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on how to organise and present a think tank’s research

I had a very interesting conversation with Andrea Ordonez from Grupo FARO today. We were talking about how to organise the research programmes of the think tank and it occurred to us that there is often a tension between how research is organised internally and how it is presented -mainly through a website. When I was at ODI this was a constant struggle: hence the lists of programmes, themes and regions; never mind the long list of resources.

The reality of course is that work at ODI is not organised by any of these categories.

Internally, research needs to be organised to maximise quality and efficiency -it must help to manage, work across the organisation, win business, attract new staff, etc. Externally, it must be organised to influence  (inform or educate) its public. Two different audiences and objectives.

So it should be easier if one separate both -internal about management, external about influence- and recognise that there does not need to be an automatic link between both. All research and analysis is not worth being published -nor, in my opinion, should we publish different types of outputs next to each other as if they were comparable: books, journal articles, reports, opinion pieces and blogs all have their place.

Furthermore, external organisation of research (the presentation and communication of research) ought to present a coherent policy message. How else could someone make a decision?

So how to present research? I’ve been looking at some front pages (which is one way of presenting research outside of the organisation) and have found some approaches (but note that there are many overlaps):

Does anyone else have examples of these? Or any other? Maybe favourite think tank websites that may be presented as best practices?

Please send your recommendations.

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  1. Hey QQ

    There are a number of things to consider here, I’d say.

    Firstly, is the point of a website really to influence? I would posit that only a certain number of people visiting a site are there to be influenced. As I know I’ve discussed with you, I see the main websites for think tanks as the place that all other communications activities come together. Most know what they are looking for when they arrive on a site, and are there to find it. That is why you need to be able to organise information by a number of competing taxonomies to give them the greatest chance of finding it; all the while trying to make those taxonomies user-focused and minimise confusion between them in the user. ODI doesn’t just organise information by programmes, themes and regions, we also do by author, type of resource (publication, event) and even within those types by various other factors (books, blogs etc. or language).

    In my mind, the trick is to achieve a balance of all the ‘types’ of site you have above. So you offer all to those who want to find something particular,and find ways to highlight flagship reports, news, information about the organisation and any other taxonomies to users too. The difficulty is that this does not only need to be achieved at the top page of the site: you need to be able to offer all those things all the way through a site, because the vast majority of your users won’t arrive on a home page, they’ll arrive on a page two or three levels down.

    And, to make matters even more difficult, you need to keep in mind that one of the most effective ways of reaching people is not worrying about your site or how people will find information on it at all, but instead working out how the hell you’re going to get them to see the information in the course of their travels around the internet in the first place… What is your search engine optimisation strategy to get your information top on Google? How are you ensuring that your research findings are linked to from all the top online sources for each specific sector you work on? How do you get an email to a key player, and more importantly get them to read? It is quite a challenge and I’m not convinced that any of the organisation listed above have made much progress in making the online space work for them as a proactive route for influence, rather than a reactive one that allows their information to be found and used when needed.

    Nick Scott (Online Communications Manager, ODI)

    April 12, 2011
    • Thanks Nick. Of course I was not criticising the ODI site but trying to characterise some sites more generally based on their front pages. I should have clarified that. As we have discussed before, in my view the real success of the website is that if you google a topic that ODI deals with you are likely to get to an ODI resource. And as you have said before it is not about the site but about the online strategy.

      Still, front pages can reflect the manner in which organisations work -and this is less a comment on the communications aspect of the work and more on the organisation’s business model. Features or flagship reports suggest more independent advocacy; lots of reports and papers suggest contracting and project based work.

      But these are not necessarily binding relations. Nothing stops an organisation from managing differently in its internal and external spheres. And in some cases the objective is less to provide information as a public good and more to facilitate the debate -to take Res Publica’s tagline: to change the terms of the debate.

      Now here is a question for you Nick. How to present a clear story -and complete argument- out of a compilation of resources or projects? Granted this is not that important for ODI’s policy space but it is in fact critical for think tanks in developing countries where their arguments can help steer entire societies away from boom and bust political cycles (take Peru for example, where we’ve just voted, again, for people rather than ideas).

      April 12, 2011
      • Hiya

        You say that you were “trying to characterise some sites more generally based on their front pages” – however the title of your blog talks of “how to organise and present a think tank’s research” and I think it is more that I was commenting on. I’d actually argue that front pages are probably quite a bad example of that because, as George states, they are primarily marketing tools. More accurate would be the title “how to define the priorities [or focus] of a think tank”. Here you could say much more clearly that the front page says something about the way the think tank works. And for ODI, it would definitely reflect us as more or less “all we do” in that the top pieces of research from numerous research areas are all profiled in the centre, and lower profile pieces also get a look in on the right-hand side.

        To respond to the title of your piece, you need to move away from using the front page, and look at how research is organised and presented on every page of the site. Only 20% of ODI site visitors start their visit on the front page, for example, and it is therefore essential that the remaining 80% can also quickly and easily find their way to specific pieces of ODI research.

        Basically, organisation and presentation is a whole-site thing, whereas the front page benefits from the organisation and presentation of the whole site, but I’d say it is more essentially about marketing.

        In response to your question on how to present clear stories online, there are numerous ways to do it, but without some manual synthesis and a clear and focused subject it is difficult. Blogs can be great at this, as can events, podcasts, presentation. I don’t think it would be easy to achieve a clear story by just listing a set of resources, even though that is much easier to do. The most relevant attempt at this for ODI is our ODI on… pages, which we create at times of international events or the like, and where the summary should provide a synthesis of some of the key areas highlighted within the list of documents. As with so much of the ODI website, the aim is to provide something akin to one of those fractal images you used to get in the early days of Windows, where you start with an overview of the whole beautiful image but can zoom into any particular part and get an equally beautiful image for that much more specific part.

        April 12, 2011
  2. Fascinating ideas that I think do cover an important issue for all of us working in research communications. This problem of externalising internal structures and processes is a common one not restricted to research organisations. I think you get an even starker demonstration of it if you look at organisations’ Annual Reports. Here you will see some present a detailed description of themselves and organise the publication around the structure of their organisation, whilst others use it to report on key acheivements and present their brand or vision. Certainly here at IDS we did the former but are attempting this year to move to the latter. On websites I rather agree with the comment above that it seems a little unfair to assume the main audiences are those we wish to influence (in policy terms). The, all that we do approach, is also recognising that our websites – or at least the home pages – have a broader set of audiences. At IDS our website is a marketing tool which promotes our courses, other services such as Knowledge Services as well as providing a platform for discourse on our research. We also try hard to provide content that is ‘sticky’ that users can interact with or that reflects topicality. Our home page is more concerned with reducing bounce rates and supporting our SEO strategy than anything else. That is not to say that we do not also struggle with the externalising internal process issues on our website. There is more debate here for instance about the search by subject research categories than anything else.

    April 12, 2011
    • Thank you James. You raise an important point on the multiple audiences. It makes sense. IDS and ODI are attempting to reach a rather broad set of publics around the world. Think tanks focused on one political space, say the UK or Ecuador, can focus their communications a lot more.

      And as you suggest if an organisation has core funding it may not need to invest in marketing style communications and follow the who we are approach.

      Do notice, however, that I did not mention “policy”.

      April 12, 2011

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