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Our website judge for the 2011 communication awards, Rob Cottingham of Social Signal, provided this handy blog post for CUPE web editors, to help improve their websites. Check out more blog posts from him at socialsignal.com.

Four little steps with a big online impact

Over the past few weeks, I had a rare pleasure: an excuse to do nothing but surf through union web sites. I’d been invited to judge CUPE’s web awards, and over several hours, I looked at sites from locals large and small, from provincial sections and committees.

There was a lot of diversity in there. Some sites were technically sophisticated powerhouses. Others were clearly a labour of love, built on a shoestring budget (translation: “Sorry, we spent the web budget on shoestrings”) but still valuable, vital resources for their members - exactly what makes the open web so great.

What got me more and more excited as I went along was I kept seeing the same four things coming up again and again: simple, straightforward issues that a local could easily resolve without spending a dime, and yet which could have a big effect on the site’s impact.

Have you done each of these four things for your site?

  • What’s the most important thing you want people visiting your site to do? That needs to be front and centre. And chances are the answer isn’t “To know who we are and what we do” - you want them to take some action that advances your local’s most important goal. PR and marketing folks call it a call to action. It’s probably not the list of your executive, or the photos from your recent shop stewards’ barbecue. More likely you want people to attend a meeting, sign up for updates, or call their MP. Just know what that one thing is, and make that the most prominent thing on your home page.
  • Would you like more people to see your site? Add sharing links. Services like AddThis and ShareThis make it painfully easy to add simple buttons that let people share your content on Twitter, Facebook and many more sites. You copy a tiny bit of code, and paste it in your site’s template where you’d like the buttons to appear, and shazam - they do.
  • Clear out of your sidebars. Your visitors are here because of something to do with your local, or something that showed up in a keyword search. If they wanted general news headlines, or a weather forecast, or their horoscope, they’d be searching elsewhere. You’re doing triage here, so ask yourself: would you rather your site’s visitors knew about the reasons for your upcoming job action, or about whether Mercury is in retrograde at the moment?
  • Prune your menus. There are tiny locals with bare-bones sites that have ten, a dozen, even fifteen menu options running down the side of the screen. You know how many IBM has? Five. The home page of the entire United States government? Four. And yes, their missions are a lot different from yours… but they’ve put a lot of effort and money into researching how people find information. Unless your audience has a freakish affection for skimming down a long list of text, they’ll find stuff on your site a lot faster if you’ve done a little clustering for them. (And yes, that’s true even if it means an extra click or two.)

And the best news is, you can do all or most of this in under an hour. Take these steps, and you’ll have a cleaner site, one that ranks higher in search engines, gets more traffic, delivers information more quickly and easily… and delivers real impact where it matters the most.

Rob Cottinghamis a principal of Social Signal (socialsignal.com), as well as a speaker, cartoonist and comedian. A digital pioneer, he has helped leaders and organizations connect with audiences - online and via traditional media - for more than 20 years. He has served as a speechwriter and communication strategist for NDP leaders and campaigns, labour unions and non-profit organizations, and draws the Noise to Signaltech cartoon at robcottingham.com.