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The best place to start when developing a website is with a clear brand strategy. It is what provides the shared understanding needed to unite the big ideas and day-to-day details of a nonprofit's activities into a cohesive online experience. It is the glue that ensures a site's design, content, and code work together in harmony to express the entirety of an organization's mission, strategy, activities, and impact.
No small task, especially when talking about a process that typically spans months and involves many participants.
The process of creating a website is, by its nature, collaborative and multidisciplinary. It involves many contributors — each with a different area of interest, expertise, and professional vocabulary — and typically spans months and countless decisions. That means there's no shortage of opportunities for miscommunication and stumbles.
Over the years, I've learned that these can be minimized (they're almost never eliminated, trust me!) by a framework that emphasizes collaboration and establishes clear goals for the team. These goals need to be in a language everyone can understand.
That is why brand strategy is such an effective unifying force. In a medium that calls for collaboration across such a wide range of stakeholders, it is the one thing that everyone can (or should) agree on. Then they need to support and apply that strategy to the area they are responsible for.
Sounds great in theory, but what, you're probably thinking, does it look like in practice?
Every website has four major components: brand, content, technology, and design. The most effective sites are those that get all four working together like members of a band — each playing their part, and each complementing the work of the others. When executed well, the results are much like the experience of hearing a great song: harmonious and uplifting, with a clear point of view you can easily relate to.
Over many years of working with social change organizations, my firm, Constructive, has developed an approach to website design. This approach is called the 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites™ and has helped many clients achieve these results. The approach uses brand (the most important of the "foundations") to contextualize the other three (content, technology, design) for members of the team.
It also establishes a shared vision that helps keep clients, content creators, designers, programmers, and other contributors all pulling in the same direction. It clarifies decision making at every level by ensuring that the questions we need to answer when working with content, technology, and design are grounded in one simple goal. That goal is strengthening an organization's brand and advancing its mission.
Again, sounds exciting, but how does it actually work? At its core, the process is about increasing communication, collaboration, and shared learning between a client and the design firm; it's also achieving similar goals between members of the client's team and our experts in branding, content, design, and technology.
The process also makes sure everyone working on a website project starts with a clear understanding of the ideas and narrative the organization wants to convey. The ideas and narrative are laid out in a well-articulated strategic brief. Then the process bridges organizational silos so as to increase awareness of how decisions in one area of the organization affect the work of others — and the end result.
Of course, to really understand and appreciate a process, you need to experience it. We can't do that here; however, below I do my best to explain the top-level thinking behind the approach my colleagues and I have come up with over the last decade and a half.
As the thing that informs every experience you create for your audiences, it's easy to see why brand strategy is so important. When it comes to your website, it is both anchor and North Star. It contextualizes all the many choices and decisions that go into the construction of a website and serves to focus everyone on what really matters by
How does brand strategy accomplish these lofty goals? As with every strategy, brand strategy helps the team establish goals and allocate resources to accomplish those goals by providing answers to questions such as
Content strategy helps establish messaging architecture and ensures that the content you produce is meaningful, engaging, and cohesive. Regardless of the communication vehicle, it means having a clear understanding of your brand strategy. For a website, it means
To ensure that the written content, images, audio, and video on the site contribute to an effective presentation, your content team should understand the organization's brand strategy and be able to answer the following:
You can't have a website without technology; you need it both to serve content and create the interactive experiences on the front end, and to keep things organized and running smoothly behind the scenes. Technology strategy is what makes it possible for the development team to translate the ideas driving a brand into an experience that can be delivered online. It also
Too often, web developers are kept in the dark about things (like brand strategy) they need to know. The advantage of design-driven web development is that it helps deliver the greatest return on investment from technology. It makes sure developers "know the story" and can answer the following questions in ways that meet the needs of the brand, content, and visual design:
The broad definition of design could be "deciding what to create, what to do, and why to do it, both now and for the future." If design itself is understood though the lens of design thinking and problem solving, then design strategy is the ultimate strategy. Design strategy extends far beyond the visual to include
Design is the emissary of our ideas. For a website, it unites the ideas driving your brand, your content, and your technology to create valuable experiences for different audiences by answering questions such as
If your aim as a social-change organization is to think big and change the world, you need to start with a brand strategy. You need one that contextualizes how content, technology, and design will come together to tell your story and advance your mission.
The alternative, in most cases, is a lot of time, effort, and money poured into a website that either misses or ignores that context. And, as a result, it never really connects with the people on whose support, financial and otherwise, you rely.
What do you think? Let us know below, or shoot me an email.
Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based design and brand strategy firm specializing in social change organizations and businesses.
This blog post was originally published on the Philanthropy News Digest blog.
Image: Rawpixel / Shutterstock
Good article. This approach does a nice job of explaining some of the key strategic thinking, questions and considerations that are needed to launch and operate an effective website. Many nonprofits will need help to identify and implement all these ideas. But this article is a great starting point!
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