Essential Tools of the Internet: Using E-Mail and the Web for Effective Communication: A Public Sector Consultant Shares Ideas, Guidance, and Best-Practice Examples on How Community-Based Nonprofits Are Using These Tools to Integrate Technology into Their Communications Plans

Article excerpt

Public management practitioners, along with professionals of many community-based organizations, are seeking practical strategies for integrating technology into their communications plans. Their goal is to reach a greater audience, with an eye on the most cost-effective tools to accomplish this. In our workshop "Essential Tools of the Internet: Using E-mail and the Web for Effective Communication," we provide ideas, guidance, and best-practice examples of how community--based organizations are using these tools effectively. This article is a synopsis of that program.

Gather the Information You Need to Plan

The key to implementing an Internet-based communication strategy successfully is to learn all you can--and keep learning--about your online customer. Many nonprofits are very good at identifying traditional demographic characteristics such as age, location, income level, etc. Commercial organizations certainly have recognized the value of identifying psychographic or behavioral traits of their market segments. Brand loyalty, hobbies, and cultural backgrounds offer predictive patterns of behavior that can help you anticipate customers' online needs and wants. Finally, technographic information your constituents' access to, familiarity with, and attitude toward technology--is an area to devote much of your data-gathering efforts. Table 1 offers a guideline as you consider what current information you have versus what information you need to gather about your current and potential customers.

Know Your Online Audience

There are a variety of ways to collect this information, both "live" and electronically. One way to get information is simply to ask your audience. A survey is the most familiar and pervasive method of asking your audience about themselves and their perspectives. One caution with surveys is that occasionally respondents may tell you what they think you want to hear, or slant their feedback towards the favorable. In general, a survey is an excellent tool for gathering objective data. Other research tactics should verify and balance your findings.

There has been a significant increase in the number of online versus mailed surveys in the past year or so. Organizations can save significantly by offering a survey online instead of absorbing the printing and postage costs of a mailed survey. Online surveys only should be considered, however, if an acceptable majority of your potential respondents have access to e-mail and the Web. Otherwise, your responses will be skewed only to those with access. A combination of online and paper-based surveys can be used to accommodate a diverse audience.

Polling your site visitors, using one to three question pop-ups on your Web site, is a good way to "take a pulse" on a particular issue or topic. Many free or low-cost downloads of polling codes are available on the Web, and can be implemented easily. Respondents tend to participate more readily if you are able to offer immediate feedback--viewing a pop-up window that reports how others have answered. Your organization should consider offering polls throughout your site, in context with articles, news releases, or conference promotions on the topic about which you are querying.

More subjective and in-depth information can be gathered by asking questions in an interview or focus group format. The interviews can be conducted one-on-one or with a small group. A script is recommended so that all interviewees are asked the same questions. A focus group is useful if you would like to test thematic ideas or show examples to get subjective responses. These tactics can be conducted early in the market research program to set context or goals for an initiative, or after a survey is conducted to test assumptions gleaned from that data.

A combination of objective and subjective data gathering, using the tools described above, will result in information that gives you a comprehensive picture of your customers' characteristics, and will allow you to develop an Internet communication strategy for your organization. …