Saint Mary’s Press was on the cusp of something big when we started working with them.
A survey had showed quite plainly that their customers wanted something that SMP was not offering, namely, more free materials to help them teach their religious education classes. As a publisher of bibles, religious education textbooks and books for young Catholics, SMP already had a deep catalog of supplementary materials like quizzes and PowerPoints to go along with their books. Their customers, however, had even more in mind: additional in-class ideas and activities; pictures, maps and videos to make religion more engaging; and commentary on current events to discuss with their students. No one suggested how exactly to get these things, but it was clear that there was a deep and widespread desire.
Our first and most important goal in working with SMP was to address this desire for resources. By the time we finished our strategic plan for the new SMP website, we had some basic ideas for what to include in the new online Resource Center, as we called it. SMP staff also identified existing materials that they could add to this new application, yet it was clear we still needed more. We then made a plan to gather input from SMP’s customers to give more shape to what the Resource Center should become.
Beginning in early 2011, one:ten staff members visited a handful of Catholic schools and parishes across the country. During these visits, we sat in on classes, observed teacher planning meetings and interviewed dozens of teachers, volunteer catechists, directors of religious education and theology department chairs. What we saw and heard explained everything. Teachers and catechists filled most of their class time with activities, discussions and exercises, occasionally using textbooks but never for the majority of the time. They also faced a constant struggle to present religion as vivid and relevant. Supplementary materials were more crucial to a teacher's success in their religious education class than we previously realized, and there was a clear need for more.
These site visits provided resounding confirmation that our intuition about the Resource Center was correct. Religion teachers and catechists needed it, and now we had a much better idea of what to build.
In the following months we worked with Saint Mary’s Press to find resources, develop a scheme for organizing them and even build tools to help with those tasks. Our basic goal was simply to build a well-organized library of resources that teachers could navigate easily and that SMP staff could maintain successfully. Along the way, we added a liturgical calendar to help teachers keep in touch with the daily life of the Catholic Church, since they had indicated that that too was important.
By the time we were ready to launch in November 2012, we had built a website that contained a deep and varied set of resources, ranging from pictures of the Holy Land to articles about classroom management. Rarely, if ever, has a Catholic publisher provided resources so deliberately and on such a broad range of topics.
The new SMP website also included a completely redone online store. We reorganized their products to be clearer and easier for customers to find, particularly when it came to their most popular Bibles and series of textbooks. The website also now connected automatically with Microsoft’s Dynamics NAV, the ERP product that SMP used to store information about their products, customers and orders. This automated connection instantly saved SMP hours of time that was previously devoted to adding new products to the website by hand or manually rekeying online orders. Not only that, the website featured a new look that expressed SMP’s distinctive brand.
Building the SMP website was an exercise in the familiar (developing an online store) and the unfamiliar (creating the Resource Center). We are proud to have worked with SMP staff to develop something innovative that addresses a huge need for teachers and catechists. Early results indicate that we succeeded, with steadily growing traffic to the Resource Center and an overall boost in traffic to the Saint Mary’s Press website. We can’t wait to see how this new software grows with time.