So your campaign has launched successfully. Now it’s time to build a full website to get your message across, sign up supporters, gather online donations, recruit volunteers and more. How do you get a beautiful new site that meets your needs, on time and on budget? It’s challenging, even for the best funded campaigns.
Before you get started, there are pitfalls to watch out for. Let’s start with what I like to call the three deadly sins of campaign websites:
1. Placing too much stock in a carousel or slider at the top of your site
Did you know that research shows image carousels don’t get much traffic at all past the first slide? Worse yet, they can confuse or annoy your audience and make it hard to read your site on mobile devices. Don’t use sliders or carousels if you want viewers to see and interact with your content. What may seem like an easy way to make everybody on the campaign happy just doesn’t work in practice. It’s better to use a nice high-quality photo of your candidate instead. Make sure they look good, but also ensure the photo is true enough to life that they can still be recognized in person.
2. Neglecting Mobile
Make sure viewers on cellphones and tablets still have a great experience using your site. This is especially critical for your email signup, donate, and volunteer pages. Remember, a third or more of all web traffic comes from mobile devices these days, and that number is only going to increase.
3. Design by Committee
Sites loaded with everything but the kitchen sink not only look terrible, they’re hard to use. Consider simplifying the structure and navigation of your site so it’s clear where everything belongs and the site is easy to use. Throwing a search button onto a poorly designed site is not a good solution. Neither is cramming the front page of your site with every single item of content. When everything is the focus, nothing is the focus.
Before you start on design, think about what the goals are for your website. For most campaigns, it’s to collect email addresses and, secondarily, donations—all else flows from that. Once you have the email address of a supporter, you can stay in contact, spread your message, and ask for donations and volunteer signups. If you try to have the website front page be all things to all people, you’ll wind up losing on the goals you really care about.
So what do you need to be thinking about throughout the planning and design process? Start with understanding your audience.
Spend some time thinking about your audience. For political campaigns, it’s usually supporters, opponents and media. Rarely will undecided voters hit your site unless you’re running a paid campaign to bring them in, or if it’s a contested primary and active voters are educating themselves on all the candidates. I suggest focusing more on bringing supporters into your boat than convincing them to be on the water in the first place.
Once you’ve got your goals identified and your audience in mind, start thinking about what the site content should be. Look at your existing site and figure out what’s important, unimportant or missing. Look at similar campaigns. Look at your opponents too; they can help clue you in to what you haven’t thought about. This is a good time to make a list of sites you like and sites you don’t, and to ask yourself, “Why?” That will be invaluable to your site designer down the road.
Nail Down the Process
Identify the stakeholders of this project and how your approval process is going to work. Who needs to see designs and give feedback? The manager? The candidate? Others? If there’s more than one decision-maker, who has the final say when they don’t all agree? Get the internal politics worked out before you begin the development process.
Figure out your budget and key deadlines. This ties into one of the previous steps—when you figure out what other sites you like, go ahead and ask them how much they spent, and who built it (and whether they’d recommend them). This is public information for federal campaigns. Dig through FEC reports to find out who did the work and how much they spent. Also, many websites will have a site credit at the bottom (or in source view, if you’re looking at the HTML).
If you’re not sure how much your site should cost, getting numbers from other campaigns can give you an idea of what it might cost. Try to compare apples to apples in terms of technology. Keep in mind the trade-off between speed, quality and cost. Understand what you’re getting and what you’re giving up.
Sort Out Your Technical Requirements
CRM and CMS are two terms you’ll hear a lot. CRM stands for customer/constituent relationship manager software. This is the software that will handle email signups, the sending of mass emails, donation processing, and online actions like petitions. For Democrats, think Blue State Digital, NGP VAN and Salsa. For Republicans, look at options like Aristotle, CMDI Crimson, and Red Stampede. NationBuilder is a nonpartisan option.
CMS stands for content management system, which is a package like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, or NationBuilder, which lets you more easily manage your website as a whole so you don’t have to hand-edit every single page when you change a menu item. NationBuilder is designed to be both a CRM and a CMS, but in most other instances you’ll want to use a dedicated CMS like WordPress or Drupal with your CRM in order to have the best experience and control.
If you don’t already know, find out what you’re using now for your CRM and CMS. The pain of switching may or may not be worth the additional features and/or lower price dangled before you. Also, sticking with your current CMS means you don’t need to deal with the headache of how to handle older content or whether it can be moved to the new system.
If you like your existing CMS (assuming it’s a reasonably modern and robust one like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla), look for developers that have experience with that particular CMS. If this will be your first CMS, look for something easy to use, open source, and with a large developer community so you aren’t locked in to your existing vendor. A custom CMS will make it harder to switch or change things later.
Ask your CRM vendor for recommendations on website developers that work well with their system and with campaigns like yours. If you’re using something like Constant Contact or PayPal, consider whether now is the right time to make the leap to a true CRM.
Finding Your Vendor
When you’re ready to talk to vendors, use the list of website developers you built earlier as your starting point. I recommend reaching out to three or four of them directly, once you’ve narrowed down your list from the millions of developers out there by getting pre-recommended choices. A formal RFP process can cost way more of your time and theirs. You could wind up with a worse result by missing out on popular vendors that don’t bother with mass RFPs or only hearing from firms large enough to deal with RFPs.
When you’re talking to developers, ask for examples of their work and style if you haven’t already seen it. This is why choosing based on sites you like is such a good idea. Web design is as much art as science, and if you’re a Monet fan you won’t want to wind up with a Pollock.
Make sure you understand what is included in the project and what isn’t. Will they do email templates and other customizations to your CRM in addition to the website? What about custom graphics for social media, or search engine optimization of your new site? Are domain names, stock photos and other graphics and website hosting included in the price or not? What about ongoing support? Is their project budget a firm number or estimate? If it’s an estimate, what happens if they go over hours?
Ask for a timeline in addition to the budget, so you can get a sense of how long their process will take and whether it lines up with your deadlines. If you need something immediately and their process takes time, ask for a splash that can be rolled out very quickly while they continue work.
Be Ready for the Project Launch
Do as much of your prep work as possible before the project begins. Sort out what content you want on the website and what you don’t. Gather up all your high-resolution photos and make sure you have the rights to use them. Collect hi-res versions of your logo and branding materials. Round up all necessary log-ins. Gather up your design ideas, your list of sites you like and sites you don’t. You can work on developing missing content pieces as they work on designing and implementing the site, to make sure they are not waiting on you for content. Be prompt on design feedback throughout the process, as it’s usually an iterative give-and-take. Remember that they will stall out if they do not hear back from you.
What happens after the site is launched? Make sure the site is easily changeable by your team, and any appropriate level of training needed is built into the project. You don’t want to be at the mercy of somebody else’s schedule when you need to update your website quickly, even if you do have an ongoing support relationship with the vendor.
Did they build search engine optimization into their process so that search engines will quickly crawl your site and deliver traffic? Consider paid advertising as appropriate to deliver an audience to your site as well.
Finally, sort out what you need to protect your website—regular backups, security precautions, etc. What happens if and when the site goes down in the middle of the night, or it gets hacked? Was ongoing or emergency support included in the project, or is it an extra?
Laura Packard is a partner at PowerThru Consulting, a Democratic digital strategy and web development firm.