Creating Website Content: What Do Your Visitors Really Want?

I originally wrote this article as a guest post on the Nonprofit Technology Network’s blog, but just realized I hadn’t shared it with you, so here it is!

Your website is out there for all to see. You never know who’s going to end up visiting. So how can you create website content that all kinds of potential visitors will find interesting and engaging?

We could get into a traditional marketing discussion about target audiences and personas, but let’s go at this challenge in a different way. Let’s think about the stages that your supporters go through as you build rapport with them over time. To keep it simple, let’s group your website visitors into three categories:

Strangers: People who know nothing about you.
Friends: People who like your organization or cause.
Fans: People who LOVE your organization or cause.

What kind of content does your website need for each of these groups?

Strangers: People Who Know Nothing About You

If someone knows nothing about your organization and lands on your website, what’s the first thing you want them to see?

It’s not your mission statement. Trust me.

What you want them to see is the answer to their question.

If a stranger lands on your website, odds are they are searching for the answer to a specific question about something going on in their lives right now. Maybe it’s a problem they want to solve, or something they heard from a friend or saw on TV that piqued their interest. They went searching, and Google or another website with a link to yours pointed that stranger to you, thinking that you might have the answer.

What three questions are strangers who land on your site most likely to have? For some nonprofits, the answers are obvious. If you run an animal shelter, one question will be “What animals are available for adoption?” If you run a Meals on Wheels program, one question will be “How can a senior get food delivered?” If your organization addresses a particular disease, one question will be “What is the treatment?”

The best way to build rapport with strangers is not to babble on about yourself; it’s to be a good Samaritan who answers their questions. These questions are almost always programmatic in nature, and rarely about donating, volunteering, or otherwise helping you out.

Devote space on your home page and/or within your navigation to answering the three big questions most likely to bring strangers to your site. When you do, they are more likely to become friends, which brings us to our next group of visitors.

Friends: People Who Like Your Organization

Friends know you, at least a little bit. They may have an incomplete picture of you, but the one they do have is favorable. What do they want to see on your website?

No, it’s still not your mission statement.

Tell your friends some good stories.

Stories are the quickest and most memorable way to explain what it is you do, how you do it, for whom, and why. You want these friends to get it.

Tell stories about people like them, so they can see that they belong. If you are trying to get more young families to participate in your program, tell a story about (you guessed it) a young family already in your program.

Tell stories that appeal to their inner guardian angels. Show them how they – through being your friend — can look out for someone else or change someone’s life for the better, even if only in a small way.

Tell stories with a sense of adventure or wonderment. Appeal to that inner child that’s looking for a break from the day-to-day responsibilities of adulthood.

Help them learn more about what you do, but not through long statements of need or bulleted lists of programs and services. Images tell stories too – often better than words – so don’t forget photographs and video as you create your website content. Connect with your friends through good storytelling, and some of them will grow into big fans.

Fans: People Who Love Your Organization

Fans are people who know you well, and they love you. They are ready and willing to help – as long as you make it easy for them. What do they need from your website?

Anyone for the mission statement? Anyone? Of course not!

Give your fans clear calls to action so they know exactly what they can do to help or support you – which means not asking for them for “help” or “support.” That’s too vague. Be specific. Ask them to donate $50 towards a specific campaign. Ask them to volunteer for an hour. Ask them to retweet your event invitation to their followers.

Empower them to help you on their own time and in their own ways. Give them downloads and checklists they can use at home, work, or in their community to advance your cause in their own small way (it will feel big to them). Give them pass-along content like short videos and sample email text that they can share with their friends.

Give your fans the personal touch by encouraging them to connect with you in lots of different ways. When they mention you on Twitter, comment on a Facebook update, or reply to your email newsletter, respond with a thanks or some other kind of encouragement.

Integrate your real-time communications channels into your website, for example, by using Twitter or Facebook widgets or RSS feeds that bring the live conversation to your site. It reinforces for your website visitors that you are “here and now” with your fans if they can see that ongoing conversation.

You Never Know Who’ll Come Clicking

You never know who will stop by your website, so be prepared. Answer questions for strangers. Tell stories to friends. Make it easy for fans to interact with you.

And what about that good ol’ mission statement? If it’s a paragraph full of jargon or otherwise meaningless words to most website visitors, bury it on your About Us page. If it’s short, in plain English, and meaningful to your next door neighbor and your next door neighbor’s mom, then you can put it on your home page. But only after you’ve made room for those answers, stories, and interactions.