Today, I’m excited that the website project I have been working on for the British Association for American Studies, has been delivered and a new website for the association has been launched. I have been working on this project, single-handedly, from design through to build and launch, for just over a year. Drawing on my knowledge of web design, development and digital media, and my time running my own creative digital agency for several years, has really helped with what has quickly developed into a huge project.
In March 2021, I was delighted to take up the opportunity of working with the British Association for American Studies after successfully applying for the part-time post of Digital Networks Manager. The role, new to the association, was introduced to manage the growing digital infrastructure within BAAS. This includes the association website, membership system, email, and Weekly Digest mailing list. The role also has some responsibility for social media, working with others on the executive committee to ensure that our social media channels are updated regularly and that we engage with the wider American Studies Community.
When I originally took on the role of Digital Networks Manager, one of my first tasks was to complete an audit of the association’s use of digital tools and social media. This included the former website and all associated systems for managing membership, newsletter subscriptions and email. After writing this report, I presented several options to the executive committee and received approval to begin work on a new approach for digital within the organisation. The centrepiece of this approach would be a brand-new website, the first in almost eight years, alongside a number of new internal systems including a membership platform, new email platform and new approach to submitting and disseminating the BAAS Weekly Digest newsletter. Overall, my approach was designed around bringing all aspects of the association’s digital presence in-house without the need to rely on third party providers to deliver the vision.
The association is a registered charity, and from the start I was keenly aware of the role BAAS plays in supporting and encouraging the study of the United States in the Universities, Colleges, and Schools of the United Kingdom. If it was possible to reduce the overarching cost of website hosting, and associated digital platforms, by bringing these systems in house under one Digital Networks Manager and their team, I wanted to do so.
Now the website has launched, I wanted to explain a little about my approach and the work that I’ve done to improve the association’s digital presence.
Email and Membership
One problem faced by many learned associations, not for profit enterprises and charities, is their ability to manage an internal network and maintain a secure and up to date membership database. It was a problem I wanted to solve early on, and I did so by employing a customer-relationship-manager or CRM (a system used widely in the public sector). Such a tool comes with built in functionality for managing memberships, renewals, donations, and events. The open-source system that I have embedded into the new BAAS website even has functionality to send newsletters, email and to manage newsletter subscriptions. So, by connecting the website to an email sever, our newsletter can be sent out weekly from within the website manager with no need to rely on an external mailing list tool.
In addition, I have undertaken work to move the whole association into the Microsoft 365 environment. I am grateful that Microsoft offers their full 365 package of MS Office and Email, for free to charities and not-for-profit organisations. Without this, a move to Office 365 would not have been possible. I would encourage any other organisations in the charity sector to explore their own move to Office 365 as it has greatly improved our email system, removed our reliance on webmail inboxes, and introduced a more professional, secure approach which is vastly more GDPR compliant.
The New BAAS Website
The new BAAS website which I designed and built over the course of 2022, replaces a site which had been used by the association since 2015. In the years since launch, it had, as with any website of such scale, become very large, cumbersome and in many areas, outdated. In addition, there has been much legislation in the years since 2015 including in areas such as accessibility and GDPR. The former website was not adhering to these requirements in a suitable way.
My new design for the BAAS website focused from the off on an accessible, responsive design which would work across a wide variety of screen sizes and devices. Examples of this approach include the removal of all drop-down menus; replacing pages with an overarching directory under specific themes (Funding, Community, Conferences etc.) which then point you in the direction of sub-pages, all of which are connected with a series of breadcrumbs which make it easy to navigate back and forth through various topics.
In developing my original design for the website, I was keen to bring in a modern, stylish approach with a little creative flare. I added diagonal header images with large titles, and clear navigation across desktop and mobile. There are subtle animations on each of the pages, which reduce the harsh and jarring movements as pages load. In addition, each page contains featured content boxes which promote key related content and allow users to jump to different sections of the website where appropriate.
A number of areas of the site have been designed to update automatically. By connecting the site to the new membership database, we will be able to seamlessly handle membership applications, renewals, and events. In addition, the News and Events section has been designed to automatically populate with submissions made to the website by the wider American Studies community. From Events, Conferences and Call for Papers, to books and job adverts, submissions can be made which will then be approved and will later automatically appear on the website and the BAAS Weekly Digest.
I am particularly proud of the new membership area, which is a feature of the updated website not previously available for BAAS members. For many years, the membership has been asking for a space where they can review their personal data, membership details and subscription settings. In addition, the new membership area allows members to easily renew their membership and make submissions for various funding rounds and awards.
In the footer of the website, I have used the screen real estate to highlight key content including social media posts, the most recent news and events listings and other prominent information. There is also space to host ad-hoc features related to various campaigns throughout the year.
The entire website is hosted on a fast, secure, server behind an SSL certificate which provides piece of mind for membership payments and donations. The whole website works well across all desktop and mobile devices and pages have a clear, clean look and feel.
Going forward, it is my intention for updates to the site to be placed in the hands of those with the knowledge of each specific subject area. To aid this, the whole site has been built on a modular level with a number of plugins and template blocks which can be applied by anyone editing the site, as they wish. The benefit of having built BAAS specific plugins means that editors now have the power to design new content which fits seamlessly alongside the rest of the site and doesn’t detract from the overall design.
Integrated Mailing List, Events and Submissions
It has always been my hope that all aspects of the BAAS digital portfolio could be delivered through one seamlessly connected website and membership system. It is now possible to sign up for the BAAS Weekly Digest, directly within the website. At the same time, you can submit items to appear on the Digest and the whole process from submission to sharing is an automated workflow, with some important approval points along the way to ensure that content is appropriate for our target audience. This has significantly reduced the associations reliance on third party tools, their cost, and the skillset required to manage them. The Digital Team no longer need to access four to five different platforms, as everything can be administrated through the website.
In time, this new approach will afford us the chance to host event registration, submissions for various funding rounds, awards and much, much more.
I am very proud of my work on this project, and while it has been very tough at times, I am pleased with the outcome and excited for the benefits it will afford us in future. If I might perhaps take one lesson learned from my work over the last year, certainly my biggest project to date, it would be this – while it is clearly possible for this project to be designed and delivered alone, it is probably better for all involved to bring in a team of supporting designers who can help share the load. It may be a lesson that I never learn!
But I hope, in the end, that the membership of BAAS and the current executive committee are pleased with the new website and this new digital approach.
I’m excited to finally see it out there in the world.