Image caption: pwcenter.org
Through funding from the MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program, the Playwrights’ Center developed and launched a re-imagined online and mobile resource hub for playwrights. The project included enhancing functionality of the popular play submission opportunities listings and making it easier for member playwrights to connect locally and globally.
We launched the redesigned pwcenter.org in late October 2014, and it has already done so much to help playwrights connect to us—and to each other—in more meaningful ways. The new site is having a positive impact on our ability to support playwrights of all levels, and we’re so grateful to the MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program for funding this project.
The site was completely overhauled, from back end to front end, to content and design.
- We rolled out a new organizational brand that better represents our vision and the playwrights we champion, helping to raise their visibility in the industry.
- Whereas our previous site used a custom-built content management system (CMS), making ongoing improvements difficult, the new site was built on an open source CMS that can grow and change with web best practices and the needs of our organization.
- The site is responsive, meaning it automatically adjusts design and functionality based on the device being used. Creating an excellent mobile experience was top priority for us, and we approached the redesign from a mobile-first perspective.
- We began commissioning articles from playwrights and theater artists, and gathering advice from many in the industry, adding a new section to the website called the Playwriting Toolkit. This public resource features free articles and interviews for anyone interested in playwriting.
The bulk of our work was on the member section of the website. Because most of our 1,500 member playwrights don’t live in the Twin Cities, it’s vital that we can serve them long distance, and the website is central to those efforts.
- The site was integrated with our constituent database, bringing together two systems that once had to be maintained separately.
- We greatly enhanced our play submission opportunities database, allowing members to bookmark play submission opportunities, add deadlines to their personal calendars, and find the right opportunities for them through robust filter and search functionalities.
- When we surveyed and interviewed playwrights at the project’s outset, they expressed a strong desire to connect with other writers and potential collaborators. These discussions lead directly to the tools on our site that help members connect, such as the ability to post bulletins, share successes, sort and search the playwright directory to find members who live close or have similar interests, and privately message other writers.
- Members have professional, customizable profile pages they can use to market their work and themselves.
- We publish at least two new educational articles a month for members, commissioned and written by a large and diverse group of writers in the extended Playwrights’ Center family. The topics we choose are drawn directly from the questions we are hearing from member playwrights, and we’re really excited to be facilitating this transfer of knowledge between playwrights.
Comparing the two months before the launch of the new site with the two months following it, here are some numbers of interest:
- Average membership renewals grew 12% per month and average new memberships increased 38% percent.
- Pageviews increased 25%, from 82,329 to 102,679.
- Average session duration increased 127%, from 1m20s to 3m22s.
- Mobile sessions increased 155%, from 7.39% to 18.83%.
- Mobile and tablet sessions increased 112%, from 11.44% to 24.21%.
We also received a lot of great feedback from members, such as:
- “Bravo on the new website. It is truly a thing of beauty, that even I can navigate!”
- “The new website is beautiful! And so user friendly. I’m especially thankful for the Bookmark option. Thank you!”
- “In love with the new Playwrights’ Center website. Awesome bookmark function! Sifting through calls for submissions is so much smoother.”
- “HUGE congrats on the new PWC website! I just had a blast updating my profile and adding some recent news and info about my plays. The site is so sleek and user-friendly. I thought you guys couldn’t get any better but you just proved me wrong.”
Here is a short and very incomplete list of what we learned and what we want you to know:
- Ask your users, and keep asking. Ground your project in the real needs of real users by kicking things off with surveys, interviews, focus groups, or whatever information gathering works best for your organization and budget. Even if you don’t have the money for formal, large-scale testing, it’s amazing how much you can learn by asking some of your users to come in and complete a few tasks while narrating their experience. Resist the urge to point or speak; just listen. As you make your way through the project, keep coming back to the initial user research you did to make sure it’s still informing your decisions. And don’t abandon research after the “research phase.” As you develop your site, continue asking your audience about their needs. We often contacted small groups of members for “gut checks” when we needed to make specific decisions, especially about organizing and categorizing content. And their help with beta testing was essential. Having such an engaged and passionate member base is a gift, and their feedback provided the foundation for the new online tools we built.
- Plan (and budget) for continuous incremental improvement. Throughout this project, we talked obsessively about sustainability. Because the website redesign was grant-funded, we wanted to make sure we would still have resources and time to keep it growing and ensure success post-launch. We gather feedback from members on a regular basis and meet often as a staff to prioritize improvements to design, functionality, content, and organization. As a result of this project, we now have a line in our budget devoted to commissioning articles from writers for our website. It sounds like a small thing, but if you work at a nonprofit you understand how important that is.
- Content is queen. The functionality and design of a site are very, very important. But they are there to serve their queen: content. If we had the most beautiful looking list of submission opportunities, but they were incomplete and never updated, no one would care how they looked. We used this project as an excuse to rewrite our website and create new spaces to share knowledge. We took care with both “stock” (the more evergreen content such as our Programs or About pages) and “flow” (the stream of updates such as articles, member successes, news stories, etc.). Our governance plan includes regular review and tweaking of the stock, and our editorial calendar charts the flow, leaving lots of room for flexibility to respond to current issues.
- Play kickball. See, the kickball field is your CMS, the bases are your landing pages, and the—just kidding: this is not a metaphor. Big projects like this are intense, require a lot of complex decision making, and last for a really long time. They are often fun and exciting, but some days they aren’t. On those days, get outside for 30 minutes and play some kickball…costumes optional.
A website is a living, growing thing, so we think of the conclusion of this project as a beginning. Happy opening night.
Jessica Franken is Marketing Manager at the Playwrights’ Center. Prior to joining the Playwrights’ Center team, she worked for several years at the University of Minnesota, and has more than ten years experience in communications, marketing, editing, writing, storytelling, and content management.