Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The website redesign holy grail

So, I've asked for it and now I'm getting it: ideas on how we can improve the website.

Today’s email:

This is a very cool tool and one that would be awesome to replicate on our website. Take the tour. Different things pop up as you move your cursor. Click on them and you'll see more details. www.riverventure.org/columbia/index.html
When I first came to American Rivers I was a little surprised how little pride folks took to their online image, so I made it a priority to create a little excitement over the redesign process—hence the web 2.0 brown bag lunch. And, what better way to do that than open the door to feedback, ideas, suggestions, confessions, etc.

And I’ve gotten some great feedback, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m creating unrealistic expectations. It's obvious I get excited over this stuff (just ask my wife about my wiki rants), but can there be too much of a build up? Basically, is the hint of the ‘redesign process’ creating a Holy Grail syndrome? Yes, sky’s the limits with what we can do, but there has to be some limitations.

The biggest challenge (surprise!) is probably money, then probably Convio, and lastly, ‘eyes bigger than our stomach’ feeling. Meaning, if we want user generated content, many may not realize how much backend work it takes to properly manage it. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew with what is required to maintain a site full of bells and whistles - just because we build it doesn't mean they will come...the dreaded ‘field of dreams’ complex.

So, getting folks is excited is good, but what happens if we can’t live up to those expectations. Am I really advancing the ball here by rallying the troops? Yes, I want ideas, buy-in, and excitement, but what if our site redesign turns out to be less than what folks are imagining.

I guess that’s one reason I feel the need to air this process out a bit.

1996 - 2006: American Rivers Online

Wow, here’s a little history worth exploring:

Planning for the Web: American Rivers
A large river conservation organization shares the process they went through to develop a new Web site designed to help them achieve their mission of saving America's waterways.
Not sure how I stumbled upon this little nugget, but very interesting. This article was from April 2000, which by web standards dates it to B.C. Not to bore you, but American Rivers launched their first website in 1996. To put that in perspective, my first official ‘surf’ wasn’t until 1998 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana (strange I know).

I like when Rebecca Wodder, President of America Rivers, said, “the site definitely grew out of the recognition that [the Web] is an important force at work in the world and we can either harness it, or get run over by it.” Amen, applies to today too.

Have we been run over? It's possible, but who hasn't blinked, coughed, or got distracted with something else and missed some aspect of the technology boat? Fortunately, there's a pretty big sweet spot to easily reengage.

And how will we look to launch our new site? I'm thinking we shoot to unveil our new website the same time of year as before. April, in conjunction with American Rivers' annual announcement of the "Most Endangered Rivers" list, would be a perfect time to 'wow' our audience and um, hopefully the staff.

You heard it here, April 2007! Who wants to place a bet on that?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Act for Healthy Rivers' course is set - so we hope

Though nothing is finalized, it feels like we're at least one step closer to choosing the direction of the HealthyRivers.org. (btw, healthyrivers.org = Act for Healthy Rivers)

No longer will groups pledge their support of 30+ things when they endorse Citizens Agenda for Rivers—slightly ambitious, wouldn’t you say? This was one of the earlier efforts to mobilize the river movement. All in all successful on many levels from what I understand, but the biggest take away for us was River Lobby Day.

Since then, the challenge for us has been how do we build on this momentum around one single issue, sewage in our rivers. When we sent the Request for Proposal out to 10+ firms in July 2006, we had in mind a website with password protected corners to serve river groups. As a resource to these river groups, we wanted to provide a platform for groups to share their experiences, engage one another, and most importantly, take action.

We met with Development Seed again last Friday to follow up on a conversation that I had with them earlier in the week. We went through a second round (review our first meeting) of what we wanted and what we thought we wanted from a site, only in the end to receive a little tough love—which we needed.

The fundamental challenge for us was balancing the altruistic nature of our intentions, river groups uniting to combat shit in our rivers, with the reality that most of Joe public isn't aware of the issue.

I searched Google News for ‘sewage spills’ and there were over 400 articles. October 26th's headline: “More than 2.7 million gallons of untreated sewage leaked or spilled from pipes in the Cape Fear region in the past year. Most of it ran into our creeks and rivers.” Yuk.

Anyhow, in attempt to address the need of creating buzz with a site that provides a lot of useful information, we're exploring two COMPLETELY different websites (because they are different audiences) for this particular campaign.

One being the subversive, if not childish, attempt at making this effort go viral, and two, providing the sound background information needed to justify the seriousness of our overall effort to organize river groups and provide useful information for groups to take back to their constituents.

But when this is all said and done, how childish can we be? Um, unsure at this point until we pitch the idea to senior staff. And have the Steering Committee get on board. Cross your fingers.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Post Convio conference wrap up

The photo has excitement all over it—nothing like a conference with 375 of my Convio peeps to elicit a sense of giddiness. But actually, it was pretty good.

On October 23rd and 24th, myself and 375 of my closest peers met in Washington, DC, for Convio’s first Customer Summit. Grant it, I wasn’t really looking forward to the 2-day event, but it surprisingly worked out pretty well.

A couple of interesting points to note of the changes on the horizon were 1) enhanced reporting (report writer) capability for clients, 2) benchmark reporting capability from within Convio’s client base—we can learn how we stack up to others of similar size and market niche, and 3) use of widgets for the finger on the pulse web 2.0 play—how many donating river lovers have an account with MySpace? Not sure about that one, but worth seeing where it goes.

I took a few pages of notes, but the coolest (like most events of this stature) part of the two-day conference was the interaction with folks in my position at organizations across the spectrum. I also seemed to add to my list of wants and needs for us to accomplish over the next month—primarily list growth.

For an organization of our size, we have a very small house file of usable email addresses. And, on that note, we’re actually going backwards—losing more people than we’re taking in through the online subscription page (though we recently overhauled the process—love the feedback if you subscribe).

In fact, our conversion rate is approximately 1%, while Convio’s ‘Environment’ clients’ conversion rate is about 4.7%. Typically 2-3% is considered good. We have some room to grow, to say the least.

So, I think the next step for us is to create a basic welcome email series for new subscribers as well just making sure what page you land on, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Cool, American Rivers PSA on YouTube

Not sure who did this, but very cool. It would be kind of fun if we could work with high schools, colleges, and/or universities to produce similar advocacy pieces as a part of thier studies. Love to know who made this and how it came about.

The PSA video could even be another contest...that is if we get past some of the hurdles with our legal team. We're currently experiencing a Flickr photo contest hold up, though hope to have it resolved by next week's newsletter blast.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Flickr - ing for our web photos

Growing up stealing was a bad thing. So were lies. But at what age does the line of thinking go from stealing to borrowing and lying to exaggerating?

I think I might have crossed that line pretty early and for web work, well, the term stealing shamelessly often refers to cool stuff. Why else would Joe public be able to view the source of a page? It’s got to be more than just the dork inside of you to giggle.

Soap box moment: good work should be shared. I know, spoken like someone who just stole, but its flattering, right? The Nature Conservancy has launched a very cool photo contest on Flickr...and now so are we.

On top of that we're looking to move all of our publication photos to flickr so that they can become more easily search, stored, and shared amongst staff and potentially the public. Photos can also be geotagged for that worldly view. And folks can subscribe to individual tags too. Check out the Flickr badge in the blog bling to the right. I've become a huge fan of Flickr.

The contest we're running will help us generate cool photos to potentially use on our new website, online and offline newsletter, membership calendar, annual report, and all of the other pubs that call for compelling river images. Very cool stuff that we're launching next week.

Ahhh, automation

After going back and forth for a bit, we decided to automate the registration process for the National River Cleanup Week website. It doubled our costs, but will hopefully save valuable staff time in the end.

The basic process entails an online form that collects the data fields listed below. Before submitting the form, the registrant will enter several characters from a Captcha box which prevents automated form bots from submitting the form. Upon successful submission, an automated email message is sent to the registrant containing a username (email address) and password (which allows the registrant to log in to the website later and update their data, if necessary), along with a confirmation link. Clicking the automated link in the message completes the registration process by validating the registrant's email address.

This process won't avoid false registrations entirely, but it requires a valid email address since the registrant has to receive the confirmation message in order to finalize registration. It's the best method if we wish to automate the entire registration process, short of an administrator approving/disapproving each registration (which is still the safest method but requires oversight).

As an administrator, we will be able to:

  • review the entire list at any time and edit or disable a registrant's data.
  • search the list based on various data fields.
  • export the data to a delimited file for use with other software.
  • send an HTML email message to any or all registrants.
Attempting to keep our registration form lean, we’ve reduced the number of items from a pretty big list to the one below. This information will then be used to populate a Google map for volunteers to search and find a cleanup close to them. Pretty hot.

Contact Name
Contact Email
Cleanup Date
Cleanup Time
Cleanup Location
Estimated Cleanup Distance (in miles)
Estimated number of volunteers
Estimated number of trash bags needed

It’s hard not to feel we’ve somehow packed our bags, but have left something behind. Honing in on this information now, early in the development, requires a good bit of vision for the site…and since it’s a new site, to a certain extent, hard to imagine we’ve thought of everything. We won’t be able to go back and make changes to the registration process without incurring significant costs.

Somehow I still feel like I left my wallet at home.

Being on the right page

A friend pointed out that the underlying connection between my attempt to open up the web design process and the overall mission of American Rivers may not, by certain powers that be, be perceived as a good thing. Point taken.

His suggestion: add a disclaimer—which I did (look down and to the right). So, it’s my understanding other than here that American Rivers has never blogged before and though there are no specific blog policies in place, I just wanted to make it clear that this effort is solely my doing and not the organization. Taking it one step further, I've changed the URL from americanrivers.blogspot.com to inwardout.blogspot.com.

This blog, in its earnest, is the attempt to put my actions where my mouth is—I believe, and have been preaching internally, in web design transparency as well as the benefit derived from an open dialogue.

And for me personally, it’s a social media test to some extent. I won’t go in to the details, but read more here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rain Gardens

The buzz seems to be catching on internally. Thanks to Brad (National Media Director) and our first YouTube video, I think folks in the office are pretty psyched about the potential to engage visitors visually. Right on. Some other groups are doing it here and here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Planting the 2.0 seed

With no idea what to expect, our brown bag lunch appeared to be a success. Folks seemed engaged, which is good, though I hope they left with a healthy amount of confusion and were not totally overwhelmed. Time will tell, but Page put on a great show.

For me, the most important thing that came out of the lunch was the emphasis that web 2.0 is a philosophy. Basically, it’s how we go about our work and may very well open some doors about how we not only collaborate with our partners, but how information is shared. There is an obvious connection between open source and non-profit work. Many non-profiters, live, work, and play in communities—communities being the essence of our work too—and the concept of adding value (or having value added) to existing bodies of work is very appealing. Similar to healthy rivers, open source platforms rely on healthy communities.

There’s a fine line here with too much information, but hopefully the discussion today was enough of a jumping off point to have folks explore some of the online tools, such as Digg, del.icio.us, Flickr, etc.

A seed was planted today and as we proceed with the redesign(s), hopefully I can come back and water it from time to time - cheesey I know, but true. The success of our online work may depend on it.

Convio Customer Summit

Next Monday and Tuesday will be interesting. The first ever Convio Customer Summit is being held in DC and new 2.0 tools are being discussed (released?), kind of psyched to hear what's in store—though I'm cautiously optimistic.

On Monday, I meeting our Convio consultant who will hopefully put us track. Our relationship with Convio has been fairly tenuous and I get the impression we’re a problem child who just hasn’t lived up to expectations. This is true, but historically there has been a little bit of unhappiness with our Convio relationship.

Recognizing our inability to perform to the level we’re capable of (very small house file and make little effort to raise money online), Convio is providing eight months (2-month of strategic development, 6-months of action) of free consulting services. A welcome relief with added pressure to put us on track and begin showing a ROI—which we desperately need to justify the gigantic cost associated with the tools. Looking forward to the event.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The artist formerly known as Citizens Agenda for Rivers

Our meeting two weeks ago for Act for Healthy Rivers started with the best intentions: provide needed resources to groups on the ground on how to stop sewage from seeping in to our rivers. Pretty down right professional, if not admirable, but exciting?

Shit in our rivers is a HUGE issue, but there is not a federal law to enforce notification. When it rains (for DC it only takes an inch of rain), raw sewage flows in to our rivers because of out dated sewage systems. And when it happens, no one really knows about it.

This is not like if a tree falls, does anyone hear it? kind of thing. Sewage overflow typically stinks, not to mention it pollutes our rivers, but if you swim, fish, boat, do all the stuff you enjoy doing on a river, do you know recreating after a downpour is a bad idea?

Basically, there is no federal law that requires notification of sewage overflow. Hence our effort to reshape the campaign formerly known as the Citizens Agenda for Healthy Rivers to one that is action based—Act for Healthy Rivers.

Thinking that acting for healthy rivers meant giving the tools to local/national groups for their continued action, we drafted a 5-page request for proposal. Sent it out to 10 firms/consultants and eventually selected Development Seed to lead the online effort.

Well, during our brainstorming—the one with good intentions—session, we basically tossed up in the air that sewage ain’t sexy. Wait, hold the phone, sewage has no sizzle? Surprise. That’s when were sidetracked with the idea of sending poop to Congress. Gasp, but hmmm.

We just received our “Meeting Notes” from Development Seed who laid out the two completely different websites—two different audiences too. But we can only do one and the idea of combining these iniatives seems like we'll only weaken the overall effort. Tough call, wonky site for river groups or viral-based action?

Option 1: Build a wonky resource rich website targeting river groups

Option 2: Build an awareness raising campaign targeting the masses

We’re meeting on Friday to discuss.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rallying the troops with 2.0

I'm not sure if organizing a brown bag lunch for all staff on the hoopla that surrounds web 2.0 is asking for punishment or providing too much information?

Oh well, it's too late and I don’t buy either one. I sense there is not a great deal of pride in our website, in fact, when asked about the overall impression of AR’s site, a third of those who responded to a recent staff survey said they were a “a little embarrassed.”

If there is one thing that can come out of the year-long process, it’s that folks get involved with how we present ourselves online. And more importantly, begin taking ownership of some of the pages. Throughout this journey, one way I’ll measure my own success is by the staff’s level of investment in the process.

If that’s the case, the An Introduction to Web 2.0 brown bag lunch is step one.

In an effort to rally the troops, the game plan is below (lead by guest wizkid, Page Sands). We'll follow up with more practical sessions, but wanted to at least start with the 30,000 view.

An Introduction to Web 2.0: What is it and why does it matter? In this first of several sessions, we'll examine the basics of Web 2.0, the tools and technologies, and how they can be applied to organizations of all types.

An overview into the background and history of Web 2.0 including:

  • software applications and tools (del.icio.us, flickr, mashups)
  • blogs, wikis (both externally and within organizations)
  • RSS and searching into the future (RSS, Bloglines, and Google News)
  • tags
  • motivations for use (free and opensource software movements + internally within organizations)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Budget 101

American Rivers’ most recent website redesign was a pro bono effort. And up until the migration to Convio, AR’s web budget was next to nothing. On top of it, the staff managing the website basically fluctuated from one full-time person to one third-time person. Safe to say, the recent Non-Profit eBenchmark Study reinforced the mantra: you get out of it what you put in to it.

From March 2005 to March 2006, AR raised just under $25,000 online (approximately half of that in December/January alone) with just over 20,000 online subscribers, activists, and/or supporters. Majority of the donations came from online renewals too. However, our website costs with Convio were far greater. Knowing full well ROI is not solely based on the money raised, but if it were, AR has been running a net loss on all online activities.

So, when 2007 fiscal year budget planning session began, there was a strong push for money to invest in two web people, one strategy and one advocacy, as well as a budget to revamp AR’s website. It was a major step forward with renewed commitment to the online process.

However, after the first round of cuts this past Spring, the budget was eventually reduced by 30%. Over the next 6-months, various folks from within the department fought tooth and nail to keep it at that level. It remained at that level (even as the Outreach side of things took a blow) until last Friday when I brought up the allocation of costs associated with our ‘branding’ work (I’ll explain later). Needless to say, a couple virtual kicks were dealt under the table as a result.

As I’m learning, regardless of the money you plan (or hope) to spend, you should be fighting for every last dollar—to the very end, because no budget is ever safe.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

National River Cleanup Week (.org) underway

This is a start to a fairly new project. It's pretty ambitious, but exciting as it fits in pretty well with our existing work.

We’ve recently adopted the 15 year-old national river cleanup from America Outdoors, but with some challenges of course: how to convert an audience comfortable with direct mail to online registration. And for that matter, everything online.

The existing site, nationalrivercleanup.com, consists of pages within America Outdoors. We’re working with a one-man development team (who btw provides a great service to non-profits!) to redesign the navigation, architecture, and overall feel of the site. We've recently completed a draft of the navigation, which will set the course (and foundation) for the work to follow.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Gobbling up URLS

A thing of the past or a useful strategy?

I remember hearing about 10 years ago folks used to grab every URL they could find in attempt to deter would be competitors or in the hope of riches. And I do know that search engines like web addresses, but is this really a useful strategy in today’s market?

We have around 20+ URLs floating around the organization, all of which were bought several years ago by a former staff member(s). The cost is nominal, but it’s the headache that comes with managing them that bothers me. And I seem to be learning of new ones that we own every other week, so the list is growing.

Many of the URLs do in fact pertain to our work, but many of them are pretty random and though once relative, there is no direct connection today. I’m not fearful of our competitors buying a competing URL (more power to them) and I know we can point the cname records to our servers, but are we really creating added attention to ourselves for the crawlers?

When I remember hearing folks gobbling up URLs, static content was pretty much the norm, but these days (blogs, wikis, etc.) content changes pretty frequently—or should—and my thought is that search engines prefer these types of changes over the once mighty web address. But then GoDaddy.com spent $2.4 million for a 30 second spot during the 2005 Superbowl, so there’s got to be more to it.

Our growing list of URLs were bought with good intentions, but today's market of multitudes—a filter induced market—appears to give greater meaning to content, not URLs.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A sprinkling of history

Let’s get it on the table right now: I’m new to American Rivers (as with my position), in fact, only 4 months old and I've seemed to have jumped on a moving ship. Honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing and it’s sort of nice to be the one added to momentum.

Late 2004, American Rivers began their search for a company that would basically run the online operation. All the big guys were thrown out on the table—Kintera, Get Active, Convio—for the job: provide a $6+ million organization with the technical capabilities to effectively manage a website, engage activists, and recruit donors.

Convio won the contract and the partnership began early 2005, not long after Convio and the Dean Campaign made national news with their online success. Convio has provided American Rivers (and many others: 100%+ growth since 2004) the technical tools to update pages, send action alerts, organize volunteers, and much more.

Convio is a one stop-shop type of thing, and for many years, just add water and instant campaign. Prior to Convio, American Rivers partnered with Bank First who, at the time, was dabbling with open source software and agreed to provide much needed pro bono services. When Bank First decided to dissolve, and pages needed to be migrated, American Rivers chose to saddle up with the proven propriety software giant, Convio.

For the last 18 months, we’ve updated pages, sent thousands of emails to Congress, recruited new supporters (and activists), and reached new audiences. However, with 2.0 taking shape, and peer2peer networks creating a buzz, times seem to be changing.

These next few months will be interesting as we have 21 months left on our contract, Convio launching 2.0 tools (know more on October 23rd & 24th at the Convio Customer Summit), and overseeing the build out of not one, two, or three websites, but potentially FOUR. Who do we work with? How do we plan beyond these 21 months? Do we manage all of our sites under one roof? How do we incorporate new and exciting tools (free ones at that!) in a closed box? There are a lot of questions.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Let the games begins

Ever argue with a loved one for hours only to make up and not remember what you were fighting about? And all you know in the end was that it was needed? Well, that pretty much summed up day one.

Yup, a big build up with the occasional vibrant discourse; but by the time I walked away I was scratching my head to figure out what the hell just happened—welcome to our 3-hour website redesign kick-off session. And for some odd reason, this seemed to have worked.

I’ve always been a believer of exposing all the elephants in the room. And web redesign should be no different. It’s helpful to know what everyone’s holding before you move forward, and yes, sometimes things have to get worse before they better.

But then again this is a work environment and we do want to remain professional. Which of course we will…in the office, but the blog is a different story. There’s freedom to roam here, get down and dirty, and begin hashing out next steps in an environment that supports a bottom up, inside out approach to web redesign.

The meeting to kick-off our web session was somewhat ambitious and ambiguous, but we have to start somewhere. I started the meeting with a quick review of our competition.

In our world, we identified over 50 organizations as our ‘competitors;’ some were big and powerful while others were mostly small and scrappy. The list is too long to mention, but it gives you an idea of where we stand in the pile of river loving, green groups.

I realize there is more to a site than its homepage, but in attempt to define our homebase, here's what I found:

Static Homepage: Contains 25% of our competitors

  • List of items that requires low maintenance
  • The front page typically does not change
  • Cyber business card
Dynamic Homepages: Contains 70% of our competitors
  • Fresh content, updated regularly
  • Featured/spotlighted issues & campaigns that draw users in
Passive Imagery: Contains 20% of our competitors
  • Pretty photos that add no value to user experience (excluding headers)
  • May potentially distract from issues/mission (excluding headers)
Active Imagery: Contains nearly 50% of our competitors
  • Photos/images with a purpose
  • Directs users to issue/campaign
  • Engages constituents
Basically, for over three hours we reviewed websites. There wasn't a whole lot of depth to our conversation, just an understanding of what's out there, who's doing what, and what we liked. It was kind of like that late afternoon web search when you feel like the day is over, but it's just too early to skedaddle...so you search, randomly.

The casual exchange was the start to a long journey in which 10 staff members, a design firm (and only design, still don’t have the coders yet), a web strategy guy, and a growing list of wants and needs from an organization hungry for their heightened place in the cyberworld.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Off the ground

I have to confess, I’ve never really blogged before. And definitely don't consider myself a blogger, but this is different.

The words spewing forth is indeed work, but not really. Okay, it pertains to work, but not the typical work we do as an organization. We (American Rivers that is) protect and restore healthy natural rivers for the benefit of people, fish, and wildlife. Needed, to say the least.

However, the real attempt here is to not focus on the program side of work. Nope, as the Director of Internet Strategy, I thought it would be kind of cool to skip that stuff and blog about our website redesign process...contain your excitement, please.

So, I’ve read how Robert Scoble, the technical evangelist from Microsoft, put a human face on a faceless giant, and how Chris Anderson wrote www.longtail.com to hash out ideas well in advance of his book release (worth a read, but probably not on your honeymoon—not ideal table talk with your new wife, so she says) - Very cool stuff, albeit dorky.

Basically, I hope to do similar stuff. Exposing the underbelly of a project has great potential to the vetting process and eventually harnessing the energy that forms - so the thought goes. That’s what I want to do, um attempt, but I make no promises. I recognize, and this is important to the process as it addresses the why, 1) I’m not alone in redesigning—or having ever redesigned—a website, 2) there are much smarter folks out there than me, and 3) it’s really about stealing shamelessly (I mean working cooperatively with others). In short, this will be a creative collaboration.

So, we begin a 1-year journey that chronicles the highs, lows, and in betweens of a website redesign, our website redesign—AmericanRivers.org.