In my last article, I noted that 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 to a range of audiences. No small task, especially when talking about a process that typically spans months and involves many participants.
A Complex, Multidisciplinary Process
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, which 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, 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, support, and apply 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 years working with social change organizations, my firm has developed an approach to website design called the 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites™ that has helped many clients achieve these results. Our approach uses Brand (the most important of the “foundations”) to contextualize the other three (Content, Technology, Design) for members of the team, and 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: strengthening an organization’s brand and advancing its mission.
Putting It to Work
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, and between members of the client’s team and our experts in branding, content, design, and technology. It makes sure everyone working on a website project starts with a clear understanding of the ideas and narrative the organization wants to convey (in the form of a well-articulated Strategic Brief), and 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. While we can’t do that here, 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.
The 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites
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, contextualizing all the many choices and decisions that go into the construction of a website and serving to focus everyone on what really matters by:
- clarifying an organization’s core mission and how it is fulfilled;
- defining an organization’s key audiences and elevating what is meaningful to them; and
- providing a visual, verbal, and experiential framework for designing experiences.
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:
- What is our mission and what do we believe in?
- How does change happen in the areas in which we work?
- What role (or roles) do we, or should we, play?
- Who’s in our brand community?
- What differentiates us from other organizations?
- What does the journey to success look like?
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:
- identifying content goals and gaps;
- making sure the content is useful and accessible to everyone;
- creating a consistent tone and structure; and
- delivering the right content, to the right audience, in the right format.
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:
- What content do we have?
- Who consumes our content, how, and why?
- What, if anything, about it needs to change?
- What content do we need to create?
- How will content be created and maintained going forward?
You can’t have a website without technology — 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:
- informs the platforms, frameworks, and tools your organization will use;
- identifies needed system integrations;
- supports the organization’s back-office and operational needs; and
- provides cross-checks that inform content creation and design execution.
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 ROI from technology by making sure developers “know the story” and can answer the following questions in ways that meet the needs of the brand, content, and visual design:
- What systems and platforms are needed?
- What’s the anticipated development effort and timeline?
- What are the implementation challenges and risks?
- How much content will be migrated and how will it be done?
- How does the plan accommodate operational needs?
- What can we do to future-proof the strategy?
If the broad definition of design is “deciding what to create, what to do, and why to do it, both now and for the future,” and if design itself is understood though the lens of design thinking and problem solving, then design strategy is the ultimate strategy — and extends far beyond the visual to include:
- deepening our understanding of context, relationships, and pathways;
- synthesizing and uniting brand, content, and technology strategies; and
- balancing all of the above to create meaningful brand experiences.
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:
- Who are we designing for and what is their mindset?
- How can we both meet their needs and advance our mission?
- What results are we looking for, both online and in the real world?
- What are the elements of our visual language?
If your aim as a social-change organization is to think big and change the world, you need to start with a brand strategy 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, never really connects with the people on whose support, financial and otherwise, you rely.