Why Websites Still Matter (Especially for Rescues)

Tuesday, Aug 2, 2016


Preface. When we first started getting involved in animal rescue (for some of us here at Sparkie that’s almost 10 years ago!) there weren’t really that many ways – outside of a website and email campaigns - to market your organization. Think about it: Facebook was still in its relative infancy, Instagram hadn’t even launched, and Snapchat’s founder was still in high school (or maybe even middle school).

Fast-forward to 2016 though, and boy have things changed.

While on the positive side, animal rescues certainly have many more ways to get their message out there, the flipside is that they must contend with all the intricacies and nuances of the various platforms they have access to, including which audience is best suited for each platform and how each platform operates (which can take time to learn since they are all pretty different).

Contrast this to the good old-fashioned, well-designed website, which we believe still remains the easiest and quickest way for people to find out everything they need to know about your rescue. After all, most people still start their rescue search through Google, typing in something like, ‘animal rescue group in CITY NAME.'

But even if you have a website today, how do you know if your website is doing what you want it to do for your organization? And if you don't have one (maybe you just rely on a Facebook Page to do the job of a website), when should you consider investing in building and maintaining one?

To help you make sense of website best practices we feel lucky to have on hand the expertise of Lindsi Gish, a digital marketing guru who’s helped tons of rescues create, overhaul, and refresh their websites.

Here’s Lindsi to give us some important pointers about what you need to think about when it comes to your rescue's website!

In Defense of the (Rescue Org) Website by Lindsi Gish

Everywhere you look, some marketing channel is supposedly “dead” or “dying”—what once was king is now on its last legs… or at least that’s what clickbait content producers would have you believe.

But websites have far from outlived their usefulness for all industries and sectors. Let’s look at foster-based rescues as an example.

Many foster-based rescues are small, run by volunteers, and managed across technologies and platforms and email addresses and physically in different homes—sometimes hundreds of different individual foster homes - so the website needs to meet the needs of A LOT of different stakeholders, including but not limited to:

  • Volunteers that want to seek out opportunities and register for them
  • Foster-based staff who need a place to gather online, exchange info and stay updated with the organization’s latest events
  • Individual supporters and fans who may be more particularly interested in corporate and operational info (like financial reports, contact info, etc)
  • Potential adopters who need a place to fill out an application form, as well as read FAQ about the adoption process
  • And finally, pet owners who are looking to surrender their pets and need to understand how the organization works

While there are myriad ways for these needs to be met, the one-stop-shop of an organization’s website is still the best tool for most shelters and rescues to use to meet all these needs. Even Facebook pages, which lots of rescues use (some even in place of websites altogether!) are relatively limited in the type of information they provide (not to mention you can’t customize the layout of a FB page, so pretty much every rescue page looks the same, making it really difficult to differentiate yourself).

So as you think about how your website looks and functions today (if you have one) or are thinking about creating one for your rescue, below are several things to ask yourself before going any further.

  1. Is your website responsive and mobile-friendly?

    In other words, when you pull up your rescue website on your phone, does it look and feel the same as when you load it from a regular computer?

    OK it may seem odd to have what appears to be a minor detail like this be at the top of the list, but today, anywhere from 20-50% of your website traffic likely comes from a vertical screen, like a smartphone or tablet (and this # is growing A LOT)…so if your website doesn't look good on a phone, you have a problem

    The easiest way to check this out is to take out your phone, and go to your rescue's web address. Now stop and ask yourself:

    • Is the content easy to read?
    • If components are in columns, do the columns collapse into one, or do they stay spread across the screen, making the text and images tiny?
    • Can you perform all the important functions from your phone—like donating, exploring adoptable pets, and signing up for an email newsletter?

    If you answered “no” to any of these questions, it may be time to consider an update. And if you don’t have a website yet at all but are looking into creating one, be sure you start with a program or designer that builds websites to be mobile-responsive off the bat (like the SquareSpace template we use at Sparkie).

    This is what our website looks like if you try to load www.sparkie.io on your phone. compare that to the desktop version of our site (next pic). as you can see, a mobile-responsive website keeps your website looking 'pretty' once it's shrunk into a smaller screen.
    This is what our website looks like when you pull it up on your laptop or desktop computer. The orientation is different but all the info is the same as the mobile-friendly version.
  2. Once people land on your site, can they find what they are looking for?

    You can answer this question in a number of ways, but here are 2 things to consider trying:

    Ask around your rescue-circle (volunteers, adopters, etc) to see what people think:
    • To see if your website is easy to navigate, try testing your friends and family by giving them a piece of content to find on your website, and watch as they navigate to try to find it. Are they confused about where to click? Does the item’s location seem counter-intuitive to them? If so, your content probably isn’t organized in the best way—which is a common problem for organizations trying to retrofit new programs and content into an old website structure.
    • Collect their feedback, organize it into areas of improvement, and make a plan to address it. Even if you just make one improvement to your website each month, in a year you’ll likely have a dramatically better website!

    Here’s an example of a site that was recently redesigned to make it easy for people to navigate…

    At Sparkie we love the way this website is laid-out - the menu headers at the top make it easy to find what you're looking for, and as you hover over each with your mouse they drop down to reveal more info, making the site comprehensive but still really easy to use. One thing we'll call out that is important for rescues to have is an 'about us' section. KNOWING HOW AN ORGANIZATION IS RUN, AND BY WHOM, IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT FOR THE 'SKEPTICAL' MILLENNIAL GENERATION' WHO CRAVE TRANSPARENCY IN EVERYTHING THEY SUPPORT AND PURCHASE. SO BE SURE TO INVEST THE TIME IN CREATING A CLEAR AND SIMPLE DESCRIPTION OF WHO YOU ARE AND HOW YOU RESCUE.
    Check your analytics to see how well your website is serving you.

    While it can seem intimidating at first, it’s quite easy to poke around and learn a bit about your website users’ current behavior with the right type of analytics tool. If you haven’t already, sign up for a free one like Google analytics. Or, if you’ve used a software program to build your website, (like we used SquareSpace at Sparkie) it will likely come pre-loaded with analytics. In general, there's 3 stats to focus on:

    1. Check “Pages per visit” to see if people are having to visit more pages than seem necessary for what they’re seeking.
    2. Check your bounce rate to see if people are landing on your homepage, and then abandoning it. Use the research you performed above to help uncover why this might be the case.
    3. Finally, check your most highly-trafficked pages to see what content people are seeking out, and how long they’re staying on the page (for example, people may be spending a lot of time on your application page but not submitting an application, which might imply that it's too long for most potential adopters).
    Our Sparkie Squarespace template has analytics built right in - this metric helps us understand how many people are accessing our site via the web or from their phones - on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This is the weekly stats report.
  3. Can people find what you want them to find?

    Of course it’s important to help people find the info they need when they visit your rescue’s website, but don’t lose sight of the fact that when people make it to your website, you want them to ideally take some type of action (fill out an application, donate, etc)…but if your website isn’t designed well, it may just lead people to bounce instead of doing anything.

    Most organizations have similar goals for their website—they want to inform and educate first and foremost, but they also want people to be able to donate online, sign up for an email newsletter, and explore adoptable pets. There are also secondary priorities, like acquiring new foster families and getting volunteers. Make a list of your priorities, and do an audit of your website to see if these goals seem easy to achieve given the current structure of your website.
  4. Is it difficult to update your website?

    So often, we hear stories like, “Well, our old executive director’s niece was working on our website while she was in college, but she got a full-time job and no one knows how to access it.” Or, “We pay ABC Agency every time we want to make a change of even one word, because no one knows how to update it.”

    The reality is that today’s CMS (content management systems) make it incredibly easy to update simple content on websites—and there’s no reason to be paying external parties for simple changes. There are limitations, to be sure—but blog post, text updates, photo changes, new pages—these updates should all be simple to manage internally without paying an external vendor. So if someone is charging you a lot for updates like this, you may want to move your website to another designer or web-service.

  5. Does your website accurately represent your organization's brand?

    This is perhaps the hardest question of the 5—but so often, rescues and shelters are strapped for resources and don’t take a step back to consider what the brand represents, and whether the website and other marketing collateral is an accurate portrayal of those values. For example: If you pride yourselves on being efficient, collaborative, and bright/cheery—does a visit to the website convey that? Or if you focus exclusively on one breed, is that obvious to a website visitor?

    Consider your values and the type of perception you want to offer to the public BEFORE you start (re)designing your site so that you can ensure the ultimate product reflects your organization accurately.

As with anything, making the decision to invest in a website redesign is one only you and your organization’s leadership can make. It’s not an inexpensive proposition, but when you consider the benefits and the long-term growth potential for your organization, you’ll likely be able to justify the investment in no time.

Lindsi Gish is owner and doer at gish&co, a boutique, digitally-focused marketing and communications firm in Minneapolis.