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  Tips and tricks for web site development. Web Sightings

Tips and Tricks for Web Site DevelopmentMost of these tips and tricks are common sense.

The Internet is unique because of the rate of technological change, the rate of increase in the number of people accessing, and the blend of content with technology.

Consistency within a site is probably one of the most important  factors and a unified theme helps define the relationship of a site and its relationship to its visitors.

Branding

Make sure your site stays branded only with your own identity.

If you use a search engine component, don't use its logo on your site.

Budget and Staffing

All too often the alumni/advancement web site has been viewed as a secondary budget priority and you need to sell your site to the budget committee.

Keep track of how many address updates, pledges, membership applications, and requests for information are being received at your site. Use access statistics to show growth in traffic.

Forward accolades from visitors to the person responsible for approving your budget.

Character

Your site should reflect the character of your institution.

If you have an academic, religious, arts, sports, or other institutional focus, try and tie your presentation to the bigger picture and the common message.

Coat of Many Colors, Fonts, Text

Color schemes, animated graphics, custom fonts, backgrounds, and other options should be used sparingly to illustrate or highlight a point.

Attempt a "modern" look and style. Black text on the standard gray backgrounds is not appealing or interesting. On the other hand, garish colors on a background with repeating images can be very difficult if not impossible to read.

Use tables so pages are centered in a browser. They may look fine in a 14" monitor, but in a 17" or 19" monitor they lose their design attributes when they spread across the entire screen.

When listing with dates, such as news releases, sort with newest at the top of the page and oldest at the bottom so that the newest item appears first in the browser.

Look at suggested style guides, and publications standards for your institution, and where possible, think about how your site looks in relation to that of the overall institution.

Common Denominator Design

Design for a low common denominator. Java scripts, and other features may be interesting, but test in multiple browsers, and make sure the scripts work.

Test your layout on 15" monitors that are still the standard in many homes and businesses. Test on a computer with a low resolution graphics card to make sure your images are of sufficient quality.

Consistent Names

Be consistent with naming. If you are called Alumni Relations, use this throughout.

Don't change to Alumni Office on subsidiary pages.

Content, Content, Content

Always be on the lookout for content, photos, and stories.

Ask your schools and departments for copies of all their publications, annual reports, catalogues, and press releases. Over time you can begin to build a library of information to draw upon.

Get on departmental mailing lists for their publications so you can tie your information to departments.

If you have an administrative list-serve, sign up, as these are often good sources of campus events and happenings.

It is easy to cut and paste into a current events page.

Link to other content areas on campus.

Become friends with your campus photographer.

Ask your board, prominent alums, and key volunteers to provide stories or anecdotes about your institution that can be added to your site.

Work constantly on changing the "mind set" of your colleagues to make them start to think about the web in the context of every document they create. i.e. Could this document be utilized on the web?

As your site grows you may wish to invest in content management software.

This  allows the use of common design templates, notification to users for updating of content, and subscriptions services to pages.

Counters and Statistics

Counters show the number of visitors to a particular page, and while the information is interesting and useful, it may be counter- productive to display. i.e. If you have a low traffic site, it can convey a message of low interest in your site, even if you have a limited Alumni base.

If you want to keep track of visitors, find out how to get statistics for your site.

A separate page with explanations for how the statistics are calculated is usually a better strategy if you want to let your users know about activity on your site.

Database Connectivity

Link your institutional database to your web site which allows you to display information dynamically.

Talk to your vendor or computing staff about how to do this. It is a very effective way of leveraging your database information for outreach, and providing page content that you don't have to maintain separately from work already being done.

For example, most sites have an e-mail directory. If you are already entering this information on your database, why duplicate the maintenance by typing in on an HTML page.

Download Times

Band width keeps increasing, but many visitors may still use a 56k modem.

It's easy to forget this working on campus when you're connected to a fast network. Test your page download times by dialing up to a network service provider and access your site in the same way many users will.

E-mail Contact

Assume that everyone that visits your web site will have the ability to send you e-mail.

If you have a staff listing with e-mail addresses, make sure they are tested.

There should be separate e-mail links to your key personnel, such as executive director.

Not everyone knows what a webmaster is, and visitors may be more comfortable sending e-mail to a person or position they recognize.

Expertise

Know your limitations.

If you don't have the in-house expertise to design, create, and work with the web site, look to external sources. This doesn't always have to be a high budget item.

Students in computer science, independent consultants, interested and motivated alumni and volunteers are just some sources.

Start-up internet design companies may be willing to provide their services at a lower cost in exchange for the recognition.

Forms

Align the input fields. Use tables so that the form is centered on the user's monitor. Include e-mail address collection in these forms even if you are not collecting from any other source.

Have the ability to submit the information on-line, as opposed to printing out the form and mailing in.

Use custom confirmation pages for each form. You can also use automated email responders.

Don't put links on HTML forms to other pages, as any information will be cleared when visitors access the other page.

At a minimum have at least an address and phone number update form on your site.

Some other useful are an on-line gift or pledge commitment form, and membership updating/application forms, surveys, suggestions, and feedback.

More on designing effective forms with some sample web forms on this site.

Giving and Getting

Strike a balance between what you are asking for, and what you are giving out.

If we only have a pledge form, an address update form, and a case for support, it doesn't provide on-going interest for visitors.

Provide interesting, interactive, and useful content first, and then ask for information or support.

Incentives

Many sites have a guestbook, e-mail lists, news, on-line magazines, quizzes, sports schedules and other information.

When a person has their name on your site, they will often check back to have a look.

Drawings for school memorabilia, sports tickets, and tickets for a lecture series, are some inexpensive prizes that make filling out and submitting information a bit more fun.

Internal vs. External

Involve all of your constituents in the design process.

Don't design outreach sites for internal visitors from campus. Include students, prospective students, donors, volunteers, faculty, staff on the design/review team.

Last Updated Dates

Last updated dates on pages instantly date the content and the best impression conveyed is that the information is fresh.

Last updated is useful on pages with policies, procedures, and similar where time sensitivity is more important and critical to the application of the information.

The last updated date is better if included on a default page, but make sure you change it every time you change one of the page contents in your site.

Links to Campus and Other Links

Link your page to other sites of interest on campus such as your athletics department.

Take advantage of extra content already done for you. This is particularly useful when you are first starting your site, and you haven't had time to implement all your ideas.

Link to other sites where information is topical and related to your site.

Visitors may often find something on a links page that they may find interesting.

Update and categorize these links, and provide a brief description.

Main Page Links

Many advancement sites are buried deep within a main site.

Try to get your web site linked from the main page of your institution's web site which will increase your traffic dramatically.

Outreach is one of the most important activities, and should be reflected prominently at the first point of contact someone has with the institution.

Maintenance

As in any systems project, maintenance is usually more expensive and time consuming than your original development, particularly as you add content.

Keep the directory of your web site, and file names organized.

Regularly clean up files not being used.

Make sure your photos and images are organized.

Marketing and Promotion

Promote the use of your site both internally and externally. Have your web address on your publications, newsletters, and any letters that are mailed out.

Sample of gift commitment form and Lost Dogs brochure.

Promote your web site at board meetings, and do on campus presentations.
Write an article on your site for one of your publications.

Sample of article used in alumni magazine.

Hand out "web invitation cards" at events, and presentations. These are made on invitation card stock , and have the web site address and a number of the features.

Send out one of these cards with all donor acknowledgements and other communications.

You can also set them out on Campus Reception areas, stuff them in packages at the bookstore, etc.

Web business cards. Business card size handouts. Have your site address on all of your business cards.

Sample of web invitation cards, web business cards and postage meter label.

Try and get your page linked to other pages in the school. i.e. Get a link on the business school page to your page. Many alums might just go to the business page. Reciprocate by placing a link to the school on your page.

If you have a campus administrative listserv, post information  about your site there. If you have an alumni listserv, do the same.

Create a campus and board e-mail distribution list and inform key people as new features are added.

Utilize your annual fund telemarketing staff to ask for e-mail addresses when they are updating other information, and to inform those they are calling about the new site.

Tell your chapters you now have a web site, and that if they want to develop a page, that you will provide a link to their page. This will give them the incentive to access your page, and create additional content for you.

Ad on-line job application forms for your telemarketing, data entry positions, and other open positions to your site.

Promote your site by registering with the various search engines, and understand how to create meta tags etc, that the search engines understand. Many visitors use search engines to find your site. Register your site's URL.

Fridge magnets, stickers, and other memorabilia with your site's URL.

As you collect e-mail addresses, let submitters know that you will add them to a list and let them know about periodic site updates. You can also start up a periodic e-mail newsletter.

Outreach and External Focus

While most of us use our charters, bylaws, and policies and procedures on a daily basis, external visitors may find these less useful. They're OK to have on a site, but don't make them the priority.

We often think of our organization in terms of the organization chart.

Recognize your important volunteers, officers, donors, and other supporters, but don't have the theme of your site be the same as an organization chart.

Programmer and Computer Jargon

Use terminology that a non-computer person will understand.

For example, while most of us understand the term listserv, external visitors may relate better to discussion forum, or e-mail discussion group. "Choose your favorite", is better than "Select any of the following options that apply".

Think of your web site as an interactive document designed to publish and collect information as opposed to a in-house computer program, or just a document.

Programming and Editing Tools

Remember, when working with the web, you are working more on content based activities then technologically based activities.

A graphical tool will improve your productivity and allow you do create content much faster then typing in HTML tags and codes.

It also helps you focus on standardizing page layouts, because graphical editors can usually display what the page will look like as you modify it.

As you gain more knowledge, look into HTML editors, and other tools that are more sophisticated. The tools continue to improve, and are very cost effective.

Find out what your central computing staff is using. They can often be a valuable source of information, and may have inexpensive site licenses.

Response to Submissions, Questions, and Other Communications

When someone updates their information, asks a question, or responds by submitting one of your forms, make an effort to communicate back.

Make their visit to your web site a positive experience. Try and respond in a "custom" manner as you would if you were writing a personal letter.

Respond quickly.

Sounds and Video

If you are going to have a sound on your page, don't have it loop continuously. Have it loop once or twice, and then have a link to play it again or download if you want to hear it again.

Investigate streaming technologies so users don't have to download whole files before they can review a video or audio clip.

Invest in a good video camera, a video capture device, VCR editing deck, and a television if you intend doing video clips for your site and are going to produce them in-house.

Statistics

Keep statistics on what pages were visited, how often, where the visitors came from, and when they visited.

Use these statistics to help focus your design efforts on what is popular within your site.

Track the accesses for new features.

As features are visited more, move links to them to the top level of your navigation system.

Keep track of how page popularity changes over time. For example, if you have job listings, you will find that your organization chart, staff pages, and campus location will be more popular and will move up the charts.

Surfing

Spend a few minutes every day surfing and looking for ideas.

Don't just limit yourself to education related sites. Check other charities such as United Way, Museums, Symphonies, Art Societies, Community Service organizations, Business and other Organizations.

Look at top 100 web site lists provided by some of the search engines. While many of these top 100 sites may have many more resources than you do, there are often ideas you can incorporate, or styles you may wish to emulate.

Review the what's new this week or pick of the week features that the search engine sites provide.

Stock Graphics

You use stock clip art and graphics for your site, but visitors will enjoy pictures of campus, and other themes that they are familiar with.

Use pictures with people and activities. If you don't have the time or resources to do the photos and scanning, stock graphics can get you up and running, but try and be selective.

Get a good scanned image of your seal and any other logos. Don't use a low quality or ragged image for these critical symbolic representations of your institution.

Invest in a good scanner and digital camera. Make sure that optical character recognition software comes with the scanner. Learn how to use image editing software. You'll get a quick payback on all of these.

Under Construction

If you use "under construction" on your pages make sure that you finish construction within the date you have set.

Under construction is as good reminder for visitors to expect something there soon, but on the other hand, if they come back a few times and nothing has changed you might lose them.

A new features, new this month, new features coming etc, on the default page is more effective. Remember, it takes time to download a linked page, and all pages should have information.

It's annoying to click on a link that you're interested in and find the under construction icons.

Up-front Design and Conceptualization

Do some advance planning when you set your site up.

This helps to prevent down the road changes which may be very time consuming.

Planning is sometimes difficult when you are starting out, because you learn a lot as you go along.

Try to find the appropriate balance between planning and actually getting something up. It's better to have a few pages up and start your marketing than wait 6 months until you have the perfect design.

Realize that you will go through a number of iterations, and that there will be a much heavier staff resource commitment up front until your design stabilizes.

Vision

Involve your public relations people, your publications staff and others who may have a better sense of graphical design and page layout.

They often have a photo library, press releases, and historical information that you can access.

Many of their photos will have already been scanned and available for immediate use.

Attend press releases for important events. Many times there are handouts with pictures and information which you can utilize.

Ask the opinions of your executive staff, and if possible your boards and other external constituents to find out what they want.

What's New

Create a what's new area in your site and update it on a regular basis, even if you have to use just informational items.

This gives visitors a place to go on a regular basis to see what's changed.

 
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