You’ve put it off for years. It is a Herculean task and with everything else that is screaming for your attention, redesigning your municipality website just doesn’t seem all that critical. But is it?
Remember that your website is the most important marketing and communications tool, and certainly the most affordable, at your disposal. It has the highest return on investment of any marketing effort. When you include what it also does for your communications, customer service, public relations, and reputation, it is a veritable gold mine of value.
So, if we’ve convinced you that it is time to stop procrastinating, what steps should you take to make sure your town’s website redesign pays for itself?
What’s your website redesign goal?
Since this is your chance to take your municipal website from bad to good, or hopefully from good to great, let’s do it right. Let’s discuss the website’s goals to assure we get the most from our efforts.
Your community members expect to get the answers they need (on the device of their choice). When they can’t get that information, at their convenience, you can expect that they will feel frustrated. Your website can and should be that handy resource to help them meet their needs.
So what are their needs? Well, it depends on your site visitor and for municipalities, that can cover a lot of ground. Most of the needs are typically provided from the following website resources:
- Community calendar
- Municipal ordinances and resolutions
- Minutes and agendas
- Election forms
- Contact information (for departments and board members)
- Online forms and payments
- Permits and applications (and other required forms)
Consider the inconvenience if for every question a community member has, they must make a phone call to find answers. Consider the cost, and waste, to your municipality budget when your staff’s time is spent answering repetitive questions that could have been available 24/7 online.
Meeting your audience needs
Your website goal is to provide convenient, accurate answers to your community members. But, you also have a variety of audiences with a variety of needs. There are:
- Current community residents: You need to keep current residents informed about what is going on in your city or town. This encourages engagement in those happenings, builds trust that you can be counted on to keep the public informed, and demonstrates that your leaders’ actions and activities are transparent.
- Prospective community members: You must market to and welcome prospective residents of your city or town. You need to provide them with reasons to relocate and invest in your communities. That is called marketing, of course. You provide this audience with reasons why they will fit into your community, what values you provide, and what benefits and attractions are available.
- Business development: Why should a business owner want to establish or relocate his or her business to your municipality? What are the advantages and required steps? What are the restrictions? How difficult or easy is it to do business in your town? Can they do this online? Your website should assure that the answers are just a few clicks away.
- Community members: How are taxes being allocated and what are the benefits to those taxpayers? What municipality services do you provide or where are they available? What opportunities are available in your community, what activities, and what traditions or history demonstrate your unique qualities?
- Local media: Is the website a trusted resource for the local media to get up-to-date and accurate information on the latest news, events, activities, changes in ordinances or laws, explanations about current issues, and answers for the “why behind the what”?
By meeting your community member needs, you are not only providing outstanding customer service (something not common in many city governments), but you are providing incalculable long-term benefits like positive brand image, strategic communication, and trust building. Your website visitors will value a website that delivers easy access to the information they need, in a way that is inviting and audience focused.
What will it cost?
The development cost can vary wildly, depending on the developer. Even then, that is only the initial one-time expenses and typically is minimal (for our school and municipal sites it typically ranges from $1700 to $8000). But what really matters is how it is managed. That is where you get the bang for your buck. Is it current? Is it mobile-friendly? Is it ADA compliant? This is where the costs can climb quickly when you factor in the costs of staff or the cost of one lawsuit because your website is not website accessible. (Or, you can use CivicWebmasters starting at $179 a month and you know the cost, with no surprises).
How often should we do a redesign?
Many municipalities do a redesign every 3–5 years. However, you’ll want to do it sooner if you’ve rebranded your town or city recently and your site needs to match your new logo or colors. If yours is not ADA compliant website or not responsive (mobile-friendly), you need to do a redesign NOW before you get in hot water with the Office of Civil Rights when the legal costs of fixing your issues will be many times the cost of the nicest redesign. Or, if your website management has just become onerous and your site is constantly out of date and ineffective, that is another sign it is time for a change.
If it isn’t the hub of your communications efforts, building your town’s brand, attracting new businesses and residents, and building trust and loyalty, your town’s website simply isn’t doing its job. That will mean it is costing you much more than you can afford.
Think strategically and plan ahead
At this stage, be sure you have a strategic plan for updating your website. That means, know what you must do to keep it current, informative, engaging, and attractive. A static website sends a terrible message to your site visitors. It says that you don’t care, don’t have great things happening, and aren’t proud of your city and how it is run. I know; none of that is true. But, perception is reality. An out-of-date website leaves just such a perception.
Your audience does not care that you are busy and wear many hats (which we know is true). Communications matter and your website is the hub of all your communications and public relations efforts to a variety of audiences. Make sure it is serving you well. Good communication is good marketing, and effective marketing pays dividends on many fronts.
Also, don’t add elements to your site that you won’t be able to maintain. For example, don’t start a city manager’s blog, put it front and center on the home page, and then not update it for months at a time. Be realistic about what you can commit to. If you have an area for news on the home page, but no one submits stories or articles for the website, the failure will be extremely noticeable. If you have a community calendar, but you don’t collect activities and events from municipal departments, local clubs, and organizations, it will be useless.
Ideally, you will have a strategic communications plan. You will commit staff resources to information gathering, set deadlines, and follow up with those who are assigned to be sure your site is as informative, dynamic, and as interesting as it can be. You will also avail yourself of help from local organizations to funnel information to help you keep the website current.
(If you don’t have such a strategy or the staff to support it, we have a solution called PR4 Towns that can provide you with exactly such help and put someone from your community on the job for eight hours per week—and it includes social media management. Let us tell you how it works by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Planning steps for your redesign
- Survey or interview a wide variety of residents and business owners.
- Review Google Analytics (most important pages, highest usage, bounce rates).
- Integrate municipality communications strategies with the website purpose and goals.
- Create a sitemap that supports the municipality communications, PR, and marketing goals (and maintains consistency with the brand).
- Find other town’s websites you like (based on design, intuitive navigation, layout). Test a few of these favorites, and try to find common information the residents will seek out. How quickly can you find what you need? Is it intuitive, logical, and no more than three clicks from the information you seek?
- Add copywriting, gathering assets and reviewing existing content and documents.
- Conduct ADA website compliance training and implementation.
- Document your launch plan, select your team, and set timelines/deadlines. Train everyone involved in the development of the goals and purposes of the website and how it ties into all communications efforts. Let them know the importance of their role in this effort.
- Interview/research municipality website developers.
- Conduct quality control before you launch. Complete ADA website compliance review. Integrate social media.
- Develop a launch marketing plan (use social media, inform local media).
- Plan the next few months of news articles, success stories, local business spotlights, videos to create, marketing efforts, and make assignments to staff to contribute news, updates, and events.
- Create a website update schedule (including assignments to those generating informative articles). Consider areas like: community calendars, regularly scheduled community events, feel-good stories, news, forms, agendas and minutes, resolutions, and ordinance changes/adoptions. Be sure to include stories about the strategy that takes place behind the scenes, those fun and informative “why we do this” stories will provide transparency and validate the wisdom for engaging in the methods your municipality employs. If you have a municipality webmaster, this can be one of their primary objectives. If you don’t, consider hiring Civic Webmasters (it’s what we do!).
Avoiding the pitfalls
There are a few common areas municipalities make mistakes with their new website redesign and its launch. Learn from their mistakes and avoid the following:
- Migrating your old website content into your new site. This is your chance to consolidate, clean house, focus on messaging and tone, and get the information out there that your site visitors want and need.) Otherwise, it’s just putting lipstick on a pig. No matter what your intent was, it’s just a prettier pig. Take some time and do this right. Clean house. Think strategically and put your audience needs first. Remember, in addition to communications, your website is also your main customer service tool. Use it well. Having a bloated, unfriendly, convoluted, and out-of-date website is far from customer friendly. It’s your first impression, so make it count.
- Launching an unfinished website. Don’t launch it until it is complete. If there are a few pages that you are waiting on information for, either hide those until you have completed them or complete them, but do not put “under construction” on any page of your site. Very amateurish.
- Not doing quality control before the launch. Fix broken links, set-up 301 redirects, add Google Analytics, all which help avoid confusion for your site visitors.
- Creating content that is NOT focused on your audience. See our above recommendations for audience focus. Seriously. It matters. Your content, news, and stories should be about how your municipality provides value to your residents. Stop talking about yourself, and start talking about the benefits you provide to your community members.
There you go! It is worth the effort and will pay for itself if managed right. Whether it is building trust and confidence, attracting tourists and businesses, or building pride for your current residents, your website matters. Creating a strong brand for your town brings you decades of benefits. Consider putting a municipality website redesign on this year’s to-do list. If you don’t have the staff or the time though, we may know someone who can roll this project out for you in as few as six weeks. Give us a call!
Posted by Bonnie Leedy, CEO