Founded in 2009, The Archaeological Box is a media-rich website that incorporates features like Google Maps and podcasts in two languages. It also incorporates a store and professional accounts. In this interview with Matt Thompson, the site’s founder, we’re going to explore the concepts of content management systems, including Drupal, and what goes into supporting the site through social media.
Guin: How did the site develop and how did you come up with the name? (timestamp #00:01:52.6#)
Thompson: A few of my colleagues and I from school realized that we had a lot of information gathered individually and that it would be more practical if we could share it. So the site started as a small venture for a group of five people. We quickly realized that we weren’t the only ones in this situation and that information was lacking in the field of archaeology. Resources are hard to find and when you do find them, they often aren’t complete. We agreed that if we were going to do this, we’d go big. It grew into the Archaeological Box. We just rode the wave to what it is today. We’re still adding daily. As for the name, I’d like to say there was a well thought-out plan, but our site is bilingual. We found the name in French first. We are a French-speaking team mainly. It has a dual sense as a box with all the information in it. But in French, it can also mean “the firm” or “the enterprise.” So it also meant the “archaeology venture.”
Guin: What was on the site initially? Was it more like a blog? #00:03:37.0#
Thompson: At the very beginning it was just news. Daily, we’d find news articles on archaeology. Anyone who’s familiar with archaeology sites will know how important Google is for survival. Even before we started putting the the site only, we supported a “mini version” so Google would get to know us. Then we found our web designer and started building the components of the site. We started adding photos, blogs and events.
Guin: It’s one of the most professional and refined archaeology sites that I’ve seen. What are some of the other components of the site? You said you have a podcast and are going into other new media adventures … #00:04:58.9#
Thompson: Other than podcasts, we have field school repertories and archaeological site listings. We have an archaeotourism section where people can post travek reviews or look for archaeological travel packages. There’s something for everyone.
Guin: How did the travel packages come about? Does it help support your site? #00:05:32.5#
Thompson: The travel section serves as the general public portal to the site. The general public accesses the site through the archeotourism portal where they have access to news, events, travel reviews, packages and forums. Our main site is built around a Google Maps search engine. Archaeotourism has similar feature, which includes any hotels that have packages with us for tour groups, car rental deals for tourism. It’s an interesting part of the site that’s being developed more. #00:07:19.0#
Guin: You mentioned that site was developed professionally, but there are a lot of people who are starting up with pre-made blog sites or ready-made social networks like Ning. What’s the advantage for building your own site from scratch? #00:07:43.0#
Thompson: We are using a content management system called Drupal, which offers a lot of flexibility. That was most important, that we be able to do whatever we wanted to do. As much as our website designer will take care adding things, others I can do myself without much knowledge of the web programming. I can add groups, or use the messaging system or add a customer service window. Those are blocks that are already available via Drupal. It also allows us to custom-develop our site. We did look at Ning and the possibility of developing a Facebook page or creating a cheap version of a social media website. We quickly got to the point that we couldn’t go any further with doing what we wanted. So that’s when we decided to find a web designer and do it right. #00:09:10.2#
Guin: Is Drupal open source? #00:09:15.5#
Thompson: Drupal is open source. A lot of people know it. A lot of people know Joomla. It’s pretty much the same thing. It works with “blocks,” and you’ll see that on our website. And I think that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of information on our site and a lot of first time visitors will be overwhelmed by what they see. As much as we try to cut things out of our homepage so it’s not so heavy, we need to guarantee a certain level of quality at the same time. So having a block-type system that’s very clearly identified, we hope to make it easier for viewers to make sense of what they’re seeing. We started with WordPress in the beginning when we just had news because it’s foolproof. We use two host platforms which allow automatic install of Drupal on the website. We can add things pretty easily. We’ve been adding groups to the site, which have been in prototype states. We set them up and began testing them for functionality, but making the final tweaks to the layouts is where the web designer is so important. So that’s the side-effect of using Drupal: you need to go into code and tweak stuff.
Guin: You’ve got a lot of content on your website. I noticed you have memberships. Why did you decided to follow a membership model? #00:11:38.8#
Thompson: We have two main types of users: personal users and business users. Since the beginning, we decided we wanted to have free personal memberships. There is a cycle that if you don’t have personal members on the site, business members won’t come. But if you don’t have business members, the personal members won’t come. So we decided to have two types of business accounts. A regular business account that is also free and allows basic capabilities for viewing and posting. Then we added a business-plus account. It’s not very expensive and gives these businesses potential to develop a more profile as a viable business portal. You can add a portfolio, create an events manager, add a corporate blog, photo albums, etc. In regard to the personal accounts, we protect users’ information. But a lot of site protect too much information. Business members don’t need us to hide their information, so we tried to create a balance where personal information is locked away and only members can access it. But non-members who only want to come to the site to look at the news, events and field school listings can still have access to a basic level of the site. By creating sign-in option, we were able to serve all these audiences.
Guin: What kind of business customer are you looking for? #00:14:09.6#
Thompson: We have several, which leads me to another complication of building a site: developing categories. Whether it’s for news articles or business members, you need to find a way to include everyone. The hardest thing we faced was deciding how members would be classified on the geography of our Google Map. When we got to the Asian section, we forgot to write “southern and eastern Asia.” Likewise, that was an early difficulty: figuring out what we need to offer as business “types.” At first we thought of everything possible–members from museums, archaeological sites and interpretation centers, archaeological missions, tourism, hospitality, etc. There’s not really a limit for the types of people that we wanted to welcome to the site.
Guin: You mentioned Google Maps. Tell me how you’re using it. #00:16:02.9#
Thompson: When we first started using Google Maps, we wanted a shock value. We wanted people to get to our site and be impressed by something “different.” We think our site does have a shock value, but we also wanted to make sure it was high quality. So if you are impressed by the look of the site, you’ll also be impressed by its content. Google Maps allows us to do both things. It’s nice to look at. It also permitted us to create a search engine based on our site. So you can search for our members on the site, whether they are listed on Google or not. We used a Google Map and overlay our business members with pins that are located on the map by address or by longitude/latitude for archaeological sites because a lot of sites and field schools don’t have addresses. So when you create your account, you click on the map and add your pin where ever you want it to be.
Guin: Do people have the option to include what information they want displayed on the map, or does it just bring up their profile? #00:17:39.6#
Thompson: If you click on a pin on the map, it will open a small window with a member’s profile picture and a short description. If you’re a business-plus member, then you’ll have more information such as a web address. For a regular business member, it will bring up your account name with a link to your profile.
Guin: You’re using other forms of social media outside the site as well. Tell me about those. #00:18:11.5#
Thompson: When we started this thing, we went all across the web. Every social media outlet that could help us, we were on it. We had an account. For folks who are in social media, you quickly realize you can’t do everything. I’ll use our Facebook page as an example. When we first got on Facebook, we posted everything on it. And our membership went up fairly quickly. A hundred new members came from our page every two weeks. But most of those members don’t come to the site because they could get all the information they wanted on Facebook. So we quickly decided to pull back from outside social media. So we kept Twitter and Facebook and we control the information that’s put out there. We use Twitter to post news, so every news article on the ArchaeologicalBox.com is also posted to Twitter. We use Facebook for announcements on the site. Whenever we post a new podcast, we’ll put it on there. New additions or functionality to the site.
Guin: I think it’s important to have your community area and let the social media tools support that. A lot of people think they have to optimized every social media tool with all of their content. Really, the purpose is to use those tools to bring new audiences in. #00:20:23.0#
Thompson: As I mentioned, we have two podcasts. One in English and one in French. Both are news podcasts. We put together a selection of the most important articles. We have a short podcast of about 20 minutes for the English podcast and about 10 minutes for the French podcast. Ironically, the French podcast is recorded in Seattle. The English podcast is recorded in Montreal. In the summer, we have a more relaxed podcast where we go visit sites. #00:21:50.7#
Guin: One of the things that interested me in your site is the “lecture series” area. #00:22:15.5#
Thompson: With “information” as our theme, we realized there was something lacking in the archaeology world. And that was a “free” global lecture series where members from communities that don’t necessarily have structured archaeological organizations or funds to put to that could still welcome renowned archaeologists to speak to them. So we created this series that pairs together lecturers and hosts from around the world for free. There’s no payment. Members will tell us their travel schedule and we’ll match them with hosts that have given us their availability. So we if have a lecturer from Australia who is going to Vancouver to lecture at a university for three months, and there is a host in Vancouver who is looking for someone to lecture about South Pacific archaeology, we can match them.
Guin: I’m sure that you have had a lot of experience in the development of the site. I know that in developing a few sites myself, that building websites can become addictive. A lot of things come up that are unexpected. I’m sure there are archaeological and other heritage organizations looking to start up their own sites now. What advice do you have for those people?
Thompson: We had no idea how much time and resources something like this would take. But we were a good team that had the patience and time to put into this project. So I think anyone who want to build something similar, needs a good support system. Sometimes I’ll get calls at one in the morning: “the site’s down; what do we do?” You need to good support system to be ready for those things.
Guin: Do you use social media personally to engage with friends or other interests? #00:25:46.3#
Thompson: I do have things like a profile on Facebook. But most of my time is spent on developing the ArchaeologicalBox.com. Everything’s available there, right? We can have statuses, blogs, photo albums, so why go anywhere else.
Guin: Are there blogs or bloggers that you follow? #00:26:50.5#
Thompson: I do take the time to follow some of the social media blogs. And in the interest of being a good social media geek, I went to PodCamp (a podcast camp) in Montreal. I met so many people with interesting and smart things to say, so I follow some of their blogs as well.
Guin: That leads to another question: how do you find the news for your site? #00:27:50.5#
Thompson: We control the news a lot. Members can post news articles, which we approve. There is a team of four of us that divide the week per days and go through the web about two hours each day. What’s fun about our way of doing the news is that we don’t use RSS to gather information. You can be sure our news is fresh and not duplicated.