Charitable giving, receiving FAIL

It's science!I recently had this experience trying to make a charitable donation to a not-for-profit organization I want(ed) to support:

I Googled their name to find their website. The "Donate Now" button was located prominently on the front page of the site, so I followed it to the donation form where I filled out my contact information, my credit card number, etc. and hit "Donate".

I got the form back with an error message in red saying "An error occurred during processing. Please try again." There were no other messages indicating whether the error was with something I'd put in one of the form fields, or if it was an error on their side (perhaps talking to their credit card processor, etc.). I fiddled with some of my form data (maybe the phone number field needs dashes? Maybe the postal code field doesn't actually accept 5+4 format?) but still got the red error message.

So then I sent email to the generic contact address on the site saying "I'm trying to donate to you online, here's what happened." I sent them all the details they'd need to troubleshoot the issue, including a screenshot of what I saw on the form.

Several weeks went by with no response to the email message. So then I saw that they had a fairly active presence on Twitter, and I sent them a message there saying something to the effect of "I'm trying to donate to you online, are you still taking donations?"

No response.

Continue reading Charitable giving, receiving FAIL

The end* of website development as a profession

Glass Art at Indy Art Center

In the beginning was the <blink> tag

In 1997 I co-founded a company whose business model was based on the value of building highly customized websites for our clients.  Those clients often didn't know (or want to know) much about the inner workings of HTML, Photoshop, hyperlinks and web hosting, but they knew that the World Wide Web and the Internet represented a new era of marketing and communications, and it was worth paying someone else to figure those details out so that they could be a part of that in some form.

And so in a time before content management software, Google, PayPal or GoDaddy, we - like other web development companies starting to pop up around the world - built websites, online stores and interactive community tools from scratch.  At first we hand-coded sites in HotDog Pro or BBEdit, and then later used Dreamweaver and Fireworks.  We created complex software applications using Perl, and others used PHP, Python, TCL and C.  We tested for compatibility with Netscape and Internet Explorer, and we submitted links to AltaVista for crawling when we were done.

That model evolved as we went and worked pretty well until around 2008, when we saw the maturity of many new "software as a service" offerings and a bunch of off-the-shelf tools and programs that often made custom website development unnecessary, or at least seen as too costly in the eyes of clients who once had few other choices.  We also saw the focus on developing an online presence shift away from "doing it right" to "doing it quickly" - edgy, authentic and in-progress began to trump polished and highly produced.

Continue reading The end* of website development as a profession

A website is not a marketing strategy

Is building a website the same thing as building a marketing strategy? It's understandable that people have started to confuse the two.

With so many amazing online marketing tools available and (in many industries) a shift away from traditional marketing media like printed materials, marketing for many businesses and organizations has become an activity that largely takes place on the web. It's easy to start thinking of using those online tools as analogous to creating a plan for marketing.

But just like a more traditional printed brochure, billboard or phonebook ad, a website is a tool that you use to implement your marketing strategy and communicate about your brand. You can't build an effective organizational website without having a marketing strategy in place first any more than you can give a great speech without first having something compelling to say.

Continue reading A website is not a marketing strategy

State and local government websites as wikis?

MontreatI'm intrigued by websites powered by wikis, where the content can be added, modified and deleted by the users of the site.  When the people who are affected by the quality and structure of the content presented have some control over that content, you sometimes have an opportunity to get more useful, relevant, current material than if the site is maintained by a small number of content administrators.

At Summersault, our entire company intranet is a wiki.  Anyone who works with us can edit the content on it, add new pages, delete stuff that they think is out of date or unhelpful, and so on - from small typo fixes to multi-page documents and images.  If someone makes a change that needs to be un-done, the wiki software lets us "roll it back" or otherwise incorporate only partial changes.  All of this gives us the opportunity to have an intranet "by and for" its users and our staff, instead of something built and maintained solely from a management point of view.

Wikis aren't appropriate for every kind of website, or even most kinds, but I've been thinking lately about what it would mean to have wikis power city, county and state government websites.

If these sites are primarily meant to be informational tools for use by the people who live in a given geographical region (and who are theoretically paying for the site's creation and maintenance), could governments give those people some control over the content on those resources?

Continue reading State and local government websites as wikis?

Everything on the Internet is Free!

Brian Keith Whalen rocking out at the Starr Gennett Walk of FameAfter my post this past weekend about why I think paying for access to local news reporting is worth it, I checked out some of the reasons that people who were complaining about said fees were giving for not wanting to pay.  Chief among them was the argument that "if it's on the Internet, it should be free!"

I hadn't previously thought about how mainstream that line of thinking probably is right now.  But it makes sense.  The dominant business model for so many Internet resources over the last several years has been to give away access to tools, content or other things and then either sell advertising or sell a "premium" version (Wired magazine had a good story on this trend back in February of 2008 if you want to see how much it's taken hold even in that short time).

People are used to learning of some new service or app, putting in their e-mail address and picking a password (if that much), and they're off and running to use the shiny new thing.  Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Google let users spend all day using up their resources at no charge.  You can download high quality web browsers and entire office software suites for free.  Pandora lets you listen to and discover great music all day long for free.  There are paid apps in mobile app stores, but the free or $0.99 ones get most of the attention.

Continue reading Everything on the Internet is Free!

Transparency redux, with progress

A month ago I blogged about some specific examples of what it would mean for local government and related organizations to be more transparent in their operations.  I also sent a copy of my remarks to nine local elected officials asking for comment, and only two replied.

But, there have been a couple of noteworthy developments since that post:

Continue reading Transparency redux, with progress

Updated Pal-Item website disappoints

Last week, the Palladium-Item - Richmond's daily paper - launched an updated website. Here's my initial review:

Good:

  1. The site clearly continues the paper's commitment to encouraging conversations and interaction between people who track what's going on in the community. As I did in 2006, I commend them for this.
  2. The abuse reporting system in the forum is more robust. As I understand it, if a particular comment is reported as "abusive" by three or more people, it will cease to appear in the conversation thread. In the past, users could report abuse but action had to be taken by an administrative user.
  3. The system for recommending stories published on the site allows users to see what's interesting to fellow readers.
  4. With their new blogging system, any user can create a blog. While these user blogs aren't featured like the ones maintained by the staff, they are a good platform for a kind of conversation that's a little different from forum posts.
  5. The use of customizable profile photos (or whatever image a user chooses) alongside posts gives the conversation the potential to feel a little more personalized and authentic than when there were none.

Bad:

Continue reading Updated Pal-Item website disappoints