Neighborhood Association Website Notes

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Hi, all! I'm sorry I cannot make it to the Monday meeting. I work for a tech company that does not observe any of the January/February holidays that government and banking get off. I have done a bit of research on local websites -- both general-interest sites and neighborhood associations -- that I thought I would share. I followed it up with a few observations about those sites and suggestions for our own. I suspect there may be a good amount of overlap between Samuel and I with regard to examples, conclusions, and suggestions. All of my results are below (and hopefully not too techie). I hope they can serve as a jumping-off point for debating and deciding what we want the site to be and how we want it to look.

-Brian

Contents

Examples

Popular Portland Blogs

These are generally good examples of sites that work. They're not neighborhood associations, so have slightly different goals than our site would, but do serve as examples of successful local sites.

Other Neighborhood Associations

These are other neighborhood associations, but may or may not be shining examples of websites that work. It is probably good to examine these and see what content they present, what works, and what doesn't. There are dozens and dozens of neighborhood associations in Portland. I simply used personal opinion to pick a handful of associations that struck me as having a strong/visible community presence.

Takeaway

  • The more dynamic sites use a blog engine (or similar content-management engine). The static sites feel more like online brochures than a forum for interaction. In other words, I feel like I would visit the dynamic sites more often, whereas the static sites I might hit up once a year (or once, ever).
  • I see a lot of usage of Google Calendar, which is a smart idea (it handles repeating events like "2nd Monday of the month" easily). In fact, if we signed up fosterpowell.org for the free Google Apps for Domains, we could have easily edited and shared documents and calendars, easily managed @fosterpowell.org email addresses, etc.
  • Lots of sites have the annoying habit of simply linking to a bunch of PDFs. While I understand this is a way to get content out fast, it breaks the esthetic of the site by taking people away from it (into Adobe Acrobat or Apple Preview or whatever) and hoping they come back.
  • The storefront is an interesting idea. I know we have t-shirts, stickers, and buttons. I think we've traditionally given these away, but if we were to change that or offer new exclusive items only available for purchase (e.g. reusable shopping bags), perhaps this could be a small revenue stream? Or perhaps not. I don't know how many people would actually purchase neighborhood-branded products.
  • Few had ads -- mainly the ones hosted as a smaller piece of a larger site (portlandneighborhood, neighborhoodlink) -- I do not know if this was a conscious decision (something in the bylaws preventing ads?) or if it just had not occurred to folks. Ads may be controversial, and I get into those a bit more, below.

Suggestions

Sidebars

I understand that Samuel is leaning toward Wordpress as a blog and content management system. (Personally, I think this is a great decision.) Wordpress themes generally have a two-column or three-column layout, which is to say the main content plus one or two sidebars. I would like to propose we go with two sidebars, with each having a very specific purpose. A common design pattern I have seen on successful websites is to use one sidebar for navigation and broadcasting (us to the users) and one as a sort of user interaction switchboard (users talking back to us or user-to-user discussions). Let me provide some concrete examples. The one sidebar might contain:

  • navigation to get around the site
  • community calendar of upcoming events
  • search box
  • mailing list signup box

The other sidebar would automatically fill itself with recent user-generated content:

  • excerpts of the last few replies to posts (obviously, replies are spam-filtered and/or moderated & Wordpress does a good job of automatically blocking spam)
  • thumbnails from a Flickr (perhaps the existing FoPo feed or a more tightly moderated one specific to the neighborhood association)
  • Twitter mentions (I'm not sure we have enough critical mass to, for instance, declare a Twitter hashtag such as #fopo), so instead, perhaps the post recent posts in the @FosterPowellPDX account. This provides more live and up-to-the-minute content over blog posts (write a sentence and post versus find time to sit at the computer and outline, write, proof-read, and post).
  • A rotating highlighted local business or community member
  • A link or textbox to let people submit tips, news, and whatnot

Subscriptions

Out of the box, most content management systems offer news feed subscriptions (for instance, allowing one to get near-instant updates in Google Reader). I suspect that our audience is probably not terribly Google-Reader-savvy but are extremely email savvy. We should probably have a subscribe-by-email option. Typically, this kind of subscription is strictly for blog posts, so we'd need a separate way to subscribe to the mailing list (or find a way to combine). If the sorts of things we previously did on the mailing list (mainly sending out meeting agendas) could instead be done on the blog, perhaps we could discontinue the mailing list and move the subscriber email addresses from there to the blog's email subscriptions.

Meeting Minutes, Agendas

We should absolutely have a category for these. I have soft-copy of these going back to January 2008 and wouldn't mind doing the gruntwork to backfill the archives. I'm sure Jo Ann has even older archives, if we want to go back further in time.

Facebook?

I know that Facebook is popular these days. I wonder if it's worth setting up a Facebook group/page for our neighborhood or if that would be spreading ourselves too thin and detract from the website itself.

Frequently Asked Questions? (FAQ)

Are there frequently asked questions that can be answered? It would be nice to have a FAQ page, but I have no idea what would go there.

Q: Foster-Powell? Isn't that the intersection where the Taco Bell, KFC, and Burger King Meet?
A: Yes and no. The KFC is actually a Taco Time, but the neighborhood offers many more riches than just three fast-food joints. We also have a strip club. No, seriously, Foster-Powell is a beautiful neighborhood with a vibrant history dating back to the early 1900s... (etc.)

Things To Do

Similar to the current "What To Do" page, with local businesses and activities. Perhaps with a feedback link at the bottom that people can use to request their business/organization/activity/whatever get added. (I'm not envisioning a live list, but an editable Wordpress page, with the feedback link being little more than a fancy email form.)

Links

These are sites that may be of interest to our neighborhood. I didn't do a whole lot of research on these. I'm sure there are dozens more.

...etc...

Ads

I do not know if we would be allowed to have ads, given the fact that we're an impartial neighborhood association with bylaws and all that. Even if we CAN have have ads, there is still the question of whether we WANT them. That's controversial territory. Personally, I do not care either way (I have an ad-blocker extension in my browser), but thought I would at least bring up the topic. The easy option would be to use Google AdSense to embed unobtrusive context-sensitive ads, probably in one of the sidebars. That would likely bring in a trickle of revenue, maybe enough to pay for site hosting. The hard option would be for us to solicit local businesses and handle the ads rotation and management ourselves (for instance "This January, the website is brought to you by Bar Carlo"). We would definitely have to delineate advertising from content.

Metrics

We should probably consider (if not already handled by the hosting provider, or possibly in addition to the hosting) some way of gathering metrics about ths site. This will let us know who is visiting the site, how often, from where, and information about repeat visits and average time spent on the site. Google Analytics is a good, free, package to do this. StatPress is a less feature-rich version, but has the benefit of being hosted entirely within Wordpress (and consequently being accessible within WP's user and security model). I've also used Analog, which is more difficult to set up, but provides great simple-to-understand stats.

Hosting

I do not know what our current website hosting situation looks like right now, but we may want to consider "going local" and "going green" with the hosting. It would give us bragging rights and (optionally) a little green hosting banner for the site. The local green hosts I am aware of are:

They both offer discounts to nonprofits and organizations, but I do not know whether or not we would qualify.

How can I help?

I'm a tech guy. I'm no stranger to web work; I started doing basic website development in 1994 (this was about the same time that one of my professors was in the process of getting the HTTP 1.1 spec ratified). Text was black and backgrounds were gray. You needed an X Windows workstation to get to the web. I stopped doing web development professionally after being laid off from AltaVista in about 2001, not too long after the dot-com bust. Although I still work in networking technology and play around with HTML, CSS, and PHP, I don't know that I can still call myself a web developer.

I can definitely help out with back-end PHP coding, especially if the content engine is Wordpress. I've written a few Wordpress extensions and contributed patches to several, as well. I am less proficient at front-end HTML and CSS work (as I'm not really set up to test against Internet Explorer), but can still help out there, too.

Samuel, I am not sure if you have heard of the Thesis theme engine for Wordpress (http://diythemes.com/), but if it looks like a good match for the kind of site FoPo wants, I'm considering upgrading from a personal license to a developer license. If the FoPo website could use it, that would be more reason for me to upgrade and donate a site license to the neighborhood association website.

I like to write, but that's not to say I'm good at it. I'll leave the good writing to the good writers. As I mentioned in an above section, I have no problem doing the busywork to backfill the blog with old meeting agendas and whatnot. I'm pretty good at moderating, editing, and detail work.

Most everything I can do to help has to be evenings and weekends. I work late days (and in fact can rarely get to neighborhood association meetings on time because of it).

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