How are current and future developments on the Internet going to affect research communications? The Internet has served research well in helping get messages out into the world. Corporate websites with lots of original and in-depth content (such as those of think tanks, research institutes or projects) were favoured by Google – by far and away the largest driver of traffic on the web.
But can this last?
The online world is evolving in ways that will eventually see the demise of corporate websites as communications mediums. Specialised sites are already the best way to get certain types of content seen. And entire platforms, like the Apple or Android apps ecosystem, or Facebook, are rising. These work in a fundamentally different way, favouring social recommendation and interaction over the primacy of content.
First steps: the rise of specialist social sites
There are already a lot of sites that replicate core functions of corporate websites. Just looking at the typical think tank or research institute site, there are many sites offering the same functions:
- Staff profiles can be browsed through LinkedIn.
- Events can be organised and advertised through EventBrite, upcoming and others.
- Your latest news can be seen in Twitter and Facebook.
- More and more news websites and specialist blogs accept well-crafted research-based opinion and commentary (The Guardian, for example).
- An overview of an organisation can be found in Wikipedia, and research summaries can be added too.
- Specialist research and knowledge centres collect links to research papers and summaries, by theme, topic and region (in the international development world, for example, we have Eldis, Zunia, and some others).
- Multimedia content can be posted and hosted on Youtube.
- Jobs can be posted through LinkedIn or hundreds of other tools.
- You can send messages from within Facebook or Skype.
At the moment these many sites do not add up to a replacement for one corporate site. However engagement with them is necessary to have an impact online, as people will always prefer to visit one central site to carry out an activity than visiting dozens of different organisation sites (this is the argument of my blog on ‘being there’ communications).
Next steps: the rise of alternative online ecosystems
The specialist social sites that can organise similar types of information have another advantage over single corporate websites: they can marshal their resources to create useful and usable applications on platforms other than the web. ‘Apps’, such as those available on the iPhone and Android, work best when they are focused on carrying out a task, or set of related tasks. Corporate websites don’t do this: they are all asked to carry out a massive variety of tasks. However all the sites listed above do: that is why some of the best apps are those produced by specialist social sites.
It is highly unlikely that many people would download specific apps produced by a single research organisation, cluttering up their phone screen in the process. It is also difficult to imagine how an organisation could produce an app that supported the full range of activities that may be carried out on a research organisation corporate site, whilst maintaining usability and not being prohibitively expensive to develop and maintain. However many users already could make sure that information from that organisation appears in their LinkedIn, Facebook or Youtube apps.
The endgame? Integrated social platforms
We already see the future in play within the current market leader: Facebook. With the launch of its applications platform in 2007, Facebook showed that it aimed to become the web equivalent of the television in the living room – a mass distribution channel that could be used by any business or organisation to reach into the homely place where gossip and pictures are shared, where we go to catch up with friends. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t lack ambition: he’d love to make all online content available within the Facebook platform. Consider this future scenario for a researcher, which could already take place as all the parts are in place:
- You are a government policy adviser. A Facebook friend reads a well-written synopsis of a research paper by a leading research organisation. They don’t read this on the research organisation’s website; instead, the synopsis is syndicated entirely within Facebook. They comment, expressing agreements with the article and asking for more detail on a point. The researcher who produced the piece responds. You see this whole discussion in your feed and though you haven’t heard of the research organisation directly, you trust your friend’s judgement and so choose to subscribe to the organisation. A month later you have to write a memo for a policy maker on a similar subject. You search on the subject, and Facebook content is included in the search, including relevant papers by organisations you follow. You click and download the research organisation’s paper, but also look at a Wikipedia article syndicated into Facebook to find related references. You find both the research organisations’ paper, and the Wikipedia references very useful for your memo, but leaving you needing a bit more detail. You send a message direct to the author of the paper through Facebook and ask for a quick discussion on Skype, which is integrated into Facebook too. The eventual memo, which influences government thinking on the subject, contains references to all this material, and the background discussion, all sourced from Facebook.
The demise of the corporate website
Though the days of a Facebook internet are not here yet, and may not come to pass due to the concerns many would (rightly) have about one organisation having power to show or hide all this data, the general move to social sites is already having an impact. Teenagers already email less than they used to because of social networks and where they go others will follow (if only as they grow up and influence digital culture more). Some websites with massive social network presence have seen huge drops in traffic recently – 40% down for Coca Cola, for example, and a 24% decrease in unique visitors to Fortune 100 websites according to WebTrends, whose 2011 report stated:
Based on our research we conclude that social and mobile networks will dominate the online traffic landscape in a big way, decreasing traffic to content as well as e-Commerce websites.
The history of communications technologies tends to suggest that technologies don’t actually die; they acquire a more specialised use. Rather than being a communications platform, websites will become information repositories, hosting documents and collecting key pieces of information referred to on other sites, which is where people will actually see the information, as in the example above.
It is clear to me that a good communications strategy must start planning for obsolescence of a corporate website as a communications tool: it must look at how connections can be made between content and the social world, how information can be automatically posted on relevant platforms in the right format. Processes for this may be automatic: there is a lot that can be done with good use of news feeds; but there are other places where manual reposting and synthesis may be necessary (for example, Wikipedia). Organisations that get this right can have their cake and eat it: develop the website while it is still used as a place that synthesises the work going on across the online world to best showcase that work, but also expect that over time more communications will take place in the places the website connects to… and don’t be surprised when your website views go down just as your social views and engagement increase.