How to build a better online home for members and consumers.
By Andrew Sims, Communications Director, Birmingham Association of REALTORS®
How do we show value to members, paint a picture of better careers through education, and tell the story and power of the REALTOR® Party?
“We need a better website!”
The renovation of our Birmingham Association of REALTORS® Web presence in 2014 set out to deliver to members a comprehensive member information site offering access to an up-to-date property search. Here’s how we did it.
Stage 1: Purpose
The first part of our redesign process was learning what members cared about and tracking their activity online. We gathered a small task force of tech-savvy members to give feedback on what our current website was doing well or doing badly. Did they like the content? Could they find events easily?
We asked what content they wanted and what the site should do for them. Did they want content focused on them and their business or content that they could share with consumers and clients? They wanted both. We saw that our new website needed not only to reach our members but also to provide trusted industry content for consumers.
When it came to consumers, the task force members said they wanted a clear and easy path to listings as a primary focus, and then to finding REALTORS®.
Since the cost of the new website was shared by the association and the MLS, we wanted to drive traffic to our public-facing MLS site, Greater Alabama MLS. Plus, our analytics showed that the top search for site visitors was “Birmingham REALTOR,” so we could safely assume that there were consumers landing on our association site wanting to search listings.
For member content, the task force said the main focus should be events, and then what the association was doing on members’ behalf in the community and legislatively. News is a dominant feature on our new site. We also added an easy sign-up for our weekly newsletter using a free app called SumoMe to manage our subscriptions, opt-outs, and distribution.
Next, using tools such as Google Analytics, we were able to see where our users hopped on and off the site, what pages attracted views, and how long visitors stayed on these pages. Google Analytics is free and requires only a line of code in the footer of your site to begin pulling information. We learned that Facebook and Twitter were the main traffic drivers to our site. So by using social media to promote our biweekly blog posts, we saw page views increase 272 percent last year.
But an association site can’t be 100 percent driven by member demand. We knew we needed to promote and feature other things, such as the REALTOR® Political Action Committee and affiliate member information. The trick was to feature them in a way that was interesting and convenient, such as through our blog articles.
Stage 2: Building
Starting the design process can be hectic. Too many features get overbearing (and overpriced) and too little design leaves everybody feeling like they’ve invested in something that doesn’t shine.
We started by sketching out the site with a simple pencil and paper. Knowing what you’re building first will dictate the time and money you need to spend.
We chose to stick with our current platform, which is the economical WordPress, for the development of our site. WordPress is a very agile content management system with an easy-to-use back end. It’s free software (although there’s a small annual fee if you don’t want it to place ads on your site), so unless you hire someone to design and develop your site, a small association can deploy WordPress relatively easily. We designed and built our site in-house.
Another advantage of WordPress is that it is “mobile first,” meaning it looks and works great on smartphones and tablets, so we don’t need an app or a mobile version of our site.
Rather than planning the design, we planned the interaction with the site we wanted the members to have. The best website is the simplest; it maximizes readership and utility and minimizes work (work finding what you’re looking for, work scrolling, and, for staff, work constantly updating).
We accomplished these goals through good pathway planning—that is, how the user will navigate through the site. We placed membership information and “Join the BAR” links on the home page under the banner graphic. We implemented the property search portal as the dominant feature on the home page, which has driven a 250 percent increase to our member MLS search.
There are other content management system solutions, of course. Platforms, such as SquareSpace, Weebly, Drupal, and others offer a wide range of features. There are even third-party companies that will link your website to your member management software, such as RAMCO or Rapattoni. This is a useful option but was out of our budget.
Stage 3: Launch and Evaluation
After the build, you’re not done; there’s the user testing. We wanted to make sure our predictions were correct about where people would land, what they would read, and what they could find easily. Remember that while going into “launch mode,” your website will change.
We know now that we want to boost the visibility of the blog content, and we’re committed to daily online content shared several times via social networks and a bimonthly newsletter driving more traffic to our site. It’s tempting to overcommit to unrealistic goals in the months following a launch. Unless you have a lot of time and a lot of material to share, it’s unrealistic to try to post five times a day.
Just like when you build or buy a house, you immediately want to see where you can start adding value. Where can you improve on this investment? Websites are never finished.