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Showdown At The Web Corral: Convincing Your Boss to Fix a Hideous Website

ugly-web-site-5Q: I work for a nonprofit with a hideous website. Hideous in the sense that the copy is generic and bland and filled with jargon. Supremely unsticky, in other words. Some of my colleagues and I have lobbied to change it but, whenever we suggest new copy, our executive director inevitably waters it down until it sounds like what we’ve already got. What can we do to convince her to stick-ify our site? -Stickless in Seattle

A: Dear Stickless, know that you are not alone. There are thousands of site-loathing employees out there, made nauseous by too much exposure to words like "initiative" and "solution" and "enhance." Some are fighting back, and others have had their Will to Revise crushed by people like your executive director. But I’ve got the answer for you. It will take some legwork but it’s worth it.

Here’s the first thing to realize: You are never going to win an opinion boxing match with your executive director, because she is the judge as well as the opponent. What you need is an impartial jury. So here’s what you do: Track down 10 semi-random people—the kinds of people whom you’ve posted a website to reach. Meet with them, individually, and show them your web site. Give them 3-5 minutes to click around the site and read about what you do. Afterward, pull out a FlipCam and ask them to answer some basic questions about your organization (let’s call it Teflonia):

-What does Teflonia do?

-Who do we serve?

-What makes us different from Monvidia [the giant in your space]?

-Talk me through what you picture us doing. For instance, if we were Starbucks, you might say, "I picture someone behind the counter steaming milk to pour into a customers latte." Or for Habitat for Humanity, you might say, "I’m seeing volunteers hammering nails into studs to build the frame for a house that will be given to a poor family."

If your site is as bad as you say, you’ll get answers like, "Hmm … sounds like Teflonia makes solution enhancements. For needy initiatives." (Incomprehension can be comic gold.) So then you’ll splice together a sample of clips into a 5-minute video. (Be fair—don’t just pick the most egregious ones.) (Or be unfair—what do I care?)

Now you’re ready. Ask for a meeting with the executive director and screen the video for her. Tell her: This is what people are taking away from our web site. Do you think this is good enough? If she has a conversion experience, send me a note. If you get fired, send FlipCam a note, it’s probably a video issue.

[Photos: Woman by Miss Rogue, Man by Anya Quinn]

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  • Jay Ferrari

    The proverbial slugfest -- finding that "impartial jury". We had a client with leadership that wouldn't budge on a poorly designed site -- in large part because one of the honchos had built it herself with off-the-shelf stuff. It was painful. So we convinced her to open it up for collective review, foolishly forgetting that we still need to moderate that feedback! Next thing we knew, we were getting input from Aunt Tilley, retired down in Fla (no joke). Comments like: "Oh, that shade of green matches my kitchen curtains."

    Find that impartial jury, but invest heavily in jury prep beforehand.


  • Autumn Walden

    When communicating via website, I can see how an organization might get stuck inside the jargon bubble due to the similar messaging of their competitors and/or collaborators. Also, it is very hard to step back and apply a different sense of perspective on how you come across to an outside audience because of the internal and specialized knowledge you are immersed in everyday. Keep it coming, Dan. I enjoy reading and applying your insights. In fact, I have a Flip-Cam, I may just try your experiment!

    Autumn Walden
    Center for High Impact Philanthropy
    University of Pennsylvania