Ashley Fruechting is Sr. Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Vision Internet, a leader in government website development with more than 600 government, non-profit and education clients across the U.S. and Canada.
In this day and age it’s hard to argue that the Internet is a fad or that the digital revolution is a passing phase. Yet, in spite of overwhelming data that points to the adoption of new technologies, many local government professionals still struggle to demonstrate the value of a strong digital presence to leadership. Sometimes this takes the form of reluctance to fund website improvements, other times it can be skepticism about results. However this reticence or avoidance expresses itself, we frequently get questions about how to demonstrate value and success to executive leadership and elected officials.
Recently, we reached out to local leaders to ask their advice about getting buy-in for website projects and the answers we received supported this perspective. “A website is the most commonly used go-to tool for customers,” said one local government professional, “if a website is poorly designed, not maintained/updated, that reflects poorly on your business and puts you in a position where customers are going to go elsewhere.” While government agencies may seem like they have a captive audience, it’s crucial to build trust if you want to develop ongoing engagement with your residents. This can be especially critical if you’re trying to dispel rumors or get the word out about new programs.
Can’t the Kids from the Nearby College Build the Website?
If you’ve suggested working with a professional website developer, you may get questions about cheaper options. Maybe you’ll even get asked if local college students can develop the site. Perhaps they could, but you may not be getting a bargain.
While the technical ability to build a site is important, technology is only half the battle in creating a successful website. In our experience, most local government agencies struggle not with the tools, but with developing a strategy for their website: What do they showcase on the homepage? How do they structure an intuitive way to access hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of pages of content? How do they remain compliant with accessibility and transparency standards required of local government? Working with experts who understand (and have overcome) those challenges can ultimately lead to a more successful project.
Beyond that, the average local government agency redesigns their site every 3-5 years. The creation of the site is only a small fraction of its lifespan. After the launch, you need to be able to depend on receiving support, enablement and service for the site. If the amateur web developer responsible for creating your site has graduated or moved on, it could likely result in breakdowns or disruptions in service when improvements are necessary.
Why Should We Bother?
In the survey mentioned earlier, we found one city that received 2,000,000 page views per year, even though their population is only 35,000. A simple check of Google Analytics can provide information that quickly illuminates the importance of a strong web presence. One leader went so far as to suggest killing your most popular website page and seeing how many calls you receive. That’s a little extreme, but shows how crucial your website is to residents.
An effective website can do wonders alleviating time and effort for staff-members. One leader suggested, “Present the offsetting cost/time benefits and benefits to the public, such as reduced telephone calls to staff time when FAQs are answered on the web, better coverage as a global marketing tool, faster dissemination of information and updating capabilities for the public and open meeting law requirements, etc.” Another spoke of the savings from printing less materials, “Although digital communications tools may seem expensive to the traditionally minded, [our city] has saved thousands of dollars by transitioning away from physical communications.” A well-run website saves time, effort and money for agencies. Pointing that out should be a go-to approach for gaining support.
Why Should This Be a Priority Over other Important Requests?
Sure a robust website can save your agency time and money, and serve your residents better. Is there anything else that makes it a worthy investment? We think so:
Perception of Community –A well-designed site tells residents and businesses that this is an attractive and well-run community. Many communities think about upgrading their site when there’s a high-profile event coming up in the future (like the Super Bowl), or they’re trying to attract new business owners, residents or tourists.
Boost Engagement –Modern municipal sites make it easy to advertise events and news on the main site as well as on social media, and allow staff members to send automated alerts to interested residents. If your organization has goals to hit with engagement, an effective website is critical to meeting them.
Transparency – A clear, easy to navigate site makes it easy for users to find the information they seek, building trust and promoting transparency. If your organization has come under scrutiny, having a website that promotes transparency can be very beneficial.
What’s the Big Hurry to Make Improvements?
If your agency’s website isn’t meeting users’ needs, is representing them poorly and is discouraging engagement, delaying improvements can only hurt. When pitching to leaders, focus on discussing concrete benefits to citizens – and the bottom line – rather than pretty pictures or flashy technology. Remember, you’re fighting the good fight. A modern, functional website can translate into real and measurable benefits for your community as well as your organization, and these should be hard for officials to resist. If you want to hear more from other local government professionals who have overcome this challenge, read the entire eBook of buy-in advice here.