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Digital Expert's Corner: The Website is Never Done

by Kimberly Samuelson
Post Date:05/22/2017

If you are wondering when you can stop updating your municipal website, the answer is "never." John Bernstrom, the Communication Specialist for the City of Grand Forks, joins us for this edition of Digital Expert's Corner to discuss this and the rest of his website redesign journey.

Why did you choose to redesign your existing website?

We hit the ceiling with our previous site. Having wrung all of the value from the last platform, we kept running into things we wanted to do but couldn’t. We’d bring the website issues up to council but it was more important to fix the roads than have a more robust website. But, then, we had a significant change in council leadership and a new city manager. They told us they didn’t like the old site and asked us what we needed to launch a new site by the end of the year. It was great!


How did you conduct the vendor evaluation process?

Initially, we formed a steering committee of myself, IT and other interested parties to start the evaluation process. We selected Vision pretty quickly. The big thing that won us over is that Vision also understood the importance of being mobile. The responsiveness capabilities that Vision has baked-in was a huge deal. 

How did you encourage buy-in from staff?

It was very much like throwing a pebble into a pond; the ripples travel outward. Initially, there were just six-super users; then it grew to a group of twelve. The twelve staff members became our trainers/go-to department experts and we rolled out from there.

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I remember saying to the department heads, “once we launch the site, we aren’t done” and “the work on the website does not end.” Some folks didn’t like that, but I wanted to get across that once you are on this team, you will stay on this team. It has worked out really well for us. Our launch was July 2014. At this point, there are three of us who have an excellent understanding of the website back-end and we bounce ideas off of each other. IT is really appreciative that we were able to take over the website.

When we were ready to launch, I knew that we’ve raised the ceiling. Incidentally, I’ve trashed more pages than I’ve posted, trying to raise the bar and keep the level of design and writing as elevated as possible.

You mentioned that a change in Council helped foster the redesign. Can you unpack that a bit?

Sure, there were three seats open. I think it was a generational change.  The folks that were elected were used to searching on the internet when they wanted to know something. So, the new council members had significant expectations for the new site.

When you examined the analytics of your old site were there any surprises?

No. We knew the main site was architected around service-delivery information. Are people interested in content about garbage delivery? Yes, they are.

Interestingly, or at lease to our council, on the old site and new one, the bus schedule page is looked at quite a bit. It never spikes but it’s always in the top pages.

How do you handle web traffic reporting now?

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We create a report every two weeks to examine top pages. We tend to run programs week-to-week and we thought monthly reporting wouldn’t allow us to be reactive. We track social media also.  It’s become a practice to track digital efforts and then deliver a report to council. Occasionally, one of the council members will thank me for the report. Council really enjoys knowing what residents are viewing on the site.

Municipalities use their web presence for a combination of engagement and service delivery. What does that look like for the City of Grand Forks?

We are much heavier on the service delivery side. We are working on evening those out. I don’t know that we will ever be engagement-heavy—there’s always a service component to it. We see that in our web traffic. For example, when we have a snowstorm, out web traffic goes through the roof. The residents want to know when the street will be salted, what roads are closed, etc. This is all 100 percent service-driven.

Engagement is a work in process. A typical cadence is we ask a question, we get feedback and we demonstrate we heard the feedback. There’s a snowball effect that ultimately builds trust with the resident. I ask you about your garbage service, you answer me and then I demonstrate that I heard you. This may or may not change the service, but it shows that we are listening. We’re using social media for engagement but the backbone is always the website. If residents want to drill further into a topic, we are training them to go to the website.

If you are planning a website redesign be sure to check out some of our online resources such as this eBook about five things to consider when planning a redesign or this blog post about prepping for a redesign.

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