In the digital age, a website is often the point of first contact for someone seeking information about your organization. Although they operate as non-profit businesses, this is no different for housing co-operatives – they have and maintain websites, which is how prospective members can try and find them. But co-ops face additional challenges with their websites. Unlike traditional businesses, their websites aren’t just a way to market or sell products. Rather, they are also part of the internal infrastructure of the co-op and, to the extent that they are used for traditional business purposes, the work is often done by volunteer, non-waged, co-op members. Having a poorly designed site that lacks optimal functionality can come at a major cost in terms of members’ time and the inability to carry out basic and necessary functions for day-to-day operations.
We recently completed a major project for Marigold Co-op Housing that included a website redesign. While completing this project, we noticed some trends amongst co-op housing websites and some problems that they can cause. Here are a few of those problems and how we went about solving the problem for Marigold.
Avoid Cookie-Cutter Websites that Don’t Fit your Specific Needs
One of the quickest, easiest, and cheapest ways to build a website is to have one built by a small developer using stock templates. Unfortunately, quick, easy, and cheap in the short-term can have financial and efficiency drags in the long-term. Stock templated sites generally aren’t unique to your organization and don’t fit your specific needs. When Marigold approached us to update their website, we found the format wasn’t unique to them and it didn’t fit their content:
- Their website included content that was not up-to-date and often several years old. The problem with templated sites is that you need the developer to change content for you. This costs money on an ongoing basis if you want your site to remain current.
- Whether it was applications, maintenance, or other elements of day-to-day operations, everything was done through email. Unfortunately, this can lead to human error, including people contacting the wrong contact or co-op members simply not seeing the email. This delays completion of necessary operational tasks.
- Combining these first two problems, they had an application section, even though they weren’t taking applications at the moment. Obviously, this was outdated content. At the same time, because requests were put in through email and applicants had to maintain their applications every 6 months, member-volunteers were bombarded with emails.
Given housing coops are member-run, these inefficiencies are costly as they make day-to-day operations more time-consuming, less fluid, and subject to human errors.
Establish Priorities and Goals for Your Housing Co-operative Website
In transforming their website, Marigold wanted to focus on their members and applicants, rather than fielding questions. In creating a public-facing website we sought to create a face for the whole community that the co-op represents. It would serve as an introduction, a friendly neighbour, and a place to communicate with them. They wanted to show the personality and breadth of their community in a way that their previous website could not. But they also wanted to do what their current website did not do, including allowing for members to update the page, taking digital applications, and using it as a medium for internal communication.
Build your Website with Member-Driven Updates and On-Going Customization in Mind
In building Marigold’s website, we wanted to solve the problem of outdated content, making it possible for members to update the website on their own once we had built the site. To do this, we built their site on WordPress using Elementor Page Builder. This provided a stable, supported platform with ease of use for client updates.
WordPress is a free, open-source website builder. Approximately 40% of all websites are built on WordPress, which also means it is widely supported and has more than 50,000 customization plugins. Customization is important. While you can build your page with WordPress, it only lets you create posts and pages, but in a relatively simplistic manner when it is standalone. Plugins allow you to customize the site to your needs. Our goal was largely to setup the site so that Marigold’s members could update and maintain it themselves. Elementor is a straightforward page builder, which provides ease of use even for those without technological know-how. This not only provides cost-savings, but it is also quicker and more efficient – members can update the site as they need, rather than having to reach out to set up a maintenance contract with us.
Building an easy to update website allowed Marigold to constantly change and customize their information. The old website only had basic content and information that was given to the site developer when the site was built. The new site contains extended information about the community and types of people living there, including FAQs and floorplans. This allows both current and prospective members to get acquainted with the membership and its goals. Likewise, while Marigold wasn’t taking applications at the time, now they are able to update the application page to let prospective members know when they are and are not taking applications. At the same time, because of their commitment to co-operative living, Marigold was able to include information on other co-operatives in the area to help prospective members find other co-operatives to join. The ability to customize, update, and provide additional information helped to save Marigold hours of staff time, as the limited office staff often had to answer basic questions that were not included on the previous website.
Save Time and Streamline Operations with Web-Form Submissions
With a list of email contacts on a website, emails can often get sent to the wrong person – especially if member duties change and the website isn’t updated. To solve this inefficiency, we created a webform submission system for Marigold that assured complete flexibility and connectability of data received, whether the form was for external purposes, like applications, or internal purposes, like maintenance requests. This meant that there would be no direct email contacts. Instead, the webforms automated the contact system to make sure the correct information got to the correct people.
Because we built the site on WordPress, we were able to use the Gravity Forms plugin to create webforms and save and store the information that was submitted through them. A brand name solution, Gravity Forms provides an out-of-box solution that avoids the additional cost and time associated with coding. It includes predefined functions and features that integrate with WordPress and other services. At the same time, Gravity Forms provides a robust and tidy webform submission system, allowing for form creation that will ask all of the relevant information and dynamically change fields depending on what’s entered in the previous one. This had the additional benefit of allowing the distribution of parts of forms. For example, membership applications were automated so that the financial portions went to the accounting team and the applications went to the membership board.
We also integrated Webhooks, a standard interfacing language that harmonizes across different platforms and applications. This means that communications and data can be transformed into a single language that can then be stored on a single database.
Security and Stability Assurance with a Custom Intranet
Because a housing co-op is a community, they want to keep their members connected. Of course, in the digital age, this often involves either social media or a members’ area on your site. But there are problems associated with both solutions. While social media solutions, like Facebook Groups, are free and easy to use, they raise privacy concerns for members data and the information posted in the group. Marigold originally had a members’ area on their site, which included a login and access to gated information. However, the way it was constructed presented security and stability concerns.
As a solution, we created a custom intranet. This provided members an area to easily interact with each other, including direct member-to-member communications, forums, and an events calendar. The benefit of doing this through a custom intranet lay both in privacy and security. Because it was a private intranet, none of the information was public. Moreover, by separating the intranet from the public site, it provided additional stability – if anything happens to the intranet site, the public site will always be there.
Google Maps and Analytics Plugins
With the sheer quantity of plugins available for WordPress, we were able to add other customizations to Marigold’s site, including Google Maps and Google Analytics. Because they wanted to give members and applicants as much information about the co-op and surrounding areas, we added a Google Maps plugin to their website. This allowed them to highlight amenities in and around their neighborhood, as well as to show all of the co-ops in the Greater Victoria Area. We also connected the Google Analytics plugin. This allows them to monitor site visits and see if someone searches them. While not a for-profit business, basic tracking analytics can give any co-ops a glimpse into the minds of prospective members and the journey they take to finding your co-op.
Co-op Web design with RFDM Solutions
Transforming your housing co-operative website is key to streamlining day-to-day operations for members and putting your best face forward for prospective members. Moreover, you want to be forward looking by planning for future updates to keep your site and your information current. For more information on co-op website design, contact us for a free consultation.