How to Make a Successful Site, Uncle Sam Style

What does the federal government know about Web sites? Plenty, judging from the success of the "America's Library" site. Learn how it generated 100 million hits in one year, and pick up hints for your private-sector efforts.
Posted August 17, 2001
By

Bob Woods


What does the federal government know about Web sites? Plenty, judging from the success of the Library of Congress' America's Library site.

The goal of the site is not a small one: In April 2000, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "We hope [the site] will realize one of the earliest promises of the Internet: to put the Library of Congress at the fingertips of every boy and girl where they live...With this new site, we hope to put the STORY back in 'history.'"

While more recent traffic numbers were not available, a top official for America's Library told NewMedia that the site garnered 100 million hits from April 2000 through April 2001. While using the term "hits" is not as accurate as "page views" or "unique visitors," it nonetheless shows that a lot of people visited the site in its first full year of operation.

So how did Uncle Sam, who is not exactly recognized as being on the cutting edge of Internet design and marketing, attract so many visitors to one site?

Part of the equation came from San Francisco-based 415 Productions Inc., which designed and delivered the site.

According to a case study provided by 415, the LOC presented it with a very basic structure for America's Library. The company was to divide the provided content into five general areas: people, dates, places, pastimes/hobbies, and media types. 415 was to then take that general direction and develop an easy-to-use site that emphasized "the fun of discovering facts from American history, while incorporating as many of the library's digital assets as possible."

The LOC added other challenges to the mix: Because the site was targeted primarily at children, it had to be friendly and easy to navigate, offer features that would hold a young person's attention, and ensure repeat visits. Also, the navigation had to be able to grow as the content expanded over time. New digital assets and short stories would also be regularly added, and interactive games and activities would need to be updated to maintain the freshness of the site.

So 415 created a structure that directed users through the site and exposed them to the library's digital assets by means of short stories. Throughout the site, the user is presented with the option of reading more stories and delving deeper into the library's collection. The site was structured so that at no point would users be presented with so much information that they couldn't process it quickly and easily, 415 said.

415 also had a four-month deadline, which presented additional challenges. Content creation and management were crucial, as the site was to contain more than 500 original stories. Content was divided into five sections that would appeal to kids. Subjects for each of the sections were developed next and, finally, the individual stories in each section were identified. A team of historians at the LOC as well as 415 staff shared research responsibilities. 415 created HTML templates to enable researchers to quickly identify necessary assets (images, photographs or media files) and specific facts for each story.

Global navigation is presented across the top of each page, and a clickable "cookie crumb" navigation trail is displayed at the bottom of each page so that visitors can quickly identify where they are in the site and easily return to any story/asset.

The site goes light in the plug-in category, too. While America's Library uses video, audio, and early film and animation samples, a user only needs Flash and a RealPlayer installed on their computer to access the content. Even without the plug-ins, 415 said users can still enjoy and learn from the site's story-based content. To accommodate users with special needs, the site works with text-based browsers and doesn't use a lot of colors.

From a technology standpoint, the LOC's time and budgetary constraints would not allow for America's Library to be a database-driven site, 415 said. So the design house invented a text-driven system that will transition smoothly to a full-blown database back-end with later development.

Design and technology are only part of the equation, though. As Internet architects know, a site that looks great and operates well isn't worth the effort and won't pay off in the end if no one visits it. Marketing is a key factor to promote any site.

So how did the LOC use marketing to reach that 100 million "hit" milestone? According to Guy Lamolinara, a Library of Congress public affairs specialist and America's Library project manager, a combination of a "broad ad campaign" and a good public relations push helped the site to hit the mark.

The LOC used the slogan "There's a Better Way to Have Fun with History ... Log On. Play Around. Learn Something" in its ads, which were launched in the summer of 2000. Radio and television spots were distributed to 3,200 television stations and more than 6,000 radio stations nationwide in the first year of operation.

America's Library also promoted itself via the Internet as well, with a banner ad featuring a pop-up film.

The second prong of the attack was through a public-relations campaign involving press releases and media contacts, Lamolinara also said.

All of this sounds like it cost a lot of money, right? Well, it didn't--to the LOC, anyways. The radio, TV and magazine ads came courtesy of the Ad Council, the organization that produces and distributes public-service advertisements (PSAs) to publications. DDB Worldwide in Chicago, meantime, donated the creative services for the ads.

The PR campaign, meantime, came from in-house staff at the LOC, Lamolinara said. Spreading the word through press releases and media contacts definitely helped the site build momentum, especially at the beginning, he also said.

While it is difficult to say which of the two main efforts to build traffic worked the best, Lamolinara speculated that the free media probably worked the best, especially when "an America's Library ad even ran on 'Survivor.'"

Lamolinara also feels that a link to America's Library from the main Library of Congress Web site, which sees one billion hits a year, definitely helped his site with its large visitor count, because "the library has quite a good reputation for putting content online--they've been doing it since 1994."

For those in the private sector looking to learn from the America's Library experience, Lamolinara urged them to make sure they have high-quality content on their site. Also, having a quality "brand" name like the Library of Congress upon which to build definitely helps a start-up site.

One aspect of the site that probably won't play well in the private sector is that while the content is free, America's Library contains no ads. Being a government-supported site, America's Library can definitely get away with doing this.

But Lamolinara thinks that the commercial-free aspect of the site was "appealing to parents." The LOC even took advantage of the Web site's "ad free" status in its marketing to parents: Ads for kids were run on TV, while radio ads carrying the "commercial free" message were specifically targeted at parents.

Bob Woods is managing editor of NewMedia, an internet.com site where this story first appeared.






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