What goes into a successful association website design?

Fastspot recently received a memorable RFP from Tara Young, senior manager of content strategy and development at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). What really jumped out at me was the fact that NEI, the primary trade organization for the nuclear energy industry, didn’t just want a prettier or “nicer” website. Instead, they wanted to completely rethink the role of the website in interactions with policymakers and the media. Doing so would require a redesign, a complete change in its approach to content, and a significant act of organizational will.

For any association, this is a pretty audacious goal. NEI’s challenges are further heightened by the fact that nuclear energy is a technically complicated field. Public perception and understanding are nuanced and need to be addressed.

Fastspot was selected as NEI’s partner on the website redesign project, and was excited to work with the NEI team to help them achieve their vision for the site.

Now that the dust has settled and the team has caught up on sleep, I asked Tara to join me for a conversation about how she tackled this process, what she learned, and what other content and digital managers at membership or trade associations should know before diving into a project like this one.

Insist on high-level support.

A website redesign usually begins at the top: somebody has to give the organization the green light to move forward. Ideally, that support doesn’t consist solely of budget approval and a quick glance at the design. There’s a big difference between having assumed or implied support, and having real, visible commitment from the leadership of the organization. For Tara, the very tangible commitment of NEI’s president CEO, Maria Korsnick, had a huge impact. 

"Overall, this is such a success because we had our CEO’s buy-in and support throughout the process. Every time I stepped into the room to give a presentation to our executive team, I went first and the CEO made the room give me 100% focus."

At NEI, the website discussion wasn't just a box to be checked. It was an ongoing, substantive conversation. The organization knew that when NEI needed participation from the team, the CEO was behind it. Fastspot can verify the impact of Maria’s participation as well. She was an active and engaged participant in the pitch meetings even before the contract was signed. From our very first in-person interactions with the NEI team, we knew that we were dealing with an organization that would be able to deliver on the high-level strategic goals that were being set, because we were seeing those commitments being communicated clearly by the CEO, and supported by everyone else in the room.

Don’t shortchange the RFP.

As NEI prepared to get the ball rolling on this project, Tara reviewed a couple of the RFPs that had been used at the organization in the past. They were a handful of pages, and focused primarily on technical needs for the website. For this kind of transformation, these few pages weren’t going to be enough.

"Our RFP was like my manifesto. I knew it needed to be a strategic document, so that everyone touching this was on the same page. We needed to change hearts and minds about nuclear."

Tara knew that she couldn't achieve her objectives with the current website, and the RFP was a foundational document in getting where she needed to go next. 

The pitches that resulted from the RFP really helped NEI to crystalize what they wanted from the website, initiating a shift to a user-focused perspective which was carried throughout the project. Rolling out a generic RFP would have inspired pretty generic responses from potential partners, and wouldn’t have set the right tone for the partnership or the end result.

From the standpoint of a potential partner responding to the RFP, we appreciated the additional detail and depth. Our objective is to craft an approach for each client that speaks directly to organizational priorities. The more we know about the project up front, the more we're able to focus on meeting a client's needs.

Clearly communicate with association members.

For complex organizations and associations, it’s very common to have multiple audiences hitting the website. The public should be able to engage with your content, but you also have subject matter experts and members who are coming to you for information that is either private or too specialized to be of value to the general public. When it comes time to redesign a website, it’s quite possible that (due to time constraints, budget constraints, or a combination of the two) decisions will have to be made about what can be done now, and what must be done later. For NEI, it was necessary to immediately focus on and modernize the public site, even though that meant putting off work on the member experience until a later phase.

This did create a little bit of frustration with members who weren’t sure what to expect. For others approaching a project like this, Tara recommends being very transparent with association members about what they can expect.

"Anyone taking on a project like this should make sure that the immediate team and c-suite are aware of the choices you’ve made and why you’ve made them, so that they’re prepared for feedback from members or other stakeholders as well."

Communication planning about a website redesign can take many forms. Fastspot has helped clients put plans in place for regular in-person updates, redesign blogs, launch-related messaging, etc. There are always going to be people who don’t like change, but staying in front of the issue can ensure that your audiences know what to expect and when, and will give you the benefit of the doubt as they navigate a new process.

Be realistic about content.

As Tara and her team entered the later phases of the project, they realized that content was going to be a very heavy lift for the team, even with outside support. Content development is always a critical part of the new success of the website, but it was particularly so for NEI, which represents an industry that is highly technical and highly regulated.


"Content was one of the more challenging assignments, if not the most challenging. We had to completely change the way we were talking about ourselves, and we had to work closely with subject matter experts to do this."

Planning for content creation or refinement should begin as early as possible in the project, so that you’re giving your team the maximum amount of time before launch. Having a clear content development plan can also ensure that you are setting expectations realistically about the impact on your launch date.

Prioritize trust and strong relationships.

With any website redesign, it’s easy to get caught up in technical or design details—the nuts and bolts of the website. Tara’s experience (and our experience working with NEI) is a great reminder that at the end of the day, the success of an endeavor like this is just also dependent on trusting relationships and fruitful collaboration. Whether you’re building on relationships with experts inside the organization or building trust with a redesign partner, the human connection is critical.

Looking back at the project, Tara believes that the key to her success was a highly-integrated team and mutually respectful team. 


"We’ve continued to get positive feedback about the site. It’s modern, it sets a new tone, and it has really helped elevate the conversation about nuclear energy. The site is definitely achieving the goals that were set for it."

Fastspot's experience with the NEI website redesign (and many projects for associations, non-profits, and cultural institutions) bears this out as well. 

For all the design and technical details that go into a project like this, it is ultimately a very human endeavor. The ability of a team to work together collaboratively, productively and with a spirit of mutual support may be the ultimate predictor of success. 

Thanks again, Tara, for your partnership on the project and for sharing your insights for this post!

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published August 20th 2018