Looking at a website revamp?

Then check out this great case study from Virginia Beach in the United States, which has just overhauled its website in time for the peak (northern) summer season. The key questions this case study addresses are: How do you simplify while adding content? And how do you make your site appealing for visitors from other cultures? Click on the link below for practical tips plus results.

Courtesy of MarketingSherpa; Image from Hankins Photography.

CHALLENGE

When you’re a tourist destination advertising via everything from broadcast to print, how do you decide how much budget to give online? "We have a dartboard at the back of my office …" says Ron Kuhlman, Director Tourism Marketing & Sales Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"No, I’m just kidding," he laughs.

"We time it out. We have a pretty good idea of how many talent hours a Web project needs, and from there we back into the numbers. It’s not like we set out to say Web is 5% of the budget. We don’t have a budget specifically for Web that’s stand alone. We have one media budget, and it’s all included in the channel mix from newspapers to Web to rack brochures as appropriate for each campaign."

Initially, Kuhlman admits the site was little more than shovel-ware for the Bureau’s tourism brochure. The brochure was fat (it’s still almost a 16MB PDF), so the site was, too.

But a home page cluttered with colorful graphics, ranging from golfing vacations to convention center booking info, all begging to be clicked, isn’t user friendly.

Kuhlman wanted to put the site on a diet. But, his interrupt research teams (who stop tourists on the sidewalks for a quick chat) told him the site needed more content — not less. Especially for Hispanic and French-Canadian tourists.

Can a site gain weight and slim down at the same time?

CAMPAIGN

First, the team made five key design decisions to make the home page less overwhelming — while keeping all information within 2-3 clicks away:

#1. Boil down home page creative to fit above the fold.

The old home page extended below the fold. The new one was more compact, and felt at a glance, less threatening. Overall, the feeling was more like a postcard and less like a full Web site. (Link below to screenshots of old vs. new home pages.)

#2. Focus horizontal navigation by major demographic.

The site had visitors with four completely different demographics: meeting planners, travel professionals, press, and of course consumers. The old home page had tried to attract each with their own colorful call-outs competing for attention. The result was far too busy.

The new home page focused 100% on the most populous audience — consumers. The only concessions to other demographics were tabs across the very top of the page, where these professionals could quickly click for their own microsites.

#3. Keep all navigation visible (no Flash).

Heavy-content sites often solve the "we have too much content to put all the options on the nav bar" problem by making additional navigation options suddenly visible when a visitor’s mouse hovers over the nav bar. But this solution has three drawbacks:

– Visitors may be annoyed or find this hard to use
– Search engines can’t always crawl it completely
– The nav bar may not work in every type of browser

So, instead of overwhelming home page visitors with choices when they scrolled over navigation bars, the Web design team turned Flash nav into a simple hotlink. If you wanted to know more about a topic, you’d click to the next page where all the options (formerly in the Flash roll-over) were clearly listed… also as simple hotlinks.

#4. Keep five key offers on the home page.

Consumers visiting the site might be planning a vacation months away … or they might need a map for a drive that afternoon. Kuhlman’s team made sure the home page had five calls to action — one for each major type of visitor goal. That way, many visitors found the answers they sought with a single, convenient click:

o Drive today goal — link to map, lodging, dining
o Future planning goal — vacation guide plus links by activity
o Ongoing fan goal — sign up for newsletter
o Promotion-responder goal — click to enter promotion microsite
o International visitor goal — French- and Spanish-language areas

#5. Remove content if it’s not useful that day.

"It’s a very dynamic site," says Kuhlman. "It’s constantly being updated." The biggest part of updating may be taking content away.

Example — when the weather is fabulous, the team may add weather reports to the home page. If it’s the time of year when most people are planning not traveling, weather reports are removed. Who cares if the beach is sunny today when you’re stuck in an office for the next four months?

Next, the team continued to ask international and Hispanic visitors both online and at Virginia Beach itself what they really wanted from the site. This helped them avoid three big mistakes:

Mistake A. Don’t put it up unless it’s updated.

If you can’t keep your foreign-language content as updated as the English-language content, dump the section altogether. Why risk annoying people? Do your site well or not at all.

"Originally we had German, Japanese and Portuguese … quite a few pages with different languages from around the world. But, instead of continually updating those pages for low gain we made the difficult decisions not to do a site section unless we could absolutely prove there was a significant audience for it."

The site wound up with just three sections — English-language content for French Canadians, French-language content for the same, and Spanish-language content for US Hispanics.

Mistake B. Don’t translate your whole site.

Kuhlman’s team didn’t assume international visitors would be wowed by a completely translated site in their own language. Fact is, international visitors have different information needs than Americans do. For example, they may want to know about how the exchange rate benefits them or what U.S. gasoline costs are.

Mistake C. Don’t pick all images to match a demographic.

For the Spanish-language version of the visitor brochure PDF, the creative team deliberately did *not* replace every image with Hispanics. Why?

"You don’t want a link to the Spanish version of your site and then all of the sudden everyone looks like they are from Mexico, South America or Spain. At that point we’re being fake and everyone would be conscious of that. We have to show Virginia Beach as it really is — not some ideal that we want people to think it is."

RESULTS

As an integral part of the Bureau’s branding campaign ‘Life the Life’, the redesigned site at VBFun.com has won 60 marketing tourism awards in all.

Last summer (2005), 80% of surveyed Virginia Beach vacationers said they used the Internet to get some information before their visit. 39.3% said they had purchased tickets or made reservations related to their stay either through the site or elsewhere online.

More than 70% of VBFun.com visitors are returning visitors, coming back for more information. Roughly 10% of unique visitors download an English-language PDF (although this can shoot up to 18% during March, a heavy vacation-planning month). 0.3% of unique visitors download the Spanish-language brochure and 0.8% download the French-language version.

The team’s learned four lessons about offering PDFs:

Lesson #1. Consumers prefer PDFs to printed-and-mailed materials

Currently 350-400% more consumers will download a PDF from the site than fill out a form requesting a printed copy be mailed to them. It seems that instant gratification is very much in fashion.

The team have learned to position the PDF offer above the mail-me-a-brochure form for visitor convenience. The form still exists though, because a sizeable minority wi
ll always prefer the printed version.

Critical — the PDF will never ever be barricaded behind a required form of any kind. Kuhlman knows that a required form would stop roughly 95% of downloads, and it’s far more valuable to him to have thousands of brochures in people’s hands than to collect hundreds of visitor registrations.

Lesson #2. Remind your art department it’s a PDF

If your art department is used to creating gorgeous content for print purposes, they’ll most likely create a file that’s vastly oversized for an easy-to-download PDF. You want to keep your file size to 5MG or smaller if possible. "That was one of those life lessons for us."

Lesson #3. Tell visitors how big the file is

Put the file size of a downloadable file on the click link so visitors understand up front what they are getting themselves in for. This is equally important for small vs big files.

Lesson #4. If it’s big, also offer downloadable chunks

Since this year’s brochure PDF is 15.9MG, the team broke it into nine chunks by topic, ranging from "Shopping" to "Beach Life" (sample to one of them below).

Visitors told the Bureau’s survey team in the field they much prefer pick which info they want to download, and so far site analytics have born this out. "My downloads have increased significantly."
Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples from VBfun.com including Spanish-language PDF brochure:
http://www.marketingsherpa.com/cs/vbcvb/study.html  

BCF – the interactive agency Virginia Beach uses to create, update, and track its Web site
http://www.bc-f.com  

WebTrends – the Web analytics software currently used by VBFun.com
http://www.webtrends.com

Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau
http://www.vbfun.com  

Ends

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