Home away from home.
Association executives have long coped with the special challenges of small staffs and smaller budgets, geographically scattered volunteers, and the need to make a national, even international, impact. Interactive computer publishing - making information about your organization and its goals available to anyone with a computer and a modem - is one tool forward-thinking association executives are using to meet those challenges today.
Of the conglomeration of hardware, software, and data that make up the Internet, the system that has most captured the imagination of cybernauts is the World Wide Web, known as WWW, W3, or simply, the Web. The Web is a network of text and graphics files (and, more and more often, sound and video files, too) that are linked together by hypertext. Using special coding known as html (for hypertext markup language), a file's creator can format information so that anyone with Web browser software can view colorful text combined with images, sounds, and video.
But what makes the Web the hottest communication tool of the late 20th century is the way files, even those residing on computers halfway around the world, can be joined together in a dynamic "web." Any organization that creates a Web site (comprising a home, or introductory, page and related pages of information) can incorporate links to related Web sites or documents wherever they may be found on the Internet. (see sidebar, "Association Web Sites").
Links are activated by a simple click of the mouse. This is made possible by something called hypertext transfer protocol, which assigns a specialized address to each file. These addresses are known as uniform resource locators, or URLs.
Building links from your home page to other Web sites gives your users instant access to additional information. This adds value to your Web site and gives users more reasons to keep coming back.
For example, one of your association's activities - a fund drive or a research project, for instance - may have been sparked by a government agency study. A link joining your Web site to the site belonging to the government agency offers your users a connection with the original study data. Or perhaps a paper published in your association's journal, and subsequently uploaded to your Web site, makes reference to an article published by another association. A link there to the other association's site helps your users quickly find the information they need.
To truly exploit the power of the Web, you will need to ask other site owners to build links to your page. This is a natural extension of the partnering spirit that has led associations to form strategic alliances with schools, research institutions, and other associations worldwide. Inter-relationships are what makes the Web a web - there are any number of ways to get to the same place, but the sites you visit along the way are different, determined by your interests and a click of the mouse.
A new kind of staff support
For many associations, maintaining a Web site makes sense. Details about the association's goals, programs, and meetings are made available to large audiences in a kind of combination of traditional publishing and broadcasting. Like publishing, information is presented in a visual form that can be read over and over again; like broadcasting, the information is available to anyone who might "tune in." The information can also be updated as often as needed - for example, if a meeting location is changed or a date is added.
Small staffs are one reason to use the Internet for communicating with members and the public. "We are just swamped with calls for general information and meetings dates," says Brian Rounsavill, meetings manager at the Electrochemical Society, Pennington, New Jersey, which established a home page on the Web in February 1995. "This has really helped cut down on those types of calls." And because the Web site can be accessed any time, members in different time zones or members who are night owls by nature can find answers to their questions when it's convenient for them.
Extending your public outreach
Many associations have the goal of making a difference in the public sphere. Going beyond member service, home pages on the Web satisfy their need to make the public aware of their programs and ongoing research. Asked about the institute's goals in establishing a Web site in November 1994, Tom Brisco, director of electronic communications at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, New York City, gives many of the reasons already mentioned: improved member service, 24-hour availability, and fewer telephone calls to staff. But he also emphasizes IEEE's need to keep the public informed. "We have information that we want to be publicly available.... The Web page makes it easy for the general public to learn more about us," notes Brisco.
John Bales, Internet manager for the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., makes another important point. Just as with any new service, "you have to let your members know about it," he points out. "After we first went online, we were getting a couple of hundred hits a month, but after we publicized our home page in an article in our magazine, that number went up immediately to a couple of thousand."
Once a home page is established, monitoring software helps an association to find out who is using the system. The software keeps tabs on the domain of the computers that access your page - in other words, whether the user is affiliated with an educational institution, the government, another organization, or a commercial service.
The majority of association home pages have been established too recently to generate sufficient, reliable data on who is accessing the information and the degree of their satisfaction with the information. Comments received from users through built-in response forms or regular channels, however, are generally positive, according to Rounsavill, Brisco, and Bales.
Considerations to weigh
Be aware of several considerations before jumping onto the information superhighway. For example, many of your members may not yet have access to full Internet services. And of those who are online, some may not have the sophisticated browser software needed to take advantage of the Web's multimedia capabilities.
Being aware of such realities will enable you to do a better job of accommodating your members' differing levels of comfort with the new technology and access to the Internet. If you wait until most members are up to speed on the Web, though, you risk jeopardizing your image as a progressive association and the loyalty of members clamoring for access via the Web. At some point, associations simply have to decide to go forward without the safety net of ironclad demographic data on users.
Rounsavill estimates that half of the membership of the Electrochemical Society is academic and half is corporate, with more than 50 percent of all members having access to the Web. "Everybody is loving the society's Web site," he says. "The members say it is a clear sign that we're 'with it.'"
Cost may be another consideration for an association that wants to create "cyber presence." The cost of setting up a site - from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $25,000 - depends on the complexity of the Web site and whether space is leased from a service provider or the association establishes its own server computer. Web-authoring software is also now becoming widely available.
"There is high variability in pricing from vendors right now," explains Daniel Endy, president of Web Access, Inc., Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. "It's a young market - I've seen everything from flat rate to page-based to transaction-based pricing, and that doesn't include the layout and html markup costs. You really just have to shop around." (See sidebar, "Choosing a Marketing Partner in Cyberspace.")
Perhaps the most serious consideration today is also the subject of the greatest debate among Web watchers: security. Even with encryption software, some experts say, there is no guarantee that so-called computer hackers won't break the code to steal credit card numbers that are used to purchase items across the Internet. Until this question is resolved, most associations are including order forms on their Web sites for membership renewals, training course registrations, or publication sales with "bill me" buttons.
"It seems like a great marketing tool," says IEEE's Brisco, "but I caution the marketing people that you have no idea of the demographics. It's a challenge to set up information when you don't know who will be using it."
New workloads to juggle
Another factor to consider is exactly where this new animal fits into the organization. Who will decide what information is uploaded? Who will write it? Who will ultimately manage it (see sidebar, "Policy Issues to Explore")?
Rounsavill, Brisco, and Bales all agree that creating a Web site is tantamount to launching a new publication. "You have to be careful what you write and who you're writing it for," Rounsavill explains. "You almost have to consider it another publication of the society and make sure it fits in with what you're doing in publications."
While the decisions that have to be made resemble those involved in traditional publishing, the Web is a completely new medium with capabilities and limitations all its own. The return on investment in simply transferring printed brochures or magazines to an online setting is small. The true power of establishing a Web site is in adding value to your materials - for example, uploading an article from the association's newsletter and incorporating links throughout the article to supplementary data, reports, speeches, and so forth.
Who ultimately has the responsibility for managing an association's Web site depends on organizational culture. Brisco says that IEEE's site is maintained by a committee of marketing, standards, and technical group representatives. Endy, from his perspective as a vendor, says, "It needs a merging of the technical staff and the publishing staff to create something in the middle that hasn't been seen before: a truly interactive publication."
Carrying the publication analogy further, Endy adds that it is becoming more common to bring in advertising on Web sites to help offset some of the costs.
Bales, at the American Psychological Association, feels the background of the Webmaster (as managers of home pages are often called) is more important than where the function is placed in the association's hierarchy. "You need to have a background in publishing," he says. "My background as managing editor of the Monitor (a monthly newspaper published by APA) made taking this on much easier."
The skills needed by your Web-master include the ability to take information from many sources and organize it so that it is accessible and logical to the users. More specifically, he or she must be able to communicate - that is, to shape information, textually and graphically, in such a way that it is meaningful to the reader and to the organization.
Conduct a thorough investigation
Before making the decision to invest in the startup of a Web site, visit a wide range of sites, from commercial to private to the home pages of other associations. Talk to colleagues about the possibilities, and try to get leads to those associations that have already traveled this route. And don't forget to contact several vendors for pricing and technical information. Adds Endy: "Make sure you know what you're trying to accomplish before you begin."
RELATED ARTICLE: HIGHLIGHTS
* Forward-thinking association executives are using interactive computer publishing to meet today's challenges.
* Associations with small staffs can benefit by using the Internet to communicate with members and the public.
* Home pages on the Web satisfy associations' need to make the public aware of their programs and ongoing research.
RELATED ARTICLE: Choosing a Marketing Partner in Cyberspace
The easiest test of a potential service provider is this: Ask who should not be on the Web. If the prospective service provider says, "Nobody," run away as fast as you can. Because the barrier to entry is so low, lots of people with a computer and a phone line are getting into the Web business. While this leads to considerable waste and disappointment, they tend to be the lowest-cost service providers.
Look for providers who leverage the power of the Web to meet marketing challenges while hiding the technical details. Pricing should be simple, and easily understood by the nontechnical professional. Look for a vendor who
* uses a process to gain an understanding of your business and your customers;
* works with you to develop the content of your site such that it provides value for customers who visit;
* encourages updates and additions to your presentations;
* uses multimedia judiciously to create and attractive and informative presentation;
* publicizes your site, both on the Internet and in the press;
* negotiates links to your site from other popular sites and registers your site with the various search utilities available on the Web;
* uses the interactivity of the Web to collect customer data for you;
* demonstrates the ability to create and register an Internet identity (domain name) for you;
* shows a capacity for helping your marketing department "speak Internet" so that your new site is integrated into your overall marketing campaign; and
* shows the ability to build online, information-based communities that will attract and retain an audience of Internet travelers.
Tom McNamee is vice president of Results Direct Internet Marketing, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Tucson, Arizona.
RELATED ARTICLE: Seven Steps to Building a Web Site
Daniel Endy, of Web Access, Inc., a Web service provider in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, makes sure customers understand upfront the steps involved in building a Web site. Here are some of his recommendations.
1. Concept. "Make sure you know what you're trying to accomplish first." For example, do you want the site to be used primarily to communicate the association's goals to potential members, market new products, or report regulatory and legislative actions and association positions? All of these are feasible; only your association can decide what is appropriate. On the other hand, it is not feasible to say that a Web site will replace all member mailings.
2. Content. "Web sites are living documents - they can be updated moment by the moment. So it's important to start on a reasonable level. Prioritize the pieces that will make up your ideal Web site and implement them in stages."
3. Format and design. "This effort is much like producing a publication. Break information up into pages and make sure there is not too much or too little information on each page. Also try to achieve a balance of links to other sites." The visual content should help to organize text and make it attractive to the eye. Before settling on design elements, try diagramming the site's content as a tree. From the home page, picture how links will help guide the user through the mass of material.
4. Production and development. "Next, you have to write all of the components and establish a layout." Certainly, some parts of your Web already exist - a mission statement, for example, or an introductory brochure. But try to see if the text, as it exists, is appropriate for the tone and context of the site as a whole; it may need substantial editing or rewriting.
5. Markup. "The finished text has to be marked up in html (hypertext markup language) format. Figure on roughly $50 to $100 per page for this service, more to set up a form or a database search option."
6. Publishing. "Finally, the information is uploaded to a server, tested, and made available to the public." Part of this step is advertising your site's presence on the Web through regular channels (news releases, articles, and mailings) and listing your site with numerous Web indexes. One of the most well-known is Yahoo (http://yahoo.com); your service provider, on-staff expert, or staff at another association with Web experience can help you identify others.
7. Site administration. This involves updating content, answering questions, forwarding mail, and processing transactions.
RELATED ARTICLE: Association Web Sites
Here is a sampling of associations currently operating Web sites. You can go to the home pages of these and hundreds more associations by going to ASAE's home page, http://www.asaenet.org, and selecting "Gateway to Associations."
Then click on any of the links that interests you.
Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute Air Force Association Allegheny County Bar Association Alliance for Public Technology American Academy of Pediatrics American Association of University Women American Bar Association American Booksellers Association American Chemical Society American Diabetes Association American Heart Association American Hotel and Motel Association American Marketing Association American Medical Association American Productivity & Quality Center American Public Transit Association American Red Cross American Society for Quality Control American Society of Home Inspectors Association for Experiential Education Association for Investment Management and Research Association of Brewers Automotive Parts and Accessories Association BMI Brookings Institution Business Professionals of America Canine Companions for Independence Center for International Private Enterprise Chronicle of Higher Education Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute Council of Better Business Bureaus Council on Foundations Digital Equipment Computer Users Society (DECUS) Ecological Society of America Employee Relocation Council Goodwill Industries International, Inc. Grocery Manufacturers of America, Inc. Interactive Multimedia Association International Association of Business Communicators International Association of Conference Centers International Food Information Council Foundation International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans Internet Society National Association of College Stores National Association of Printers and Lithographers National Association of Realtors National Business Travel Association National Charities Info Bureau National Education Association National Emergency Number Association National Foundation for Infectious Diseases National League of Cities National Multimedia Association of America National Parks and Conservation National Press Club National Spa and Pool Institute Newspaper Association of America Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants Oklahoma Bankers Association Printing Industries of America Public Relations Society of America Sierra Club Society for Human Resource Management Society of Women Engineers Software Publishers Association Specialty Coffee Association of America U.S. Chamber of Commerce
RELATED ARTICLE: Policy Issues to Explore
Associations need to address key policy issues before launching their own World Wide Web sites. Here are some of the questions to contemplate.
* Who will be in charge of administering the site? Is technical competence, editorial and design experience, or a strong background in the culture of the association more important to you? Does anyone on your staff have the necessary skills?
* How will you ensure the site content contributes to the association's overall goals?
* How will the site fit into your association's structure and culture?
* How will you monitor the site's usefulness - to members and other related audiences?
* How will you define success for the Web site?
* Which aspects of the Web site will be developed first? Are there political or practical reasons to develop certain sections first?
* Will the Web site primarily perform a marketing, public relations, or member recruitment and retention function?
* Are you more comfortable with controlling the process by developing the World Wide Web site in-house? Or will you hire a site developer or consultant?
* How are you going to make the site interesting? What will keep visitors coming back?
* Who will write the text for your site, and how much is appropriate? How often will it be updated?
* Who will design your site and how much design is appropriate? How often will the design change? Never (to keep costs down) or often (to keep the site fresh)?
* How can you best make use of the Internet's interactivity? Possibilities include ongoing discussion groups, electronic surveys, and fax-back registration forms.
* Will you accept advertising on your site? Which companies are potential advertisers? How will you handle advertising sales and administration?
* How much time are you willing to have your staff spend on this project? Will you need to create a new position?
RELATED ARTICLE: ASAE's Home Page
For up-to-date information and resources in association management, go to ASAE's World Wide Web site.
ASAE launched its site in August 1995; the address is http://www.asaenet.org. Use the Web site to consult articles, browse ASAE's bookstore, and much more. The site also features a gateway through which you can connect directly to the home pages of other associations.
Laurel O'Brien is public relations manager at Robert Morris Associates, Philadelphia, and previously was with the American Society for Testing and Materials, Philadelphia.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related articles; use of the World Wide Web by association executives|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1996|
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