For many, the Internet has become the primary source of information on purebred dogs. Thus the role of parent club websites is more critical than ever. An inviting design, accurate information, easy navigation and savvy use of social media determine the success or failure of any club’s electronic initiatives. We are not selling a product here, rather creating an experience that serves to protect our breeds.
I’ve spent several weeks browsing club websites, and speaking to club webmasters and professional web designers. For a completely objective view, I sent several purebred pet owners not affiliated with clubs on a mission to locate club websites they found appealing. No surprise, pet owners encountered difficulty navigating, sometimes even finding club websites. Some mentioned that the emphasis on show winners or oversized “Members Only” links on the home page made them feel like outsiders.
But let’s start at the beginning: getting people to visit your site in the first place.
Get People to Your Site
Before we get into actual tips for optimizing websites, take note of your own browsing behavior. If a site is difficult to read or requires too many clicks to get where you need to go, you’ll likely “bounce” elsewhere. And according to club webmasters, areas that draw the most traffic include how to find a puppy, health and rescue. How easy are these to find on your website?
Most folks looking for a purebred puppy start out on the AKC site, which draws a whopping 2 million unique visitors month. According to the AKC’s Chris Walker, Assistant Vice President of Social Media Outreach/Communications, 50 percent of AKC’s traffic navigates to the breed pages. With links to all parent clubs, the AKC serves as a springboard to the club sites — something the AKC plans to expand upon in 2014.
Walker has an impressive résumé of former website clients including such heavy hitters as Sony Music. He also happens to be a Golden Retriever fancier. “The key is to set goals and keep things simple. Every club needs a defined purpose and focused appeal,” he advises.
“Our subject matter is dogs, which requires a strong visual component,” he continues. “Use more photography and images of average-looking purebreds. Images of only champions on home pages and social media can create a disconnect — particularly since a large part of the push is selecting the right breed for your family.”
Focus on the Goals of Your Site
As parent club sites have evolved over the years, some have lost sight of the original mission, which is to provide information for potential club members, as well as existing club members. Clearly defined objectives for maintaining a functional website might include, for example:
- Communicate accurate information about the breed.
- Invite people into the site; make everyone feel welcome.
- Target pet owners, club members, breeders and judges with up-to-date information.
- Prioritize the target audience (and understand that pet owners are least familiar with site navigation).
- Attract new members.
Pay Attention to Design
- Keep copy short and sweet. Few visitors will take time to read copy-dense pages.
- Choose an easy-to-read font size, style and line spacing to simplify reading. Bigger is not better, and too small is illegible.
- Speak in layman’s terms and with clarity. In health sections particularly, avoid “researcher speak.” Copy should be written for at 8th grade comprehension level.
- Break large areas of copy into bite-sized pieces. Add links to “Read more…”
- Keep your site template a manageable width. Full-screen pages are difficult to view on many computers.
- Be aware of the increasing trend of folks viewing sites from mobile devices.
- Avoid “headache” font colors such as bright reds, greens and blues.
- Reward site visitors with quality photos of the breed in a variety of situations — at home, in competition and in other fun situations — featuring dogs and people of all ages.
- Hire a professional web designer for the initial build and any major overhauls — costs for non-profits are typically less than half the commercial rate.
- Proofread thoroughly. Nothing is worse than bad grammar or typos, which leads visitors to question your credibility.
- Keep important information “above the fold,” meaning that the information is visible on the page without the visitor having to scroll down.
Be Visible and Accessible
- Follow the basics of SEO (search engine optimization), and help search engines find your site by planting keywords, phrases and other breed information in page content.
- Submit your website to the major search engines’ Internet directory pages. Follow the instructions to send required information about the site so that you are registered and more easily found.
- Update content frequently, no less than once a month. A site that is frequently updated with fresh information earns a higher position in website rankings. The same applies to Facebook and other social media.
- Assign updating responsibilities to committee chairs, ensuring any updates are consistent with overall site design, and provide them updates in groups rather than piecemeal so they can manage their time more efficiently.
- Make sure your webmaster is enthusiastic about the mission and current on Internet trends.
Remember Your Audience
- Focus efforts on the information needs of your primary audience, i.e., “the customer.”
- Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and talk directly to them one-on-one in your site’s written content and visuals. Become their friend, information source, instructor and mentor for every topic.
- Make website visits easy, pleasant and rewarding for every visitor. Whether they are looking for a family pet or an event, treat them to a unique journey.
- Give breed fans a feedback method, such as a comments section or Facebook page, to create a two-way street for maximum interaction and an opportunity to improve your club and protect the breed.
Examples of Well-Managed Parent Club Sites
The Golden Retriever Club of America truly understands its audience. The GRCA site attracts nearly 75,000 visitors a month. Even though the site is currently undergoing another overhaul, the site organization and layout is visually appealing and easy to navigate. The “Want a Puppy?” link jumps out at you on the home page, complemented by a lovely image of a Golden Retriever (no, not the national specialty winner!).
Webmaster and Golden fancier Janelle Stubert works as a professional web designer. “With GRCA, the key mission is to reach people who love or are new to the Golden Retriever breed,” she says. To do this, the club needs a successful website, and “upkeep of content is critical to a successful club website,” she says. “This means club members must remember to let me know when they have some great new information.”
She recalled a video created by a club member called “What Responsible Breeders Really Do” for which she set up a YouTube/Google+ page. The video went viral, which was a thrill for the entire club. “It gave breeders a voice in response to the onslaught of animal rights attacks. The updating, search optimization and video has boosted traffic to this area of our site, almost overtaking the Health section, which is the most frequently visited page.”
Anyone is invited to join the GRCA club by simply clicking the “Join Here” button. It is a seamless process with payment and membership renewals all handled online. Unlike many parent clubs, the GRCA welcomes everyone with interest in the breed in an effort to help encourage good breeding practices while providing sound information to pet owners, members and prospective puppy buyers.
The Newfoundland Club of America is yet another example of a club site that instantly makes you feel welcome, regardless of your connection to the breed. Redoing the site several years back took nearly eight months, according to webmaster Mary Lou Zimmerman.
Her advice to other parent clubs? “Go into the process knowing it’s not a one-time project. It’s like a houseplant — you have to water it to grow. Ongoing updates are critical. Keep things fresh, new and market your site on social media.”
Zimmerman invests about 40 hours a month managing six NCA sites, including ncanewfs.org, newfpup.org, Facebook, Squidoo, Pinterest and eNotes. The main site draws 10,000 to 15,000 unique visitors a month with a spike during Westminster and the national specialty. The puppy and health sections remain the most visited areas of the site. As with GRCA, the NCA’s central mission is to provide correct information about the breed to prospective puppy buyers, breed fanciers and NCA members.
In addition to her many tasks as Chair of the Electronic Publications Committee, Zimmerman often infiltrates chat groups with short answers to simple questions, such as, “What’s the best brush to use on my Newfoundland?” in order to drive traffic to the main site.
Brimming with enthusiasm, she’s a stickler for keeping the site clean, consistent and informative, using simple language and an image-dense design. “The use of images and videos helps capture the imagination, and breed clubs need to embrace that,” she said.
A good example was a cardiac seminar that was taped during an NCA national specialty. “We had 75 attendees, then 700 views on YouTube of the actual video. It’s the way of the future.” She’s contemplating producing similar videos using top researchers discussing health issues in everyday terms for future uploads to the NCA site and social media. “It’s not that expensive if you do it while the expert is already at your national,” she points out.
The NCA Facebook page currently has 6,800 “Likes” and 5,000 views a month. A special “Tip of the Week” carries a link back to the parent club site. One article on therapy dogs received 9,730 hits and 130 shares on Facebook.
The club budgets under $10,000 a year for website, social media and other electronic endeavors.
The Bottom Line
A well-constructed website with complementary social media is a purebred dog’s best friend. You can triumph over the unscrupulous online tactics of commercial breeders and animal rights groups by devoting adequate time and resources to the parent club website. You are, after all, the real “authority” on your breed. Present yourself as such.
Over the coming year the AKC plans to create a centralized area on its website — a subsection, if you will — on which parent clubs can post their most important information. In addition, a special “Bailey Award” for the best club website will be awarded at the end of 2014. Details will be provided once these initiatives are underway.
Judge Whitney Coombs of Gettysburg, Pa., shared his thoughts on the importance of Judges’ Education tabs on websites at a recent show. “For judges, the Illustrated Standard is very helpful, but there’s no substitute for actually putting your hands on a dog. I prefer attending seminars to watching videos of others evaluating dogs on a website,” he said. Today’s method of finding the next generation of purebred dog fanciers and seasoned judges is to first attract interested people to your website, and then convince them to come to your real-world events like club meetings, seminars and dog shows. They will quickly outgrow videos and photos and also want to put their hands on a dog.
Finally, I want to thank my team of “experts” for contributing to this daunting subject, all of whom welcome any questions from folks on your club’s Internet team. They include: Chris Walker, AKC, firstname.lastname@example.org; GRCA webmaster Janette Stubelt email@example.com; NCA webmaster Mary Lou Zimmerman firstname.lastname@example.org; and Marietta Egervary, president of Spectracomp, a marketing/website design firm in central Pa., email@example.com.