I’ve been working with small charities and have been struck by the struggle they face when planning what do to with their websites. The big brand national charities have the luxury of employing web managers but smaller local charities don’t have the budget and there is often no in-house experience. So what should they do?

A website is essential to get mindshare even if it’s not driving direct revenue, so I started to think of a hit list small charities could work from to get their websites beyond the purely functional.

This blog gives my top six web marketing projects that small charities can undertake with confidence without the need to spend precious money on an agency. I’ve deliberately made this straight forward because you can’t get to the sexy stuff until the basics are in place and working.

Clearly define your audience

You can’t write relevant copy if you don’t know your audience. The first challenge is to understand what type of visitor you want to attract – male v female, country, lifestyle, personality type etc – and then construct a basic customer profile.

From this you can understand what the motivations of this person are likely to be and shape your content accordingly. People often support charities that they have a personal connection with so the website has to appeal to those motivations.

For example, I recently helped a local children’s charity in Nepal which wanted more visitors but when I asked who, they didn’t have an answer.

The first morning was spent discussing who the primary target audience should be, including geography and demographics. The conclusion, drawing from their knowledge of the customer, was to focus efforts on people in the UK interested in volunteering abroad and who wanted the chance to work with local people to support children. Instantly we had a focus.

Define calls to action

The majority of visitors will not donate or sign-up for volunteer work on their first visit. It takes time to make up your mind who to support and when.

Many charity websites are confusing, making it hard for people to know where to take action. Every page should have clear calls to action, especially the homepage. To achieve this you need to define the hierarchy of actions i.e. do you want donations more than volunteer support?

Don’t forget calls to action for indirect support such as newsletter sign-up, following you via social media or signing pledges. Make it as obvious as possible for your visitors which actions they can take and where to take them.

For the Nepal based charity I’ve just helped we’ve streamlined the information so that the primary call to action is online donation followed by registering for volunteering. These links will appear on every page in the same place for user journey consistency. Previously calls to action were all over the shop and hard to pick out from other content.

Keyword research for relevant terms

It’s important to know what are the trending search terms for keywords relevant to your brand and services. The free Google External Keyword Tool will give you weighted monthly averages for local and global markets to help pinpoint where the best traffic is.

It’s essential to target the keyword phrases you want your website to be associated with to ensure a high quality of traffic. It’s also better to have less high quality traffic than more low quality traffic because if you attract the wrong people, they’ll just leave anyway.

If people bounce the mighty Google will just mark you down as having irrelevant content for that search term. Start with low/medium volume terms with low competition – it’s easier to make your mark and learn.

Let the search engines know you are there

Use sitemaps. The most important is to add the XML sitemap which Google will use to know which pages are relevant for indexing. You can pay a developer to build a custom sitemap but there are free tools out there such as Free Sitemap Generator.

It’s important to set the XML sitemap up to auto-refresh every time new content is added to the website, so a server side script is recommended to avoid the tedium of manually creating each time your site tree changes.

Other suggestions:

  • Optimise your page titles and meta descriptions at page level with keywords from the keyword research. 
  • Add an html sitemap that visitors can use to navigate; though not as beneficial for SEO as it once was, it is worth doing.
  • Put your charity on the map with Google Maps; free and easy, it will help get you visible with potential customers.
  • Register for free directories that will help get your website indexed; DMOZ open directory is the most obvious, though it can often take months to get on the books.

Set up Webmaster Tools

For access you need a Google Account. It’s free and takes a matter of minutes using the meta tag verification method. Use Webmaster Tools to see what keywords are driving traffic to the website. This will identify how effective your keyword targeting is and also help identify opportunities for producing fresh content to target specific keyword traffic.

The error reports are useful in highlighting where you have crawl errors. These need to be rectified to ensure the search engines can crawl the website effectively. Broken links need to be repaired and 404 errors investigated as pages not found don’t reflect well on the site.

Also, if a page can’t be found, potential visitors will be lost as it serves as a dead end to their online journey.

Use the Links to your site report to find inbound links. Evaluate the quality of link and anchor text (the clickable text) used.

If the link can be improved (e.g. link to a more relevant page than the homepage, anchor text optimised for a target keyword phrase), contact the web owner and request the changes, explaining the benefits of doing this.

You can also evaluate external links using the link:www.myurl.com prompt in Yahoo Search. For each domain providing a link, you can click on the “Inlinks” button and follow the trail. This is also really useful for competitor comparison to learn from other charities and adopt a “me too” strategy with relevant websites. External links are an important SEO factor; the more you have from reputable domains, the higher value Google will place on your webpages.

Webmaster Tools can do a lot more but these reports will add the most value initially and are easy to get to grips with.

Build a customer database and send regular newsletters

The quest for charitable support is highly competitive – take a peek on Justgiving.com to see how many charities are signed up for online donations.

Not every visitor wants to hand over money or pledge their support the moment they first stumble upon your website. Ensure you have a data capture process for email addresses. Advertise a free newsletter and sell its benefits e.g. Keep in touch with the children of the Foundation via our monthly newsletter.

The more names you have on your opt-in database, the greater the chance that you will secure a future donation or volunteer when that person is ready. Timing is everything; I know because when I receive an email when I’m feeling altruistic, I often click and pay.

Another way to build your customer database and engagement is to use social media. Charities like Dogs Trust use Twitter really well to build a customer base and promote the activities of their charity. As a minimum add social bookmarking, using a free service like AddThis, to every page of your website that can be shared. If you can get people to share your content, you are getting free marketing.

Comments & questions please

I hope this is a useful guide for those of you working for or with small and local charities. Each of these projects needs closer attention and what I’ve written is simply an introduction; it’s impossible to give the full detail in a blog.

Please drop by with comments, questions and suggestions, it’s always good to learn from other people. If anyone wants to discuss any of the steps further, you can contact me via Twitter below.