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Redesign on a budget
How the Houston Zoo transformed its Web site from an online brochure to an interactive resource
3/5/2004
About a year ago, Katherine Craig was hired as a lead marketer for the 80-year-old Houston Zoo, a nonprofit institution whose technology was way behind the times.

The organization had no centralized computer, e-mail or phone network— and a static 40-page Web site, built in frames and maintained by one designer who had not updated it in years.

Today, almost 10 months later, Craig and her staff have built, from scratch, an entire new Web site that now boasts almost 400 pages and generates close to 100,000 visitors each month—a 106 percentage increase in traffic since its launch.

WCR talked to Craig about how she worked with internal staff and partners to develop an interactive and easily and frequently updated site—all for less than $100,000. It’s what she calls “a best practice in nonprofits on a budget.”

Starting from scratch

Craig tells us that from her first month on the job, she couldn’t help but notice the zoo’s poorly built and maintained Web site, which was, at best, an online brochure listing zoo hours and directions.

At that time, the only person responsible for Web site content was a designer who was also charged with graphic design for the entire venue and spent less than 15 percent of his time on the site.

From previous interactive marketing experience at a Fortune 500 company, Craig knew that the Web is a cost-effective medium for marketing—and she took on the role of Web site redesign leader almost immediately.

Her initial goals were to redesign the site to reflect a new look and feel as the zoo built an active team of Web content editors and contributors out of the many far-flung departments and teams spread across the 55-acre site.

Craig also wanted to foster the nonprofit’s conservation efforts by identifying the Web site’s potential to cut costs and save time, by focusing on online donations and e-commerce opportunities as well as reducing paper by managing memberships and volunteerism online.

Centralized efforts

The zoo also needed to streamline the administrative functions associated with camp enrollments, membership processing and online donations. And Craig began looking into content management systems to do just that.

“Offices are spread out all over the park, and it was hard for anyone to know what was going on outside of their own department,” Craig explains.  “A content management system just made sense.”

Craig worked with an IT consultant to identify potential CMS partners, one whose costs would not be prohibitive (under $70,000 but closer to $15,000). “We didn’t need a top-of-the-line tool,” she says. “We needed someone who would jump on board with us and help us build and deploy a new site.”

And because zoo staffers had limited technology experience, Craig also needed a tool that nontechnical users, including marketing and development staff, zoo operations and zookeepers, would find easy to use. The system she needed would let these employees modify or add content in real time; allow unlimited content changes while maintaining control of the site within an established work-flow process; and create a dynamic environment where changing content in one place would change it everywhere on the site.

Houston-based Aquifer from Liquid Development, which uses dynamic page generation for each page, “was the only solution we found that was built with all that in mind,” Craig says. She also hired a local IT consultant and design firm to get the project going.

Getting up to speed— internally

Of course, with the idea of scrapping the entire site and building all new content, Craig needed a new hire to begin working with internal departments—not only to get the right content but also to train staff on the new process.

Just as she brought Aquifer on board, Craig hired Meg Alexander as manager of interactive marketing—and for the next 120 days, the new hire literally called or knocked on the doors of the eight major departments to get the information she needed. Her pitch: Here’s what we need—and don’t worry, you don’t have to do any of the redesign work, just provide the information.

To no surprise, “Internal departments [“those who sit at desks”] were more responsive than those in the field,” Craig admits.

But Alexander was able to get something from everyone, from zoo hours and contact information to educational efforts and membership details, though not every department was as responsive as others.

To help, Alexander set up training sessions for three consecutive days to teach department staffers how to use the new tool—and to tell them what would be expected of them in the future. The hour-and-a-half sessions catered to each department’s needs— and the majority of those identified as content providers actually showed up for the meetings.

Immediately, the “power users”—excited, motivated staffers—surfaced, and as time goes on, Craig suspects they will be the ones to generate the same enthusiasm among other departments.

Craig and Alexander were able to get most of the content they needed to launch the new site in September. And while they are both adding and cleaning up pages, they’re hearing from more and more departments—especially those that weren’t so helpful in the beginning.

For now, Craig plans to filter content, or maintain an approval process, until internal staff get up to speed and use consistent messages and voice in their content submissions.

Beyond brochureware: A glimpse into the Houston Zoo Web site

The Houston Zoo’s Web site has become an information resource for all ages whose scope spans from the mundane to the exciting. You can get the basics, such as zoo hours and membership, which reduces the number of paper products mailed to city residents. But the new site also gives you a fully searchable animal database with more than 20 fields of data gathered from zookeepers. Visitors can also search through a conservation database that allows them to view the zoo’s participation in projects all over the world.

Here are some other new elements on the site:

• Live Help, which eliminates the lag in response time from e-mail queries. The tool also helps Craig and her staff meet users’ needs more effectively. For example, when the site first launched, 30 percent of the 20 daily queries came from parents and schools interested in throwing birthday parties at the venue.

The next most popular topic of interest: maps and directions. Paying attention to what users want via their “help” searches has led Craig to move both pieces of content—how to plan a birthday party at the zoo and maps/directions— to the home page, reducing the number of similar queries to zero.

• Online donations, memberships and class registrations. “All of these allow us to save money on paper and mailings and put more support into our conservation efforts,” says Craig.

• Up-to-date news. The site’s Zoo Insider newsletter keeps visitors up to date on new events, classes and more, plus builds an ongoing relationship with its various audiences.

The next step for Craig and staff: A fully interactive Kids Zone that will include educational games and activities, a Members Only area that’ll offer personalized content; online ticket sales; and additional information for the animal database, including audio and video clips from the field.

“We think what we’ve done is a best practice and proves than if you have the rights tools, people and partners, you can produce a successful Web site for much less than you might think,” Craig says.

© 2004 Ragan Communications, Inc.
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