How To Create a Cohesive Digital Experience When You Have Multiple Websites

by | June 10, 2020

Long gone are the days when every organization had just one website.

Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s common for most mid-to-large nonprofits (and even some small ones) to have multiple websites tailored to specific audiences or purposes.

Usually, these sites are first developed and launched on a one-off basis. Over time, the organization assembles a hodgepodge collection of sites with different designs and underlying tech.

If you’re in this group, you’re probably dealing with a few issues:

  1. Your sites are visually disjointed. Each looks fine in isolation, but viewed as a collective, they don’t fit together. This concerns you because you want to provide a cohesive digital experience to your users as they explore your portfolio of sites.
  2. Staff struggle to fully utilize your portfolio of websites because they have to re-learn a new platform from scratch every time. This friction manifests itself in reluctant staff and glacial progress on digital initiatives.
  3. Stuff breaks…a lot. Different website platforms, different versions, different web hosts—it all adds up to a big game of whack-a-mole where you seem to spend more time treading water instead of moving forward.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I have no magic bullet for you (sorry).

Rather, I’d like to discuss a set of unifying principles and themes you can use to think about how to develop a more cohesive digital experience across your site portfolio.

Standardize on as few platforms as possible

When I talk about standardizing, I mainly mean your website platform (e.g. Drupal, WordPress, etc) and to a lesser extent, your website hosting.

If you choose not to standardize your website platform, you will exacerbate a few issues:

  1. The tech training and adoption barrier for staff
  2. The cost (both in terms of money and staff time) of working with either multiple vendors or having to context-switch between subject matter experts within a single vendor relationship

So how do you decide which platform to standardize on, exactly?

The honest answer is that it usually involves one or more of the following factors:

  • The preference of an existing vendor you already work with, or one you want to work with
  • What platforms you’re already using, and any preferences of existing staff
  • What you have heard about platform X/Y/Z from your friends and colleagues

Whatever you choose, I recommend you prioritize flexibility and scalability in your decision-making process. Organizations change, strategies change, people change, and your tech stack needs to be able to keep up.

Develop a unified brand identity

“Unified brand identity” is the kind of nebulous phrase that doesn’t really have the same definition for every organization. Here’s what I mean by that, specifically:

  • You are clear on the audiences for each of your sites
  • You have an overarching message for your organization, and a more specific, tailored message for individual sites
  • You have a high-level style guide for your organization that governs every site, and a unique implementation of that style guide on each site appropriate to the audience

In essence, it’s just getting really clear on how each piece of your digital portfolio rolls up into your organization’s mission, vision, and strategy, and then defining visual guidelines to define each separate piece as part of a cohesive whole.

Make smart investments in your own set of tech tools

When you have standardized on a particular platform and developed a unified brand identity, you can begin to create tech tools to implement these decisions more easily.

Here are some practical examples of what I mean, using Drupal (since that’s what Brooks Digital specializes in):

  • If you find yourself rolling out frequent microsites that are very similar in nature, you can create a Drupal distribution (think of it like a site template you can duplicate) that provides the same core features across every site. Future updates to that distribution will also get applied to existing sites using that distribution.
  • You can digitize your brand guidelines into a “component library” using a design system such as atomic design. You can think of this component library as a set of templates for buttons, headings, forms, and other design assets that can be included and customized across all your sites.
  • You can smooth out your under-the-hood development workflow so updates can be pushed more quickly, reliably, and cheaply.

These things have tremendous value in creating a cohesive digital experience, but they are only accessible if you have both standardized on a platform and done the legwork to define a unified brand identity.

If you’re thinking that all of this sounds like a lot of work—you’re right. Depending on the size of your organization, some of these steps may be overkill. For larger organizations, they might be just right.

The important thing to remember is you don’t need to do it all at once. How can you break this down into manageable projects, even if it takes multiple years? What’s your most pressing problem—and what can wait?

And if you need some help to make sense of it all, let’s talk.

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