The International Literacy Association—a 300,000+ global advocacy and membership organization of literacy educators, researchers, and experts across 75 countries—finished rebranding earlier this year from Developing this new identity required defining a branding strategy that could guide them through the entire process—even when things got bumpy. This new content vision included, most importantly, a mission change as well as a name change, domain change, and a new website with an eye toward expanding their audience. The result? Content that serves both literacy professionals as they had in the past, and people interested in helping ILA achieve their nonprofit’s new mission to create an Age of Literacy and end illiteracy once and for all.

To get the scoop on this challenging undertaking, we discussed the branding strategy and process behind ILA’s transformation with Web Content Manager Sara Long and Director of Business Solutions Christine Heesters.

What prompted ILA to relaunch its website? How did you get stakeholders on board and excited about providing a better user experience and more effective content?

Sara: The culture changed as we went with the name change in 2014. We realized that it was going to be more than just a name change; we were changing our entire brand, how we perceived ourselves and how audiences perceived us externally. So, we realized the website was critical piece. It took some convincing, but we knew we could not go through this revolutionary of a change and not make the website redesign top priority.

Christine: As Sara said, our mission changed as well. Previously, we were comfortable serving only literacy professionals. Now we are cause-based, and the website was really the first piece of that. This mean that every senior person had to give up their kingdom on the website for the greater good so everything aligned with our new vision.

What is the content vision that informed your content decisions?

Christine: The website outpaced the business a bit and represents our vision of serving both educators, our core market, and literacy champions. We’re continuing to work on how to best serve them both while always making sure to put out only evidence-based, scientifically researched content.

Sara: We looked at caused-based and membership-based organizations separately and tried to come up with something that merged the two. It’s still a work in progress, and we’re trying new types of content like infographics and case studies to help put a face on the illiteracy problem and tracking what hits. We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing.

We were also fully conscious of the fact that most nonprofits can’t or won’t make the leap that we did, and it was an exciting project because we knew that this was going to put us ahead. The leaders of our organization and other leaders in the field really believed that it was worth it.

How important was mapping user journeys to your redesign?

Sara: Creating a list of our audiences kept us focused. Our core audience for a long time was just literacy professionals, which was great, but we knew we needed to create new content to attract more people, like non-educators such as parents and believers in the cause who we hope to compel to become donors and supporters.

Structuring our navigation took the most time in the planning process so it would serve our biggest audiences to the smallest audiences. If someone came to our site, they would see the most open, most accessible content first like blog posts, social feeds, literacy statistics, and book lists. Deeper into the navigation is content for literacy professionals and upsells to that audience for premium content.

Thinking about user journeys continues to guide us, too. Now when we have an internal website request, we ask, “Who is it for?” because we were in the unfortunate pattern of spending 40+ hours of staff time on content that wouldn’t get any page views. Now we never just tack on something that someone is feeling pressure to put up—it has to have an audience in mind and an expectation of how many people will find it useful.

What did you learn about your customers during this process?

Sara: We learned to not make anything harder than it needs to be. It’s crucial we use plain language, like “conference.” And if a piece of content says ILA on it, our audience thinks we created it, even if it’s a vendor for conference registration. Internally, we have to keep reminding people that we’re viewed externally as one big brand.

What are you most proud of accomplishing with this new branding strategy?

Sara: I’m really glad we changed our name. Literacy is more than just reading, and our former abbreviation (IRA) was a problem. You can’t compete with bad press!

Christine: I agree. Our new brand broadens who we can work with and the kinds of work we can do.

How did you ensure that the user experience would be better on your new site?

Sara: For the first time we assigned a taxonomy for everything, including most of the blog posts, and improved our site search. We started over and incorporated taxonomy to filter site search in order to make the user experiences better. We also worked with a firm on a content audit to help fill in the gaps. We assigned owners to sections of the website to ensure there would no longer be large chunks of the website unchanged for years, which is what happened in the past.

How have you measured the success of your branding strategy and website redesign?

Sara: During initial testing, we got a great response with comments about how the new website was clean, modern, and inviting. And just hearing from our board members and members of our team about how this rebrand and new website moved us ahead in the field was reassuring.

Christine: It’s so different than the old site, so we’re still identifying KPIs. But a big difference is that in the past, people would put content up on the website and walk away. Now we ask, “And then what?” and ask what they want the goal to be and how to define the success of that new content, which has been a really positive shift.

What was a key process that helped move this rebrand along?

Christine: Sara kept track of what did we decide and why, which was huge in avoiding having the same discussions over and over.

Sara: I had a ton of lists!

Christine: She knew who needed to deliver what and when. Sara is also the nicest person you’ll ever meet and can leave you feeling great even if she says no. You need the point person to be someone like her who can give tough love and explanations of why we can’t do it—someone who can stick to the content vision. Since we simultaneously documented our governance process as we built the new site, it was crucial to have Sara as our content gatekeeper. She made sure that if it didn’t fit our vision, it didn’t make it on the site.

What lessons did you learn from leading this website redesign and new branding strategy?

Christine: I would have advocated harder for a longer rollout period!

Sara: Yes, and I learned how important it is to keep a holistic view of the entire website. We are a research-based organization, so our content goes through lot of review. It all has to fit together, lead to more engagement and support the overall brand and messaging. No more silos!

Christine: I would manage the messaging differently if we had to go through this again. We ripped the curtain down and did a big reveal, but that confused people who were used to getting IRA (International Reading Association) communications. We changed color, name, everything all at once, and we probably should have built up to it. It made me realize that we thought people were more invested in our brand than they actually are.

Visit the finished product and support their mission to make this the Age of Literacy here.

The Authors

Christine Heesters has worked in the web space for more than  15 years and focuses on how to meet business needs and deliver great user experiences.  In addition to her work at the International Literacy Association, she has worked in large financial institutions in a wide variety of roles in marketing, technology, and operations.

Sara Long has been working on content strategy since before it was called that. In addition to her work at the International Literacy Association, she has worked in web, PR, marketing, and more at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Delaware County Library System, and other nonprofits.

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