David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.
About a year ago, I sat at a Minnesota Historical Society workshop in Northfield to learn about web design standards from Shana Crosson, trying to create a website for our little city historical society with little time, almost no money and no web design skills.
It took almost a year, but we finally launched our web site in January 2010. If you’re in the same spot we were last spring, perhaps you can learn from (and improve on) our experience.
First some background: the Edina Historical Society has about 300 members, an operating budget of less than $50,000 and a half-time director (me). We have more than 20 active volunteers but no one with any web design skills. (In fact, most do not use a computer.)
CITY WEB SITE
Prior to this year, the City of Edina generously provided a couple of pages on its website for our organization and for our programs that we operate in two city parks. However, we seldom changed the pages because we had little control: we had to submit changes to city staff, who updated our content as they had time (sometimes weeks later). The city also had a number of format and technical restrictions, such as no links to outside sites, that limited what we could do.
About two years ago, we wanted more content to promote our programs, particularly our school field trip programs at a historic one-room schoolhouse. Because most of our visitors are schools from out of town, we needed an inexpensive way to reach educators throughout the state without dramatically increasing postage and printing costs.
We asked for more pages and the city agreed – if we paid for the redesign, estimated to be more than $1,200. At that point, we decided to investigate establishing our own site that we could update as often as needed.
In the meantime, because our information was hard to find on the huge city site, we paid for a domain name to put on our marketing materials to get people directly to our pages.
SEARCHING FOR ALTERNATIVES
To find out what might work for us, I did what I usually do when we contemplate a new project: I call my colleagues at city historical societies to see what they’re doing.
Richfield is lucky enough to have Joe Hoover, a web designer for the Minnesota Historical Society, as a board member and volunteer. He designs and maintains the site using more complicated software than I could handle, but he offered all sorts of free advice on what simpler software was out there, including WordPress that has been discussed in this blog.
My first reaction, to be honest, was to find some great volunteer like Joe to create the site for us. (Unfortunately, Joe wouldn’t defect to join EHS.) My board members were sure that some talented high school kid could design a site in a few hours. Despite some volunteer recruiting efforts in the community and with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, we didn’t find anyone.
St. Louis Park and Bloomington each contracted different web designers to create a site for them. The cost was rather modest, but with a budget of $0, we didn’t have that option.
So, I tried designing our site with WordPress, which I know many of you know and love but I had a hard time creating the site I wanted. Perhaps the problem had more to do with me than with WordPress. With just 20 hours a week to do everything from exhibit development to PastPerfect data entry to vacuuming, I didn’t have much time to spare to develop new skills.
Through a Google search of recommended free web services, I found Weebly. It was named one of the “Top 50 Sites” by Time Magazine in 2007 and had earned all sorts of praise about its ease of use from several other publications.
For you non-techies who don’t know your HTML from your CSS (like me), Weebly is very simple. The WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) features make creating a web site as easy as creating a newsletter in Word or Publisher. Pick a template you like. Then simply click a button to create a page and drag and drop elements (photo, title, paragraph, etc.) onto the page. Moving pages around, adding pages, changing menus is just as simple.
Weebly continually offers new features based on feedback from users. For example, captions and alt-tags for photos weren’t available when I first started designing, but were added soon after. Free features include a blog, photo galleries, reader polls, Google maps, Flickr slides shows, and many other features that I have only begun to explore.
For those of you with technical skills, there’s a HTML/CSS interface to fine tune the template. I’m not in that group, but I have used a simple little feature that lets me insert HTML code for widgets such as “Follow us on Twitter” and other “share” buttons. (I found the code through a quick Google search).
Check out the Weebly site for the list of free features: www.weebly.com. For a small additional fee ($71.80 for two years), you get tech support, plus the ability to embed documents, add audio files, video player, password protected pages, up to 10 websites and detailed web stats.
GOALS AND RESULTS
Once I found Weebly, creating the site went relatively quickly. I had worked with a committee to plan our web content more than a year before when we thought we could expand our content with the city. The driving force behind creating a new site was to build our field trip programs, the biggest source of our income. We also wanted to market new programs (history-themed birthday parties, summer day camp) for parents searching online for something fun to do with their children.
In addition, we operate a museum, with exhibits and a research library that is open to the public just two mornings a week. A web site now gives the public around the clock access. We have finished entering our photo catalog in our PastPerfect database; our next step is provide an online catalog. Weebly has the ability to handle that additional content.
Most of my time has been spent marketing our site, through links on other sites, newspaper articles, Facebook links, postings on alumni web sites, etc. I update the front page every week with news. I also write a blog that I update about three times a week. I write about history resources, new items in the collections, history of stuff that is making news, etc. From time to time, I also feature a “history mystery” in response to questions from readers about puzzling Edina landmarks, such as the bridge to nowhere or the rumored haunted mansion.
Through Google Analytics (another free service partnered with Weebly), I can track traffic sources, popularity of pages, number of visitors, number of visits and much more. In the first three months, we have had more than 850 unique visitors to the site. Site usage has doubled from about 250 visitors in February to almost 500 in March.
We do not have a form to ask visitors how they heard about us, but we do know that we have booked almost three full weeks of summer day camp this year, after struggling to fill one week during our inaugural year last summer, with little additional marketing beyond our website.
Many of our museum visitors tell us that they found out about us through the website. What’s more these visitors seem to be much younger than our usual retirees. A 22-year-old reader brought in her mother to research their neighborhood. An Eagle Scout came in to work on a project. A new resident came in to buy history books about her new hometown. Several people have brought in donations for an upcoming exhibit.
I spend about five hours of my 20 hours a week on the website, and have created more work for myself with donations to accession, researchers to assist and program requests to fill. It’s a good problem to have, and we hope additional contacts will translate into additional membership dollars.
To see what we’ve done (so far — more content is coming) see www.edinahistoricalsociety.org. I’m happy to answer any questions and welcome free advice.
Edina Historical Society
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