South African NGO Websites on the Internet

ngos Internet websites
Wednesday, 20 September, 2006 - 15:26

Small Fish in a Big Pond

In the short-staffed multi-tasking world of the NGO, little attention is paid to the website. The average South African NGO website is an electronic version of the organisation’s promotional leaflets. A fact correlating closely with contemporary non-profit thinking on the purpose of websites. SANGONeT’s current poll asks NGOs what their websites are used for and marketing(!!!) comes out tops.

Given this response, it is evident that the average NGO understands that a website is a medium for communication. Moreover, there does appear to be some tacit acknowledgement that we need to participate in the Information Age. However, while there may be some clarity of purpose, many NGOs are still hopelessly vague about how to achieve the goals they set for their websites.

One naïve perception still exists, i.e., build it (the website) and they will come. Not true - they don’t come unless you entice and lure them to your site. Not many NGOs are willing to make the effort this exercise requires, so the end result is a static site with some dull data about vision, mission and objectives. On the other hand, very few people who visit NGO websites are really that interested in value statements. They visit these sites for valuable information about pertinent issues. However, few NGOs think about and/or go as far as packaging information for consumption, which leads to greater awareness about causes in a way that encourages support.

There are millions of websites in the world. This raises the stakes considerably in relation to a site's competitive edge and in reality, very few South African NGO websites fare adequately at all, in the global traffic ranking stakes. Take the test to establish where your NGO’s website is ranked in terms of the traffic it attracts. Simply visit the site, type in your URL and select traffic rank to get immediate feedback.

Don’t be too disappointed by the result you receive. You may be a big fish in the pond you’re currently swimming in, but the World Wide Web is an ocean by comparison where the average South African NGO becomes a microscopic particle way down the food chain.

This raises some concerns for NGOs hoping to make good on the marketing goals of their websites. Attracting and keeping web visitors is a key marketing objective. If you've taken the Alexa test and discovered that your website isn’t quite the marketing Mecca you thought it was, it becomes important to consider some reasons behind the failure of websites; followed by some issues to ponder about how to improve the rate and retention of traffic to your website.

Michael Gilbert of the Gilbert Centre recently hosted a workshop for SANGONeT and our partners to talk about communication centred websites. Gilbert highlighted five syndromes of website failure:

  • The Work of Art: A website that is an aesthetic wonder, but maintaining this beauty means that any information or feature that does not enhance the look of the website is sacrificed in the name of aesthetics and can undermine the more substantive goals of the site;
  • The Taxonomy: A website dominated by too many categories rather than by work flow;
  •  The Fiefdom: The website that is owned by a person or group of people that erect barriers to publishing rather lowering them;
  • Talk to the Hand: A website with few or no means of feedback, interaction or correspondence by stakeholders;
  • The Vault: A website that is so stingy that it fails to be of any value to its visitors. Many NGOs websites are guilty of this. Simply articulating value statements is not enough to engage people in a cause.

Syndromes 1, 4 and 5 are probably the easiest for most NGOs to relate to. When considering these failures, some of the questions to consider about your NGO website are:

Does your website have a call to action? When people land on your website, is it clear to them what you want them to do on the site? Related to this, People need a reason to visit websites. Have you thought about why anyone would want to visit your organisation’s website?

What is the tone of the language on your website? Does it encourage people to stay and/or return?

Does your website provide the opportunity for feedback? At the very least a contact email address, even if it’s just the webmaster's, would be useful.

Does your website have a search function? If people are not sure where to find something on your site, this is perhaps one of the most useful help tools you could provide to them with.

How regularly do you update content on your website? Information dates quickly and requires an ongoing commitment to being kept fresh and current. Do you tag new content on your site or do you have a place on your site where new postings are announced? Highlighting new content is an important indicator of the vibrancy of your website.

Going back to those traffic rankings, how are you bringing people to your website? Are you using offline opportunities, such as meetings and workshops to let people know about your website and what they can find on it? Is your URL printed on all your paper-based marketing material? Strengthening the ties between the real and the virtual world is critically important in consolidating your organisation’s marketing and communications strategy.

Search engines are important feeders to websites. How does your website feature in a relevant "key word" search? It is vitally important to test your website regularly in relation to "key word" searches on search engines in order to determine where it turns up as a result. If your organistion is listed too far down the results page, you may wish to consider speaking to your web consultant about ways to improve your search engine ranking.

Last but not least, link, link and link. Encourage others to link to your site and return the favour. In the virtual world of the Internet, this is the critical business card exchange that could lead to new prospects and support for your cause.

- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director/Portal Editor, SANGONeT

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