Everyone here at LevelTen is VERY excited that NationalBreastCancer.org is one of five nominees for Best Charitable/Non-profit sites that "empower and educate people, facilitate civic participation and enable learned pursuits." Working on a community website that educates and gives hope to those affected by breast cancer was incredibly rewarding...and quite challenging at times. Here are a few of the lessons we learned while working on this project:
1) Don't reinvent the community
Hands down, the biggest mistake we made was trying to build the site's social networking community from scratch. After banging our heads against the wall, and losing a few good developers along the way, we finally decided to leverage an existing code base. Sure, we could have done it ourselves given an unlimited budget and a high tolerance for beta, but it wasn't a good fit for this particular project.
Takeaway: Take advantage of the experience and knowledge in the open-source community - they've already done most of the work for you.
2) Take action to grow your community
People aren't going to flock to your community just because you build it. This is especially true when your target audience may have never heard of MySpace and grew up in an age where all personal stuff was written to Dear Diary. Asking them to share something personal about their battle with breast cancer adds an additional level of complexity. We knew this would be a challenge going into the project, so Neil Lemons and Taylor Custor, our marketing experts, made extra efforts to not only communicate the benefits of joining, but also to educate and reassure the target audience that they had control over their personal information.
Take away: Online communities aren't for everyone - or for every organization. If your target audience is over 30, plan on spending extra time educating and evangelizing the benefits of joining the community.
3) Nuture your community
So you get people to join, but then what? You have to keep them interested. One thing we didn't expect was how much time we would spend fostering interaction within the community once it launched. Rachel Scott served as the site's Community Manager and spent hours responding to posts, commenting on journal entires, monitoring feedback mechanisms, recruiting community volunteers, writing polls, and coming up with new ways to get the community talking.
Take away: An online community requires attention and maintenance to succeed; factor that into your plan (and budget.)
4) Don't skimp on design (or designers)
Pink is a tough color...and one that quickly separates good designers from great ones. The main reason the site was so successful is that our senior designer, Kevin Flahaut, was a blend of artist and interaction designer. He not only created beautiful graphics, he also created subtle, elegant interations that took the site beyond beautiful to engaging.
Takeaway: Pretty pictures are nice, but they only take you half way - for the web, how you interact with the site is just as important as how it looks.
I think I speak for everyone on the project when I say this nomination made all the challenges well worth it. More importantly, this nomination is an opportunity to bring even more awareness to the importance of breast cancer prevention and education. The National Breast Cancer Foundation does amazing work and LevelTen has been honored to play a small part in that.