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Web Site Redo
Here’s what to look for in a development company when it’s time to overhaul your association’s Web site.

By Bridget

McCrea

When Kevin Brafford came on board as director of communications for the North Carolina Association of Realtors® in March 2006, his first charge was to make the association’s Web presence more useful and informative for members and the public. “Materials were outdated, and things were just being ‘dumped’ there and forgotten about, making it difficult to navigate,” Brafford explains. During the five years in which the association’s membership grew from 22,000 to 42,000, it did not have a major site overhaul.

Working with other staffers, an information management advisory group (made up of about 20 volunteers), and input from NCAR’s membership, Brafford came up with a plan. Focusing on member needs and key elements missing from the Greensboro-based association’s current site—such as user-friendly navigation—a request for proposal (RFP) was sent to 15 Web site developers/hosting firms.

How did NCAR come up with 15 companies out of the tens of thousands that can be found online? The organization set parameters. First, NCAR wanted to work with a company based in North Carolina, as a way to keep the money in-state. Second, “we wanted companies that were sincere about their interest in doing the project.” With that in mind, Brafford intentionally left some areas of the RFP more vague than others. “To properly prepare a proposal and to quote a price, the vendor had to read it thoroughly, conduct due diligence, and ask questions,” Brafford says. “Doing that allowed us to weed out the contenders from the pretenders.” For example, the RFP referenced the fact that the association was using the Rapattoni system but didn’t explain much more about the real estate-specific technology solution. “They had to do some homework,” says Brafford. “That helped weed out a couple of companies right away.”

Five proposals came back and ultimately were whittled down to three over a three-month period. Brafford called each candidate to discuss such criteria as price, past experience with similar projects, and the allotted seven-month deadline. “We knew we posed some unique challenges for a vendor in that we, for example, upload our membership database daily,” says Brafford.

After reviewing references—both provided and sought-out—the NCAR staff made the final decision in concert with the advisory group, executive committee, and board of directors. Atlantic Webworks won the developing and hosting contract, and spent the next seven months developing the NCAR site (www.ncrealtors.org), which went live in February.

Brafford credits a thorough vendor selection process with helping things run smoothly through the development phase and beyond. “The owner of the company told me early on that he viewed this as a long-term relationship and not just a ‘once and done,’ ” says Brafford, who considers the Web site to be the most valuable resource that NCAR provides to its members. “They go there to find current information, forms, and other tools to run their businesses. Getting it current was a big endeavor,” he explains, “but it was well worth it.”

Finding the right match

Associations of all shapes and sizes are grappling with the same question that NCAR asked itself last year: How do I find a company that will help us create a Web site that’s more useful for members?

Typing the words “Web developer” into a search engine does little to narrow the options from the thousands of potential vendors. At the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors®, Mary C. Yang, communications and marketing coordinator, says her 4,700-member organization sent an RFP to a handful of Web design firms that she found online and through contacts at her local chamber of commerce.

When the responses came back, Yang reviewed them for affordability and experience. “Our local association has a member and a consumer side to it, so it was a complicated project that encompassed a lot of information plus a rebranding effort,” says Yang, who started the selection process by eliminating firms that “just weren’t sophisticated enough to handle the job.” Cringing at the thought of having to redo the site completely in another five years due to membership growth or reduction, Yang also took scalability into account.

Working with the communications committee, she reviewed the proposals, surveyed the portfolios, and interviewed a few of the companies. “We talked to each firm for about 45 minutes, asking them questions about the site and how they would propose to upgrade it,” says Yang, who is shooting for a summer 2007 completion date. “Then we picked one.”

Cover the

basics

Association size is a critical point when upgrading or building a new Web site, says Michael Heilpern, president at design firm Highpoint Inc. in Claremont, Calif., which specializes in sites for nonprofits and associations. Not only are there infrastructure issues to consider in terms of the number of people who will be “hitting” the site, but the internal resources for a 5,000-member association are much different than those of a 50,000-member organization.

“A common mistake associations make is overcommitting the people who will manage the site and generate content for it,” says Heilpern. “We’ve seen a lot of organizations overreach, especially when it comes to generating great content ideas—such as delivering 10 news items to members every week—that they expect the Web site itself to magically generate.”

According to Heilpern, the solutions can be found in one of two options: “either scale back the ideas to a more manageable level, or hire an outside professional who can devote the time needed to managing the site.”

With 13,000 members, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors® in Fairfax recently hired a consulting company to design its new Web site and to create an e-commerce component and database management system. “We were overdue,” says Jill M. Landsman, communications and media relations manager, who sent out requests for qualifications to 12 companies that came highly recommended by other organizations and by members.

“We got down to about six firms and sent them RFPs,” says Landsman. Key criteria included the ability to build a user-friendly Web site, placing material in appropriate spots on the site, creating an efficient search engine, and creating “sister” sites for the organization’s educational offerings and e-commerce store. Using a matrix to analyze costs of each component, Landsman worked with NVAR’s chief operating officer to figure out which firms provided the most value for the money.

“The cream rose to the top,” says Landsman, who along with her COO selected Tiger Creek Consulting to handle the job. “After analyzing the components of all these companies, it was very clear that they hit a home run in every category.”

Jeff Stibel, president and CEO at Atlanta-based Web hosting and design firm Web.com, says associations should look closely at the provider’s background when selecting a Web development firm. Make sure it’s reputable (by checking with past customers, for example), that it has a strong technology foundation, and that it’s in business for the long term. Consider the company’s past clients (do they look like your organization?), whether it has any patents (for technology that it has developed, for example), and the experience level of the firm’s designers and staff members.

Last but not least, Brafford suggests that you go into site redevelopment with your eyes open and a willingness to be flexible. “A Web site isn’t something you can put a box around or draw lines to, expecting it to be completed by a certain date. The dynamics change as you go along through the process,” he says. “We’re still working out some kinks and expect to continue to do so over the next few months as members use the site and give feedback on it.”


Find a comfortable Web ally

For small associations without communications directors or technology staff, it can be intimidating to negotiate with a Web site company. First, there’s the technology terminology. That’s not to mention your lack of Web site development experience. In this situation, the most important aspect of choosing a company is to find one that makes you feel comfortable, one that takes the time to explain everything from gigabytes to IP addresses and who can build—and maintain—a site that fits your level of Web know-how. Contact other similar-sized companies or organizations in your area that have great sites for their recommendations and experiences.