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It takes a team

Co-ops work together to provide web communications

by Clarice L. Kesler


McKenzie Electric Cooperative in Watford City utilizes the Co-op Web Builder service through its membership in Touchstone Energy Cooperatives to develop and manage its website, www.mckenzieelectric.com.

Websites are essential for today’s businesses. That’s why, about a decade ago, electric cooperatives across the nation pooled their resources and created a service to provide affordable, secure, innovative website services.

Called Co-op Web Builder (CWB), this service is offered as an exclusive benefit for members of Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives, a large nationwide group of electric cooperatives working together to create information resources.

With a satisfaction score of 99.9%, CWB is a big hit with co-op communicators like Andrew Spratta, member services coordinator for McKenzie Electric Cooperative in Watford City.

“If I didn’t have this service, managing, monitoring and general content creation for the website would consume a large amount of my working hours,” Spratta says. While there are many website development platforms available to host a website, he says narrowing down a service that is trusted and reliable would be a long process.

For Spratta and other communicators, CWB is a service that makes providing a professional website worry-free.
 

Andrew Spratta, member services coordinator with McKenzie Electric Cooperative in Watford City, participates in monthly Co-op Web Builder townhall webinars to learn more about web services and share best practices with other electric cooperative users across the country.

Brittnee Wilson, who works in communications at Northern Plains Electric Cooperative in Cando, attends a Co-op Web Builder training workshop in October 2019 for regional co-op communicators from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Wyoming. The training was conducted by Touchstone Energy Cooperatives’ Sean Walker and sponsored by the N.D. Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives.
Photos by NDAREC/John Kary

Filled with features
Since it’s built exclusively for cooperatives, web templates are designed with electric services at the forefront. The CWB team focuses not only on a content management system for websites, but on security and maintenance as well.

“We have a team looking at our sites around the clock, 365 days per year,” says Sean Walker, manager of web services with Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. “This helps our members sleep safe and sound.”

The security systems embedded into the CWB site package can detect threats and thwart off attacks, keeping the member sites under lock and key. CWB also provides free Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates and support. This digital certificate helps cooperatives keep customer information private and secure. If a cooperative wants even more security configurations, like automated data purging or geographical content blocking, CWB can accommodate these unique requests.

Another feature of CWB, and one of its best ones, Spratta says, is the modular format of the web design structure that adjusts the site to function on different devices. Whether the user is viewing it on a personal computer, tablet or mobile phone, Walker says the sites at CWB are built with a “mobile-first” perspective to ensure that member websites look great on any device.

The most used feature on McKenzie Electric Cooperative’s site, according to Spratta, is the embedded SmartHub login. National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) developed SmartHub in 2012 to allow electric cooperative members to pay their bills, report service issues, monitor their usage and receive important information from their electric provider. CWB and NISC worked together to implement the feature on co-op websites. It provides a quick, secure and easy way for members to pay their electric bills and monitor their energy use.
 

Substantial savings
Depending on the complexity of the project, a website build alone could cost a cooperative anywhere from $2,500 to $250,000, Walker says. Add on 24/7, 365-days-a-year support, security and maintenance and cooperatives could pay additional costs of $5,000 to $100,000 per year.

Remarkably, for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, the service is provided at no charge, except for customized modules and features that are beyond the package of services included for members.

Cooperatives also save money in staff time, allowing employees to focus on other communications and information needs instead of investing the extra time on websites. It also reduces the need to hire additional staff with skills in website management and internet technologies.

As a digital storefront, a well-built, functional website is a huge benefit in terms of member communications, Spratta says. His cooperative’s website provides a venue to promote North Dakota Living articles, help members pay bills, add news stories or create a scrolling alert in case of an emergency, when keeping members informed and fostering trust in their cooperative is crucial.

“If I enter a website that seems out-of-date and doesn’t look safe, chances are I won’t trust the information I find there, and I also wouldn’t feel safe entering financial information,” Spratta says.

CWB is one of many innovative, cost-saving features cooperatives gain by being a Touchstone Energy Cooperative member.

From just one website a decade ago to building and maintaining more than 530 websites today, CWB provides a great service and savings to Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and their members across the nation.

Clarice L. Kesler is communications manager for the N.D. Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and serves on the Brand Strategies Committee for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. She can be reached at ckesler@ndarec.com.