With IT in a Box, cities not only solve many technology problems and upgrade their hardware and software, but they also receive a new, modern website. However, getting a new website can be overwhelming and time consuming. It’s similar to making a brochure or an advertisement. Essentially, you are building a mini-publishing and communications vehicle for use by citizens and people researching your city.
That means your website needs to look good, communicate useful information, and be available 24/7. It involves design, content (writing, photos, videos, etc.), and technology. To help you make sense of tackling your new website, we boil down how the process works—and what you should be preparing and planning for along the way.
- Meet to kickoff the website planning and information gathering. Since a website involves so many elements, we first sit down with your key city decision makers and stakeholders about the website process. At this point, we let you know what assets we will need to build your website (writing, photos, city logo, etc.), clarify the ownership of your domain name (see below), and discuss how we will lay out your website.
- Investigate and clarify the ownership of your domain name. What’s your domain name? Let’s look at an example. GMA’s domain name is gacities.com. We’ve purchased and registered this domain name as a way to own our website address (such as www.gacities.com) and create specific professional email addresses (such as firstname.lastname@example.org). A domain name is something you own like a piece of real estate. Your city needs to make sure that it owns its current domain name and provide us with documentation as proof. If you don’t own your domain name, we’ll help you make sure you take steps to own it. Otherwise, if someone else owns it, they can shut your website down on a whim or create ongoing legal problems. If you don’t have a domain name, we help cities pick one and register it for them.
- Collect existing assets and identify any needed content. While your old website might already have a lot of ready-to-use content, we find that cities often have a lot of outdated content, glaring information gaps, and specialized content needs. You need to designate a person (or people) at your city to help point out and share any existing content you want to use, provide any additional background information or source material that will help in writing new content, and a willingness to answer questions in case someone else is writing your content. Content includes writing, photos, and videos, so you also need to assess the quality of your existing photos and identify any needed visuals that you’re lacking. Even if your city doesn’t currently have a website, you’ll still need to provide us with writing, images, and other content you’d like to see on your new website.
- Share a digital version of your city seal or logo. On all of our city websites, we prominently feature your city seal or logo on your homepage. Having your city seal or logo displayed on your homepage helps visitors identify your website and know that it’s legitimate. You can either deliver your seal or logo to us electronically, or we can create it for you.
- Choose a website design. We provide cities with access to a top-notch website designer who works with you to provide a lot of design choices in terms of layout, colors, and the organization of information on your website. We encourage you to tell us what websites you like and think would be a good model for your city. Then, our website designer works to match the general feel of the design you like. If you need help with ideas, we have plenty of high quality templates to choose from that have been used by other cities and our designer can talk you through all aspects of your selection process.
- Spend some extra time thinking about the home page layout. Because the homepage is your most important and unique page, we’ll spend some extra time with you to plan it out. That includes what photos and visuals will appear, how content will be arranged (such as a welcome message or news), and how people will navigate to other pages within your website.
- Confirm how the rest of your website pages will be mapped out. Known as “information architecture,” we help you plan out how the rest of your pages will be organized. Generally, it will follow a fairly standard plan such as a page for each department.
- Develop your site. Once we’ve collected all of the “ingredients,” we then develop the website for you. This is the technical aspect of building and putting together your new website, and we handle this development process.
- Review your site. When we have a version of your website developed, we will “stage” it. That means it’s not live on the Internet yet, but you can review it to share feedback and request any needed changes. Our developers will then revise the website based on your feedback. We will first share the design and layout with you for approval, and then share a version of the website with all of the content for final approval.
- Approve your site and go live. When you are happy with your website, we make any final changes and “go live”—which means that anyone can now access your new website on the Internet. When we go live with your new website, that means we officially switch you over to your new website name (if you are transitioning off of an old website name that you’re no longer using).
After the site goes live, the work—in a sense—never ends! If needed, we’ll help provide training if you want to upload any content yourself. Whether you keep the content updated, or we help update it for you, there will always be ongoing maintenance as you generate news, events, and updated information about your city.
While advice about creating and maintaining a website can fill up hundreds of pages of discussion, we’ve provided a few basic tips and best practices that you should—at a minimum—be thinking about during this process.
- Make sure you own your city’s domain name. While we mentioned this part of the process above, we want to reinforce that this is a critically important task for cities to address as early as possible. While we can help explain what information you need and how to assume ownership of a domain name, this is a business transaction that must be done in the city’s name. For example, we’ve seen that many vendors have built websites for cities where the vendor registered and retained ownership of your city’s domain name. That’s bad enough, but the domain name also may extend to your email addresses. At this point, if you don’t own your domain name, a vendor can hold your website and even your email hostage—often unintentionally—if they go out of business or if the original point of contact is hard to track down.
- Even if you have outside help writing and uploading content, your participation is needed—and critical to the success and timely launch of your website. If your city is responsive and active throughout the website process, we can usually finish your new website in 2-3 months. But website content requires your involvement—otherwise, there will be no website anytime soon. We’ll do everything to help you set up your website including design, technical implementation, and uploading your content. But, there are certain roles—at a minimum—that you must designate at your city in order for your website to serve its purpose as a communications vehicle. If an outside writer is helping you out with content, you need to designate someone at the city to answer questions, provide background material, and approve content before it’s published. Remember, we can move as fast as you give us the information we need.
- Think about content gaps as early as possible. If you need to track down background material about a city department, take more professional photos of people and places in your city, or generate ideas about news items to feature every week or month, then start thinking about this content as early as possible. Our timeframe to produce a website happens fairly quickly. While you can always add content later, it’s easier to anticipate what you’ll need as early in the process as possible.
- Keep certain content fresh and updated. While some pages (like department pages) won’t change a great deal over time, you need to make sure that specific pages are kept current and updated. At a minimum, that includes the home page, news page, and event page. Department pages and other information will probably change a lot less over time, but even those should be reviewed 2-3 times per year to make sure they are accurate and up-to-date.
- Understand the risks of a hastily launched website. If your city absolutely must get a new website online in a short time, we can launch an incredibly basic website for you in a couple weeks. However, you won’t have much content on your website—and the goal of any website is to provide content to people. It’s the same risk of quickly opening a store and then having nothing to sell. We advise taking your time and building a website that serves citizens and other members of your online audience with the right content that they need