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No Shame in Just Playing Checkers with Your Website

Overwrought and expensive web work stifles many nonprofit arts organizations.

Like most technologies, web design/implementation/maintenance costs have significantly decreased in the prior years. One need only look at Wix, SquareSpace, Strikingly, and other (admittedly sometimes buggy) DIY solutions to see that work which may have previously cost five figures to design and hundreds of dollars each month to maintain now can cost a fraction of that if you're willing to work within a given template or deploy a bit of digital elbow-grease.

But many nonprofit performing arts organizations (with large and small budgets alike) either didn't get the memo or, more frequently, are focused on playing chess when they really only need to play checkers on their site. In adopting this complexity, these organizations also adopt much higher costs--frequently not known at the time--and lose sight of the fundamentals that make your website work. Here are some focal points which may guide future changes to your website strategy and tactics:

1. It sells your tickets first--everything else is secondary: Your site is the primary transaction channel for your performing arts organization. And let's not forget online donations continue to increase at a pretty fast clip too. [More on this and why the relatively modest amount--7%--of online donations don't tell the full story can be found here.] Your site should be focused on creating conversions: typically a ticket sale but also a donation or an addition to a mailing list. Pages and overall user flows that aren't designed towards conversions should be appropriately de-prioritized in terms of attention and resources.

What does this mean in a practical example? The next time a board member, staff member or other stakeholder is really concerned about how that "about us" page looks or makes them feel, allow them to make changes with current resources: no paying a design team to make a new template, no adding a custom field to your CMS so they can make further edits. Keep your eye on the prize and encourage them (as hard as that can be) to do so as well.

2. Build a transaction--then an experience: This is where many arts organizations falter. We want to offer our patrons a stellar experience with every engagement point in a patron's purchase path... but we can sometimes forget the real experience they're buying is the one in the theater. I'm familiar with at least one arts organization that spent six-figures on a project to interrupt a ticket transaction to ask the patron (someone with their credit card out, who is ready to buy) a series of distracting questions. Not good.

What is a more practical example? Perhaps your or another organization is considering spending significant dollars or staff time on a "seamless" integration with a ticketing/donation system... not a bad idea if you've got unlimited funds but in an organization where there is a fiduciary responsibility to spend every dollar as effectively as possible, probably not the best first use of funds. It will look pretty for sure though. What's an easier way to do this? Nearly all ticketing/donation software now offer the ability to white label your pages using their software and integrations with Google Tag Manager and Analytics so you can easily access the marketing-optimizing data you need.

3. Do the math--but the answers are in the back of the book: Like so many things, process is important when it comes to your website. Optimizing or making wholesale changes suggests you must do your homework. Regularly report on your Google Analytics data including your source traffic, how users behave once on the site, conversion rates/flows, interaction on social channels, differences in mobile v. desktop use, maybe even some focus group work, etc.

This is a big task, don't get me wrong. But also know that the answers to most of your questions are already out there so if you want to take a shortcut (or check your work/process), there's an easy way to do that.

Also, my colleague Ceci Dadisman runs a great seminar on how to make the most of an introductory knowledge of Google Analytics. Check out the video here. She rules.

4. Black jumps red, red jumps black--that's basically it: In other words, stick to the fundamentals. Have a privacy policy in place; implement cookies/pixels and other tracking for email automation (through Drip or otherwise) and programmatic advertising (through Adroll or otherwise); claim your pages on Google Places, Yelp, Groupon, etc.; drive traffic to your site from your social channels using relevant communications; optimize your email communications; do basic SEO work.

That's a bit of a list, but most of that can be done through an in-house PR contact or outside vendor. The more advertising related work like programmatic ads and automated email marketing is work a marketing contact would do. And if you don't have either, don't worry, your website still "works" without all that stuff--it's just not optimized. So apply for grant funds or ask that board member for additional support for you to start to launch some of these efforts. You'd also be surprised how helpful for-profit vendors (like your ticketing system or advertising firm/buyer) can be in helping you accomplish their goals as it makes them look better too!

5. But chess is far more elegant a game: Yes, it certainly is, if you can play it. And your site should look elegant. You know what's not elegant? Sites that are still stuck in desktop-only designs with little or no recognition that probably most the traffic they're seeing is from mobile devices. Or sites that haven't been updated in months with new information because the cost to do so is high or most go through the rather outdated "webmaster" model. Sticking with your current design/vendor/maintenance plan has real opportunity costs. Or worse yet, another really inelegant solution is to not have a website strategy (or perhaps even site of your own) at all--like Cinderella if she didn't go to the ball. Don't rely on your ticketing system, Facebook, or other entity for your web presence. Take control and start playing the game.

6. King me--celebrate success on your site: This checkers metaphor is starting to stretch a bit, but the basic gist is that your website metrics should be celebrated when they're going well. More traffic to your site is good, a decreased bounce rate is (usually) good, more time spent on your site is (usually) good. An increased conversion rate is good. If your board is not already asking about these intermediate metrics--boards tend to only want to inquire about dollars and cents--then start to serve high-level indicators to them anyway. Obviously the numbers won't always be good but intermediate metrics like your web stats can help tell a story of why an event didn't sell to goal or, better yet, explain why an event surpassed it.

In a concrete example, I have run campaigns in a traditional subscription house with similar budgets, audience targets and overall response rates in terms of clicks, time on a landing page, etc. The one difference? Prospective audience members for one show simply didn't convert at the same rate as another. This may mean the landing page for that event wasn't as appealing but it may also mean that the event itself simply didn't connect as well with an audience. With the board knowing, "marketing did its job," (at least in drawing attention to the show), it can soften the blow of a missed goal and opens the door to discuss the silver lining on that cloud: new-to-file patrons, overall impressions for the show/theater, perhaps a pitch to increase investment in ad creative costs, etc.

This article is not to argue against the many high-value web design and CMS firms that do great work out there. For many organizations, having such work out of house saves enough staff time to more than make-up for the costs. And indeed, some organizations are at a place where they can start to play chess--bravo! Lots of other arts organizations will begin looking to you for inspiration so you can bear the cost of implementing new technology.

But for those organizations who have sites that look more like Space Jam than a more contemporary design and functional offering, know that updating your site is as simple as setting up the board and following a few simple rules.

I work with some of the platforms listed above but receive no compensation (indirect or otherwise) for mentioning them by name. Please reach out to me if you'd like a complimentary consult as to which (if any) software partners you may want to consider for your organization's specific needs.