Chapters in Crisis: How to Prevent Chapter Website Disasters
How do prospective members first connect with their local chapter? Some of them use the chapter website links on your site, and others find their way via Google. The chapter website plays an important role in recruiting new members, attracting attendees, and keeping existing members up-to-date on chapter news and events. But maintaining a website means more work for volunteer leaders—and so much can go wrong.
Welcome to the sixth post in our series on chapters in crisis. In these posts, we assume chapters are subsidiaries, a situation that brings more risk to National, but also supposedly provides more control. Even if your components are independent, you’ll benefit from the advice we share.
So far, we’ve covered financial mismanagement, financial fraud, federal and state compliance issues, cybersecurity, and data privacy. Chapters can now accomplish more than ever thanks to technology, but that same technology also creates new risks. Let’s dig in.
Threats to a chapter website
Nowadays, an organization’s website is the first and lasting impression for prospective members as well as existing members, customers, revenue partners, local press, policy-makers, speakers, and the public.
Usually, the people in charge of the website are busy volunteer leaders and/or staff, not digital marketing or IT experts. Their primary focus is elsewhere, so it’s easy to get lax about updating the site with new information, removing old information, and fixing broken links or lackluster copy.
If the website was a DIY project or designed by someone’s relative, it may not be secure or set up correctly for Google’s web crawlers. A site that’s poorly designed for security, speed, search engine optimization (SEO), or mobile responsiveness will rank low in Google search results.
Other challenges with chapter websites include:
- Branding that’s not aligned with National’s.
- Lackluster membership marketing copy, for example, a boring list of membership features, not benefits.
- Poor functionality: members can’t join or renew online, can’t register for an event online, and can’t access contact information for fellow members.
But, hey, at least they have a website, that’s a plus, right? Not always.
You might get a call one day from a prospective member. He went to the local chapter’s website but ended up on his internet provider’s “You have entered an unknown web address” page instead. What’s going on?
Most likely, the chapter didn’t renew their web domain and it expired. Their website is gone. Oh brother.
Dealing with chapter website disasters
If you encounter an expired website domain, consult this information on the ICANN website. Hopefully, a URL seller hasn’t grabbed the domain out from underneath the chapter. We heard a story at the Association Component Exchange (CEX) about a chapter who tried to renew their domain one day after expiration but it was already too late. A URL seller wanted $5,000 for it, so the chapter had to start all over with a new domain.
If you’re dealing with lousy website copy, triage the situation. What absolutely needs to be fixed, updated, or deleted? Work with chapter leadership to delegate these tasks to a competent volunteer or outsource them to a virtual assistant or marketing professional. Don’t rely on leadership to handle it; they obviously don’t have the time.
You might need a plan to get the website “up to code.” The website must meet National’s branding expectations. More importantly, it must be secure, speedy, SEO- and mobile-friendly, and provide the functionality everyone expects.
Volunteer leaders don’t have the skills to do these tasks themselves—unless they do this type of thing for a living. Later in this series, we describe how to help chapters hire contractors and firms for projects like this, for example, provide a website vendor checklist so chapters know what to look for.
So what’s the root cause here? Is the lousy website a result of a lack of money, time, skills, or interest? Answer that and you can figure out a sustainable long-term strategy.
How to help chapters prevent website disasters
Depending on your association’s relationship with its chapters, you could prevent these website scenarios by choosing a different way to handle website hosting and management.
- Let chapters design and manage their own sites as long as they adhere to your affiliation requirements.
- Set expectations but provide resources to assist chapters with their digital presence, such as shared or subsidized technology, budget assistance, staffing support, or consulting services.
- Take over management of chapter websites. However, this administrative responsibility may require additional staffing at National.
- Provide a website template and requirements checklist that chapters must use to build the website themselves or with vendor assistance. However, since chapters still manage their own sites, you still have risks.
- Host a platform that provides a website for each chapter, but allows the chapter to manage its own site. Many association management systems have a content management system (CMS) module that provides this functionality.
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) provides microsites to their chapters—you can see an example here. These templated web pages integrate with IMA’s website so information can be cross-posted, for example, IMA can push out global events to each chapter’s website. The microsites are easy for chapters to create and manage, and they adhere to IMA’s branding guidelines.
Website training and resources
Provide the training and resources chapters need to create and maintain a website. Don’t assume chapters know what to do—and don’t assume young members, since they’re “digital natives,” know what to do.
Share website resources in your chapter leader hub or portal.
- The American Student Dental Association provides a How-To Guide for Chapter Websites.
- The Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing shares a Chapter Leader Quick-Start Guide to Website Management on its website.
In addition to a guide, provide a sample list of membership benefits for chapters to use on their website—a list that focuses on the impact, not the features, of membership.
Website checklist or self-assessment
As part of their annual report, ask chapters to complete a checklist that includes requirements, such as:
- Safe storage (with National as a possible backup) for website content management system and other software credentials (usernames and passwords)
- Website hosting and domain registration information, such as expiration dates, and credentials
- Software subscription status – is it a monthly auto-payment or annual payment?
This checklist could also include website requirements related to functionality, security, speed, responsiveness, SEO, and branding.
In our earlier post on federal and state compliance issues, we suggested transforming the checklist of chapter requirements into a self-assessment. Chapters rate themselves on how well they meet best practice standards for things like their check signing policy and website mobile responsiveness. You can incentivize their performance by rewarding high-scoring chapters with financial or consultative incentives.
Some associations provide website platforms to their chapters as a way of ensuring compliance with branding and functionality standards. Chapters can’t get into too much trouble (for example, expired domains and lost passwords) if National is keeping an eye on things.
Provide an annual website audit as a chapter consulting service. After reviewing website functionality and website copy, you can make recommendations for improvements and work with the chapter on an action plan.
Our next post in the “chapters in crisis” series steps away from technology and focuses back on people, in particular, chapter leadership challenges.