I belong?’ and ‘Should I be here?’” he says. Baker’s organization has received positive feedback after uploading volunteer-submitted photos to a slider on the website. Visitors can “see themselves or someone they know who participated in [the conference] the previous year,” he explains. “We love to have those [photos], because [they] provide a sense of community.” While eye-pleasing graphics, photos and typography are key for capturing your audience’s attention, they won’t stick around long if the information they’re looking for isn’t easily accessible. “You want to capture people’s attention, but there’s always a balance between having an attention-capturing site and a well-organized site with content,” says Garrett Boatman, lead developer at Bamboo Creative, who also works on the Thrive Conference website with Alvarado. Boatman and Alvarado borrow a term from psychology textbooks—cognitive load, which is the brain’s use of short-term memory while processing new information—to help clients grasp why clean design is crucial. “We’re all inundated with emails, Facebook posts, Twitter messages—all this information coming to us every single day—so we don’t have the threshold we used to have for high-cognitive-load sites,” says Alvarado. “Organizations have to think about how much effort it’s taking the user to get what they want and to make a decision.” Straightforward navigation and easily accessible information are top priorities for any event website. “Most people are going to come in on a landing page, and you don’t want to overwhelm them by putting everything [there], but you want to make it easy to get to that information,” says Baker. “We’re continually trying to simplify the presentation by highlighting what’s most important for a particular page and making any forms or calls to action very clear and simple.” A call to action should be prominent on all pages. The Thrive registration link always is within the user’s field of vision on the website. “When you’re developing a conference website, the registration call to action is the end goal of what you want the user to do,” says Alvarado. “We solved that problem by having a navigation bar [that allows the user] to be able to register at any point they decide.” Johnette Cruz, publicist for Engage, says when it came time to build the event’s website, they created a “Register Now” button to allow users to purchase tickets as quickly as possible, with as few clicks as possible. The button is visible on nearly every page of the site. Web traffic originating from users on mobile devices is at an all-time high: 56 percent of American adults own a smartphone and 34 percent own a tablet. The aesthetics of traditional websites don’t always translate to smartphone screens. For this reason, responsive Web design—the grid-based layout that allows for optimal viewing across a range of devices—is a must. Bamboo Creative places a high priority on developing responsive sites for their clients, and has seen an increase in mobile traffic to its sites as a result.  The research also manifests in Crop Hunger Walk’s data, Baker says. “Two years ago, our mobile traffic rates were around 4 or 5 percent, and now they’re up to 17 percent. We’re taking that into consideration as we set up the events each season and, as much as we can, [we’re] making the pages mobile-friendly,” he explains. “It’s an exciting area to get into because responsive design forces you to think through what is critical in terms of presenting the information and conveying the essence of the events.” A mobile-friendly site adds value for attendees during the conference, too. “People like to pull out their phones and check to see what tomorrow’s schedule is going to be like if they don’t have their booklet with them,” says Boatman. While social media is an entirely separate topic that deserves its own discussion of how it applies to event Web design, social media should be used to drive traffic back to the event site and, eventually, to the registration call to action. Boatman prefers to do this in a minimalistic way. The Thrive Conference site has two circular graphics (no text) linking to the conference’s Facebook and Twitter pages. “For Thrive, a lot of users are geared toward Facebook. So, last year, we built up a pretty big Facebook audience and were able to integrate social feeds into the website for people to cross-reference,” says Boatman. “A post on Facebook connects people back to the conference site. We’re keeping it as a constant hub of information.” Creating a user-friendly site that meets your audience’s needs is an ongoing process: one that benefits greatly from listening to and addressing user feedback. On Crop Hunger Walk’s site, that means paying attention to messages from its contact form and from its general information mailbox. “We’ve tried surveys and haven’t had a very high response rate,” says Baker. “The best feedback for us has been [via] our general email address. It gives people a channel to communicate with us so we can understand what they’re finding useful and what they’re finding challenging. If we see patterns in issues people are having, we can work to address those.” Baker adds that the Crop Hunger Walk website is continually evolving; he’s constantly looking at other sites, reviewing Crop’s site and trying to understand what people are facing so his team can improve it for the next year. Before the second year of Engage, Cruz and her colleagues contracted Web design vendor Geek Brigade to overhaul the conference’s website, incorporating feedback from the first conference. “The first year, we did a basic website, because the conference was new and we were just trying to put something together so that people could have the information,” says Cruz. “When we decided to do it a second year, we really re-evaluated the website, because we felt it wasn’t as user-friendly as it could be.” For example, potential attendees who had expressed interest in the first Engage overwhelmingly requested more programming and schedule details. “They did not just want overviews. They wanted to know, ‘If I’m going to go to this conference, how many sessions am I going to be able to go to? What am I going to be able to get out of it?’” Cruz says. Now, the schedule is displayed prominently front and center on the new Engage website and includes detailed information about each speaker and session. The site also displays a contact form widget that is visible and accessible from every single page, giving users an easy way to connect and provide feedback. Finally, if your conference is an annual engagement that is gaining momentum, consider working with a creative firm to develop a complete digital plan. “When we engaged Thrive, we wanted to create a holistic digital strategy that included Web, mobile and all the other things they were interested in,” says Alvarado. “We see a lot of organizations treating website design [with the mindset of] if we build it, people will come. But with all of the things happening in digital and mobile, that just isn’t the case.”