Home pages: Marketing and communicating on the Web

(from Maine Townsman, November 1996)
By Michael L. Starn

"Oh, no! Not another article about computers. Who cares about this Internet stuff anyway? I hate computers. I hate the Internet."

"Wow! Isn't it unbelievable what you can do with computers? A person in Beijing, China, can send a computer message to a person in Cherryfield, Maine!

Which of these statements best characterizes your attitude toward computers? Most people either love 'em or hate 'em. There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to computers.

If you fall into that "hate 'em" group, then this article on the Internet and building municipal Home Pages on the World Wide Web may turn you off.

But, give it a chance! This computer technology offers municipal officials yet another way to communicate with your residents . . . and with anyone else in the world that is connected to the Internet.

THE INTERNET

Even the most ardent supporters of the Internet admit that more people are not connected to it than are. The Internet is not, and probably never will be, a comprehensive communications vehicle.

It does appear, however, that the Internet is the way that we will be communicating with each other in the future. High school and even elementary school students, who represent the next generation, are very computer savvy. The Internet will be their communications vehicle of choice.

The Internet has revolutionized in which people, businesses and public organizations communicate. Future historians will rank the creation of Internet alongside the invention of the printing press and the telephone as a monumental change in the way in which people communicate.

The Internet is a global network of people with computers and modems. They can correspond with each other by electronic mail (e-mail); people can post messages, advertisements or other information for anyone with a computer and Internet access to see and read; and the Internet can be interactive (e.g., flight reservations can be made online).

HOME PAGES

What are home pages or the more contemporary term, Web sites? They are sometimes described as a window to the world. In theory, this may be so; but realistically speaking, a home page can only be seen by the world of people who have computers and are hooked up to the Internet. And, they are only seen if those same people want to see them and know how to find them.

The World Wide Web is a term you need to be familiar with in order to understand what a home page, or Web Site, is. The World Wide Web is the universe of Internet accessible information. Think of the Internet as the interstate highway system and the Web as everything (land, trees, buildings, signs, people, etc.) that are brought together by the highways.

The Web uses hypertext (linking or cross-referencing one set of information to another) and multimedia techniques (color, photographs, sound, etc.). It changed the Internet from being a gigantic e-mail network to one that allows words, pictures, charts, graphs, artwork, etc, that can be continuously linked to other sets of information.

For those familiar with the printing business, what the World Wide Web did for the Internet was like going from letterpress to offset printing or from phototypesetting to desktop publishing or from typing to word processing.

Home pages can have text (printed material), photographs, drawings and color. They can appear three-dimensional. Text and artwork can be electronically indexed. For example, if a town put its Shoreland Zoning Ordinance on its home page, the user could access the entire ordinance or go directly to certain sections.

To get to a home page, you need a location or address. Addresses look like this: http://www.portland.com/ cityhall/ (location of the City of Portland's home page). The beauty of the Web is that if you get to one place, you can go to any other place on the Web (conceivably anywhere in the world) if it is linked to that home page. For example, about 40 Maine communities are linked to the Maine State Government home page (http:/ /www.state.me.us/). You can get from the State of Maine home page to any of these cities and towns by clicking (the computer mouse) on that community's name.

MUNICIPAL HOME PAGES

About 50 Maine communities have home pages on the World Wide Web. Many of them are linked to the State of Maine's home page.

Municipalities have home pages for a variety of reasons. Some want to promote economic development in their community; others want to provide greater access to public information; a few envision the Internet as the way town business will be conducted in the future.

From the municipal home pages linked to the State of Maine's page, the TOWNSMAN has chosen to high light three communities who relied on volunteers, students, or town employees to develop their pages, at minimal cost to the taxpayers of the respective towns.

Raymond's Team Approach

The Town of Raymond recently posted its Web Site. Development of the site was the work of a 14-member committee of volunteers. The World Wide Web Committee (later changing its name to Web Site Committee) was established this past March by the Raymond Board of Selectmen. Raymond Town Manager Nathan Poore says the town was extremely fortunate to have this group of volunteers. "I can't begin to tell you how much time these people have put into to this project," said Poore.

Committee members represented a good cross-section of the community and were given specific areas of responsibility in the development of the site. The committee was comprised of representatives of ad agencies, fire and rescue, the local Lion's Club, churches, and the PTA.

The chairman of Raymond's Web Site Committee is Duce Lester. Lester is a licensed real estate broker and former welder. Recently going back to school at the University of Maine to study computer sciences, Lester, 52, says that while he is not of the "computer generation", his involvement with the Web Site Committee has made him a true believer in the Internet.

"The Internet is the biggest and best library in the world at your desktop," he says. Raymond's Web site, says Lester, is intended to make it easier for people to get information about the town, about local businesses, recreational activities, and also be linked to other Web sites.

The first order of business for the Web Site Committee was to come up with a mission statement. After several rewrites, committee members came up with a mission statement that outlined the Web site's purpose and goals.

World Wide Web Site Mission Statement

The purpose and goals of the Town of Raymond's World Wide Web Site is to increase the town's visibility to any interested person or business; to make information about the town, its resources, and the Town Government accessible to the citizens of the town; to increase participation in clubs, government boards, and town activities amongst the citizens of the town; and to promote the economic interest of the town and its businesses. The main goal of the Web Committee is to promote the use of the Internet to the Town's citizens so that they may better take advantage of the resources available in the Town's Web Site.

According to Town Manager Nathan Poore, the primary purpose of creating the site was to benefit the people of Raymond. "Essentially, that is what it is . . . a local government information site for the people of Raymond," he says.

The site includes such items as an area map, an events and activities calendar, listings of local service groups and local businesses, local weather, historical information about the town, and much more.

A particularly useful section is titled Town Hall". This section has the town's annual report, the selectmen's, planning board's, and appeals board's minutes, a town budget development schedule, the comprehensive plan, information on the local conservation committee, the local library, town services and town ordinances.

Complete copies of town ordinances and the comprehensive plan are included in the site and they have been done in hypertext, meaning that you can instantly move to any section of the ordinance or comprehensive plan with a simple click of the computer mouse.

Reaction to the page has been very positive, according to Poore. "People love it. They've even started to brag about it as one of the better (municipal) sites."

Bath Uses Local Talent

The City of Bath is fortunate. Not only does the city assessor have strong computer skills, but his son is also a computer whiz.

City Assessor Paul Mateosian and son, Sam, a senior at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, designed the City of Bath's home page.

"They (city officials) didn't really have a process (for developing a home page)," says Mateosian. A passing comment from acting city manager Larry Cilley asking "why Bath didn't have a home page" was enough to get the ball rolling.

"I had been thinking about this for a long time," said Mateosian. After Cilley's comment, he enlisted Sam and the two of them took the "bull by the horns" and got going on the home page.

"A great project," he says. "It was fun to do." Between the two of them, Mateosian says they have about 100 hours in the project.

Mateosian says they started the development of the home page by linking it to the Maine State Government page and submitting it to a couple of Web search engines. (Search engines - like Yahoo - allow people to find a home page by searching keywords, e.g., Bath, Maine).

"Sam and I created the 'look' and 'feel' of the home page," says Mateosian. With the framework in place, the contents of each section needed to fill out the home page will be supplied by the departments. Much of Bath's home page is currently "under construction", meaning that nothing other than a heading now exists.

Mateosian says a Web Site committee may be needed. He has some definite ideas about what should be included on the City of Bath's home page, but says others may not share his vision.

"We deal in public information," says Mateosian. "My philosophy is that it is our job to make it as easy as possible for people to get." He believes that through the home page, the city can enhance the level of service and openness of local government.

As for advice to other municipalities contemplating a Web site, Mateosian says:

Mateosian says the challenge now is to get the departments to fill out the Web Site with their information and then to have a process in place to maintain the information, keeping it timely. "It's hard work making a good site. Input from every department is needed. A commitment by the organization (municipality) is also very important."

"Web sites are almost always a work in progress," says the Bath assessor, who sees updating and maintaining the page as extremely important.

Veazie's User Friendly Home Page

"We didn't want something that had too much flash," says Veazie Town Manager Bill Reed.

That pretty much describes the "user friendly" Town of Veazie home page. This Web site was put together by Dennis Hutchins, a local resident who worked with Reed and an economic development committee appointed by the town council.

Reed describes the home page as a happy blend of economic development marketing (or advertising) and information about the town government. As such it has dual audiences: businesses that might want to locate in Veazie; and residents and others who are interested in knowing more about town government.

The town government section of the Web Site is currently being more fully developed, according to Reed. He says that there are plans to have all the town's ordinances, the quarterly newsletter, council meeting minutes, the recycling calendar, and school information posted on the site.

The developers of the Veazie site posted a lot of available public information from other governmental agencies, such as the Bureau of Census. It tailors that information to Veazie and its geographical region and effectively uses charts and tables to highlight the data.

The Veazie site was inexpensive. Reed says that the total costs thus far have been less than a hundred dollars. He also expects maintenance of the site to be relatively inexpensive, costing perhaps $200 a year.

In advising others, Reed says it is important to know what you're looking for, and to have a plan that is all laid out. Then, he says, you will have an affordable project.