Monday, January 4, 2010

The Rest of the Story: Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce website

What I look forward to most on this blog is being able to go into greater depth on the thought process behind each site that SDOC creates.  This is my first discourse on what goes into a major project.

The City of Dunwoody voted to incorporate itself in 2008 and began operating in December of that year.  During the summer, right after the vote to incorporate passed, a group of local business owners organized the Chamber of Commerce.  This was a unique step:  to have a Chamber representing the business community at the same time the residential community founds the city.  That was an additional point of view in play when it came time to elect a mayor and council and decide on ordinances and fees.

The Chamber is now and has been from the beginning a volunteer organization.  SDOC Publishing signed on as a founding sponsor - one of 36 local businesses to chip in the startup resources to get it going. 

Audience:  We knew from the start that we had to have a two-pronged approach.  First, we had to be a credible voice on behalf of the business community, which consists of about 2500 registered business organizations within the city limits, most of them very small, often family-owned enterprises.  These interests had to be addressed evenly with the larger organizations occupying the Perimeter.  That was the easy part.  On the other side was the residential community.  This one was going to be harder because there was a long and storied history of local residents feeling their rights were trampled by an indifferent (at best) county government in bed with certain business interests.  Hence the incorporation effort.  Any business entity was regarded with the deepest possible suspicion.  So we have two audiences,  in a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship, but not necessarily trusting each other.

Original Goals:  at the beginning, the goals were constantly evolving.  It was very hard to pin down an approach when new information was coming in weekly, sometimes daily.  This project was one of a kind in that it was a daily experiment.  The original goal was to be a resource for that developing information.  Information initially transmitted was:
  • Progress on City Ordinances
  • Minutes of City Council Meetings
  • Progress on Licensing Standards
  • Networking and Organizational Events
  • Opinion polls for the general public
The official City website was not functioning at the time; the Chamber site was a key source for ordinance documentation in a searchable format.

Current Goals:  Because of the aforementioned friction between business entities and the residential community, the Chamber decided to promote very user-friendly functions that brought member businesses and their customers together.  This includes:
  • Member Business Directory
  • Job Posting Board
  • Special Offers/promotions page
 For our members, the Chamber wants each member company empowered to promote themselves to the public.  So all of the above information can be updated by member businesses themselves, pending review by the Chamber office staff. 

Finally, the site had to communicate the Chamber's participation in Dunwoody life.  An event calendar promotes events sponsored by the Chamber or its members.  Committee chairs update their respective blogs with event recaps, or city council meetings and agendas that will impact the business community.  Members have a private forum to discuss Chamber matters among themselves outside of formal meetings.

Technology:  From the beginning the Chamber decided to use an open-source Content Management System (CMS) both for cost and ease of use for the numerous volunteers that would be coming and going over time.  The original site was created in Joomla.  The idea floated at the time by TPTB (The Powers That Be) was that modules and plug-ins would be used to create business directories and any other function we needed.  The design was a template that was modified to customize the appearance and coordinate with the new logo.

For 18 months,the IT team tried to use these tools to create the site TPTB wanted but there was always a conflict between modules, or something slowed the system down, or the office staff couldn't generate the reports they wanted.  It was always something.  So the decision was made in the summer of 2009 to drop Joomla and switch to Drupal.  For the IT team, it was not a big difference.  But the office volunteers were going to have an issue because the types of content were not as cut-and-dried into sections and categories.  Plus, permissions were more complicated even as they were more precise.  But the old questions of building databases inhouse and testing combinations of assorted modules followed the switch.

Finally, the Chamber leadership decided to outsource the member services.  Chamber leadership and the IT committee reviewed presentations by several companies and chose ChamberMaster.  (This was my recommendation as well.)  ChamberMaster functions are tunnelled through the main Drupal website, but remains separate.  This decision solved several problems.  First, it eliminated any chance that a regular member would accidentally get access to the main content of the website outside of member services and make unexpected changes.  Second, the member services interface is much simpler for the average internet user.  Third, ticketing and other online payment systems are secured in a separate area that does not require manual maintenance by the Chamber staff. 

Design:  Look & Feel
The original design was based on the concept that TPTB were looking to convey a sense of optimism and excitement of a new beginning.  Thus, the original colors were the colors of sunrise:  blue and orange on a white base.  These colors were also popular at the time in TV ads.
When the CMS was changed to Drupal, a new template was required.  The emotional point had not changed but fashions had:  shades of blue with bright spring yellow-green were becoming popular.  A basic template was chosen with that palette and then customized to make the appearance unique to the Chamber. 

Finally, a graphic accent to support the text-based logo.
The symbol needed had to be a simple representation of the local business community, where neighbors own the local storefront, where there is a great comfort with business.  The sense of mutual community that was the goal.    The design is an American colonial-style cupola; this structure is found scattered all throughout Dunwoody in small business areas that subscribe to the Colonial architectural style.  Even gas stations have them!  A photograph one bright and sunny afternoon, then a few Photoshop steps to render it into a soft pencil/charcoal drawing and voila!  If you've been to Dunwoody, you know what it is, and what it means:  good neighbors and good business. 

And that's the story!  Feel free to post comments if you have any questions.  This is the thought process that goes into a website - the abbreviated version anyway!

1 comment:

SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

I am very happy to report that on the first day of full-blown business traffic, the site worked 100% as expected. Members dove right in and started using the interactive features. Only a couple of phone calls to the office and only one email to me from folks requiring some kind of clarification. Now that's a success!