You Wear Many Hats. How about One More

In a world where things are often decided from far away, the public face of your location is often your website. People visit many online resources to find out more about your location before they visit. They can continue to learn about your location after they’ve gone home, too. One of the first online stops they will make will almost undoubtedly be your website.

If you already have a website, great. That’s a start. Many locations do. You may be ahead of the game. However, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Have you made your website all that it can be, both for potential future visitors from far away and those who live nearby? Read on and see if your website lives up to the basic goals that all nature facility websites should strive to achieve.

Getting Started: Homework

Understand your goals. A website can be many things. It can (and should) be a useful tool to lure visitors to your location for the first time. It can be a way to reach out to the nearby community to let them know what is available. And, of course, it can be a great educational tool offering teachers, students and those interested in learning more.

Don’t misunderstand. A website for your location can (and should) be more than one thing, but it helps to understand your basic goals in advance because those goals will influence the design and function of your website. A simple way to start the process of deciding is to look at what is already available for your location or for those locations in the surrounding region. The approach here is to create a small team of staff and volunteers to help steer the project. This isn’t something that one person needs to take on – there are way too many variables and too much work. Choose people who love your location and who have an understanding of what you might need.

With your new team in place, review other websites with goals similar to yours. Take a look at websites for locations similar in size to your location–similar budgets help too. Different locations have different budgets, so don’t expect a web developer to be able to give everything you might want for a specific budget; however, it never hurts to point out things you like. Some of the most complicated looking aspects of today’s websites are extremely easy to develop; some of the simplest looking parts of websites are often the most complicated and time-consuming. Don’t limit your review to just locations that are nearby or that are your size, though. Aspire to greatness. Look at locations similar to what you want to become. And don’t just make a list of those websites: pick  3-5 items you like most about each one. In addition, name the one thing you really don’t like about each one.

Gather the content you think is important for your location to reach the goals you’ve set. Find the best photos – and remember to secure permission to use the photos in writing. Based on your goals and the review of other websites, start to make a rough draft outline/chart of your website. Identify the language you already have: history, description of services, information about exhibits, trails, etc – whatever you want to include. Gather all that information and put it into documents that you can edit and change. Read it carefully. Edit it. Update it. Make it fresh and exciting. Consider hiring a copywriter to review and edit or find someone with those skills who is willing to do the work pro bono. Always remember: your website is the public face of your location. Make it look good. And more importantly, make it accurate and easy to read.

Gearing Up: The How and Who of Building Your Town Website

Platform is important. In today’s world of web technology, the general consensus is very much to build your site using a content management system (CMS). Doing this separates the appearance of the website from the content and allows you to change the look of the website with greater ease in the future. It also allow you much more freedom to edit the content without compromising the website.

What’s the right CMS for you? That’s a choice you should make after some research. There are a few open-source options: WordPress (26.4% of the top 10 million websites), Joomla (the second most popular CMS after WordPress) and Drupal (with 2.2% of websites) are perhaps the largest three. Weebly and Wix are two additional options that some consider potential and there are even more that are in use. Pluses and minuses exist in each system. But, when making the choice, whatever it is, look at the direct support your developer can provide coupled with support that you can get from the larger community of developers.

The wider the use, the easier it can be to find someone who has already created something that does exactly what you need your site to do. Sometimes, these are paid additions; other times they are free. There is no need to create everything from scratch. Need a calendar? Don’t have a developer build one, use a pre-built calendar that you can pay a small price for. Want to create a form for your visitors to let you know about trail conditions or ask questions – use a form builder created by someone else. There is no need to spend precious resources to recreate the wheel.

Finding the Right Developer/Designer. Once you’ve decided tentatively on a content management system, you can begin to look for the right person or firm to help you develop your site. Designers typically specialize in one content management system, though larger firms often have someone on staff who can work effectively in multiple systems. From one person developers to large agencies that have teams of developers working on projects, there’s a developer to fit your needs. From the in-town person who built a site for the local dog park to out-of-town agencies and even developers in faraway places like India, many people are interested in building a website for you.

How do you choose a developer/designer who will be right for you? The skill set is critical. Demonstrated ability to create something similar to what you want is important. The complexity of your initial inventory of assets and the collection of potential content should give you an idea of how complicated your website will be.

Even more important than skills is the ability to effectively communicate. A good developer can build a functional site that doesn’t include any of the things you want. A good designer can build a beautiful site that doesn’t work well. You need both, coupled with someone who understands what you need and who communicates well with you. Don’t make the mistake of choosing someone solely because of their technical abilities – they need to be enjoyable to talk with and understand the needs, and limitations, of your community and your budget. The process of building your website – or rebuilding it – should be informative and help everyone have a better understanding of your community.

Finishing Up and Moving Forward

Once you’ve developed your goals and created a foundation of content for your site, chosen the platform and hired a designer, the real choices begin – which will involve some direct and mindful conversations between you, your committee and the designer.

Then, before bidding farewell to whoever developed the site for you, there are a few things you need to be familiar with such as:

Hosting. Where does your site “live?” Websites are hosted on computers and your domain name tells the internet which computer to look for just like an address or a phone number. There are two parts to making your website live and functioning: the host and the domain name. (We’ll talk domain names shortly.) The type of web host depends on a lot of things. Managed hosts are typically somewhat more expensive, but you end up with a much faster website that is more secure than otherwise. Ask your web developer about this. Find out if you have full access to the account. Find out what the cost will be for future years. Be clear about who from within your organization will have access and be particularly sure to nd out about how your site is protected with backups. Daily backups can mean the difference between a problem that gets fixed in five minutes and one that is a complete disaster. Backups are good!

Domains. Simply put, you should register your domain name (www.yourtown.org) and it should be in the name of someone with the town’s staff, retrievable by others in case that individual leaves. Domains must be renewed periodically – the default being each year. Don’t miss this deadline. It can be very costly.

Security. See hosting above. But also talk with your web developer about security features and be sure to implement them. Safe, remote backups are a good fallback for if your security procedures fail, but having strong passwords and regularly updated les is the rst line of defense. Ask for information about keeping things up-to-date.

If you follow these steps (or if your current website lives up to the steps outlined above), your site will be well on the way to providing important, useful information to everyone, from potential visitors to nearby teachers planning a site visit to your location!

When he isn’t busy building websites, Joe is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama. He regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on trails and tourism-related projects, including websites for the Alabama Birding Trails (alabamabirdingtrails.com), the Alabama Trails Program (alabamarecreationtrails.org) and others. He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013. He’s been building websites since 1999, including several sites that include interpretive resources.

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