An Unbranded Website Helped Push This Association’s Issue: And Grew Membership by 8%
On the face of them, unbranded websites might seek to allow those pushing products to reach a wider audience, raise awareness, or link to a branded product site. But for associations and nonprofits, is it really worth spending all that money and time on a piece of real estate that doesn’t advertise your issues and membership?
Yes, according to Scott Jones, chief executive officer of Forest Landowners Association (FLA) who would argue that an unbranded website can support advocacy, enhance educational efforts, and grow an association’s membership, in the long run.
The idea for the FLA’s unbranded site began with the realization that the conversation surrounding issues of importance to private forest landowners needed to change. But that effort was too much for one association to shoulder, says Jones.
“Every association in our industry, has some type of website, but they are too often focused internally with information of importance to members, rather than lawmakers, corporations or consumers.
Because the sites are often not search-engine-optimized, keywords that people seeking information use are not in place to bring up the sites in a search, Jones adds. “This makes it difficult for the 25-year-old staffer, or any other person who uses Internet searches to easily gather information, to find a comprehensive source of information on forest-related issues.”
And it’s not just lawmakers who benefit from broader education, says Jones.
“In our industry, environmental groups, corporations and their consumers who buy our products are often in the position of setting corporate social policy related to sustainability and environmentally-friendly practices,” he explains.
An educational platform that connects all stakeholders to develop corporate policies, as well as legal regulations that meet social responsibility goals, and are realistic and economically feasible for forest landowners, was the goal, he says.
Although Jones and his association took the lead – raising funds to underwrite the initiative in stages and developing content – other organizations also provide content and link to the site to expand its reach. “We saw this as a selfless way to initiate a coordinated education effort that does not promote one association over another,” he explains.
“Our association has a long history of working with FLA so it was natural that we would partner with the organization to provide an educational tool that benefits our members, as well as others in the industry,” says Gretchen Schaefer, vice president for communications at the National Alliance of Forest Owners.
“I was able to provide input at the creative concept level, and we share content. I think it’s important that we have an educational platform that enables us to speak with one voice.”
Because the Forest America site shares stories of forest landowners, the range of industry issues and concerns is “humanized,” points out Schaefer. “We have 22 million private landowners who are passionate about the industry, and this platform gives them an opportunity to educate others.”
News releases and emails to 67 forestry-related associations announced the launch of the website, describing its purpose, and asking each association to place a link to the site on their own websites, and to share information about the website with members. “This is how we will continue to build awareness, content, and support,” says Jones. “We want the site to be a resource for industry members, regardless of association affiliation, lawmakers, corporations and consumers.”
While the launch of the website has been successful, there are several lessons Jones learned in the process. “I realized we had not done as good a job communicating with our members and our friends or partners when I started getting calls asking if I had seen the site, and if I knew who was responsible,” he admits.
“Although we had no intention to brand it as an FLA site, I should have made sure our members knew more about it. Now that they do, it is easier raising funds to enhance and sustain its operation.”
Another lesson learned was the need for more collaborative input at the front end, says Jones. “I asked for input from some people, but my association built the site because we were focused on getting it finished. In the future, I would involve more associations at the development phase, even if it slows the process. We are seeing growing support and use of the site through links to it and visits, but we would not have to work as hard to build that support if more organizations were involved upfront.”
Even though growing his own membership was not a key goal for the Forest America site, FLA has experienced 8 percent membership growth since the site was launched.
Jones says, “This just proves that if we do our job well – represent our members’ interests – people realize the value of the association, and everyone benefits.”