Challenge marketing for credit unions part 6: Platform selection

Are you overwhelmed yet? I have published a lot of blog posts in the past two weeks on challenge marketing for credit unions. In hindsight, I likely should have waited until the end of this series to release our new programs, but we were so excited to get them done early that I figured why not.

So, lets dive back in and finish out my challenge marketing series so I can get that white paper done!

Building your program on a suitable web platform

In this part, I will begin with specific features and functionality that I recommend including as part of your challenge marketing web presence and will finish up with website platform considerations in broad terms.

Recommended features and functionality

A blog with an RSS feed is a must. Your blog is the best way to push out a steady stream of content and encourage return visitors. I suggest using FeedBurner to power your RSS feed. FeedBurner provides great usage statistics and plenty of other features including the ability to subscribe to your feed by e-mail.

Your website must have the ability to embed videos, podcasts and other widgets from various web services. Most popular blogging platforms including Blogger, Typepad and Wordpress allow embedding. If you are relying on a web design firm or your IT department to build a custom blog, make sure that you have the ability to see and edit the source code of your blog posts and content pages within your content management system—this will allow you to embed third-party code exactly where you want it throughout your site. You will definitely want to test out embed codes from various web services to ensure that everything will work in advance of your launch date.

The most important thing to consider is the site layout and design. Your site layout must incorporate various ways to reveal all of the great content within your site. Your homepage should feel fresh everytime a visitor returns and give quick access to what is important. A standard blog is fresh by design—the latest post is at the top—but the major problem with hosting a challenge marketing program on a standard blog is that typical blog layouts are great at displaying what's new today, but they are very poor at displaying historic information. I suggest providing quick links on your homepage and throughout your site to all of your contest entrants and other popular content. This will promote longer site visits and more interaction.

If your challenge will include a public vote, you will need to design a voting system that is easy to use and completely secure. I am not a fan of the unlimited voting allowed by popular talent competitions like American Idol where individuals can cast hundreds of votes. In a small local competition, the results can easily be gamed by a small group of people. Consider building in an e-mail confirmation or some other way to verify that people are not voting multiple times. If your voting system relies on cookies to block mutliple votes, browser cache is easily cleared and people can vote over and over. Your voting system should be able to track IP addresses, computer platform, browser and other key information—this will enable you to quickly spot vote gaming if it occurs. It is important to ensure that you are conducting a fair competition.

Another important voting consideration is to predesign your phases. You should have a search-phase design, a voting-phase design and a winner-phase design. It is much easier to do all of the design and development work in advance, because once your challenge is live there won't be any time to test and proof your different phases. Ideally, all you should have to do is update your finalist and winner details and your system should provide a way to switch between phases on the fly. I do not recommend taking your site down for extended periods of time to make phase changes—this will frustrate your visitors.

Promote lightweight ways to interact throughout your website. Not everyone is comfortable leaving comments on a blog. In fact, according to Forrester Research, only 20% of Gen Y Internet users and only 4% of Baby Boomers Internet users have ever left a comment on a blog. Consider adding polls, submit a question forms and even the ability to add to a regional calendar or a resource library relevant to your challenge.

I also recommend including a forward to a friend function and the ability to subscribe to a regular e-mail service.

Include your product offer on your site on a dedicated page and include links throughout the site to this page. Keep your product offer subtle but always present. On your product page, make sure to do a good job of selling your product benefits and provide an easy way to sign up.

If your challenge program will have a presence on any mainstream social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube or others, make sure that you include prominent links on your site to your page or profile on each service.

Looking to take it even further? There are a number of white label social networking platforms on the market where you can add all sorts of functionality and interactivity to your site. Make sure to check out Kick Apps. I haven't used any of their services yet, but the demo videos on the Kick Apps website look very impressive.

Finally, a couple of notes on things not to include. Don't include Flash intros or splash pages. Let your visitors cut right to your fresh content. Agency creatives love Flash, but keep in mind that social web users as a rule are annoyed by Flash. Also, do not include any videos that start playing automatically.

Microsite or a section on your primary website?

First a few thoughts about where your challenge should live on the Internet.

Most corporate social media initiatives are spearheaded by the marketing and communications department and are launched as a separate microsite with its own URL. And just so we are clear, I am including a blog or a company sponsored social network under the microsite umbrella. A microsite is essentially an auxiliary supplement to a primary website. There are technical and marketing reasons for the decision to go with a microsite.

The most common technical reason for this decision is that corporate IT departments prefer to keep their networks as closed as possible. For example, your IT department would probably not be very open to embedding third-party code from YouTube or providing direct links to Facebook or MySpace on your primary corporate website. Even though the security risks for doing so are low, most credit union IT departments are intentionally conservative when it comes to Web 2.0. I completely understand this position, as IT's first priority is to keep your network up and running and to make sure that your members have uninterrupted access to your online banking system.

In addition, larger platform issues may be at play. Quite often, the head of IT may have set a global policy that dictates that your credit union can only use Microsoft technology. Again, this makes sense from an internal technology point of view. IT can easily deploy Microsoft technology across all of your desktop computers, servers and applications and hire certified-Microsoft IT employees that fully understand your chosen platform.

I am not anti-Microsoft. Microsoft's .Net framework offers a comprehensive suite of development tools and technologies that allow you to do everything that you could possibly want with your challenge marketing program. But the world of Web 2.0 and social media is largely build on more open platforms, including Linux and PHP and to a lesser extent, Adobe Cold Fusion. Many of these alternative platforms and frameworks require less time to build out complex social applications and, in many cases, these technologies are open source and cost less or are even free.

Another consideration that pushes marketers to by-pass IT and build a microsite on their own is the question of capacity. Like I stated above, IT is in the business of keeping your credit union's technology infrastructure up and running. You request for a custom, feature-rich website section will require a lot of resources to build, test and deploy and can likely be accomplished in less time within your marketing department or with an outside vendor.

Marketing's desire to push the envelope and shout from the roof top by whatever means possible often causes tension between marketing and IT. Having your challenge marketing program running on a separate microsite will likely be easier to execute and will allow you, the marketer, the sandbox you desire to experiment with the latest embeddable social applications.

Nike is renowned for its use of microsites. Nike.com is literally made up of hundreds of microsites organized by countries and sports. The rationale is simple. If I am a golfer, Nike immerses me in its golf offering on Nike Golf. If I am a runner, Nike immerses me in its running products and community on Nike Plus. By giving each of its market segments its' own microsite, Nike is able to create deeper relationships with niche groups.

As you can see, there are many reasons to go with a microsite. However, there are also numerous reasons to go with a section on your own website provided that your IT department is open to embedding third-party code, has the capacity to build the features and functionality that your program will require and has the ability to give your challenge section the distinctive and exciting flavour that it will need to attract and retain a group of committed site visitors. Advantages to a section include the simplicity of having everything under one website content management system, the control offered by having everything in-house and the ability to easily point existing site visitors to your new section.

URL considerations

Whether you decide that a microsite or a section within your corporate site is right for your challenge marketing program, you will need to decide how you will brand your URL. Here are three basic structures to consider.

www.your-challenge.com
your-challenge.your-cu.com
www.your-cu.com/your-challenge

Although including your credit union's URL has merit, I prefer a unique and separate URL. A unique and separate URL can be shorter, easier to remember, easier to include on all of your promotional support pieces and will likely be more readily accepted by the community you are attempting to create.

For example, www.changeeverything.ca is much easier to remember and fits much better with Change Everything's vision and purpose than www.vancity.com/changeeverything.

Whichever way you go, make sure to provide lots of visible cross links from various parts of your primary corporate website. Constantly aim to inform your established traffic that there is something exciting going on at your credit union. I recommend placing linking banners throughout your primary site, including placement on your home page and on your online banking exit screen. I also recommend changing these banners up from time to time.

What about no website at all?

If you prefer to totally bypass IT and not even build a site for your challenge marketing program you can! Maine State Credit Union recently ran a "Maine Through a Mainer's Eyes"  photo contest and posted all of the entries on Flickr.com

This is a great example of a simple challenge marketing program executed without a dedicated website section or a microsite. In creator Andy LaFlamme's words, "Running this contest cost almost nothing other than an investment of time and effort."

I have seen a few user-submitted video contests hosted directly on YouTube lately. YouTube recently expanded its channel customization options. You now have the ability to add graphics and more closely match your credit union's own website and brand.

Embarq, a US telephone and Internet service provider, just ran a 48-seconds video contest directly on YouTube.

The nice thing about this approach is there is no development or hosting costs and it would take very little effort to get your challenge up and running. But don't be fooled into thinking that the millions of people on YouTube will happen upon your channel, you will still need to heavily promote your challenge on your credit union's website and through other marketing channels.

If this approach is of interest, you will want to consider your URL carefully. Your YouTube channel will begin with www.youtube.com/user/, so your URL won't be easily remembered or be something you necessarily want to brand on anything. One way to work around this would be to buy a unique domain name and have your registrar redirect it to your YouTube channel URL.

Let's analyze our example sites

All three of our example sites are microsites with unique URLs. But the similarities end there. Each site has very different functionality and was built on three very different platforms.

WhatAreYouSavingFor? is built on the very popular and free open-source Wordpress blogging platform. There are two flavours of Wordpress: Wordpress.com which features easy setup and free hosting within a global blogging community and Wordpress.org which offers the free download of the Wordpress software which in turn needs to be installed on your own Linux server or a third-party hosting service's server.

The advantage with downloading and installing your own copy of Wordpress is that you have access to thousands of open-source plug-ins and can customize the look and feel of your site (known in the Wordpress world as your theme) as much as you like. The disadvantage is that you will need some coding skills or the help of outside expertise to help you if you want to significantly customize your site.

WAYSF's creator, Matt Davis, is a self-confessed non-coder, but managed to customize a premium theme and deploy WAYSF on his own with very little outside help. WAYSF makes use of embedded YouTube and Vimeo videos and numerous free Wordpress plug-ins. Matt has also used Wordpress as a quasi social network by enabling visitors to become site members and submit their own savings goals to the site.

Change Everything is a microsite with its own unique URL. It is built on the robust open-source community software platform, Drupal. Drupal is an ideal platform to build complex social networks. In fact, major social networks like FastCompany.com are built on Drupal. However, unlike Wordpress, Drupal is not necessarily as easy to deploy and requires the assistance of very specialized developers. The original concept and design for Change Everything was facilitated by the social media consultancy Social Signal in 2006. Earlier this year, Currency was contracted to completely redesign the user interface. We worked in concert with Affinity Bridge, a specialized Drupal development firm that handled all of the theming and the deployment of the new code base. Change Everything has full social networking capabilities including user profiles, user blogging, friending and nudging.

Young & Free Alberta is a custom design deployed on an Adobe ColdFusion content management system (CMS). MySpace, one of the world's most popular Web 2.0 websites, is a built on ColdFusion. It is also widely accepted and used in the corporate world with 75 of the Fortune 100 companies relying on ColdFusion. Our technology partners, K1, have a feature-rich platform that includes dozens of available plug-in components. For our Young & Free sites, we utilize the blog, the calendar, the FAQs, the polls and the custom form components throughout the sites. All of the forms include the ability to subscribe to our monthly e-updates. Two unique features of the site are our voting system that requires confirmation by e-mail and the ability to instantly switch between launch, voting and spokesperson term phases. The CMS also has built-in e-mail functionality that enables us to easily send regular e-mails to all Y&F Club members. Young & Free Alberta makes use of YouTube videos, 12second.tv videos, UStream.tv live videos, Flickr photos and many other third-party embedded code.

There you have it. Likely more technical gobbly gook than you ever expected from my blog! Hopefully you will find this information useful as you navigate the various technical questions that come up as you consider your own challenge marketing program! I will leave the final choices to you, your marketing team, your agency and your IT department.

Next up: creating a steady stream of entertaining and educational content.

Tim