18 May 2008

Survey of Teen Center Web properties

Recently I surveyed web sites developed for "teen centers" -- supervised facilities where teens can go after school. Despite the obvious value such facilities offer many communities, what I found shows modest attempts to reach out with the best available technologies.

See my bookmarked representative Teen Center sites through Yahoo
  • Some are sponsored by the school district, town or county (e.g., Ann Arbor Teen Center, Neutral Zone)
  • Few are e-commerce enabled to provide for donations, but all ask for funding
  • Some are updated so infrequently they undoubtedly draw little traffic
  • Some appear to be extensions of government or education web sites

Content for the websites varies, but some themes emerge. I list the most common themes below.

  • A common problem with the content at many sites is that items intended for different audiences are mixed up. Content for community sponsors, organizers and parents is different from what teens want to read. This distinction is obvious, but site navigation schemes don't support it.
  • As we have seen at the Port Washington Teen Center, teens want a place to play games and perform music.
  • A calendar widget is essential, but having one that integrates with email (for notifications and reminders) is needed.
  • Fund-raising is a regular part of the content. Do it unashamedly, but on the "sponsors/parents" content area so that it doesn't weaken content aimed at teens.
  • Few exploit the capability of web video.
  • Recommendations and Ideas
  • Google (Blogger, where this site is housed and Google's Google Sites), Microsoft (Live), Synthasite and Godaddy offer self-managed web site tools that require little programming assistance. These resources do not offer all the features needed, but are relatively easy to use, and are low cost. Blogger and Live are free, and Blogger doesn't require advertising (yet). Blogger and Live have password-protected posting, so that some teens could author their own messages -- with staff having the ability to edit or delete.
  • Godaddy's site builder is not free, but is inexpensive and can scale if the need increases. Any of these can be used together if a common look and feel is provided, but the Godaddy resource makes it easier to add capabilities such as compelling Flash landing pages.
  • Even if the current site is maintained, it needs an easier to remember domain name, such as or (both currently available). The domain names run $10/year each, and can forward to the existing site.
  • The current site is findable through Google, but the site text isn't designed to expose the site for search engine purposes. Some minor changes can help this.
  • Design a navigation scheme on the home page to invite / tempt teens to jump directly to content of interest to them. Parents and sponsor content can also be on landing pages, but it should be secondary. Trust them to find what they need to find out. Also, Google will spider non teen-centric pages anyway, making them accessible from other than the home page.
  • Leverage opt-in email using a hosted service such as Constant Contact to sustain and nurture interest -- this is a marketing must, because the many internet users won't have a reason to visit the site regularly. Maintain separate teen and sponsor/parent lists. When new content is added to the site, this should be incorporated into the monthly newsletter -- i.e., repurpose some content for email and vice versa. There are
  • In addition to Google ad words, consider small ads on the site for music lessons, music stores, dance lessons, culinary lessons, tutors, summer programs, recording studios, etc. (see example here).
  • Offer music from a teen performance on the home page (defaulting to off). This can be a perk for performers. See example here.
  • A minor nit, easy to fix: the existing site needs titles on its pages (currently "untitled document" appears).
  • Plan to move to a Flash-based display - more eye-catching for media-savvy teens. You'll need to produce little photography (of the place, of the kids, staff, the town) for each content item but once it's up, it's basically just a sexy front end for regular web pages. See this example, which would require a little programming to set up, but not a lot to keep going.
  • The web and email channels should be coordinated so that each has links to the other.
  • Instrument the site with traffic metrics so it's possible to know when site improvements are helping with traffic. This means listing with Google and Yahoo's site measurement instruments, and following certain standards in maintaining a site map for use by the search engine bots.
  • Use MySpace to coordinate music events and to permit teens to invite friends and provide an audience for their music. MySpace is too ad-bloated to serve as a primary web site.
  • Have a regularly updated presence on FaceBook and Twitter too. MySpace supports music playback better, but expanding visibility requires the other networks.
  • Provide for onsite support of chat, bookmarking and other sharing tools so that offsite teens are drawn into the Center.
  • Use YouTube or other video upload capabilities to embed teen commentaries and performances. It's easy to add YouTube videos to a Blogger site (or any other site -- see the "embed" instructions on any YouTube video), and easy to upload a video to Google, who hosts the video at their expense (so far).
  • Link up with occasional other events and sites that will interest teens -- this is essential for web visibility. E.g., concerts in the area by popular musicians.

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