01.21.2015

The Clutter and the Deceptively Simple

2015 is poised to be a great year for nonprofit technology and the adoption of digital tools to advance the causes we love. While I can’t say that I see too many groundbreaking innovations on the immediate horizon, I do believe that this will be a year of implementation and refinement. Building upon trends that we saw arise last year in the consumer industry and private sector, 2015 will be the year that many nonprofits leap into digital engagement strategies and begin to leverage new tools that will create fundamental change in the way that they interact with their constituencies.

Of course, as always happens when a growing sector first embraces new tools, the nonprofit technology world will see more than its fair share of awkward clunkiness this year, mainly as “software as a service” product companies rebrand their offerings for nonprofits and flash shiny objects at the earnest and hungry organizations we all support.

But as a more general and appealing trend, I believe that we’ll see a slimming down and a focus on polish this coming year. Visual storytelling and “long form” journalism are hopefully on the rise in the nonprofit digital world. We should see more, and better, integrations between web applications, data management systems, and social networks. These integrations will power more seamless and personalized user experiences. Rather than tossing up an incongruent collection of web interfaces and forms delivered by different paid service platforms, nonprofits will be able to present calls-to-action through more beautiful and less cumbersome digital experiences.

Below are some additional thoughts regarding the good stuff (and some of the bad) that we’re likely to see this year. If you have any additional predictions, please share your thoughts!

Visual Storytelling and the Resurgence of Long-Form Journalism

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of my eyeballs popping out of my head every time I visit a nonprofit’s homepage that attempts to cram 1,000 headlines above the fold. I’m tired of the concept of “a fold” altogether. And don’t get me started about slideshow carousels as navigation: It’s 2015, folks!

Fortunately, we are seeing an elegant slowdown in the pace of writing for the web. Audiences are getting a little more patient, particularly when presented with clean design, pleasing typography, and bold imagery. We’re also seeing nonprofits embrace visual storytelling, investing in imagery and content over whistles and bells and widgets.

Medium and Exposure are my two favorite examples of impactful long-form journalism and visual storytelling on the web. These deceptively simple sites leverage cutting-edge javascript and other complex technologies to get out of the way and let content and visuals speak for themselves.

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As an added benefit, adopting this more long-form storytelling approach may help your SEO. Google took bold steps in late 2014 to reward websites that focus on good content. With its release of Panda 4.1, their new search algorithm, nonprofits who prioritize long-form writing and quality narrative will start to see significant benefits.

We’re already seeing nonprofits adopt this approach, including one of my new favorites, The Marshall Project. This site cuts away the usual frills and assumes an intelligent audience that will do the work to engage with the content. Don’t get me wrong: The Marshall Project website is slick and surprisingly complex from an engineering and user experience perspective – but its designers have worked hard to bring the content itself to the surface as the most compelling call-to-action.

Interconnectivity

2015 will be a big year for APIs in the CMS space. Teasing out those acronyms, we will see content management systems, like Drupal and WordPress, release powerful tools allowing them to talk with other web applications and tools. Indeed, its new web services layer is a central and much anticipated feature in the upcoming release of Drupal 8. WordPress made similar strides late last year with the early release of its own REST API.

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Leveraging these APIs, 2015 will bring the nonprofit sector more mobile applications that share data and content with these organizations’ websites. The costs for developing these integrations should decrease relative to the usefulness of such solutions, which will hopefully lead to more experimentation and mobile investment among nonprofits. And as mentioned previously, because these new applications will have access to more constituent data across platforms, they will lend themselves to more robust and personalized digital experiences.

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On the less technical and more DIY front, 2015 will be marked by the maturation of 3rd-party services that allow non-developers to integrate their online tools. In its awesome post about technology trends in 2015, the firm Frog Design refers to this development as the “emergence of the casual programmer.” Services like Zapier, and my new favorite IFTTT, will allow nonprofits to make more out of social networks and services like Google Apps, turn disparate data into actionable analytics, see the bigger picture across networks, and make more data-driven decisions.

More Big (And Perhaps Clunky) Web Apps

If you’ve been following ThinkShout for a while now, you probably know that we are big fans of Salesforce because of its great API and commitment to open data. We maintain the Salesforce Integration Suite for Drupal. At this point, the majority of our client work involves some sort of integration between the Drupal CMS and the Salesforce CRM.

As proponents of data-driven constituent engagement, we couldn’t be more excited to see the nonprofit sector embrace Salesforce and recognize the importance of constituent relationship management (CRM) and CRM-CMS integration. Because of the power of the Salesforce Suite, we can build powerful, gorgeous tools in Drupal that sync data bidirectionally and in real time with Salesforce.

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That said, part of the rise of Salesforce in the nonprofit sector over the last two years has been driven by the vacuum created by Blackbaud’s purchase of Convio. And now, with the recent releases of Salesforce’s NGO Connect and Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge NXT, both “all-in-one” fundraising solutions with limited website integration potential (in my opinion…), we’re going to see more and more of an arms race between these two companies as they try to “out featurize” each other in marketing to nonprofits. In other words, in spite of the benefits from integrating Drupal and Salesforce, we’re going to see big nonprofit CRM offerings like Salesforce and Blackbaud push competing solutions that try to do everything in their own proprietary and sometimes clunky ecosystems.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT), or the interconnectivity of embedded Internet devices, is not a new concept for 2015. We’ve seen the rise of random smart things, from TVs to refrigerators, for the last few years. While the world’s population is estimated to reach 7.7 billion in 2020, the number of Internet-connected devices is predicted to hit 26 billion that same year. Apple’s announcement of its forthcoming Watch last year tolled the the first meaningful generation of wearable technology. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll want to wear this stuff just yet, depending upon your fashion sense…

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(Image from VentureBeat’s coverage of the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show last week. Would you wear these?)

However, the advent of the wearable Internet presents many opportunities to the nonprofit sector, both as a delivery device for micro-campaigns and targeted appeals, and as a tool for collecting information about an organization’s constituency. Our colleagues at BlueSpark Labs recently wrote about how these technologies will allow organizations to build websites that are really “context-rich systems.” For example, with an Internet-connected watch synced up to a nonprofit’s website, that organization could potentially monitor a volunteer athlete’s speed and heart rate during a workout. These contextualized web experiences could drive deeper feelings of commitment among donors and other nonprofit supporters.

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(Fast Company envisions how the NY Times might cover election results on the Apple Watch.)

Privacy and Security

While not exactly a trend in nonprofit technology, I will be interested to see how the growing focus on Internet privacy and security will affect online fundraising and digital engagement strategies this year.

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(A poster for the film, The Interview, as most of you probably know, the film incited a major hack of Sony Studios and spurred international dialog about cyber security.)

We are seeing more and more startups providing direct-to-consumer privacy and security offerings. This last year, Apple release Apple Pay which adds security, as well as convenience, to both online and in-person credit card purchases. And Silent Circle just released Blackphone - an encrypted cell phone with a sophisticated and secure operating system built on top of the Android platform.

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How might this focus on privacy and security affect the nonprofit sector? It’s hard to say for sure, but nonprofits should anticipate the need to pay for more routine security audits and best practices regarding maintenance of their web properties, especially as these tools begin to collect and leverage more constituent data. They should also consider how their online fundraising tools will begin to support new online payment formats, such as Apple Pay, as well as virtual currencies like BitCoin.

And Away We Go…

At ThinkShout, we’ve already rolled up our sleeves and are excitedly working away to implement many of these new strategies and approaches for our clients in 2015. What are you looking forward to seeing in the world of of nonprofit tech this year? What trends do you see on the horizon? Let us know. And consider swinging by the “Drupal Day for Nonprofits” event that we’re organizing on March 3rd in Austin, TX, as part of this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference. We hope to dream with you there!

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