Hit the Web: Marketing Your Trails and Greenways Program in Cyberspace
By Jim Schmid, South Carolina State Trails Coordinator, SC State Parks
A presence on the World Wide Web is quickly becoming a necessity for many organizations and agencies. While many national trail organizations and local trail clubs have established a presence on the World Wide Web, to date very few agencies with trails and greenways responsibilities have taken advantage of this new medium. How do you decide if the Internet is right for your trails program? And how do you get your trails program on the web? Here's some advice to help you make the right decisions.
Does your trails program need a web site?
The Internet can be a great way to provide technical assistance information as well as marketing your trails program. A web site can help your trails and greenways program provide current information and assistance to trail advocates and other agencies. And a web site also makes it easy for those interested in trails to find you, and find out about your program.
Printed reports, brochures, or newsletters are some of the most popular promotion, education, and technical assistance tools used by trails programs. You probably distribute or mail hundreds each year. But printing and postage can be expensive, especially if you use colors, and once printed the publications can't be changed or updated. Sometimes, information changes before it gets off the press. Then you have a pile of expensive, worthless maps or brochures.
Publishing on the web allows you to change and update information as fast as it changes. Color photos and multiple pages can be added at little or no extra cost. In addition, web sites are available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Frequent updating not only keeps your information current, it encourages visitors to return.
Keep in mind that using the web is still a new trend and not available to everyone-- you will want to use it in addition to printed material to make sure your trails message gets to everyone.
You've decided your trails program does need a
Once you've decided that you want a web site, you need to decide if you or a staff member has the experience to create it or if you need the help of an Internet Service Provider (ISP). You will need to consider your budget: do you want a basicsite or one that allows interactivity? Do you have an in-house server you can use or do you need a service to host your web site for you? Consider registering a unique domain name such as www.sctrails.net instead of being part of an agency web site where you will have a long URL that is hard for users to remember or even copy accurately.
Then decide who will monitor and update information and answer e-mail (this person is commonly called the web master). Fresh content brings users back and nothing is more frustrating to users than to make a request and get no response. Having someone responsible to periodically update information and check messages will not only assist visitors but will help you gauge the effectiveness of your site.
What should you include on your web site?
Identifying the intended audience-- other trail managers, trail organizations, trails users-- will help you determine content and how you want your site set up. Networking with others interested in trails is one of the advantages of having a presence on the web.
Gather up your old newsletters, plans, brochures, reports, maps, and other documents that help deliver your message. Some of these may be ready to use on the web. But check carefully to ensure that everything is up to date, and if you're a new trails program you will need to gather the information fresh. Find and create pictures and logos to complement the copy. Determine the graphic style and choose colors for your background and text. You don't have to re-create the wheel; check out other web sites for inspiration and ideas.
Content is king
When all is said and done, content is king. It's the content that keeps them coming back. Content-- not design&emdash; should be your focus. Keep your goal in mind: to provide trails information of value and substance. Keep your content fresh. Try to update or add new information at least once a week. Think not only about organizing your content, but how you plan on developing and expanding that content in the future.
Make it easy for people to get to your content. Most web surfers are not going to wait more than 10 seconds for your home page to load. Make navigation easy. Provide a main entry point (home page) with a clear design that makes it easy for users to find the topics they're interested in. Offer multiple paths to the same content. Not all readers seek information in the same way. A good site index will cross-reference information for ease of locating. With hypertext links, you can refer to the same information in many ways.
Promoting your web site
Promote your site by adding your e-mail and web address to brochures, business cards, newsletters, bumper stickers, pens, pencils, and stationary. Also include your address on signs at conferences and workshops. Send postcards to trail managers, organizations, and users announcing your web site. Link your site to other trail and outdoor-related web sites, and ask them to provide a link to yours. And don't forget to register your web site with all major search engines and directories on the Internet.
Major Search Engines
Most of the popular search engines offer free web site listing services.
Building a successful web site
Now that you're ready to go on-line, you'll also want to ensure that you don't make some of the more common web site mistakes. It's easy to build a web site. What is not easy is building a successful web site-- one that meets your trails program objectives and encourages people to return again and again.
Launching a web site involves a range of elements and activities that can be daunting: content structure and production, server (host computer) hardware acquisition and configuration, server software acquisition and configuration, Internet access, and ongoing content and technology maintenance.
A great deal of thought and planning should go into your site long before your first visitor arrives. Don't let this intimidate you. What really counts in the long run is the desire and ability to learn what works and what doesn't. Use what you have available (agency and organization contacts) and get your trails program on the web. You'll be glad you did and so will the trail users and managers of your state.
Action steps to follow
The following steps will help you think through the process of launching your trails program web site.
1. Concept development. Time spent here will save a lot of money and headaches down the road. Decide your objectives for your web site and who will head up the project.
2. Planning. Iron out the technical details of who does what and when.
3. Creative direction. Decide on the general look and feel, as well as navigation, of your site. Develop templates for the various pages as well as a unifying color scheme and logo.
4. Content. Your web site should be driven by content-- information, discussion, narrative, maps, ideas, contacts. People will visit your site to find this content. Provide it. Focus your site around it. Convert existing text, databases, and graphics into file formats usable on the web. Also new content will need to be created as well.
5. Content integration. Format your content into web pages that are functional and easy to read.
6. Software. You will need software that allows certain interactive features, such as online database queries.
7. Testing. Rigorous testing will be needed to check both technical and content aspects of your site. Will the hardware stand up to the demands of lots of visitors? Are there spelling or layout errors that need correcting?
8. Launch and marketing. Once on-line, your web site will need continuous promotion, both via traditional media and on the Internet.
9. Content and technology maintenance. Your site content should be updated frequently and checked for accuracy. The computer hardware and software also requires constant attention and updating.
10. Tracking usage. You may want to gauge the activity on your site so that you can determine what is working and what is not. For simple statistics and visitor information, many of the off-the-shelf software packages will do.
Visit Jim Schmid's Web site for South Carolina 's State Trails Program at: www.sctrails.net. To see other state trails program web sites, see the American Trails site at: www.outdoorlink.com/amtrails/ and click on "America's Trails State by State."