Vol. 41, No. 3

Is your website nearing its expiration date? NABE Comm panel shares redesign tips

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Did your bar association redesign its website two or three years ago, thinking that would be it for the next few years … but it’s already looking stale?

If so, you’re not alone, said Liz Novak Henderson, membership, communications and foundation manager at the Monroe County Bar Association: “I’m convinced that websites age in dog years.”

How can you keep the bar’s website fresh—and stay on budget, especially given that the next revamp may be sooner than you think? Answering those and other questions on a panel at the 2016 NABE Communications Section Workshop were Henderson; Jill Presley, marketing and communications director at the Nashville Bar Association; and Lowell Brown, communications division director at the State Bar of Texas.

How is a redesign like a wedding?

Perhaps fittingly, the discussion began with the subject of budgeting. Henderson got married last year and found a lot of parallels between that exciting—and expensive—event and her bar’s website redesign in 2013. In either endeavor, she said, the budget is a critically important consideration and shouldn’t be an afterthought.

Henderson, who noted that the MCBA came in under budget on its design expense, shared three tips to help you set a sensible budget and then stick with it:

  1. Make sure to differentiate between what you want and what you need. For the MCBA, among the top needs was that the website integrate with the bar’s database. Determining your absolute essentials can be very helpful in selecting a designer, Henderson said—and in explaining that choice to members.
  2. Understand what your money is paying for. MCBA staff created all the pages once the new design was complete, Henderson said. This saved money but took considerable staff time, she noted—and every task like this takes staff time away from serving members more directly. Realize, too, that there may be surprises: The MCBA thought it could save some expense by using only photos that were already on hand, but many were not ideal for such a prominent new showcase, so the bar unexpectedly had to hire a photographer.
  3. Don’t even think about going over budget. “If you consider doing it, you will,” Henderson warned.

Branding provides comfort

Presley started at the Nashville bar in January 2016—just in time to help revamp the website and database, and fully integrate the two. She spent much of 2016 working on the layout and overall look of the bar’s website, as well as its logo and how it was presented.

“I think that sometimes, we think attorneys aren’t really paying attention to visuals, like the logo,” she said, adding that even if don’t consciously notice such things, the visual elements still subconsciously shape their first impression of the bar and its website and other communication pieces.

A consistent visual brand helps people recognize an organization or company “across the board” and regardless of what medium the person is viewing at the time, she said. In turn, this provides a sense of familiarity and comfort, she added, citing McDonald’s as an example: An American tourist in Japan who saw the famous golden arches would—for better or for worse—instantly know what to expect, even away from home.

Whether it’s the website, the bar’s logo, or any other element of communication, Presley said there are three questions to ask first:

  1. What is the bar’s mission statement?
  2. What style or image do you want to convey (e.g., professional, contemporary, fresh, local)?
  3. Who is your target audience?

Whether you want to appeal to members, the public, or both, she added, it’s important to “keep it simple.” Attention spans are shrinking, she explained, and most people online quickly scroll and scan until they find something that grabs them. “You have about 10 seconds to make a first impression,” Presley said.

When it comes to the logo, Presley said, think not only in terms of how it will appear on the website or in printed communications, but also on social media: Will the logo still come across well when shrunk down to “thumbnail” size?

The Nashville bar’s logo went from more of a traditional style with serifs to a much simpler, more contemporary sans serif typeface. In some places, it appears with the bar’s mission statement, and in other places, without, Presley said, and there’s a sub-logo that can be used by the CLE department, by the lawyer referral and information service, by the young lawyers division, and for the 100% club (for law-firm membership).

Once the new logo is established and integrated into every form of communication, Presley noted, it can be helpful to develop a graphic style guide so everyone knows how to use it appropriately in different settings. And Presley did mean every form of communication: At the bar’s picnic this past summer, the logo even appeared on the cornhole board (if you don’t know, this is a beanbag toss game with a funny name).

Also think about ways to express the bar’s brand in ways that aren’t visual, Presley advised: Even things like how the bar staff answers the phone or behaves at events can say something powerful about the bar and what it stands for.

Making your website easier to navigate

In 2014, Brown started at the Texas bar with a circumstance that many bar communicators would find enviable: The new president was “communication savvy” and opted to forego a presidential initiative so that money could instead be used to redesign the website.

Prior to that, Brown said, there had been no significant update since 2008, and the site was “cluttered, content heavy, and hard to navigate.” Adding to the visual clutter, he noted, was that there was no real focal point—and an overreliance on clip art.

Besides solving those problems, Brown added, it was essential that the redesign result in a website that was responsive, meaning that it adjusted automatically depending on what kind of device a person was using. This should be considered mandatory, and “not a choice anymore,” Brown noted—Google now penalizes sites that are not responsive, he explained.

Essential in resolving the navigation issues, Brown said, was determining which areas of the site got the heaviest use—with the idea that the most-clicked items should be the easiest to find on the redesigned site. The design firm produced a “heat map” that made the traffic patterns easy to see and understand.

Both CLE and the bar’s “find a lawyer” information received more prominence in the redesign based on this heat map and, in the case of CLE, based on members’ phone calls over the years because they couldn’t find what they needed.

Henderson agreed that member feedback can help with navigation problems. In fact, once her bar had a draft of its redesigned site, it sent a link to some young, mid-career, and senior lawyers. There was a list of five items to try to find, and the testers reported whether this task was easy, difficult, or somewhere in the middle. Members of all ages were glad to help, she added.

It can be tempting, Brown said, to focus a bit too much on member preferences and the common personal belief that “Advertising is the enemy—ignore it.” This can have real, and painful consequences in terms of ad sales, he added, so make sure that ad placement and design standards are fully included in your redesign plan.

Interestingly, most of the content from the old, cluttered Texas bar site did make the move to the new, streamlined one—it’s just organized differently. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some painful decisions regarding what should be prominent … and what shouldn’t.

The redesign involved “managing expectations,” Brown said, because—and this may sound familiar to others who have undertaken such a project—“Everybody wanted their stuff on the home page.”