by Stephanie Overby

American Cancers Society Builds Website Around Stages of Disease

Dec 01, 20015 mins

Sandra Smiling was looking for information on the Web, but her concerns weren’t as mundane as finding a cheap flight or getting a great deal on Elvis memorabilia. The 51-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native was a breast cancer patient. “I was looking for someone who was facing the same dilemma,” she says. “I needed answers.”

Smiling found what she needed at, the website of Atlanta-based American Cancer Society (ACS). Now, after undergoing a bilateral radical mastectomy, she visits the site two or three times a day. She finds practical information, such as whether to take Femara or Tamoxifen after her surgery, and emotional support from fellow survivors who opted for the same type of breast reconstruction. “This site uplifted my spirits and induced a spiritual healing within me,” she says.

Smiling is one of more than 330,000 visitors to every month. However, the legion of satisfied “customers” (as ACS executives call them) still wasn’t enough to please the organization’s leaders. They believed the site needed big improvements?$7 million worth, in fact. In August, the ACS launched a new website.

“Customer expectations continually evolve, and you have to meet those expectations,” says James Miller, director of Internet strategy. “If you’re really good, you go beyond them, and your customers say, ’Wow, that’s something I didn’t even know that I needed.’”

For Terry Music, strategic business manager for information delivery and Miller’s boss, the changes to the website became personal. After moving from Tampa, Fla., to Atlanta to take the position at ACS headquarters, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 1999.

Music spent the next 14 months going through treatment. She considered herself lucky to have moved to Atlanta because she had access to top oncologists at Emory University, as well as close contact with the chief medical director and surgeon at ACS. “Within the organization, we always talk about how we can help people turn information into knowledge, and that’s what they were doing for me,” says Music. “I knew that the ACS as a whole could play that role for others, and I began to strive to make it easier for our customers to get information in a way that makes the most sense for them.”

For the relaunch of, Music and Miller worked with Sapient, which had clinical psychologists and cultural anthropologists spend time with cancer patients at various stages to develop an “experiential model.” That model outlined medical issues and personal questions like, “Why am I tired all the time?” and “Will chemo hurt?” that arise during the stages of cancer. Miller then rebuilt the site around that model. “That’s how we went from a good but rather static experience to the dynamic site we have today,” explains Miller. He worked with an 18-person team and 85 Sapient staffers to consolidate and reorganize the content, build the online communities and provide new tools to help users with every foreseeable situation.

Visitors to select the type of user they are?such as a brain cancer patient, ACS supporter, cancer survivor or healthy person seeking to prevent cancer. The website is then personalized for that user. The site for brain cancer patients, for instance, points them to specific discussion groups, tools like the Cancer Profiler to help them decide on treatment and information on the Relay for Life (an annual event that celebrates survivorship). ACS supporters are directed to local volunteer opportunities, a donation form and online philanthropist communities.

The new site also in-corporates local information. “We knew from the questions we got to our call center that people first want to know things like, ’Where can I find a support group in my community?’ or ’How can I get a ride to my cancer treatment?’” says Music. Now the 3,400 ACS offices provide that type of local information directly on the site.

Reorganizing content and enhancing features isn’t a new philosophy for ACS. Since it first went online in 1995, the site has been in a nearly constant state of evolution. Seven years ago, was your garden-variety homepage. “It was ugly,” Miller remembers, “but the ACS saw that the Internet was an important new channel and knew they had to have something up.”

Then in 1999, driven by competition such as, and, Miller and Music began the multimillion-dollar redesign for 2001. “One of the first things I saw at the peak of the Internet bubble was that we were at a competitive disadvantage with all of what we called the Cancer.coms popping up,” Miller says. “We thought, Wait a minute. We’re better than them. So we started to focus on who we were, who our customers were and how we could best serve them.”

Even during those two years of planning, Miller and Music made changes to the site. In October 2000, they did a refresh, which reorganized the 8,000 pages of content, giving the site a consistent visual design, navigation and framework. The constant improvements are necessary because ACS is no different from any other business trying to survive online. “We never think about it from a nonprofit point of view,” Music says. “We make business decisions.”

Music’s advice for other Web businesses is simple. “Think about the customer,” she says. “Meet the customer when they arrive, and make their experience the best it can be.” Then make it even better.