One of the most powerful tools for any first year convention is the con website. It's your public face, it's going to be where most people look to find out more about you, and it's going to be your best way to communicate information to the masses.
And it's really easy to get wrong.
In this long delayed entry in starting your own con, we're going to talk about what your website needs to have, what it shouldn't have, and most importantly -- how you're going to pull it off. I'm also going to talk about social networking, and how to use it along with your website to promote your convention.
Now the first thing you're going to need to build your con website is, well, someone who knows how to build a website. Frankly, we're geeks though, and I'm sure that someone you know can at least teach themselves the basics to put together at least a slap-dash site. Now if you aren't a design and/or php guru, there are some shortcuts that we can take -- but there is we need first: a place to put the website.
There are plenty of free hosts out there you can put your website on, and you should under no circumstances use them. Well okay, if someone has a gun to your dog's head, fine... but otherwise? It's the easiest way to look like a rank amateur. Now picking a decent webhost is hard, and there are a lot of pricing options out there -- I recommend you put in your research before selecting a hosting provider. Like in all things, you get what you pay for. Personally, I've had a good experience with "A Small Orange," but that's just me.
If you have a staff member already leasing space on a shared host, that's also a good option. For the first year, No Brand Con's website was on my personal account. Most web hosts will let you point a second domain at a subdirectory too, so you can avoid looking like it's 1996.
Now that you've found a place to put a website, you need to actually build something. I like using Wordpress as a CMS to build the main site, as it will let you have flexibility in maintaining the site. Non-web savvy people can update their department's pages without having to filter through the con's webmaster.
That said, it's important that every piece of content you put on your website is double checked for spelling and grammar - as typos make you look unprofessional. No one wants to give their money to people who look unprofessional. Secondly, never write anything in the singular first person. You speak for the convention on the website, not yourself. If you need to refer to the con, it's "We" -- and if you need to single out someone specific, you use the third person (i.e. "Our events head Mark McFakename will...").
Besides providing information about your convention, your website should, ideally, serve as a place to get people preregistered. In this modern day and age, it is expected by most people that they'll be able to preregister online. Every major convention can do it, and so should you.
Unless you're BotCon apparently. Those Transformers fans have it rough.
In any case, this is where you're going to want to hunt down a PHP/SQL guru. Taking the money is easy with services like Paypal, but associating it with a person's information takes a little work. There are some turn key solutions you can pay for, but honestly - it's cheaper to find a nerd who can code.
Of course, I used to be a professional web developer, so I might be a little biased.
Really, all a preregistration system needs to be is a basic PHP script which takes the registrant's information, shoves it in a database, and then sends the person to a Paypal link. As payments come in, you find the relevant registrant and mark them as paid. You can get fancier than that, including automatic verification, but that's all you need.
Your website should also have a forum of some sort. I recommend PHPBB, as it's easy to install and manage. Forums let your possible attendees get to know each other and you as a staff. By feeling more connected, these people will be more likely to actually show up the day of the convention. It will also let them ask your staff questions, as sometimes the things we've put out there aren't as clear as we think they are.
You should also use this same forum for staff communications -- said forum section being private and accessible to only staffers of course. This staff section can also be a great place to keep meeting notes and records. By making the staff forum connected to the standard forum, it also encourages staff to interact on the public forums as well.
If this were 2004, that's the extent of how far you should take your site. This is 2011 though, which means we have one more thing to worry about: Social networking.
Your convention should have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, no excuses. Even if they're just pointing towards the recent updates on your site's news page, they're a vital way to keep in touch with your attendees. These days a lot of people don't bother going to official site forums, they merely talk on the social networks they already use. And like all things, if your attendees are somewhere, you should be there too.
Honestly, setting up Twitter and Facebook pages only takes a few minutes, and the rewards they bring make them well worth it. It also allows word of mouth to pass more easily. If Billy "likes" you convention, his friends will see it -- and maybe they'll check it out too. Likewise, you should also create an official Event on Facebook for the same reason.
Obviously Facebook may not remain the dominant social network like it is as I write this, so if you're reading this in ten years, swap the name out with whatever social network exists in that world. NeuralMyPlace Plus or whatever.
In the end though, your internet presence is vital, because until you actually HAVE a con, it's your only presence period. So keep that in mind.