Blog Archives

From the Idealware Blog: A Year End List of Lists

(originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

In the last week of the year you can count on at least  two things it seems: the ubiquitous  “last chance to give a tax deductible donation” emails from your favorite organizations and recap and top 10 lists from just about everyone online. A favorite way for bloggers to draw us in, lists can actually be very useful to pare down the vast amount of information out there into bite size chunks we can consume in one sitting. Read more ›


Idealware publishes updated Open Source CMS report

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of Idealware, the nonprofit that does research and publishes information on technology for other nonprofits.

So it comes as no surprise that I have been delighted to co-author the  2010 Comparing Open Source Content Management Systems: WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and Plone report. It includes unbiased detailed reviews with a feature summary,  as well as a directory of consultants. Read more ›


NTC & 2 new posts at Idealware

The Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Francisco at the end of April was really great this year. The opening speaker Clay Shirkey (author, Here Comes Everybody) was fantastic and amazingly quotable. I liked that he was able to project both a 30,000 ft view of the social media landscape and drive home some very practical and common sense lessons that nonprofits can use right away.

While I was there I took the opportunity to interview fellow bloggers for the Idealware blog and am posting their thoughts on that site.

Here are the first two Get to know the Idealware Blogger interviews:
Part 1: Steve Backman
Part 2: Laura Quinn

Look for the next in the series coming soon. I had the best time getting to chat with these super smart people and look forward to continuing the converstations post NTC. Really it was, as always, all of the brilliant dedicated people that make the conference a yearly tradition and I am already looking forward to Atlanta next year.


From the Idealware Blog

More Fun with Open Source Content Management

(originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

I’m really thrilled that the Idealware report comparing 4 top-notch open source content management systems is now available. I think it will prove invaluable to nonprofits of all shapes and sizes for a long time to come and know I will be recommended reading for many friends and potential and future clients.

Even if you have already seen the CMS Showdown and the competition sites implemented on WordPress, Drupal and Joomla now that the report is out they are worth another look.

If you didn’t make it to SXSW conference or haven’t heard about this brilliant project – here is an excerpt from the site:

Originally presented at South By Southwest Interactive in March, 2009, the Ultimate Showdown of Content Management System Destiny is an “Iron Chef”-style competition pitting three teams of all-star Web developers from the Drupal, Joomla! and WordPress communities against each other to develop the same Web site in each of their chosen open source content management platforms.

In addition to a fascinating look behind the scenes at each teams decision-making process, there are lots of productive insights to be gained by looking at the finished products of their labors. Many of the key points in the Idealware report are evident on the demo sites and by reading the team notes.

Despite (or maybe because of) the 100 hour total development time limit, each site demonstrates its system’s strengths and weakness fairly accurately or I should say in keeping with my own experiences of them. Not all of them managed to accomplish all the requirements, which points out what takes more time or work to implement for that particular system.

One thing that can be confusing is that the specifications for the site required that most of the content be available only to authenticated users. The sites for Drupal and Joomla, who were able to achieve this, seem a bit bare, especially Drupal where they didn’t create any publicly viewable items in some areas. So you can’t access the galleries, blogs or member listings and its a pity that there doesn’t seem to be a demo user/password available anywhere to see the full sites. If anyone knows of one, I would love to take a look.

Also, sadly there was no invitation for a Plone team this time around, but if you want to see it included next time I’d suggest you contact the organizers.

Check out the CMS Showdown as a handy companion piece to the Idealware CMS report for a real world apples to apples demonstration (sort of) of how each system looks at some familiar features. And read the team notes on cmsshowdown.com for some helpful hints and tricks the they used on the sites.


From the Idealware Blog

Great Resources on Vendor Websites

(originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

One of the great things about working in the nonprofit sector is the spirit of sharing and helping one another succeed that I continue to find among organizations and consultants for online technologies. Many resources on how to choose technology and how to use it wisely are available from great nonprofit and consulting companies. But the hungry mind wants more so, although it might be obvious, I wanted to share another great way to find metrics, best practices and how to guides – technology vendors resource sections.

Over the years I have found that many vendors of both nonprofit and for profit technology and services offer a wealth of high quality information on their sites that cover far more than just their own products. I see it as enlightened self-interest, since successful customers are happy customers and the basics apply no matter what platform you are using for your web site, fundraising or bulk email.

Here are just few that I have found worth checking in on regularly, but be sure to check for a resources section on your own vendor’s websites.

Email Vendors
http://mailchimp.com/resources/
http://www.campaignmonitor.com/resources/
http://www.emaillabs.com/best_practices/ (Lyris)

Websites and Fundraising
http://www.wildapricot.com/resources.aspx
http://www.convio.com/resources/
and some older but still useful items at Kintera/Blackbaud

Network for Good has a whole site about fundraising:
http://www.fundraising123.org/

But wait there’s more!
Don’t forget that most of the time resources for profit companies are equally useful in the nonprofit sector or can be with a little adaptation. Check out sites offering general best practices like Marketing Sherpa and Copyblogger. You can find good advice and information that applies equally to any type of communications strategy.

Please share your own favorite vendor or for profit resources in the comments and we can all learn a little more.


From the Idealware Blog

Minimum Usability Testing: Now there’s no excuse not to do it.
(originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

According to the author of the web usability bible “Don’t Make Me Think” Steve Krug, testing one user is 100% better than testing none and testing one user early in the project is better than testing 50 near the end. To that end, I’d like to suggest testing 5 or 10 more often and found a couple of services that make it possible.

While I am afraid that too many of my Idealware blog posts have been focusing on cheap or free resources, I do believe that the easier it is for nonprofits to do usability testing regularly the better their sites will be – so here is one more post about a couple of low cost options.

Feedback Army:
Strictly a quick an dirty sort of testing, I stumbled across this crowd-sourced usability service on a blog and had to check it out. For $10 you get to set up your own questions or scenario and receive responses from 10 reviewers.

The results are, as you might expect for that sort of money, a mixed bag from a wide generic set of users. Although I really don’t believe any site should be targeting anything so broad as “general public” it can be helpful to have this kind of input. I would see this as useful for organizations doing a redesign to try out a couple of different directions or make a specific design choice (red or orange for that donate button?).

The site provides a bit of guidance for how to get the best and most useful responses and I have to say, man, is it fast – less than a day turnaround time to collect 10.

The reviewers come from a service called Mechanical Turk which, although I have been around the web a while, I had never heard of before. Its an Amazon program where users offer and accept small tasks best done by humans for small fees. Its feels a little creepy, and I do have some doubts about ethics and ramifications, but apparently it has a big following and fan base on both sides. Feedback Army acts as oversight and interface in order to maintain quality control, so only reviews they judge to fulfill your requirements filter back to you.

Overall I found the feedback to be helpful in my test case and will probably use this again when I need an “outside perspective” on design decisions.

Usertesting.com
A comment from the original blog post pointed me to Usertesting.com, which is a bit more expensive ($20 per tester) but which blew me away with what you get for your money. I submitted my site for a trial and received an incredibly well thought out and thorough review video in which you see the user’s screen and mouse movements while listening to a narrative of what they are thinking as they complete your request and answer your questions. It gave me a lot of new ideas and insight about where I was missing the mark by being too close to the subject. In addition you get a standard written report answering basic usability questions that is also useful.

Jakob Nielsen, the godfather of usability testing, makes a good case that testing 5 users will yield the highest value of information in the most economic way – so for $100, a nonprofit could conduct some of the worthwhile usability testing that seems to always fall through the cracks.

And of course if you ask the right questions you can also test new ideas and designs with your own supporters using a survey tool like Survey Monkey for free, so there really is no excuse not to do usability testing at this point.

More on quick and dirty usability testing and why you need it, as well as what to test and how, can be found on Jakob Nielsen’s site:

Fast, Good and Cheap:
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/fast-methods.html

Usability for $200
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20030602.html

Usability on Nonprofit Web sites
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/government-nonprofit.html


From the Idealware Blog

Sproutbuilder Update and Alternatives

(originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

Last month nifty WYSIWYG online flash widget maker Sproutbuilder announced its plan to move to all pay accounts by March and like a lot of organizations I was pretty concerned about what this meant for my nonprofit clients. Assurances that Sprout Inc. is committed to the sector turned into the news that there would be limited free accounts and some discount for official organizations. Last week a modified pricing structure was announced and some solid information about what is available for nonprofits became available.

The short story is that verified nonprofits can create up to 5 widgets (sprouts) with 100MB Storage and 10GB bandwidth available with a free account. Other pricing tiers will be half price or $30/mo for 5-15 sprouts and $150/mo for 15-30.

While this is decidedly good news, I did feel the need in the interim to see what alternatives exist and if any are worth exploring in more depth. The caveats about any free application or software service still apply of course and the original Idealware post on these developments by Michelle Murrain is well worth reading.

At first it looks like there are more options and decisions to make than on a new cell phone plan. But when I narrowed down the field with the following criteria some likely candidates emerged.

1. Offers a free version and looks to remain so
2. Interface to build widgets doesn’t require HTML, javascript or programming knowledge
3. Interface is relatively easy to use
4. Ability to have many types of content on several pages or tabs – photos, video, feeds, text areas
5. Ability to customize formatting and style elements, background, text etc.

    Alternatives I plan to check out in more depth include Wix, PopFly (from Microsoft) and iWidgets. I have just done a little preliminary investigation and playing around at this point, but here are my notes on each and a longer list of the other options I found.

    Wix: http://www.wix.com/
    Probably the closest match to Sproutbuilder’s ease of use and functionality but definitely geared more towards the MySpace style and audience. This shows in the widget building interface making it a bit jumbled and not that efficient for building tasks. They do have some nice add in elements like Google maps and a contact form. Free version includes a self-promotional footer when the widget is embedded.

    Popfly : http://www.popfly.com/
    I haven’t made it far into actually producing a widget yet because it requires Microsoft Silverlight browser plug in to be installed on my computer and I am not sure I want to make that kind of commitment yet to something I may never use. The orientation here is on flash games and mash-ups, but it does seem possible to create content+feed type widgets as well. I would love to hear from anyone that has tried or is using this since the idea of easy-to-make, shareable game widgets seems appealing for some nonprofits.

    iWidget: http://www.iwidgets.com/
    Advertising is added to widgets that don’t contain any of their own, so the fit for the nonprofit community isn’t great. The interface required an initial set up that included URL links to images hosted elsewhere, which might be a slight technology barrier but the actual content addition and customization interface seems solid.

    The others
    Widgetbox: http://www.widgetbox.com/
    Seems powerful but requires pretty solid coding knowledge it looks like.

    Yahoo Widgets: http://widgets.yahoo.com/widgets/widget-maker
    Also a probably a pretty powerful tool for those with tech chops.

    Blist Widgets: http://www.blist.com/what-is-blist/blist-widgets
    Pretty sweet looking excel spreadsheet type data display widgets with interactive possiblities but limited to data input/output as far as I can tell.

    Dapper widgets: http://www.dapper.net
    Offers the ability to generate a wide variety of output types (google gadgets for example) from data collected from a web site – static or RSS feed and might be worth another look.

    KickApps: http://www.kickapps.com/widgets
    Seems like widget creation is part of a larger package that requires a $100 minimum fee.

    Clearspring: http://www.clearspring.com/services/widgetmedia
    A forerunner in the widget field but it doesn’t look like they have any free or nonprofit plans available.

    These notes were the result of a very quick look around and I would be happy for any additions or corrections to my brief survey and initial thoughts. There are a lot of neat services out there and I know I didn’t find all of them or look at all of the functionalities they offer. None of the ones I summarized seems to have the same combination of ease of use and power found in Sproutbuilder though, so for now their 5 widgets for free plan still looks like a good starting place for nonprofits wanting to create their first widgets.


    From the Idealware Blog

    Should you use a volunteer or intern to do your social media?

    (originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

    Lately I have been doing some research about options for communications for Idealware and its become apparent that most organizations are hedging their bets with social media and cautiously dipping toes (sometimes more) into outreach on sites like My Space and Facebook. Everyone seems to agree on the potential of this area but its tricky to devote resources into getting involved in new arenas when resources are stretched tight as it is and desperately needed elsewhere.

    One of the recurrent suggestions I keep hearing is to get a youngster (from teen to 30) that has a native understanding of MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to help you out – like an intern or volunteer. Seems like a good idea to me, that keeps the organization up to date, open to new opportunities and avoids a painful (and expensive) learning curve for staff that are already a bit overwhelmed managing “older” technologies like the Web site CMS and CRM software.

    So on the one hand, it seems like a great way to explore social media without a big investment in fledgling area that is not yet proven to really be effective. But on the other, something about hearing it over and over made me slightly queasy. Indulging in a little navel gazing I realized that it sounded an awful lot like what organizations were saying and doing about getting on the Web in the first place. “Our board member’s son is a whiz with that internet stuff and he can make us a Web site for free!”

    Don’t get me wrong – a lot of talented and generous folks created Web sites for organizations that otherwise would not have been able to get online. And it was a good thing. But look at how we are now – most organizations would not dream of leaving such an important piece of their communications solely in the hands of an intern or volunteer based on their youth and tech skills.

    Of course the land of social media is also a horse of an entirely different color. In general, it’s much more modular and less rigid, so it can evolve more gracefully than Web sites did in the past, reducing the risk involved. And organizations seem to consider it a supplemental outreach channel at best – but then weren’t Web sites once seen that way too?

    So I still think enlisting young supporters is always a good idea and that playing to their strengths and knowledge of the new outreach channels just makes sense. But all of this just has me wondering if organizations will be saying something like “Oh, our [insert social media tool here] is so bad – it was done by a volunteer kid for us years ago – can you fix it?” at some point in the future. Will social media become so important that current experimental forays will come to haunt their organizations? I really don’t know.

    What do you think? Will organizations regret not making a serious investment in this part of their communications now or will they be glad that they were smart enough to take advantage of the skills and smarts of low budget resources while getting under way? What started as a little brain tickle has piqued my curiosity and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the subject.


    From the Idealware Blog

    Finding Inspiration in your Email List

    (originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

    End of year campaigns are finally wrapped up, with their frantic pace of getting the creative in the system on a tight deadline and segmenting like there is no tomorrow. Now you have turned to intensely pouring through all of the open, click through and conversion rates and guaging the success of your appeals. It’s one of the more stressful times for communications officers in many of the organizations I know. I hope that everyone can take a breath and take a minute to relax – you’ve earned it.

    With all the hubbub, it’s easy to lose site of the real people your email list names represent. These are people that have signed up to hear from your organization because they care about your work and want to support you. So once you have a chance to catch your breath you might want to reconnect with them and get inspired about your outreach all over again.

    Here is a little experiment you might want to try with your email or donor list to reconnect.

    What:
    Take 1 hour a quarter (or even once a month) to check in on who is signing up for your emails or donating to your organization.

    Pick 10 (or 20 or 50 if you are fast and efficient) names at random from your supporter list and quickly review their records.

    • What do you know about them?
    • Where do they live, how long have they been with you?
    • Notice any trends or similarities?
    • Any surprises?
    • Take a couple minutes and use your imagination to think about who they are, why they signed up and what they were hoping to get from your organization.

    The point of this little exercise is not to find hard data or facts to plan your next campaign around, but to get into the mindset of connecting with your email names as real people.

    Taking a look at who is on your list and seeing the names and locations is a great reminder that your list is made up of actual people and it helps to keep this at the forefront of your communications.

    Doing this once can reignite your connection to your list members, doing it regularly can provide more insight into why people have signed up and can help you write emails that are more authentic and relevant to the recipients.

    Part Two:
    If you really want to get some information, take another hour or so and write a handful of random supporters a personal email thanking them for their support and asking what they think of the emails they receive from your organization. Although you don’t want to judge too much based on such a small sample, you can bet that if you hear the same complaint or compliment repeatedly its worth thinking about and maybe investigating further.

    You might want to include a couple of specific items like the following:

    • Why did you sign up for our email – what were you hoping to receive?
    • Do you read our emails regularly?
    • What is your favorite part of them
    • What is your least favorite thing about our emails?
    • Do you receive too many or too few emails from us?
    • What would you like to see more of?
    • Offer them a link or piece of information that they might find useful – a new article on the web or fact that you have a facebook group for instance.

    Everyone likes to be acknowledged and asked their opinion, and the personal touch can mean a lot. At worst you may hear some criticism of your communications, or reach someone with a personal issue with your organization. Thank them and tell them that you are noting this and help solve any issues you can (direct someone that was charged twice by accident to your membership department for instance). In any case you will enhance your brand, spread goodwill and create a deeper engagement with at least one of your constituents. Plus you never know what good things they may want to tell you that they never would have taken the time to say on a survey or web form.

    Why do this?
    It just takes a small effort to show respect: By taking an hour to reach out and respond, you will have shown your supporter that you are paying attention to the needs of your audience and made them feel special. Since this is a casual effort you control the volume and flow of feedback so it doesn’t have to become a giant undertaking or time suck.

    New input leads to new ideas: You might also find that its a good way to generate new ideas for segmentation, campaigns and ways to personalize your merge fields in the future. And I believe that having a few personal interactions with some of your list members will change the way you approach your broader communications as well.

    Feel good about what you do: Having people give you their email address and invite you to their inbox is a sign that they are on your side and want to be a part of what you do. And if they give you their clicks or money they are showing just how good they feel about being connected with you. That is really pretty amazing and pretty cool if you think about it.

    Again, this isn’t about accurate statistics about your list, although of course you should make time to review and understand your big picture data too. This is just an exercise to inspire you about your email audience – people just like you that care about your work and your mission. Seeing that you have people in your corner that care about your cause can give you a boost of much needed energy for your next email effort and all the work that comes with doing it well.


    From the Idealware Blog

    Making a case for updating to WordPress 2.7

    (originally posted at idealware.org/blog)

    One of the lesser joys of using open source & free software has been the need to do important security and core feature upgrades manually and sometimes frequently. Although I have been a long time fan of WordPress as a super simple CMS for small sites that need dead easy administration for non-tech types, I have not loved the continual updates it requires. I will admit that this has been known to make me crabby in the past and perhaps not as diligent about keeping all my sites up to date as I should be.

    Well, WordPress just released another major upgrade – 2.7 (Coltrain), but this one is clearly worth doing and doing right now. Especially since, from here on out, they are automating the upgrade process and making it available from within the administrative interface. Woo Hoo!

    If you are using Word Press and need to upgrade here are a few good reasons to bite the bullet and do it now. These are primarily from the perspective of using WordPress as a lightweight CMS and not as oriented to hardcore blogging, where there are also significant improvements, especially with comment management.

    The value adds:

    Last manual update ever (almost). As mentioned – they have pretty much automated the upgrade process for future releases. If you have gotten fancy and tweaked core files you will need to save your changes and incorporate them of course but for most users this will make it possible for non technical folks to keep their systems up to date without as much help.

    One of my favorite improvements is the integrated plug in browser and installer. This little feature not only lets you see if a plug in exists for what you are trying to do but lets you know if its compatible and automates updates, meaning no more need to download, unzip and FTP. Its very nice, but maybe a bit dangerous since they have made it way too easy to load up your site with a ton of bells and whistles.

    Themes also now provide alerts when updates are available but as of yet, no automated one click install.

    Most secure version yet. Current WordPress users might remember the onslaught of hacking that occurred last spring and hopefully already had upgraded to at least 2.5 and avoided the pain those of us that had to dig out of a hack experienced. Although more security was introduced with 2.5 and subsequent releases, every new version protects you from more known vulnerabilities, so having the latest is always a good idea.

    New and actually improved interface. Through a community wide effort WordPress enlisted some top talent to make the administrative experience so much smoother and shinier and more usable to boot.

    The vertical navigation might take a few minutes to get used to but it does make a lot more sense. Another neato but also practical feature is the ability to choose what tools and content display on each administrative screen – if you don’t care about the latest theme news you can hide that feed and you won’t have to scroll past it anymore.

    Faster, easier, writing and editing. Quick edit and bulk editing for pages and posts is really useful for larger sites and much faster than loading individual post editing screen for simple changes to the non-content areas. I’m still waiting for a faster method of ordering pages but this is a big step in the right direction.

    And the behind the scenes speed enhancements they have included are a major bonus for those of us on shared bandwidth. The fancy 2.5 “new and improved” editor was a bit buggy and heavy to load but 2.7 seems to have smoothed things out.

    The more robust media manager is another nice addition for anyone that wants to offer PDF and zip files for download on their site without the hassle of FTP’ing files to the server.

    The downsides.

    Lack of plug in or theme compatibility. While I could see clearly that this particular upgrade was a huge step forward and well worth it, I almost decided to wait on one site because it would mean losing a particular plug in what was not compatible. And looking up the author it was clear he wouldn’t have time to update it in the near future. In the end I made the leap and will just have to wait for some of my favorite add-ons to catch up. If you use a specific plug in that is very important to your overall site functionality or your theme is heavily customized and you have hacked core files, this can be a tough call.

    The good news is that the WordPress community is pretty intent on promoting core improvements to help theme and plug in developers make their work compatible and create new options more easily.

    You have already put off upgrades for too long. If you are on an older version of WordPress getting to 2.7 may be a bumpy ride. For anyone using WordPress versions below 2.5 there can be some headaches in making the leap – often around the changes to the way the database works in the newer versions. Making the switch through a series of progressive updates can start to look like shoving a square peg in a round hole. It might be possible to export your existing content and import it into a fresh install of 2.7 but you might lose some information along the way.

    Upgrades from later versions (2.5 + 2.6) have been fairly painless but as always, backup before you start making changes, turn off all your plug ins and follow the instructions. I look forward to a pain free upgrade future, let’s hope it happens.


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