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Is it wrong to herald the death of the institutional website?

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[Editor's note: This blog is written by  James Georgalakis, Head of Communications, at the Institute for Development Studies in the UK]

I recently facilitated a workshop for junior researchers on research uptake and communications. I stood before them espousing the kinds of views on e-communications often found on this blog. I explained that people were using the internet in a different way. It was no longer about strategies to get people back to our websites again and again. The proliferation of social media tools and ways to receive feeds of information mean that people now read what they want and how they want it. The institutional website is decreasing in its importance. At this point a hand shot up at the back. ‘Er well haven’t IDS just relaunched their website?’ they asked. Just in case there was any doubt to the answer the home page of the sparklingly new site helpfully shone back at me from where it was being projected onto the wall behind. They needed an explanation.

Is there a contradiction in our online strategy?

No, I do not believe there is. On one hand we do invest a great deal of time and effort into the IDS website. On the other we recognise that our broader utilisation of social media and online communities and networks is key to supporting our researchers’ uptake strategies. We support the concept of a cradle to the grey approach to digital communication that builds online activity into projects from start to finish, as Nick Scott has suggested. One IDS team has pioneered the use of mobile devices to upload research data gathered on field visits to their project blog so it could be shared immediately. Over the past 18 months we have launched five new research team blogs, we have doubled our followers on Twitter, tripled our e-newsletter subscriptions and we have developed an open Application Programming Interface (API) that enables access to over 32,000 research documents from the online information services Eldis and BRIDGE.

Amidst all these innovations I have noticed a growing antipathy towards investment in institutional sites from some quarters. I am not sure anyone is saying have nothing. But what about investing in a brand new site as IDS, ODI and IIED have all done this year? I agree with Nick that you need ‘to be there’ – but part of this is the provision of a solid, and let’s face it, attractive platform or space which demonstrates your credibility (and dare I say it brand and values) and allows different users to explore your products and services. Most importantly as knowledge generators we need to provide a robust searchable store for all our outputs. Some might argue that this is what institutional repositories are for. Indeed, this winter IDS begins rolling out our own open access digital repository. It will substantially increase the searchability of IDS research and enable our researchers to comply with their funders’ open access mandates. However, this is a platform more geared towards academic audiences and it is still our website that can most effectively connect users with our values, messages and services.

5 things our website needed to do better

We carried out extensive research with our web users and key stakeholders last spring. We discovered that people use our site to search out information and understand who we are and what we have to offer them. But they found the site cluttered and confusing. Too much of the navigation and content was geared towards explaining how we were structured and was not designed to meet the needs of the users whether they be students, funders, media, research users or academics.

Word cloud shows feedback on design of previous IDS website

Word cloud shows feedback on design of previous IDS website

We published a report that set out the following recommendations:

  • Drive visitors to the research and the other most popular content
  • De-clutter and introduce new clean design
  • Dynamic related content is key – take users on a journey based on their interests
  • Make far more use of IDS team blogs – these are some of our most popular outputs
  • More fully integrate social media

The new site designed by NEO went live on the 5th of October and so far, despite the usual bugs, the response has been very positive. There were compromises of course as there always are. The use of the latest web technologies has meant that users with browsers more than three years old really need to update them. We think this is a small price to pay and will not significantly impact on the accessibility of the site. We also had to strip out some of the bells and whistles to ensure the pages had fast load times so that limited bandwidth would not overly impact on users’ experience wherever they are in the world.

We’ve experienced an average rise of 30% in the number of page views of the homepage compared to the same period last year. Mobile devices are being used 47.5% more. Of course, these were already upward trends, but the sudden jump is attributable to the new site’s design and functionality. IDS research team blogs are also benefiting from their new prominence on the site with far greater visits and considerable growth in subscriptions. Visitors seem to be finding their way to related content as we hoped they would. Best of all, early indications suggest that the entirely new Research landing page that provides a hub to all our research and projects is performing really well. Over a six week period since launch our new Research Theme pages have received 10,000 page views. This is over four times as many as the old site’s Search by Subject thematic pages received during the same period last year.

An institutional website at the core of our digital strategy

Our approach to our annual report this year probably encapsulates our approach to online communications and our continuing belief in the centrality of the institutional website. We have produced a printed annual report of just 15 pages – compared to 50 pages last year. The printed report is a very accessible, easily pickup-able, document that gives the reader the kind of overview they need. But to fully experience the report you must engage with its online counterpart on our website. It is more detailed, more interactive and most importantly more sharable. We accept that how people use the web has changed and we embrace the more holistic approach that encourages discourse and dissemination in all the online spaces already being used by our audiences at all stages of a project. But at the core of our strategy is still a website that we believe adds great value to both our research communication and our marketing communication. I have no doubt that the new site will increase our impact. The demise of the institutional website is far away and that is a good thing.

Please let us know what you think of the new site. We welcome feedback @ids_uk

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Congratulations on the launch of your new website James – I like its cleaner lines and the new carousel. I’d agree that it’s not an either or choice – both an institutional website is important, but so is investing time in social media and online networks. That’s why IIED redesigned its website, became active on a number of social media channels and broke down barriers between the main website and our social media channels. For example, our twitter feed now pulls through onto our homepage. Our active engagement on social media channels like twitter is paying off: our followers have grown from around 2,200 in late October 2011, when we became active on twitter, to 7,328 today. That’s a 231% increase in 1 year and 2 months.

    This social media integration was part of a larger strategy to get website visitors engaging more with our work and to create a site with less “visual noise” (to quote Steve Krug). We also improved user journeys to help people find what they are looking for more easily. I’ve blogged about all those changes and the rationale for them here: http://www.iied.org/new-website-redesigned-reorganised

    This means when visitors come to our website they’ll find engaging content that demonstrates our credibility and provides them with options to engage further with our work by, for example, downloading a report, or following us on social media channels. If they’ve done that, then our website is playing a crucial role that adds value to all our communications work – as do all effective institutional websites.

    January 2, 2013
  2. Nick Scott #

    Hi James… I’ve written a blog over on the ODI site explaining a little more on why ODI refreshed the site. You can find it here:

    http://www.odi.org.uk/opinion/7186-odi-website-refresh-digital-strategy

    As one of the people who has heralded the death of the institutional website, I wanted to take the opportunity in my post to restate where an institutional website can fit in the picture. I definitely think the direction of travel is that institutional websites will effectively be obsolete in a few years’ time, but I accepted when I first wrote on this subject – and still accept – that institutional website have a role in the present.

    On a different note, I think I take a lot less comfort from increasing visits to any page of the site. As I’ve written elsewhere, the number of visits doesn’t necessarily say anything about the effectiveness of an organisation in carrying out a mission – and nor does the number of followers on social media for that matter. All communications outputs need to be evaluated with a clear idea of what success looks like in mind. For me, the success of a think tank website is not that it generates more visitors – it is that those people on it find information they need as quickly as possible. Sometimes they want to find out about an organisation, but often they have a specific task in mind – such as research or even looking for a job. For this reason, the statistics I’m really looking forward to seeing in assessing how our website is doing are the ones delivered by 4Q, our short website survey. That gives us a good view of what people are using our site for, whether they achieve what they set out to do, and whether they are satisfied with their visit. So far indicators are good, but December is never the most appropriate month to judge by.

    Anyway, there is a lot more discussion that could be had on what makes a good website and what role websites will have in the future – I’d welcome the opportunity to meet up with colleagues at other similar organisations to hear their views too!

    Nick Scott, ODI Digital Manager

    January 2, 2013
  3. Thanks Nick and Suzanne. I am reposting part of Nick’s blog tomorrow with mentions to your comments here and your blogs (and invites to visit them and join the discussion you are encouraging): http://wp.me/pYCOD-Mk

    Do you know of any great new websites of other think tanks in developing countries? Any that you think are particularly good or interesting?

    January 2, 2013
  4. Interesting point on how to judge the success of websites Nick. We do of course monitor and report back on site visits and page views as they’re an important indication of what’s working and what isn’t. But I’d agree that relying on site analytics alone isn’t enough. You say: “For me, the success of a think tank website is not that it generates more visitors – it is that those people on it find information they need as quickly as possible.” I’d agree this is critical. Online surveys can help provide feedback on the site – we’ve used them before here at IIED.

    But, another key way we test this is through usability testing. We carried out usability testing while designing and tweaking our new climate change group section of the website:http://www.iied.org/climate-change-group (which we’ve just soft launched). This really helped us see what it’s like for actual people to use it and carry out specific tasks that we set for them. As a result we had to make all sorts of unexpected but critical changes – mostly to help ‘signpost’ content more accurately for users to help ensure they didn’t get frustrated navigating to certain content. This wasn’t an expensive process – we carried it out with four users and incurred no costs at all. As we work through the rest of our group sections we’ll be doing usability testing on each one and making tweaks as we go. None of this is new to you I’m sure – but thought it useful to throw into the mix/ discussion….

    It would be great to meet up with online communications colleagues from think tanks to share ideas – let’s take that forward this year!

    January 3, 2013
  5. Thanks for all your comments on this post. Good to get an insight into IIED’s approach. Nick’s post does a good job of explaining why ODI felt it needed to re-invest in it’s corporate site despite Nick’s belief that institutional site’s are in terminal decline. I am not sure I agree they are but as I set out in my post I do think we need to respond to the new way that people use the web. And I think ODI, IIED and IDS are all doing this in our own ways.
    James G

    January 9, 2013
  6. Thank you for this blog and the comments – really useful discussion and I’m so pleased I’ve had the opportunity to read them all.

    At UKCDS, we are currently selecting a web agency to work with on redesigning our website. As we are a facilitating organisation, our website works as a kind of portal to showcase the work of the international development community as a whole. This means the majority of our content is available elsewhere (e.g. other websites, blogs and social media feeds). However, we still want a site to explain what we do and why we do it, as well as highlighting the added value we bring.

    For now, our website is providing the core of our online communications. As we develop our communications strategy over the coming months, we’ll start identifying the digital pathways that are most relevant to our audiences and investing more time in those – but I see this as being quite a long process of building credibility on a multitude of platforms. We want to be consistent in our messaging before we do this to avoid building a fragmented picture of UKCDS.

    I’d be really interested in being involved in any discussions around this that take place,

    Thanks

    Sarah

    January 14, 2013

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