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A Good CMS Is Just the Baseline, the User Experience Is What Sets You Apart

Phil Tretheway April 24, 2024

Planning a redesign of your association website can feel like one of the most stressful projects of your year. After all, websites are expensive, high-stakes projects that will impact how your organization connects with members for years to come. Given how much of your time, budget, and resources it demands, you’re under considerable pressure to get it right. 

Marketing executives often gravitate first toward technology decisions when tackling a website redesign. The assumption is that the design will be done right, and the CMS decision is what needs your attention. 

Building an effective website isn’t that simple. A good CMS is essential, but it should be the baseline when selecting a good agency. To see the greatest results from your investment in a redesign, you have to stay focused on what’s most important: Your members.

Why a Good CMS is Only the Baseline

If you talk to five different agencies on your way to planning a redesign, you may get five different answers to the CMS question. Everyone has a preference (here’s ours, for example). 

However, a CMS isn’t a magic bullet. Choosing Drupal, WordPress, or another top-tier platform can’t guarantee an effective website. As website technology has evolved over the years, your organization can gain many of the features you need from the majority of the top-tier CMS platforms.

Baseline Requirements for a Modern CMS

Fundamentally, a good CMS will deliver the following five features:

  1. Expandability and flexibility:  The platform should be customizable to serve all the technical requirements of your organization.
  2. User-friendly editing experience: Editing and publishing should be easy and intuitive.
  3. Scalable: The CMS should expand over time to fit your organization’s current and future goals and needs.
  4. Consistent updates: Your CMS should be open-source and supported by an active community. This means that along with addressing shifting security standards, your CMS will also be in a state of constant improvement.
  5. SEO-friendly: The platform adheres to best practices to ensure your site is visible to search engines.

With these core elements in place, be weary of proprietary systems. When you use a proprietary CMS, you not only are limited to very specialized agencies and developers that can work on your website, but your organization is also at the mercy of the private software company’s development schedule for new feature releases and cost increases. By contrast, popular open-source systems ensure the platform remains in a state of constant improvement and is easy for almost any agency or developer to work on. Otherwise, choosing a CMS is no different from the debate between major automakers like Ford and Chevy. At that level, either brand provides a reliable way forward. However, your greatest priority is ensuring members have all they need to reach their destination.

User Experience is Your Website’s Differentiator

A good CMS will supply the right technical tools to generate an impact on your organization. But the greatest difference-maker comes down to how that technology is applied to create an intuitive and engaging user experience. 

How you strategize your association website’s design, content, and navigation makes up its user experience. Much like your organization’s brand, a strong user experience communicates to members who you are and what you offer.

Your CMS is important, but it’s invisible to your users. Think of the user experience as the gateway to how your members will access your website’s functionality. Everything on the front end of your website (what your members see and experience in their browser) should be designed to guide users toward the resources they need. If members can’t find or understand what your organization offers, then all that impressive technology is useless.

You can have the best CMS in the world, but your website will still be ineffective if the user experience and interface don’t resonate with your users and serve their needs.

Member-Driven Organizations Need a Design-First Website Approach

Associations have specific needs when it comes to creating a positive member experience, and each website should incorporate certain elements to be effective.

However, you must ensure that your agency partner has the right experience level in all the areas your website requires. For example, a marketing or PR-focused agency may understand how to develop a clear messaging strategy for your website, but they may lack the design and user experience expertise to create a website that resonates with your members.

An organization may also take the wrong path by focusing solely on its website’s CMS and backend technology. A tech-first or SaaS-oriented company may specialize in creating functionality for association websites. However, skills in development and databases can’t compensate for lacking marketing and design skills essential to creating an engaging user experience. When you prioritize technology, you often end up with a cookie-cutter website that doesn’t adequately reflect your organization. 

Ultimately, your organization needs a design-first agency with strong development skills that are informed by years of association experience and marketing expertise. 

How to Find the Right Web Design Agency for Your Organization

For many associations, the RFP process is the first step toward finding an agency partner for a redesign. Unfortunately, RFPs typically lead to finding one-size-fits-all solutions that won’t address your organization’s real problems

You need an agency partner that will design a user experience specific to your organization and its members. You should present the objectives for your project and evaluate how well an agency communicates with your team and demonstrates that their experience aligns with your needs.

Have they solved similar problems for associations like yours? Are the services and resources on the websites they produced organized in an intuitive way? Do their designs tell a cohesive and compelling story about the organizations they serve? Good design ensures a website works seamlessly.

When you’re working with the right agency, you don’t need to start with technology questions. Any qualified candidate should offer a strong, stable CMS. What matters most is finding a partner who will expertly plan and design the website to cater to your members. Ensuring your members will find what they need in a way that also communicates what’s unique about your organization.Does this sound like a website to carry your organization into the future? If so, we should talk.

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