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Building Web Presence for Residents and Visitors

Municipalities large and small use their websites to keep residents and visitors up to date on governmental services, public meetings, events and other news. The complexity of those websites tends to mirror the size and needs of the city or town, and its audience. 

In the Town of Lowrys, for example, the primary needs are to show visitors how they can reserve the town’s 110-year-old schoolhouse event venue, or how they can participate in the Christmas parade. A vastly different website audience exists on Hilton Head Island, where the local population tends to be older and tourists come from every country in the world.
As they develop their websites, many municipalities have to balance providing easy-to-use information with the cost of creating and maintaining a robust digital presence.

Whether the community’s needs are large or small, one thing remains true: “The website is never done,” said René Phillips, Hilton Head Island’s website developer. 

Simple needs
Marilyn Pressley, who works part-time as Lowrys’ administrative assistant, said it takes her a couple of hours each month to keep the town’s website updated with information about meetings and events. The website came about more than two years ago, and it can be easier than the old, informal way of communicating. 

Administrative assistant Marilyn Pressley updates the Town of Lowrys' website. Photo: Town of Lowrys (High-res image)

 “The website is a good way of getting information out,” Pressley said. “It’s a good way for people to know our basic contact information. Before, if folks needed something, they might call the mayor at his business.”

Pressley serves as the town’s only employee, and she works part-time. She noted that getting information to those interested in renting the schoolhouse event venue would be difficult without the website.

“Having a place on our website that is dedicated to, ‘here’s how you rent the building, here’s some pictures to help you see what we have, here’s the rental agreement,’ [it] gives people a starting point,” she said.

Maintenance of the website, which is built on the WIX platform, is fairly easy most of the time, requiring just a few hours a month. Pressley’s workload does increase in the months leading up to the Christmas parade, which brings more than 7,500 visitors each year to the town of 200 full-time residents. 

“We usually have several hundred entries between horses, tractors and walkers,” Pressley said. 
Plans for future website enhancements include adding a section on the town’s history, she said. 

A variety of tools 
The Town of Cowpens’ extensive history — dating back to the American Revolution — is quite visible on its website. The outside vendor Comporium of Rock Hill produced the site and maintains it. 

“When I got here seven years ago, the website was pretty new and thrown together,” said Town Administrator Steve Bolin. “I think an intern had done a do-it-yourself website.”

Cowpens used an outside vendor to produce and maintain its website. Photo: Town of Cowpens (High-res image)

Bolin said the town interviewed about a half-dozen companies before settling on Comporium, which also posts updates to the site as Bolin provides them. 

“The content is still pretty much yours to write,” he said. “But they help us adapt as things change, like integrating social media.”

The website also includes an option for residents to sign up for TextMyGov, a service that allows users to send or receive text messages from the town. The texts can include information about bad weather or council meetings. About 300 of the town’s 2,000 residents have signed up for the service. 

Residents also can text questions to the town and get an automated response, which is a link to the page on the website that might be able to answer their question based on certain keywords, or get forwarded to Bolin or one of the two other town employees, who will follow up with a phone call. All responses usually come within 24 hours, he said.

Residents also can text photos of potholes that need fixing or potential ordinance violations. He said he gets one or two texts a day needing his attention.

“We’re trying to make sure we do 100% response, we don’t want to leave anything hanging,” Bolin said. 

The website is more for permanent information while social media and texting is for quick turnaround items, according to Bolin.

“The website is like your tool shed,” he said. “And Facebook and texting are like your drawers in the kitchen.”

A complete overhaul
With hundreds of thousands of visitors every year as well as nearly 40,000 full-time residents, the Town of Hilton Head Island’s website is essential to communicating with a range of audiences, Website Developer René Phillips said.  

Hilton Head Island's website, handled by the town's Website Developer René Phillips, received a complete overhaul in 2021. Photo: Town of Hilton Head Island (High-res image)

After years of making tweaks to an aging website, the town decided to perform a redesign and launched a complete overhaul of its site in July 2021. The driving force behind the redesign was to make the site mobile-friendly, but the key to its success was that everything was redone. 

“Not only did we redo the design, we rewrote all our content, restructured everything,” said Phillips, who has worked with the town’s website for 20 years. “We started from scratch to the point of ‘don’t even look at what was there, we’re not going to amend that anymore, we’re going to start over.’” 

It took a couple of years to get the site’s architecture built and the content rewritten. The website was built and is managed in-house, but Phillips said she created a content management system of sorts that lets her “subject-matter experts” enter their own updates. 

“Staff can upload their own news releases or other information,” she said. “It gives me a little more flexibility. They need to be able to update when I am not here.”

As part of the site’s long-term maintenance, every page in the site has an owner who is responsible for reviewing content and making it sure it is up to date. 

“Some departments assigned someone once a month to go through and check every page and then with other departments. It was part sales pitch to convince them to keep their information up to date,” she said. “The more information that you have and that is correct, this is your best tool to communicate with the public.”

Phillips noted that the website had 2.9 million visitors last year.  

“Imagine if all those people had to come to the door,” she said.