Chula Vista’s Sr. Webmaster and content maven, Norma Frank, joins us for this edition of Digital Expert’s Corner to discuss running a website for a large, diverse city with a population that is growing by leaps and bounds.
What spurred Chula Vista’s redesign?
The former site was 11 years old and the city didn’t really have a content management system (CMS). The content creators used Adobe Contribute, and I would build the pages. For staff, the site just wasn’t very user-friendly or responsive. At the time, we had web liaisons, but they had limited ability and were bottlenecked because we had just one webmaster, me.
We’ve been looking at analytics for a long time, including browser support. Mobile was really gaining traction, so we knew we needed to deliver a responsive site. We’d look at page views and give priority to those pages that had the most.
For residents, the site was unwieldy. The old navigation was modeled to follow the city’s organizational structure. If the resident didn’t know which department offered the service they had a difficult time locating the information. Links were broken and there were many questions and complaints that the information wasn’t always in the right place.
Since I am a programmer, we talked about getting technology where I would build everything, but as the sole webmaster this approach would be difficult to administer. It was hard as a developer to lose all the flexibility, but for the city, getting a CMS was the right solution.
Tell me about your purchasing process.
For the new site, I needed to do a good deal of internal selling. I did card sorting exercises and mind-mapping and used analytics to present to senior management the reasons of why a new site was a good use of public funding and a benefit for our citizens. Once they agreed on the need, we looked at different solutions. We put out an RFP and I formed a committee of staff who I knew would be passionate about the project. We did interviews and presentations. Vision’s presentation was very energetic. The product looked user-friendly, and it was responsive. We tallied the score sheets and awarded the project to Vision.
How did you work with the departments to determine their content strategy?
We did a lot of pre-work. The card sorting exercises helped us cut a lot of content and the analytics were the backup I needed to eliminate pages that were not visited. We had a lot of conversations with the departments how to present information differently, so it was easy for our users to digest. For example, much of the “about us” content was removed. We transformed it into “what are our services and what do we do…” Many departments want to be represented on the home page because residents call them complaining about not being able to find the department’s information. So, I included them in the decision-making process by showing them analytics and talking them through where their content resides. Often the department representatives can’t find their own info. I worked with all of them to help them understand that replicating what they have in print doesn’t necessarily make a good web page.
When you rely on contributors, you have to understand that writing for the web is not their primary job function. They may be experts in their area, but I needed to remind them about UX, headlines, backlinking and just plain old web standards. Sometimes contributors want to write everything in bold, red, blinking font thinking that it would get the user’s attention.
Overall, we cut content down quite a bit. We are currently at about 1,000 pages, but we are a big city, and our site includes police, fire and library departments.
Is there a difference in purpose for large city websites versus a small city website?
The goal of the website should be the same, no matter what size the city. Small or big, the website needs to deliver information about the services the city provides, 24/7/365. However, what’s different is the sheer depth and breadth of content, programs, services and events needed to serve over 265,000 residents.
Our city keeps growing. The newer generations are used to receiving services online. It used to be an additional service now it’s an expectation.
How do you use social media to augment the website?
We use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and we have a YouTube Channel. This is an expectation also. We retweet and engage the public with hashtags. To improve the perceptions about the city from people outside of Chula Vista we started an awareness campaign called #THISisChula to let people know what is going on around the city, promoting events and services. We also post a need, and people respond, like when we need volunteers. We try to have fun with social and not just post government information. I think it’s definitely opened a dialogue as, a resident will post something negative, and another resident will answer with a positive. We also promote Chula Vista businesses; it makes our social media livelier.
When you look at the analytics for the new site, are there ever any surprises?
I think that when contributors post programs, it’s always interesting to watch the response. In the beginning, the numbers are good, but then they go down. Analytics are good for me so I can share the data. I think contributors often miss the opportunity to relate the importance of the projects for the reader. I work with the contributor to tweak the call to action (or just to write one). Otherwise, it’s just copy to read. I’m trying to make our web pages more dynamic. Analytics are helpful when everyone wants to be on the homepage. We built the main page with several content widgets so we can accommodate as many requests as we can.
If you had to start over, what would you have done differently?
I would love to be able to change the background of the pages. Also adding more content widgets would accommodate the front-page-content-requests.
Regarding the project, I would have scheduled more time on the front end of the project for migration QA. My content contributors couldn’t necessarily match their timeline with Vision’s. In our case, we would have plan for 3-6 months of testing after Vision turned over the site. During that time Contributors can improve the content utilizing the widgets and other benefits of the new system. I would have also spread out the training so I had more time to absorb it myself before my users were trained.
If, like Chula Vista, you are looking to maximize your content’s effectiveness, check out our Hands-On-Guide to Content Strategy.