Creating a website that works for your audience and your organization

My big finish as Director of Communications for the YMCAs of Cambridge & Kitchener-Waterloo was a brand new website that met the needs of both YMCAs: I am writing this post about it because I hope that there are lessons about what we did that can benefit you and your organization.

When I arrived four years earlier, I developed a checklist of what I’d like to accomplish. A website that I inherited was on the list from the beginning and became a greater priority as it aged. A change became a must when the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA and the YMCA of Cambridge entered into a collaborative arrangement where they essentially act “as if” they were one while continuing as separate legal entities.

I am extremely proud of the new website for the YMCAs in Waterloo Region and my role in making it happen and so I’d like to use this post to point to some of the highlights. While I lead the website’s development internally, it would not have been possible without the contributions of many other staff including the Strategic Leadership Team. I also recognize that the critical role played by Tony Niederer and the team at the eSolutions Group who delivered the technical web-building expertise required. Thank you to all the individuals who helped to realize this website.


There were three main challenges that we were trying to address:

  • Everyone thinks they know the YMCA but few know it well. The YMCA’s brand and its breadth and depth of services are not well understood—even by many participants.
  • Both YMCAs had a wealth of information but it often required quite a bit of persistence to find what you wanted even if you knew it existed already—and even then the content sometimes disappointed.
  • Each person’s experience of the YMCA revolves around their personal point of contact whether that is as a parent using child care, a member of a Family YMCA or a newcomer to Canada getting help with settlement. Often these experiences were associated with different physical sites each with its own contact information.

Expanding knowledge of the YMCA brand, programs and services

The YMCA is a place where people come to experience a sense of community and to grow through their participation. It desires to assist people to be healthy in a holistic sense—the triangle in the logo represents an equal emphasis placed upon spirit, mind and body. The Y delivers its mission through a wide variety of programs that includes overnight camps, afterschool programs and early years centres.

Another fact that isn’t well known is that the YMCA is a registered charity—not only for providing assisted memberships but for the range of social services that it provides the communities it serves such as for example the Virtual YMCAs.

The new website needed to do a better job of improving people’s understanding and perception of the YMCA. One way that this was accomplished was through the navigation methods described below that help to break down barriers in people’s minds by mixing services from different areas—especially the main menu found at the top of every page. Having “Giving” listed first on this menu helped give the Y’s charitable status greater prominence. And by including so many pages dedicated to “Y Stories,” each area could highlight the experience and journey of participants thereby showing how the YMCA makes an impact on lives at all ages and stages of life.

Getting around

A needs analysis confirmed that our greatest need was to make our wealth of information easily accessible within a click or two. The solution was to give people multiple ways to get around that they could access on every page. The five options recognized that different people have different preferences for getting around websites. This plan also recognized that if someone didn’t find the information quickly one way that they could try another method.

  • The Main Audience-centric Menu – This menu presents YMCA programs according to its visitor’s needs. Each section features all the programs offered by the YMCA to groups of typical participants: donors, children, teens, adults, older adults, and immigrants. This format helps get people directly to get to the information they want with as few clicks as possible. [Note: The original menu described here was replaced on Dec. 30, 2009]

By taking this approach, we eliminated people’s needs to know and understand the YMCA organizational structure to help them get around. The main menu deliberately cuts across different service areas and groups information that shares a common audience. We enhanced the audience experience by making a deliberate effort to use everyday language and avoid internal jargon that is not commonly used outside of the YMCA.

  • The Search Tool – For people who prefer to search rather than surf for information, there’s a search bar on the top right of every page that will gets them there quickly.
  • All YMCA Programs – For people who prefer to have the full menu, they just need to click on the button at the bottom right of every page. It lists all of the most common YMCA sites and programs that they are most likely to want to visit. It’s like a high level site map without listing every page on the site—but yes, there is also a full site map you can access too with a link at the bottom of every page.
  • Getting around inside the site – Once you are inside the website, there are sub-menus on the left side of all pages. These help people get around inside each of the website’s sections. Each button describes a category of pages, a click on one shows the options without leaving the current page. Then the visitor can pick the page wanted or another category of options. If a category only has one page, clicking on it will take them directly there.

Multiple points of entry

The new website reflects people’s everyday experience with the YMCA. There are more than 40 doors to get into different YMCA sites and many phone numbers, so the website is set up so that users can go directly to the section (or microsite) that matches how they most frequently use the YMCA. In addition to the front door, we created a series of side doors featuring key ways that people interact with the YMCA. Doing so allowed frequent website visitors to go straight to the information that was most relevant. This strategy also helped the different service areas to use their own web address in their marketing material.

These microsites within the overall umbrella site are:

Everyone who enters through one of these side doors still has access to everything else the YMCA offers across Waterloo Region through the other navigation tools.

Your website needs to be at the core of your communications strategy

I hope that this inside look at some of the challenges we faced and how we met them help to guide you in making decisions on your own website. In my mind there is no question that a website needs to be the centrepiece of any organization’s communications and online strategies. It’s the only place online where you can control the message. Not to mention that it’s more cost-effective than trying to put paper into people’s hands and much quicker and easier to update since it is a living communications tool.

For more and more people, going to the web is the first way that they seek information including decisions of giving and purchasing. Rather than being an afterthought, your website must be a priority for your organization.