Building an Effective Web Site

DESPITE THE DOT-COM BOMB, over the past eight years, the Internet has only grown as a tool for policy research, analysis, and advocacy. Conservative organizations have more opportunity than ever to disseminate their message but sometimes wonder if they’ll be successful. It’s a myth that good websites cost a lot of money. All it takes is an organizational commitment and following a few key principles.

Reflect the professionalism and reputation of your organization. Organizations spend thousands of dollars planning and designing brochures and book covers to promote their image. Your Web site should be given the same degree of attention. If your audience has a good visit to your site, it will enhance what they think about your organization. The opposite is also true. Don’t let your Web site be the weak link in your marketing efforts.

Have a consistent look and effective navigational system. The surest way to ultimately turn-off your website visitor is to confuse them. Regardless of the page on which a visitor enters your site, they should find a consistent navigational system and several links to critical content. At Heritage.org, nearly 85% of our visitors enter the site through a page other than the homepage. The homepage is like your front door, but the nature of the web means people are coming in the back door and the windows. Make sure the directions to the lobby and important information are prominent.

Use graphics to add visual appeal to the site. All too often Web site designers succumb to “style over substance” and end up with an art exhibit rather than a communications tool. The average Web user comes to a site to access information or to perform a task as easily as possible. Keep your graphics professional but limited and make sure you don’t distract from your message with too many graphics.

Answer the questions of visitors. Your Web site can save you valuable resources by answering questions from your many audiences. Will a potential supporter find enough information to feel comfortable contributing? Will a Capitol Hill staffer be able to find your position on an issue, or the right information for the congressman’s floor speech? Will a reporter find a contact name for a quote on homeland security? Make sure your website can answer the questions your target audiences will be asking.

Create content with online readers in mind. To make your text more readable online try using more bulleted lists, boldface type, additional headings, and shorter paragraphs. Your readers will be able to quickly scan your documents and come away with the message you are communicating. If they’re interested in more information they can read more.

Give a reason for people to visit your Web site. In order to attract visitors to your site and have them come back, you need to give them a reason. Offering commentary and other content exclusive to the web will quickly attract repeat visitors. Try to make your Web site an extension of your organization. It’s also an opportunity to distribute talking points and other activist-oriented material en masse. Make your website worth a visit and your traffic numbers will be growing before you know it.

Test your designs on strangers. Web site strategy and design are more of an art form than a science. There are a lot of theories on what works and not a great deal of scientific research. For this reason it’s important to put your Web site to the test every so often and get a first hand look at the successes and failures that happen when people visit your Web site. You can get insight into whether people understand your navigation, terminology, and how they’ll use your site.

I could go on, but instead, I’ll point you to two books that you might find particularly helpful. Homepage Usability: 50 Web sites Deconstructed by Jakob Nielson and Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.


Mr. Garthwaite is Director of Online Communication at The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation’s Online Communication Department manages Townhall.com and the recently redesigned Heritage.org.