SEO is Important, But Remember Your Visitors

The Make-a-Wish Foundation of America recently completed a redesign of its web site. The not-for-profit organization saw some tremendous increases in the number of visitors to its site as a result of the redesign. Although the redesign wasn’t SEO-focused, there are lessons here that any SEO professional might find useful.

Let’s start with the timing. Make-a-Wish launched its redesigned web site, completed by Digital Pulp, at the beginning of September 2006. The time of year is important, because Make-a-Wish is a charitable organization. Since competition for money from donors gets fierce around the holiday season, any charity worth its salt wants its site to be up and ready far enough in advance to allow for last-minute tweaking.

At the risk of sounding a little cynical (and I’m certainly not cynical about this charity!), I’d imagine this is especially true for Make-a-Wish. While the organization needs money year-round, its focus is on granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. How many times have you heard someone say that "Christmas is really for the children"?

So what kind of results did Make-a-Wish see after the site redesign? Well, in the two months after it, the average number of online donations increased 85 percent. The size of those donations also increased, because the revenue from the visits nearly tripled. Could this just have been a function of the time of year?

It could have, but it wasn’t. The organization also noticed a year-on-year rise in donations, from 1.19 percent of visitors to 1.45 percent, and an increase in the amount of money donated. That may not sound like much, but let’s look at it another way – the number of visitors who actually donated to Make-a-Wish during the 2006 holiday season was more than 20 percent higher than the number that donated during the 2005 holiday season. Do I have your attention now?

Taking the percentages just a month at a time, the numbers are even higher. November 2006 saw 71 percent more web-related donations than November 2005. Not only that, but the site hit an all-time high for unique visitors in November 2006: 171,805. I don’t have the full figures for December 2006, but "The way things are trending, it may end up being our best year ever," noted Mike Pressendo, Make-a-Wish’s director of brand communications in an interview with MediaPost Publications.

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It wasn’t just the main organization that redesigned its web site; some of the Make-a-Wish branches in specific states independently performed site redesigns, and I’ll be taking a look at what they did as well. The first step, not surprisingly, is determining what you hope to get out of a site redesign. For example, when Make-a-Wish Connecticut decided to revamp its web site, it knew it wanted to "facilitate communication amongst current volunteers, and increase the organization’s outreach to potential wish kids, volunteers, and donors," according to a press release from Fathom, the company that helped the organization with its redesign.

Communication between everyone who uses the site was crucial to the process. For example, the site now has a password-protected, interactive "Kids Zone" specifically for the Wish kids. It’s a place where they can learn about wishes, share wish stories, and decide on wishes. "When we heard that many of the children have a difficult time deciding what to wish for, we wanted to help make a fun part of the process," explained Fathom Account Director Kimberly Mitola.

The Make-a-Wish Foundation of Northern Illinois also had some special needs. As a charitable organization, any money spent on marketing is money not spent on the kids, so this branch wanted to lower its costs by being able to update its own site as needed. It also wanted to lower its costs of doing business in general; Gorilla Polymedia, which helped the organization with its site redesign, created an extranet site to facilitate the foundation’s work flow. And of course the organization didn’t forget its visitors; it wanted to make it easy for all users to follow the wishes of children in which they’re interested.

Gorilla Polymedia studied Make-a-Wish users both internally and externally. After it completed the study, it built an all-encompassing content management system in addition to the extranet. This meant that the organization’s internal team could update its own site content without needing any software programming skills.

One challenge that could have been difficult was making sure the site wasn’t depressing. These are sick children, true, but that’s not really what Make-a-Wish is about. "We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy," says the web site. Here’s an image of the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Northern Illinois’ home page; you can judge for yourself whether Gorilla Polymedia succeeded:


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The redesign of the main Make-a-Wish Foundation site was all about interactivity, to judge from the press release. The organization was also able to streamline some things. I’m going to take the items mentioned in the release one at a time and explain why there were important.

The first item Make-a-Wish mentions is interactive answers to questions about the foundation. You can click on a Frequently Asked Questions section under the "About Us" link on the web site. But you can also click on the "Contact Us" link, which brings up a page with radio buttons that lead to answers to some frequently asked questions as well. Here’s a cropped image that focuses on the radio buttons:


There is a "next" button under the radio buttons – so if you indicate your interest is "Adult Wishes," for example, it takes you to a page that explains that Make-a-Wish doesn’t fulfill adult wishes, but links you to a number of organizations that do. At the bottom of the page with the answer, you can let the organization know whether or not it has answered your question with just a click. This feature keeps the site interactive, quickly answers questions, and lets volunteers focus on the important matters rather than having to answer the same questions over and over again.

The Make-a-Wish site has also started using Real Simple Syndication (RSS) to deliver news straight to the email boxes of interested visitors. There are so many articles about the advantages of RSS, email newsletters and related technologies that I probably don’t need to go over them here. Suffice it to say that they reduce your dependence on search engine traffic and help you make the most of the visitors who do express an interest in your offering, by helping you build a long term relationship with them.

The Make-a-Wish Foundation also redesigned the web site’s navigation to make it easier to find your local chapter. In the upper right hand corner on the home page there’s this handy graphic:


It doesn’t get much easier than that. When you click on the map link you get a map of the US, where you can click on a state. Clicking on a state takes you to a page that lists all the chapters in that state. You can also search for a local chapter by typing in a city or zip code from that same page. If you choose to click on a state, you’ll find contact information and buttons that let you donate to specific chapters.

You’ll notice something else in the upper right hand corner: a very visible Donate button. That makes excellent use of the web site’s real estate as far as taking advantage of where the eye is drawn to encourage specific behavior.

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But it may well be the site’s improved organization that put it over the edge. It’s very easy now to find the human stories of Wish kids; the redesign splits them into several main categories, such as professional, adventures, sports & entertainment, and more. Click on one of these categories and you’re greeted by several sub-categories, with pictures; click on one of these, and you get to see pictures of the children, with a sentence under each photo revealing his or her wish. Click the link, and you can read a touching account of the wish, and comments that other visitors have left.

To be sure, the organization has granted more than 150,000 wishes, and not all of them are there – nor do they need to be. But these Wish children are the whole point of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and the site redesign puts them front and center, from photos on the home page to a link that lets you navigate right to the wish stories.

If that’s not enough, there’s a category under Wish Stories labeled "Inspired Creations." Many of the Wish children, as well as others, have been inspired by wishes to create something, be it a work of art, music, a video, a scrapbook, or a screen saver. In this section, you can take a look at (or watch or listen to) these creations. Coming from the heart as they do, many of them are quite stunning, and all are touching.  

"Digital Pulp’s new design has definitely made visiting a more pleasant, engaging experience for our supporters and people who are interested in learning more about the Foundation," Pressendo noted. "The site is more aligned with the Foundation’s brand principles – it’s more joyful, inspirational and helps users connect with us more easily."

So what is the take-home message here? Even before you look at details like keywords, think about whether the site is doing what it needs to do for everyone who uses it. Communicate with all the site’s users to find out those needs. Make sure the site engages visitors, and if at all possible, set it up so that it makes interaction easy for visitors and frees staff up for the important matters. Make it obvious to visitors what you want them to do. Think about what makes your product or service compelling, and put that front and center so visitors will find it for themselves.

Admittedly, convincing people to give money to grant wishes to critically ill children isn’t a hard sell (or maybe it is, and I’m just a soft touch). Still, the point is, you can be at the top of the SERPs, but if your site isn’t reaching your visitors with your message on a level that makes them want to do something – and makes it easy for them to do it – you can be doing a lot better.

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