What makes a Web site a hit with its viewers? Two winners of CIRA’s Web design contest say many businesses with a Web presence can use these simple strategies to boost their online impact.

Winning Web strategies from award-winning Canadian sites

Offer unique content, connect to social sites and reach out to communities – these were some of the strategies employed by Web sites that won in the Canadian Internet Registration Authority’s (CIRA) first annual dot-ca Impact Awards.

The four winners, chosen from a pool of contestants using the dot-ca top level domain , received $5,000 each for creating sites that make a positive cultural, technical, economic, or social impact. Large Canadian companies did not make to the winners’ circle, leaving smaller businesses as the top Web innovaters, according to Jennifer Ausitin, senior manager of communications for CIRA.

More than 600 entrants took part in the Impact Awards competition.

“The winners came from the non-profit and small business sectors. I think this illustrates that audience impact does not depend on size or revenue,” said Austin.

The awards were broken down into four broad categories. The winners in each category are:

  • ELearning: ArtsAlive.ca – This Web site which focuses on educational performing arts content is produced by the National Arts Centre. The site excels in providing educators, students and parents with unique audio and video content as well as multi-media online activities
  • Small business: OpenMedia.ca This Web site was set-up to protect the open Internet and to promote innovation and free speech. OpenMedia is currently the home of the Stop the Meter Campaign which calls on Internet users to get together to fight for more affordable Internet usage rates.
  • Non-profit: UppercaseGallery.ca is an online artist community. The site began as a gallery based in downtown Calgary which featured works of emerging and established graphic artists. With its move to the Internet, UppercaseGallery.ca attracted a huge international following.
  • Web technology and design: NewPad.ca is an online apartment hunting portal created by a Montreal-based start-up. The site aggregates information from sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji and makes it a breeze for apartment hunters to find an apartment anywhere in Canada based on their location and specified price range.

Lessons from the winners

So what makes a Web site a hit with its audience? Two CIRA Impact Award winners say these simple strategies can boost online impact:

Your site is not a billboard – Many businesses make the mistake of viewing their Web site as mere online real estate for posting promotional content, according to Steve Anderson, executive director of OpenMedia.ca. “You site is a living ecology. It has the potential for interacting with people and other sites out there and integrating with real-world activities,” he said.

Anderson made sure that OpenMedia.ca was not an island. Aside from news articles, blogs and videos on Internet trends and policies, the site also houses the Stop the Meter Campaign against usage-based billing for broadband Internet services. Through OpenMedia, Internet users can sign a petition, and more than 500,000 have signed so far. “Having online activities that people can link to offline activities enhances interaction with your audience and reinforces the message that your site is not static,” said Anderson.

Link to social sites – “Your site may be attracting a lot of traffic but it can’t do everything,” according to Anderson. Today, Web sites also rely on social network linkages to boost public awareness, reach out to a wide demographic and hopefully see its content go viral.

Whatever campaign, article, video or blog it posts, OpenMedia gets an instant exposure boost through its Facebook Page, Twitter account, YouTube channel and Flickr account. OpenMedia’s total upload views on YouTube are in excess of 400,000; it has nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter and 60,000 people “like” OpenMedia.ca on Facebook.

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Solicit feedback – Austin of CIRA says the best Web sites seek out feedback from their audience to find out what they want and if the site is meeting their needs. Austin said this is a “basic best practice move” that shows audience you care about them. “Of course, you also have to answer their questions and act on their suggestions.”

“The feedback mechanism need not always be the same ‘contact us’ page or button though,” she said.

For instance, NewPad.ca gets much of its feedback from users who also go to the site’s Facebook Page or post to its Tweeter account. This, she said, works because those social networking sites are popular with NewPad.ca’s customers.

Serve apps that work – Don’t just populate your site with applications because they look good or are trendy. Make sure they serve a purpose for your users, said Austin. For instance, the map application on NewPad.ca is integral to the site’s ability to help users locate the apartments and rooms. In fact, apart from the sparse main page the map is the only main item in the site.

Find unique content – Develop content that users will be able to identify with your site, says Maurizio Ortolani, new media producer for the National Arts Centre.

The NAC`s ArtsAlive.ca site draws viewers from all over Canada and around the world because of content such as its expansive archive of orchestral recordings in its Music Box, said Ortolani. “No site in the world offers 200 high-quality, full length recordings of orchestral music for free,” he said. “They are either offered free but in low quality, or not in full length or not as extensive a collection.”

Offer content that resonates with audience – ArtsAlive.ca has three main audiences: teachers; students; and parents. The site doesn’t only offer news and features but also provides: over 400 hours of video and audio content focused on the arts; lesson plan materials for teachers; children’s projects and activities that are tied to school curriculum; and even games for school and pre-school aged children.

Keep it fresh – Make sure site visitors are treated to new material on a regular basis, said Ortolani. For instance, NAC normally populates its site with new material on a monthly basis.

Refresh cycles vary from site to site, said Ortolani. “It depends on what the site is supposed to be used for. We generally populate our site with new material on a monthly basis.”

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blogs on ITBusiness.ca Blogs and join the ITBusiness.ca Facebook Page.

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