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Interactive Web Site on a Non-Profit Budget - How the Zoo Did It!
By: Katherine Craig and Meg Alexander, 9/26/2003 3:21:00 PM

We had a problem.  An 80-year-old Zoo, new ownership, a web site from the dark ages, and no allocated interactive marketing budget to help us move forward seemed to be insurmountable obstacles.  So what did we do?  We established an internal team of two, an external partnership of eight, and devised an online strategy to establish the Zoo as one of the premier online experiences in the non-profit arena. 

As the Director and Manager of Interactive Marketing, respectively, we spearheaded the overhaul of the Houston Zoo's web site (  When HZI privatized and we joined the team, we recognized immediate needs for the end user.  Knowing that we needed a more streamlined marketing tool and a more professional representation of our organization, we set out to make the site as active as the zoo.   Education, resources, customer service, e-commerce, and general information make the new site a rich, living environment.  

The previous Houston Zoo web site was a static environment that had not been updated in four years.  Without current information on events, membership enrollment, or new exhibits, it was considered outdated to any site visitor.  In addition, the site did not have e-commerce elements and was not interactive or engaging to users.

We aimed to establish an interactive, user-friendly informational source for potential zoo visitors.  Additionally, the site needed to speak to multiple audiences, including those in the zoo industry, families, donors, and board members.  Because the site is also an educational resource, it needed to be accessible to children and teachers as well.

Wanting to incorporate back end systems to alleviate the administrative functions of camp enrollments, membership processing, and online donations, we knew that we would have unlimited potential to establish a best practice for the industry.  For this reason, a due diligence initiative for finding the right Content Management System (CMS) was our first step in the process.

We looked at a number of CMS solutions before deciding on Aquifer™ from Houston-based Liquid Development. Firstly, we needed a CMS that would let non-technical users within the Zoo (including marketing and development staff, Zoo operations, and Zoo keepers) have access to modify or add content on the site in real time.  Secondly, we needed to have a system that allowed unlimited content changes while maintaining control of the site within an established work-flow process.  Thirdly, we wanted to find a dynamic environment whereby changing content in one place on the site would reflect wherever that content was called.  Aquifer, which uses dynamic page generation for each page, was the only solution we found that was built with that aspect in mind.

From design to implementation, choosing vendors and acquiring support proved to be vital components, particularly considering the budget restraints of a non-profit organization. In addition to Liquid Development's CMS Aquifer™, we hired an IT Consultant, and Savage Design, an expert local design firm. We proved it is possible to create a truly interactive environment on a budget and with few dedicated resources, if you choose the right partners.

This site is a robust informational resource for all ages whose scope reaches from the mundane (Zoo hours) to the exotic (Vampire Bats).  Visitors can now go online to become a member of the Houston, reducing the amount of paper products mailed to members and potential members, thereby reducing administrative costs.   Resources can now be directed more efficiently towards animal care.

The site includes a fully searchable animal database, with over 20 fields of data gathered through extensive interviews with Zookeepers, as well as a conservation database that allows visitors to view the Zoo's participation in animal conservation projects worldwide.
A Live Help feature eliminates the lag in response time from e-mail query to answer.  Visitors can now make contact with an operator in real time.
The potential of the new site to reflect this constantly evolving organization is virtually unlimited.  The educational capability to broadcast our efforts to a global audience is exciting.  Many non-profits do not fully utilize the potential of this interactive realm.  It is certainly the most effective way to spread awareness of our efforts, and the investment will ultimately save administrative and marketing dollars.

This channel, by nature, allows us to promptly react to desperate needs. For example, by posting information on our site we raised over $2,500 for the zoo in Baghdad in a matter of days. Online fundraising can be the most cost efficient fundraising channel for non-profits, and will most likely increase as the user's confidence in the medium increases. 

Built by a small and dedicated team, the site is hopefully well on its way to becoming an industry best practice for user experience and resources.  The next phase of the site is already in the planning stages, and we look forward to continually enhancing and augmenting what we have as we learn from our visitors what is working and what needs improving.  The Houston Zoo is an ever-changing environment; a living place where exciting things happen every day, and now its site is alive as well, leading visitors through a comprehensive interactive environment. 


Katherine Craig is the Director, Meg Alexander is Manager of Interactive Marketing for the Houston Zoo.(
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