How to Make Large, Content-Heavy Websites More Engaging & Effective

It’s official; our attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. As far back as 1971…wait, what was I about to say? Anyway, though the goldfish statistic does oversimplify things, there’s no denying that sustaining online engagement has gotten more difficult in the last 5-7 years.

For some, this change has been a very good thing (I’m looking at you, Buzzfeed). But for nonprofits and academic institutions whose success depends on demonstrating thought leadership or advancing better policies and practices, life online has gotten a bit harder. In a world filled with infinite scrolling lists of status updates; where audiences switch between devices, apps, and browser windows like hyperactive puppies on caffeine—websites filled with research and other long-form content have an uphill battle.

But it’s not all doom and gloom if you’re into thoughtful discourse!

When it comes to creating more engaging, effective websites for the content-heavy crowd, we just need designed solutions that, in the words of Herbert Simon, turn this not-so-great situation into one that’s preferred.

A Closer Look at Audience Engagement
During research for a website redesign, it’s common to dig into a site’s Google Analytics to get a better look at how it’s performing—specifically, its engagement metrics, one of the strongest indicators of website health. What one often sees highlights the challenge facing nonprofits with content-heavy websites:

  • Bounce rates north of 60%
  • A precipitous drop-off between visits of 0-10 seconds and longer ones
  • Average length of visits hovering around two minutes

It’s a lot harder to have a meaningful impact when 60%+ of your website’s visitors are leaving after one page, and the rest only hang around for two minutes. For policy think tanks, research organizations, academic institutions, and philanthropies, websites are not only their most effective publishing platform, they’re also how much of the world interacts with their content—and their brands.

Simply put, when your stock-in-trade is thought leadership, the more engaged audiences are with your ideas, the stronger your brand—and the more likely you are to have a meaningful impact in the real world as a result.

Designing Better Experiences
Organizations have plenty of goals for their website, such as generating donations and increasing marketing opt-in. But when it comes to evaluating content-heavy nonprofit or academic websites, our first priority should be to increase how much, and how frequently, audiences read and share their content.

Websites that perform well on these measures usually have two things in common:

  1. They have a well-balanced design that creates a positive emotional response, that guides readers’ eyes effortlessly, and that sets it apart from other sites in its category
  2. Once audiences are encouraged to continue exploring, they are rewarded for doing so with an intuitive, enlightening, and enjoyable experience

We know a website like this almost the minute it’s finished loading. And once we’ve used it, the result is more than just a great user experience—it’s a great brand experience that tells us something meaningful about the organization behind the website, makes us more inclined to seek them out in the future, and trust what they have to say.

3 Key Principles for Designing Content-Heavy Websites
Of course, there are lots of ways to achieve these goals. However, from my experience, there are common challenges that are specific to many nonprofits and academic institutions. While in a single article, I don’t have the luxury of waxing poetically about all of them, here are three of the more valuable principles I’ve found are effective in helping to meet them.

1. Provide Context
Complex issues cannot be understood in isolation. Audiences crave context, both to understand their place within a nonprofits website and the big picture beyond it. Organizing websites for mission-driven organizations around issues and areas of expertise is an excellent way to accomplish both.

A user-centric website taxonomy and keyword tags based on issues and areas of expertise provides great structure and flexibility. Combined with well-designed content types, they help create a site that engages audiences with the issues while demonstrating how an organization’s efforts address them. Most importantly, they encourage exploration—exposing audiences to more of an organization’s thinking and increasing its influence.

2. Focus People’s Attention
Content-heavy websites can be particularly demanding on a reader, with lots of competing elements and complex relationships. How we focus visitors’ (very limited) attention—both site-wide and at the page level—heavily influences how comfortable they feel and how long they’ll stay.

It’s always a good idea to apply principles of good information architecture, which are vital to orienting visitors in large websites, regardless of how they entered or their interests. Through to the page level, it’s all about designing effective page grids that structure information, create consistency, meet diverse UX and content needs, and foster visual variety to keep readers engaged.

3. Structure Your Argument
The importance of good typography is hard to understate in content-heavy websites for obvious reasons. We’re asking audiences to spend a good deal of time reading our content. Typography is a robust art, science, and language unto itself whose main purpose is to make this experience more enjoyable. Not to mention that an organization’s choice of typeface tells audiences a lot about its brand.

Understanding the time-tested rules of good typographic practice and establishing strong typographic hierarchy are essential to designing for long-form content, such as research and policy reports. Type families with sufficient type styles and weights are particularly helpful to structure multiple levels of subheads, figure annotations, pull-quotes, and data—so content is easier to understand and more trusted as a result.

In Conclusion
Ultimately, each organization and each website has its own goals, challenges, and requirements. The key is to make sure the quality of the experiences we design are equal to that of the content they deliver, and give audiences plenty opportunities and reasons to engage more deeply, both with it and the ideas it represents.

Matt Schwartz
Founder, Chief Brand Strategist
Matt Schwartz is the Founder & Director of Strategy of Constructive, a NYC-based brand strategy & experience design firm for social change and education brands. For over 20 years, Matt has worked as a designer and strategist, specializing in interactive, bringing a combination of expertise in user experience, content, and design. Matt’s work has been awarded and profiled by The Webbys, Communication Arts, The International Academy of the Visual Arts, The W3 Awards and others. He is a frequent writer and speaker with outlets such as The Foundation Center, The Communications Network, and The Nonprofit Technology Network. Matt earned his B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College with a dual concentration in Writing and Visual Studies; then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.