With most community groups being powered by volunteers and with tight (or often, no budget) a website can feel like a time consuming and costly tool. Stretched volunteers, costs, intimidating coding and even knowing where to get started mean that many groups have no site or one that has been dormant for years.
But there is no reason for this to be the case. As the digital officer at community charity Groundwork, I’ve seen the web evolve rapidly over the last few years. This change means the days of having to pay someone to manually code an expensive site from scratch are long gone for most of us. The great news for you is that there is now no reason why your group can’t have a beautiful, easy to use website with just a small amount of set up time.
Why you need a websiteWay back in 2009, when people were still updating their MySpace pages, the web had already become the main source of information for most people. Fast forward to 2018 and for the majority of people, a Google search is the start and end of any query. This applies just as much to information about their local area as it does to finding the right pair of shoes, results from the last match or contacting the local council.
A website is going to give you the opportunity to engage a much wider audience of people in your area. This engagement is going to make recruiting new members easier, will allow wider consultation to make sure your activity best matches the needs of your whole community and lets you better publicise activities like events or meetings.
It is also a statement of intent; it shows the community that you mean business and are here to stay. A decent website will also make you stand out and make you look more professional to journalists, potential funders and partners. If nothing else it will mean they can easily find your contact details to talk to you about that grant.
Pick a website lead
It’s fairly common for community sites to be launched and updated enthusiastically for the first few months but for this to peter out as other priorities take over. One way to avoid this is to nominate one of your group to take ownership of the site before you even start the build. Ideally, this will not be the Chair as they usually have their hands full already.
If you are lucky enough to have someone that already knows their way around websites that’s great! But bear in mind when choosing a system that they might not always be around. You might get a beautiful website, but if the creator moves away and you can’t update it then it won’t help you much.
OK, I’m convinced, but don’t I need to know loads of complicated code?
The great news is that newer website building tools mean you can create a cheap, easy and beautiful website without writing a single line of code, configure servers or set up domains. These tools have a simple to use drag and drop system, are as easy to use as a word processor and come with ready-made and well-designed templates. Best of all, most are cheap or even have a free option.
Options(Note: The following is a list of some of the options out there that I’ve used and I am familiar with. It should be seen as a place to start, but not as an official endorsement of these sites. There are others out there and they might be better suited to your specific needs. I’ve chosen these examples based on the assumption that your group needs a simple to use system at a low cost, as in my experience that is what most groups need.)
Drag and drop website builders - Squarespace, Wix and Weebly
These three services provide well-designed templates for websites that you can customise by dragging and dropping content. Most of the time you edit them in the front end, seeing immediately what your changes look like without having to publish them. This makes them very easy to edit and they come with hassle-free hosting.
You simply create an account with them, select a template and get going. They usually come with a website address that includes their own company name and/or adverts at the bottom of the page. For a small monthly fee you can upgrade to pick your own web address and remove adverts. They also tend to come with support if you get stuck, although the quality varies from provider to provider.
All three of the examples I've listed below let you create test sites for free, so I recommend creating an account and having a play with them to see what you like and if it offers the features you need.
Wix sites are easy to set up, they have nice templates and you can build a site for free as long as you don’t mind using a web address that has their name in it and having a Wix advert in the footer and header. At the time of writing, you can upgrade to their ‘Combo’ package for £5.16 a month which lets you pick your own domain (website address) and remove adverts - which is probably all you need.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Wix allows you more flexibility in where you place content than the other options but that means you can’t change templates later. Once you have picked one template you have to stick with it or start again from scratch.
Weebly works in the same way as Wix with drag and drop and templates. They also offer a free option with the same limitations as Wix. You can upgrade to their ‘Starter’ package for £5 a month to get your own domain and remove adverts. It offers slightly less control over where your content can be placed but that means you can swap templates easily.
For my money, Squarespace offers the most attractively designed templates. Some of them are just stunning. However, although you can build a test site for free, you have to buy a package to make it live. Their ‘Personal’ package is probably enough for most groups and offers a domain and no adverts for £10 a month. As with Weebly, you have slightly less control over where your content can be placed but that means you can swap templates easily later.
There are also lots of other similar website builders out there but I don’t have a personal experience of using them. These include: 1 and 1 (https://www.1and1.co.uk/website-builder), GoDaddy (https://uk.godaddy.com/websites/website-builder , 123reg (https://www.123-reg.co.uk/website-builder/), vistaprint (https://www.vistaprint.co.uk/digital-marketing/websites) and many more.
Around 30% of the web is powered by WordPress and with good reason, it is a robust and easy to use system with a huge amount of flexibility. That said, it is a little more complicated to set up than the previous options, but you get far more control and ability to grow.
The first thing to be aware of is that there are two versions of WordPress:
For most people WordPress.com is the best option, so that is what I will outline from this point on.
You can create a website with Wordpress quickly, cheaply and easily. As with several of the website builder listed earlier, you can get started with the free version which still gives you access to a huge number of templates, but you will have to have a web address (domain) with WordPress in it and adverts for Wordpress.com will appear. For just £3 a month you can remove the ads and add a custom domain (web address).
A huge advantage of using such a popular platform is that there is a thriving community of people building themes and thousands of helpful plugins to help you create extra functionality like forms, shops, galleries and many other things. It’s also easy to find articles and videos offering help and tips. If you want to integrate other services (like sending email newsletters for example) then most companies will have created snippets of code specifically for WordPress that make it easy to embed them in your site.
There are a few things to be careful about:
There are numerous other Content Management Systems out there to build your website on but they are generally not as easy to use or flexible or more are more expensive. They include Concrete 5 (https://www.concrete5.org/) Drupal (https://www.drupal.org/), Joomla (https://www.joomla.org/) and Umbraco (https://umbraco.com/).
Agencies and freelancers
If you have a budget to work with then buying in help can be a great way to get started. But the important thing is to make sure you retain editorial control over your site. You need to be certain that if you run out of budget you can still update your site and, even if you have the money, you want to be able to create and update content without having to pay for it.
Many dedicated website agencies are not really geared towards small projects with small budgets, so most of them will be unable to help.
A quick search for cheap web design is also likely to produce several local companies that specialise in low-cost sites, usually around £200. The quality can be good depending on the company, but you might find you end up with a static site that you can’t edit yourself.
Some print shops also offer a website design service. These tend to be low cost but I’ve found that companies operating outside of their core offer struggle to do it as well as a specialist.
Depending what you need, it might be an option for you but make sure you know what you are getting for your money.
A good freelancer can be a great investment. Depending on who you use, they should be able to get you online with minimal fuss for a reasonable price. She is also going to be able to bring her experience to your build, which can be very useful. Don’t underestimate the importance of someone helping you to create a logical and easy to use structure. In many ways, this is far more important than an attractive design, as users are most interested in finding the right information easily.
Your freelancer will be able to offer this advice and he’ll also recommend systems to match your needs. He might use a tool like those I’ve discussed earlier, such as Wix or WordPress, but he’ll take away most of the stress of getting the site up and running.
Before you select your freelancer make sure that you see some of their previous work so you can assess the quality of their design and technical skills. If you see poor layouts, text in Comic Sans and lots of flashing gifs, look elsewhere!
It's also even more important to be certain that you’ll retain control of your website and that you can edit it yourself. As you are working with an individual you need to be sure your site will continue to be accessible if that person is no longer around for whatever reason. For example, tools like Adobe Muse allow designers to create you well-designed websites in a similar way to a Photoshop document, but you need expensive software and the original files to make more than minor changes to them.
Other factors to considerPhotography
Images can make or break the design of your site. Many templates rely on a strong image to look good and will often look terrific with the stock photo they come with by default. However, as soon as you replace it with a lower quality image it can ruin the look of the whole page. If you are lucky enough to have a talented photographer in your group then a theme or template with large full-screen images will look great (many Squarespace templates are particularly reliant on great images for example). If you don’t, I recommend a design that might be less striking to look at and more text-heavy but which will allow you more leeway to use lower quality images.
Also, make sure when you resize images that they don’t get distorted because you’ve changed the ratio and keep an eye on the file size and resolution. If the file size is too large it will slow your site’s load time down, if it’s too low res it’ll look messy and pixelated. I also recommend avoiding stock photos if you can. Your visitors know your area and the generic look of stock images will make them look obviously out of place.
This is obviously subjective, changes with fashion and depends on the purpose of the website. Generally the old ‘less is more’ rule is a good guide on the web. Don’t be afraid of lots of white space as it allows your content to be easier to take in, especially on small screens. To get a sense of what other people do well I recommend looking at award-winning examples featured on awards sites like the Awwwards (https://www.awwwards.com/) for inspiration.
Ready for mobile devices
Around 50% of web traffic is from mobile phones and tablets at the time of writing (January 2018) and this may well increase even more over time. A few years ago Google also made changes to prioritise mobile-friendly websites in their search results. So, for the sake of your users and to ensure you are as discoverable as possible, it’s important that your site is easy to use on a mobile device.
Most website building tools come with this built in, but be sure that the system and templates you choose can automatically resize to fit smaller screens and can be navigated with touch screens rather than a mouse. If possible, pick one you can also edit from your phone, this can be very helpful if you’re out and about and have to make a quick update.
Optimising your site for search engines (called Search Engine Optimisation or SEO for short) can be a daunting prospect but there are a few things you can do easily to help. Picking a system that is set up to take this into account from the start is a big help, so look for that as one criteria when you pick one.
Also consider the kinds of words you would expect someone to type into a search for your page and make sure they are in the title of the page and a few times on the body. Don’t overdo it so it looks unnatural, but including this in your copy will help you to be found.
Always add ‘alt tags’ to images you upload. This is text description of the picture designed to help people who are visually impaired to understand what the image is of. But search engines can’t see either, so they rely on this information too. Most website systems have a quick and easy way to add this information and I recommend you do it.
The main thing you can do is create useful content regularly. This will help your search ranking and encourage people to link to you, which helps search engines to decide that you are worth promoting.
Also take care with some SEO advice, often it is good, but some dodgy methods to get your site to rank higher in search results in the short term will ultimately cause you big problems later. It has also changed a lot over time, so advice from a few years ago could be obsolete. When researching this check that the information is from a reputable source and the publish date is not too old.
The experience of browsing the web is not the same for everyone. If you are visually or hearing impaired or colour blind you will interact with sites differently to other visitors. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to create a site that is perfect for all visitors but there are simple things you can do to help.
Generally, in addition to being a good thing to make it useful to as many people as possible, thinking about the accessibility of your site makes it better for everyone and easier for search engines to understand, so it’s worth putting some thought into.
This site article gives a good overview: https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/guide-web-content-accessibility/ and you can find out much more from W3C, the people responsible for setting web standards: https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php.
Social media and email newsletters
Ideally your website should be the hub that is supported by, and supports, your other communications. It’s useful to have a few other tools online to help get your message out there and I recommend:
Once you have these set up you should promote them on your website in an obvious location to encourage more followers. In social posts and email newsletters, you can rarely provide the full details because of the amount of space you have. This is where your website comes in, acting as the hub that you link stories on your newsletter or social media posts back to for more information about the event, news story or update you have posted about. Working together they help your audience to grow and you to get your messages out.
I’ve tried to make this guide as comprehensive as possible and that I've convinced you that creating a website for your group is a good thing to do.
It can look a little daunting, but the truth is that it’s now pretty easy to create a low cost or free website for your community group - maybe even fun (I know I enjoy doing it). It may not be perfect straight away, but any site is better than no site and one of the great things about the web is that you can change it and improve it over time as you get more familiar with the tools.
Good luck and I look forward to seeing what you have created!
If you are on Twitter you can find me tweeting as @mortal_kumquat or find Groundwork tweeting as @groundworkuk.
Post by Ben Leach, Groundwork UK
The Federation of Groundwork Trusts. Lockside, 5 Scotland Street, Birmingham, B1 2RR. Tel: 0121 236 8565. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Charity registration number 291558 | Company reg 1900511