Free Fast Track Websites
Your organisation may be able to get many or all the online tools it needs in exchange for a few minutes of registration.
Internet service providers have begun offering content management systems such as Plone, Typo3, Drupal or Joomla that make it possible to upload content and move it around on a page through a point and click interface. This makes adding new content much faster than the late twentieth century Dreamweaver and FTP system, but there are still the difficulties involved in arranging a website domain name, paying a sometimes hefty monthly fee to lease a web server and the time required to learn complex content management systems.
Leasing a web server or part of a web server that provides complex web applications may still make sense for a large organisation with a full time web staff or that has unusual needs. However in the last few years a new option has appeared - register to use free or low cost simple web applications without the need for your own web server.
An amazing variety of web applications are now available for little more than the time required to register to use them.
The simplest web applications are the blogs such as Google's Blogger, Live Journal or WordPress. Although blogs were originally designed for people wanting to create personal journals, they can be used by any organisation that wants a simple website with one main page and and an archive of past stories. You can optionally allow visitors to post comments on your stories (but you don't have to). If you decide to allow comments, they can be posted immediately or after (and if) you approve them. Professional web design is within easy reach - all the main blogging sites have hundreds of design templates available for free or for a small one time license fee.
Most of the main blogging sites have basic tools to handle still images. However, if your organisation has more complex image needs, you might want to upload your images to specialised (and free) web applications like Flickr for still images or YouTube for video clips. You can link to these images from your blog site and so have the benefits of a blog and an image gallery. If you would like to keep all your content in one application, then you might consider using something a bit more complex than a blog, such as MSN Spaces.
Successful online organisations know that the main purpose of the front page of most websites is to get people to subscribe to a mailing list. Mailing lists make it possible to communicate with people when you have something important to say (not just when they happen to visit your site) and you can typically build up a mailing list over time that is many times larger than your monthly unique visitor web traffic.
Probably the best known free mailing list service is Yahoo Groups. Yahoo Groups was originally designed to support email discussion lists which allow all subscribers to send messages to the list. These days most people prefer to use blogs, bulletin boards or threaded discussion systems for discussions. This makes it easier to follow the discussion and avoid spam. Fortunately, Yahoo Groups allows the creation of groups which are "mailing list only" and for "announcements". This means that Yahoo Groups can be used for simple broadcast lists as well.
It is possible to signup to a Yahoo Groups list without registering for a Yahoo ID or email box, but Yahoo does not make it easy. Your mailing list signup system needs to be able to generate emails to a special Yahoo box, or you need to be able to keep track of subscription requests and upload them from time to time. If there is interest, I will write a HOWTO in the future that explains how to do this with other free web applications.
A slightly easier to use system is Topica. Like Yahoo Groups, Topica allows you to create free broadcast (non-discussion) as well as discussion lists. Topica provides the HTML code for a list subscription form that you can add to your website. However, unlike Yahoo Groups, Topica does not support HTML messages. If you want to use colour or pictures in your mailings, you will need to upgrade to their paid service. Topica's paid service also provides better reporting.
Another option from a well known company is Google's Groups. Like Topica, Google provides the HTML code for a list subscription form for your website but does not allow HTML messages.
If you are prepared to pay a bit per month, there are many other relatively low cost list management options.
I have not tested any of these other services, so caveat emptor.
The bottom line is that free mailing list management services are available but they are not as easy to use as they could be. If you are prepared to pay, there are hundreds of options for adding a mailing list to your otherwise free website.
Social networking sites
Social networking sites like MySpace, Bebo, Yahoo 360, Care2, PeopleAggregrator, Hyves, Zurna, TagWorld and dozens of others offer plenty of free tools for uploading text, images and other content. However, they are usually designed with the needs of individuals rather than organisations in mind and many offer cluttered chaotic design that is the virtual equivalent of teenage bedrooms.
Nevertheless, some of these sites offer a group feature and if you happen to know that many of your supporters or potential supporters are already registered at one of these sites, then it may make sense to set up a group there. Don't just post a few paragraphs and disappear. Make a long term commitment. Put in the effort required to promote your group and keep your content updated.
The downsides of free web applications include limited functionality and paid advertising. Limited functionality is not necessarily a bad thing - spending less time learning a complex application and endlessly tinkering with the design of your website leaves more time for something more important - marketing!
Paid advertising can be a real problem in some cases. For some sites, the advertising is limited to unobtrusive text links relevant to the content on the page. Other sites may include large prominent ads promoting cars and pornography. Consider carefully what your organisation can tolerate. In some cases, ad-free services are available for only a small monthly charge.
Another perceived downside is that in many cases you can't completely choose your own URL and need to compromise on something like savethewhales.spaces.msn . However, the days of people actually typing in URLs are long past. Instead make sure that people can find you by marketing your site using a memorable phrase, then make sure that you turn up in the top few sites when people type that phrase into Google. Don't worry too much about the actual URL.
More campaign advice coming soon
Find out how social networking sites are changing online campaigning.
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