How to make sure your website gives the right message

If you want stronger communications that improve your connection with your audience, you need to give more time and attention to what happens in people’s heads. Here’s some guidance.

1 : Introduction

We write stuff, send it out, people read it and understand what we have to say. Right? It’s a simple, convenient model that lets you tick the task off your list and move on to the next thing.

But that’s not how communication actually works. Once you start thinking about how to connect with your audience better, you realize it involves stuff that goes on in people’s heads: complex, subtle, occasionally weird.

2 : Explore your background message

Humans are social, pattern-seeking creatures. We approach written communication in a similar way to face-to-face contact: we look for clues about who the ‘speaker’ is and what their intentions are. Most of this is subconscious. Are they like us? Can we trust them?

You can think of it like this. Your foreground message is the thing you thought you were saying! If you write a blog post about ‘7 fundraising tips’, those 7 tips are the foreground message.

The background message is the other stuff they’ll pick up. What sort of organisation and people are you? What’s your approach? Are you people they can get on with? If they get the wrong background message they won’t hang around for the foreground message.

Does this sound familiar? It will if you’ve looked at ‘branding’. For some that word is tainted by corporate marketing, but really it’s what people think about when they think about you and your charity website. You should work through, and design your website accordingly.

Take some time to think through the impressions you want to project and what you want to happen in your reader’s thoughts and emotions. Once you know that, you can make sure all your communications reflect it. There are exercises to help with this, but here are the main things to consider.

  • Think about your values, your approach and the character of your work. Are you energetic, supportive, efficient, dependable, insightful, down to earth..?
  • Also think about who your audience are, and what kinds of impressions they will want and expect to get. What sort of background and culture do they have? Do they expect formality, creativity, sensitivity? Your foundation messages aren’t just about you, projecting: they also need to connect you with your community.

3 : Pay attention to all three levels of communication

Communication training tells us that when we’re speaking to someone we need to think about:

  • what we say
  • how we say it
  • our body language.

What we say may be the least important part of the communication, because the others are processed rapidly and subconsciously to form powerful impressions. Is this person like me? Can I trust them? If this creates barriers, the rest of the message goes unheard.

How we say it. Confusing website messages and presentation styles, like poorly written communication will distract the reader. They will be trying to extract social clues about our organisation when they should be digesting the messages, which could adversely affect their response.

The body language of written communication is visual design. The way your site is presented is the first thing a visitor will process.

  • Have you looked at the way you write? You need to write for the web, with text that’s well broken up: keep sentences and paragraphs short. Adopt a ‘journalistic’ style, with everyday plain English that gets information across efficiently. Avoid long words and jargon (unless talking to an audience of specialists). Also be sure to write correctly, as this will affect visitors’ perception of you. If that’s not one of your main skill areas, invest in a helpful book or two and be willing to use them.
  • Was your site’s visual design planned with message in mind, or is it just what someone thought looked nice? Is it attractive? Is it easy to read? What sort of ‘feel’ does it have? Think about color, fonts and layout. Is it Responsive? Test it on different devices, tablets, smartphones and browser software – what looks fine on one may have a problem on another.

4 : Avoid alarm signals

Web users know there’s an ocean of information competing for their attention, and develop habits to protect their time and stress levels while searching for what they want.

They expect they’ll be able to find what they want on another site if this one doesn’t work out. They filter ruthlessly, rapidly and often without a lot of conscious consideration.

When someone arrives at your page you have a few seconds to convince them to stick around. Their brain is looking for an excuse to discard you from their search. Check that your site isn’t giving off any of these alarm signals.

Is this the wrong place?
Sometimes a link has been set up wrongly, or takes you to a spammy ad site, or a site turns out not to be what it sounded like. Visitors are poised to click away if they detect this. Regularly check for broken web links, the W3C Link Checker is a good tool for this. Establish straight away what your site is and what it’s about. Put it at the top of the page, in the first screenful they see. Find a combination of title, strap line and graphics that owns what you do. Don’t assume everybody knows what your organisation is about.

Is it going to be a pain to use?
Users have different tolerances, but most will be turned off if they have to squint to read the text, or shade their eyes from the color scheme, or they can’t tell where to click to find what interests them. Most users have tried bad sites and know they don’t want another experience like that.

Is it Accessible?
Will all web users visiting your website be able to use it and find the content they need and the messages you are conveying?

The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, culture, location, or physical or mental ability. When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability. A well designed website can remove barriers to communication and interaction that many people face in the physical world. However, when websites are badly designed, they can create barriers that exclude people from using them.

Does it ring false?
Does the site say one thing but give off signals that tell a different story? Visitors might not pick up on these things consciously, but the site will feel ‘off’. For instance, do you claim to be highly professional or well-funded or influential at a high level, on a site that looks amateurish? Are design elements like your color scheme at odds with your message? For example, if you’re promoting an exciting arts project for young people you don’t want too much cool, calming blue. Be congruent and authentic.

Is it a ghost town?
As humans we like to understand things as part of stories, and we like to feel we’re in a conversation with someone, and to be able to check credibility. If it feels like your site is churned out by an information robot, visitors won’t engage. Even as an organisation, try to personalize things. Make it easy to find info and pictures of some of the people involved. If someone writes a piece of content, let them introduce themselves briefly (especially if the piece uses “I” and “me”). Aim for a writing style that feels conversational while getting info across clearly. Show up. A website with a last updated news page from over 12 months ago will not encourage visitors to find our more about your organisation.



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