Centuries ago, it was commonly accepted that the earth was the center of our universe. The heavens revolved around us. It was just that simple. 

It was challenging to convince everyone that the earth, and all the other planets in our solar system, actually rotate around the sun. It went against everything we’d been taught to believe. Well, here’s a similar difficult reality:

Your organization’s website is not the center of your outreach universe.

For a long time, mission-driven organizations have funneled a huge proportion of their digital outreach budgets into their websites. Every few years a ribbon would be cut on a beautiful, freshly designed site that promised to transform business as usual. Everyone assumed – sometimes accurately – that the website was the hub for audience engagement, and that investments in it yielded big returns.  The truth of the matter is that most of these newly redesigned websites didn’t result in increased traffic, higher donations, or more impact. What they did was tell the story of the organization sometimes a little bit better, often with easier to use technology.

The way that traffic generation and online impact occur has changed dramatically, yet too many organizations are still stuck with an outdated model of how outreach works; shoveling their scarce budget into periodic website overhauls. While these investments no longer deliver much bang for the buck, they still dominate outreach investment in most mission-driven organizations. While of course, we’re willing to help you improve your web presence, typically your dollars are more wisely spent on alternative strategies that leverage your website, rather than remodel it.


Why are websites (and web rebuilds) less important than they used to be? 

Like most hard to detect changes, it’s a combination of factors:

Your audience’s online habits have changed. 

If your stakeholders want the latest news on your organization, many of them will seek you out on social media, where they’re used to real-time updates and one-on-one engagement. Furthermore, many users want to consume audio and video delivered via push mechanisms rather than visit a website at all.  

In addition, web users are considerably less likely to visit your homepage than they used to be. Savvy users will also investigate your organization on Wikipedia (or other “trusted” 3rd party sources) to form their own impression of the work you do.  Due to the role played by search engine websites in driving traffic to websites, when audiences do discover your organization organically, they often enter through an article or “deep” page on your site.  

Many people now rely on news aggregators as well. Through them, they may find your content through a third party site that “covers” your issue rather than coming to you directly.

Website Management (CMS) technology has plateaued. 

Back in the day, web builds would typically yield dramatic improvements in your site’s functionality. These improvements allowed nontechnical users to contribute to outreach, helping widen the base of staff who could use and operate the site.  Such dramatic efficiency and productivity gains are no longer guaranteed. Indeed, there’s not a lot you can implement now that you couldn’t do three years ago, and the tools for managing website content are only modestly better. Website enhancements tend to be much cheaper than before—and many of them can be implemented without a complete site overhaul.  The number of quality commodity web developers and access to technical resources has also increased, meaning that continual, evolutionary improvements are more realistic now than they were 5 years ago. 

CRM systems are now the hub (or should be). 

Your audiences may use email to connect at the office, Twitter to engage with you at an event, and Google to search for your most recent reports. A robust Customer Relationship Management system (CRM) works behind the scenes to integrate all these interactions for you, yielding insights that help you tailor your content and engagement strategy to better meet their needs. Your CRM can (and should) integrate with your website, but really it threads through your entire organizational fabric: all of your outreach channels and interactions. The CRM is the heart of your outreach, and the website should respond, rather than dictate requirements to, your CRM strategy and technology.

You probably aren’t yet maximizing the tools already at your disposal. 

If you work for even a medium-sized organization, chances are you already have some sophisticated outreach capabilities that remain untapped. Instead of acquiring yet more technology, it often makes more sense to optimize your internal business processes (including those for content creation) to wring more value from investments already made.  Many organizations have been suckered into deploying the “nonprofit” version of SalesForce, only to find out that their staff uses less than 10% of the available functionality.  

Most organizations should be assessing how they can get to 75%+ utilization of their existing outreach tools as a pre-requisite that must be met before acquiring additional outreach tools.


Smart ways to invest your outreach budget 

Your website used to be the star, now it’s simply one business tool among many. Just like a stock portfolio, your outreach platform should be seen as a diversified set of investments that need to be assessed for how well they balance your risk and provide an opportunity to realize enhanced audience engagement.

When pondering your engagement platform portfolio, the following questions can help guide your investments:

  • Who are your key stakeholders, and what needs do they have that aren’t currently being met?
  • What strategy provides the quickest and most practical improvements for how you engage these stakeholder groups, and is sustainable for at least 18 months with your current internal resources?
  • What roadblocks need to be overcome in order for your audiences to deepen their engagement with your organization, and how many attempts at overcoming those roadblocks do you need to facilitate?

In many organizations, the communications team doesn’t frame their outreach priorities the same way their colleagues in fundraising do – not to mention peers in IT, who come to the table with a very different set of imperatives and knowledge! Before deciding on specific tactics (such as implementing a marketing automation campaign or dare we say even a website refresh), your organizational leadership will benefit from a structured process that helps prioritize outreach goals, and projects the likely value generated by each project towards those goals.


Exploring and caring for your digital universe

Astronauts say the view of our blue planet from space puts everything into perspective..

With clarity and alignment on these org-level outreach goals, you may find that a web rebuild is still an urgent need. More likely, you will find that other projects that leverage, and perhaps integrate with your website, will create the most value. Often the most valuable projects are only tangentially related to technology, maybe your organization needs better governance and processes for content creation.  

Maybe your outreach is more limited by your ability to re-engage audiences a second time or build deeper affinity with engaging rich experiences.   Perhaps a systematic overhaul of outreach technology systems is called for, freeing up dollars for technology that delivers more value, and your first step is to create a practical roadmap. Or maybe you decide to focus on enhancing your CRM configuration and website integration as a next step.

The path forward will be unique for all organizations. Yet there’s at least one insight that’s universal: all this upfront effort and deep thinking on your outreach strategy will help your organization spend its money with value and outcomes as the deciding factors, rather than tradition.