Build It and They Will Come

Build It
For the past six months, our club has averaged two or three guests at every meeting. Most of them join after the first night. Less than halfway through the Toastmasters year, we exceeded our annual membership goal. When we ask guests how they located our club, almost all exclaim, “It was your Web site!” 

Being the club Web master, my ears always perk up when I hear “Web site.” The last two guests I interviewed told me they looked at the Web sites of all the clubs in the area and decided to visit our club because they liked our site the best. They were aghast that some clubs didn’t even have a Web site. When queried further, the reason they liked our site best was the welcoming message they received from the text and graphics. “I felt that you really wanted me to visit,” said one recent guest. Another said, “Your site looked so professional. I knew you were the group for me.” 

So how do you build an affordable and professional Web site when you aren’t a computer geek and only recently mastered email? Careful research and planning are the keys to developing a great membership building Web site. 

Do Your Research 
Only 30 percent of all Toastmasters clubs in one of the most “wired” areas of the United States – Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., – have a club Web site. And yet, in this same region, according to the Pew Charitable Trust, 70 percent of adults have daily access to the Internet, many with broadband. Of all the adults using the Internet, according to a 2004 Harris Poll, nearly half use it to find information on products, services, hobbies and special interests. Jim Chamberlin, CTM, past president of Capital Toastmasters I, says, “At least half of the prospects we’ve had over the last year have visited as a result of our Web site. A club without one is at a serious disadvantage.” 

By tapping into this powerful and growing trend, Toastmasters clubs can rapidly and inexpensively build membership. And they can attract a large number of diverse people. 

To decide what you want to include in your own club’s site, start by touring other club sites. You can do this in a variety of ways: 
  • Use Internet search engines like Google or Yahoo to find Toastmasters club sites. 
  • Check out your local “competition” by using the “Find a Club” feature on the Toastmasters International Web site and typing in your zip code or city. 
  • At the next contest or conference you attend, ask fellow Toastmasters about their Web sites and get the URL so you can visit. 
  • Print out the Web site pages that “grab” you and share them with your club officers. Decide, as a club, the look and feel you want for your site. Decide how to display and use colors for elements on your pages to create a cohesive and professional style.
Make a Plan
Plan your Web site by deciding the types of information you want to make available to the public and to your membership. Get out some paper and diagram how you want your pages to look and link together. Web sites are composed of pages of content that are linked together by hyperlinks, also called links. Hyperlinks are what allows you to “jump” from page to page and back again. 

A menu of links is always helpful to people visiting your site. This is referred to as “navigation.” What you show and tell people about your club will be the content of your pages, and the manner that you present your information will be determined by your navigation. Many software programs like Microsoft Word have templates for Web sites that have a basic page and navigation structure designed for you. 

When designing navigation, keep in mind a few best practices: 
  • Avoid creating dead ends. Allow people to jump to any page from any page within your site by having all the navigation links available on every page. 
  • Make sure your links are large enough for people to read and for people to click on. Tiny buttons, text and links are hard for people to use and will turn them away. 
  • Keep your navigation consistent. Visitors will expect to find the navigation in the same place on every page. The most common places for navigation links are down the left or right side, or across the top of a page. 
  • Label your navigation links descriptively so visitors can anticipate they are heading to the right page. A link that says “Map” isn’t as informative as a link that says “Finding Our Club.” 
Write Your Copy
Once you have decided what you want to show and tell people about your club, it’s time to write the “copy” (text) for your pages. You can type your copy directly into a program that formats it for the Web. With FreeToastHost, you can type directly into their template, and...voila! You have a Web page. 

Keep your text short so that viewers don’t have to scroll down a long page to read information. Consider writing a brief separate page for each of these topics: 
  • A welcome statement 
  • An information statement detailing when and where your club meets 
  • Directions and a map for getting to your meeting 
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) where visitors can find answers to common questions about Toastmasters and your club 
  • “Meet Our Members” gallery where members can put up pictures of themselves and share some personal information 
  • Links to Toastmasters International, to your district Web site, and other resources 
Illustrate Your Text
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and that is so true on the Web. Snappy graphics can add visual interest to your site, making it look professional. Photographs and graphics also will give your site a friendly feeling and break up text making it easier to read on a computer screen. 

There are many free resources for clip art and stock photos on the Internet so you do not need to be an artist or photographer to add a little dazzle to your site. If you are fortunate enough to have a digital photographer in your club, ask him or her to snap some pictures of members at a meeting so you can include some “action” shots in your pages. If you have a film camera, simply ask your film developer to create a photo disk with your images on it. 

Don’t forget to get signed release forms from every member or guest whose picture or information you post. 

Pictures that are displayed on the Web have to be saved in a format that is compatible with Internet browser programs. The most common formats are “JPG” and “GIF”. Most digital cameras will save photos in a “JPG” format. Graphics that you find on the Web will already be compatible.

Assemble and Back Up the Pieces
There are many free resources on the Internet that can help anyone build a quality Web site without knowing any computer programming. Most of these tools use templates to guide you through the design and creation process. They will write the HTML code for you and link your pages together. Having your plan in place, your copy written and your graphics selected will allow you to quickly assemble a professional site, sometimes in one sitting! At the end of this article you will find a list of tools you can use to build your club Web site. 

Make sure to copy (back up) all your files and save them on a CD or external computer drive after you are done. Whenever you change your site, keep a copy of the new files in the same place. Having a copy of your site on an external medium makes transferring ownership of the site to a new Webmaster a snap. It also ensures that you have a back-up copy in case your computer has problems. 

Getting on the Web 
How do you get your new site on the Internet? Web sites exist on computers called “Web servers.” These machines are connected to the Internet and configured to let other computers view the material on them. The HTML files and graphic files that make up your site have to be uploaded (transferred) to a Web server from your local computer. Depending on the tool you used to create your Web site, some or all of your files may already be stored on a Web server and ready to be viewed. 

If you have created your Web site using FreeToastHost, you will take advantage of a free service designed expressly to make Web site-building for Toastmasters easy and fun. FreeToastHost is a Web hosting service created by a Toastmaster for all Toastmasters. But it is more than just a free hosting solution; it is a pre-designed Web site for your club to use, complete with many templates (colors and designs) to choose from. 

Some clubs use other Web site building programs on the Internet (such as Yahoo’s GeoCities). With either of these methods, you can use the tools the host provides to upload any necessary files, such as graphics, to the Web server. 

Helping Visitors Find Your Site 
Congratulations! You did it! You planned and designed a Web site, created copy and graphics, uploaded your work to a Web server and now your club has its own site. There are millions of Web sites on the Internet and the number grows every day, so how can you help people find yours? First, register your site with Toastmasters World Headquarters. The club president or other officer can update the club’s information by adding the URL for your site. 

Second, register your Web site with the major Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo. This will increase the chances that visitors will locate your site if they are looking for it. The best way to ensure that your site is listed with a search engine is to fill in the keywords fields when registering your site. Keywords for a Toastmasters Web site could include:
  • Toastmasters 
  • Public speaking 
  • Presentations 
  • Communication skills 
  • Leadership skills 
  • Your town or city name 
  • Resources
This list only features free resources because most Toastmasters clubs run on a tight budget. I have tested everything listed here and continue to use many of the resources myself. If your budget allows, your club can pay for services and software for a wider selection of advanced features. 

Free Toastmasters Web site Hosting 
FreeToastHost offers a simple, easy and fun way to design and use your club’s Web site. It also boasts many useful behind-the-scenes tools to make life easier for club officers. The newest is a dues renewal notice/ collection tool. Imagine how happy your club officers will be when they can send dues invoices from your club Web site! 

If you want to try something else, search for companies and organizations using this reference site that will host your club’s Web site for free. This site includes advanced searching, so you can narrow your search by eliminating sites that force you to display advertising. 

About the Author

Beth Stinson, CL

Beth Stinson, CL, is a member of Greater Olney Toastmasters in Silver Springs, Maryland. Reach her at