Why Garden Train Clubs Need Web Sites - from Family Garden Trains™Club membership has helped many new garden railroaders learn what is possible, learn what plants and approaches work in their region, and make new friends with similar interests. In fact, for many garden railroaders, membership in the club is as important to the hobby as trains in the back yard. So I have always encouraged beginners to find and at least meet up with their local club, rather than trying to do everything on their own.
But I never tried to maintain a list of known good garden railroading clubs. Based on what I'd observed on other sites, it could be a full time job to do right. Instead, I sent folks to club lists on other resources. But in some cases, that made readers frustrated and disappointed - some online club lists have almost as many broken links and bad contacts as they have good ones.
In April, 2008, I took the plunge and started a list of known Garden Railroad Clubs. I use the word "known" because I wanted to filter out clubs that have dissolved, clubs that never were, and clubs for whom the contact information is no longer valid. I also included the disclaimer that the list was only a starting point, and that there may be resources in many regions that just haven't been noticed nationally or internationally yet.
While I was attempting to confirm even the "known" good sites, I could not help noticing that, to an "outsider," clubs with functional web sites had many advantages over clubs that didn't - even if the web site wasn't "state of the art." A web page that showed club contact information, meeting times, photos of club events and the like made the club "real" to me. Clubs that only had phone or e-mail contact information still seem like an "unknown."
No, I don't mind calling or e-mailing folks I've never met and asking them questions that expose my ignorance, but I'm not exactly shy. What about the people we really need to reach, the folks who still find the whole idea of trains in the garden a little "daunting"? Folks who are out of their comfort zone in the hobby shop, much less making "cold calls" to strangers?
Yes, I know that not every club has an internet-savvy member, but even if you have to go to a web developer of some kind, it could well be worth the investment
A Club Web Site Improves Internal CommunicationOutreach aside, a functioning club web site helps the club to be more functional, and improves member participation in many ways. It:
A Club Web Site Grows the ClubEven more important than the internal benefits are the ways the club can attract newcomers who would be hesitant to make just a phone or e-mail contact.
A Club Web Site Grows the HobbyOf course, growing the hobby will help you and your club in the long run. In fact, Family Garden Trains™ main purpose is to grow the hobby, worldwide if possible. Has answering thousands of beginner questions and helping hundreds of people (that I know about) get off the couch and into the back yard with a shovel and a starter set helped me? Well, yes, it has.
Now it's time for a confession - I'm fairly useless as a local club member, because I'm always neck-deep in some online or regional project that benefits people I'll never see face-to-face or, in some cases, will never see again. But the local club is what grows the hobby at the grass roots level. That's why we work with clubs whenever we can - many of our articles are available for use in club newspapers, for example, and we provide brochures and other materials for the asking. Several clubs are just as active at the regional or national level as the are at the local level. Eventually such efforts benefit us all. If another 500 or 2500 or 5000 people join the hobby next year because of various clubs' outreach, you can be sure it will help manufacturers keep costs down and introduce new and improved products.
Yes, I've already mentioned photo galleries and "how-to" articles, but a good collection of each makes our hobby more attractive, not only to folks around the corner, but also to folks around the globe.
And EVERY club web site can promote regional, national, and international events. Otherwise, potential hobbyists usually don't know that they are missing major garden railroading shows or other events in their back yard. (In fact that sounds like yet ANOTHER web page project that I have to take on and try to keep current - oops). Let's keep thinking globally and acting locally until everyone knows or knows of someone who runs trains in the garden.
How Do You Get Started?Ideally, someone in your club knows enough or can learn enough to get some sort of page up and keep it reasonably maintained.
Some club web sites actually reside on some folks' business site or personal sites. If all you can do is get a page or three up that provides contact information (preferable shielded), a description of the club's focus and strengths, and a list of coming events and meetings, you will be WAY ahead of just having a phone # or e-mail contact.
It IS better if you can register (and keep registered) a domain name that identifies your club. GCGRS.org is already taken; so is MVGRS.com, but what's wrong with something like nwohgardenrr.org? A meaningfull domain name also helps your own club members remember "who to call" when they are away from their own computers. A domain name costs about $10 a year through a company like goDaddy, and it's really an excellent investment. Even if your pages are located on a business or family site, you can have the domain name "point" to the page. Example, www.FamilyGardenTrains.com actually points to the train part of my business web site - www.btcomm.com/trains. Which is easier for you to remember?
If you want something more professional than the 3-4 page "home-grown" web site I described above, you may have to pay someone to build the framework, and then show your club web person how to keep it updated and add new member galleries, "how-to" articles, and so on. Remember, the more content that visitors bookmark, come back to, link to, and tell their friends about, the better placement you'll get in the search engines. Which, in turn, makes it more likely someone down the street from you will find your page if they try googling things like "garden railroad club detroit" (or wherever).
By the way, this is a hint to clubs that make their newsletters "members-only," you're actually hurting yourselves in this area (unless your newsletter really suck). If nothing else, go back through your stash and look for useful articles you could put on the web in HTML format, rather than "hiding your light under a bushel."
One other hint, for wannabe webmeisters: Use thumbnails on your gallery page that expand to fairly high-resolution "blowups" when folks click on them (Get to know the "target=new" parameter). More and more folks today have high-speed internet and higher-resolution monitors, so those small, low-rez photos folks were posting in "galleries" a decade ago are nowhere near as impressive (or useful) today as a good 800x600 high-rez photo. At the same time, try to use a jpeg compression setting that keeps the photo size under 200K if possible, as long as it doesn't go so fuzzy as to be useless. Yes, it does cost money - I have been paying a lot more for bandwidth and hard drive space, since I started publishing high-rez photos - but it's worth it if it keeps growing the club and growing the hobby.
ConclusionGarden railroading is fun all by itself, but many folks find that sharing their hobby with other folks makes it even more fun. A web site can promote that aspect of the hobby to newcomers and can help provide a sense of community even for members whose distance or life situation keeps them from participating in in many activities.
I don't have the bandwidth to do a bunch of web sites for free, or even for a "reasonable" fee. But if you have general questions about garden train web sites that might be of interest to your fellow readers or other club members, please get in touch and I'll try to respond.
Enjoy your trains, and especially enjoy any time you have with your family this season.
Best of luck,
Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, and BIG Train Store™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically
For more information, please contact us