Seven Ways to Get the Most Out of the Web on a Budget

I recently had the pleasure of giving a talk to some local nonprofits who were getting awards because of how well they’d integrated technology into the way the fulfilled their missions. These were smart, savvy folks working at a real grass-roots level. All were struggling with balancing the promise of the Internet and what it could bring to their organizations with the realities of accomplishing their work on budgets that were probably smaller than the monthly coffee expenditures at many of the clients we work with.

When I speak to groups, I often give them the ol’ “30,000 feet view” presentation that looks at major changes in the way business and communications work these days. It’s a good talk (if I do say so myself), but it really hits on big-picture strategies and mega-trends companies must deal with. Preparing for this talk, I realized that wasn’t going to work. They know what they want to do and why they need to do it, but they didn’t know how to assemble the tools to get things done.

So I went practical and addressed the specific things that nonprofits and smaller organizations need to do to best leverage the Internet today, then followed it up with a list of pro-quality tools they could get their hands on for free or cheap.

It was a hit.

Today, here’s that thinking for you.

  1. If you have a dollar to spend on communications, spend it online. Online marketing is less expensive, more accountable, and higher targeted than anything else. Heck, Google even lets nonprofits apply for free AdWords ads! Online advertising provides real metrics about real performance, with a lot less cost and a lot more reach.

  2. Your Web site is your most important communications vehicle. Period. There’s no other medium in which you can bring together in one place all the things that comprise you organization and its mission. Not only does the Web give you an opportunity to do that, it also allows you to utilize free or extremely cheap tools to do the work that you must pay others to do in the offline world. Above all, your site is your brand. Now that 80 percent of U.S. adults have access to it, you’d better believe it’s where they go first when they hear about you.
  3. You can do a lot of cool stuff online on a budget, but there will be tradeoffs. Whether you’re looking for social networking tools, content management or e-commerce systems, project management systems, e-mail list management tools, or even the ability to accept donations online, there’s probably an open-source or ad-supported tool out there you can use for free. But “free” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get everything you want. You may have to put up with ads, you may have to hire a developer to configure it for you, or you may not have as full a suite of features as other commercial products. Know your limits and decide.
  4. Nurture your nerds. When I say “nerd,” I mean it in the most loving way possible. I’ve been one all my life. Having a techie you can count on is very important, particularly in getting open-source software to work the way you need it to. Find someone who knows what he’s doing and be nice to him. Really, really nice.
  5. Decide on a platform and stick with it. If you’re going on the Web on a budget, you must understand there will be tradeoffs, depending on what kind of server platform you settle on. Get some help and figure out what’s going to work best for you. Once you’re locked in, you’re locked on. If this makes you nervous, you may want to go with as many hosted Web services as you can. Heck, because Blogger allows you to FTP (define) your blog postings, you may even want to consider it cheap CMS (define).
  6. Get professional help for what matters. What matters? Design, for one thing. When Consumer Reports Web Watch surveyed consumers about how they decide whether a site’s credible while surfing, the number one criterion was design. Yup, design. Design matters. Not putting resources behind it is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. Having the IT department design your site is wrong; having the kid down the block design your site is wrong (just because she knows how to use a video camera doesn’t mean you’d let her shoot your commercials, right? Same thing.): and skimping by going with premade templates is wrong. If you’ve got any budget at all, pay for a designer and pay for a techie who will help configure things.
  7. Stop printing. Just stop. Giving up the print habit is one of the toughest things for most organizations to do. “It’s always been done that way,” or “Our people like to hold things in their hands,” or “Our members/clients/audiences don’t use the Web” are mantras repeated by those who don’t want to give up print. Baloney. Sticking with tradition doesn’t make sense, especially considering the money you’re spending on printing brochures is probably less than you’d have to spend to get a good Web site. As far as people liking physical objects, that’s probably true. But if you decide you’re only publishing online and stick to it, they’ll get over it. Besides, they might even appreciate the fact you’re saving money.

Finally, as far as that “our audience doesn’t use the Web” thing goes, prowl through some of these articles and see if you still believe that. With 80 percent of the U.S. adult population online, fewer and fewer of the people you’re trying to reach are off the grid. Yes, there’s still a digital divide, and you may have to make allowances if you serve low-income populations or other underrepresented Internet groups. But you can bet your donors are on the Web.

If you’re a nonprofit on a budget, you can save money, get better results, and reach more people online than with any other medium. You just have to be smart about it. These seven steps should help you on your way.

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