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

10 December 2012

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.