Breaking news! The Grand Junction Economic Partnership was recognized in September as the International Economic Development Council’s 2010 Website of the Year, in the general purpose website category for a community of population 25,000-150,000. It is a tremendous honor, of course, and if you’ve visited www.gjep.org, this award will come as no surprise. The site quickly and powerfully conveys a sense of the high quality of life and vibrant business community that make this Grand Valley a wonderful place to live — and to grow a business.
If I had my own personal FAQS, near the top would be: What goes into a great website? It’s almost impossible for a business to operate effectively without a website — and yet so many feel that theirs has not lived up to expectations. Because GJEP’s website is successful enough to win an international award, I sat down with Kelly Marlin to find out what went into creating it. She’s GJEP’s business development manager. The process that Kelly laid out makes an excellent road map for any business looking to create or redesign their website.
Before the 2009-2010 revamp, the GJEP website had suffered the fate that so many sites fall victim to: It had become dull and dry and so loaded with information that the main point of the site had been lost. There were interesting articles, loads of demographic data, and community statistics, but the site’s most important job is to represent the Grand Valley as a fabulous community. It wasn’t doing that.
Kelly started her mission with several weeks of research on other websites and other communities to see who was doing what and what looked good. She started with basic Google searches for similar organizations and then refined the search to similar communities (i.e., the competition) and other economic development entities in the state. She ended up focusing on organizations and sites that have received awards for their success. She developed a list of elements that seemed to function optimally, including the way sites were structured, components that made sites visually interesting, and things that made the site look up-to-date. GJEP knows that a good economic development agency knows what is going on in the local business community, and the website should express that understanding. People want to feel comfortable spending time browsing the site, so colors and images must invite a pleasant experience.
With a complete marketing and communications plan in hand, Kelly started the development process with an RFP (request for proposal) to the web development community. Choosing among the responses was made even more difficult because the best proposal came from a firm outside of our Grand Valley community. Denver-based Atlas Advertising was selected because of their rich experience working specifically with economic development agencies.
In the first step of the design process, Ann Driggers (GJEP’s President and CEO), Kelly, and members of the Atlas creative team sat down and put all the elements they wanted to include on sticky notes. On a wall in the GJEP conference room, they developed a site map, arranging the notes into a structure of lists and tabs. They stayed focused on the important message and prioritized content appropriately. This kind of simple, yet detailed, advance planning is critical — and anyone can do it. Decide what content you want on your site, then create a map for how you want it to be laid out. Putting sticky notes on a wall is a simple and effective planning process.
The next step was up to the web developers. They built the site, made it visually interesting, created a data center for the community, and added tools to keep the site current and relevant to our community. The early drafts looked fabulous, and the GJEP team was thrilled. A social media strategy that included blogs and twitter feeds made the site connected and up to date.
Kelly writes the content for the site, aided by templates and guidelines supplied by Atlas that help ensure the message is well suited for online viewing. Each section is brief enough that readers don’t have to scroll down. Text is easy to read and search-engine optimized. Much of what GJEP wanted to say about the community could not be expressed in words, so pictures are used. Almost every page includes images, each personalized to our community. There’s nothing wrong with representing the Grand Valley with Mount Garfield and the beautiful desert cliffs. It’s the usual go-to strategy. The problem with this approach for GJEP is that there are no people, no activity, and no vital business community represented in a landscape. Kelly worked with Anne Keller and several other local photographers to come up with images that represent the life that makes the Valley a great place to do business. What was chosen: pictures of everything from mountain biking and skiing to manufacturing and business enterprises.
Once the site was live, some of the most important work began. A website can be a living, breathing organism. It’s critical to understand how people are interacting with it. Kelly monitors the Google Analytics weekly and adjusts the content to ensure that the important messages are in the most popular places. Kelly has found, for example, that most people will click on either the top or the bottom of a list, but not much in the middle. The most clicked-on tab is the leftmost tab, no matter what is there. Therefore, the most important messages are in the top of the list on the far left tab.
GJEP wants people to spend enough time on the website that they feel comfortable enough to call GJEP to learn more about our community. They have created a website that does exactly that through a highly effective process of research, preparation, strategic structure, and effective content. We can all follow that road map to success.