Recently, many international development think tanks have revised their websites making them more accessible, simple and visually attractive.+ When I joined The North-South Institute as Communications Manager, I too insisted on a complete overhaul of the website, but why?
In an age of financial austerity and increased competition for scarce funding, a think tank’s website is more important than ever. For many of us, the days of flying to faraway lands for fieldwork or attending global conferences, are gone. These days, even the price of printing and bulk mailing can deter a think tank from disseminating its work. A corporate website is the saving-grace for the cash-strapped think tank that has valuable things to say, but limited funds to say it. Your website is not only a repository for your work but also, your ambassador. It can go places your organization can’t afford to, it can disseminate your findings to audiences you could never dream of reaching and if it is attractive, interesting and accessible enough, it can garner trust from a potential funder or future partner.
Some would argue that in a world that is increasingly directed by social media, why bother with the corporate website? Today, ‘hashtag’ categories allow you to search a word, and 140 characters direct you to a ‘bitly’ that drives you directly to an article which has the information you need. Social media has changed the landscape of news and removed the emphasis from who wrote the content to the content itself. When it comes to what’s getting read, the ‘like’ and ‘share’ can trump the author or the institute’s credentials. And when getting read is the raison d’être of a think tank, one might argue that think tanks should aggressively engage with social media -but does a think tank really need a Pinterest account?
Although social media can offer you exponentially larger reach than your electronic mailing list or your corporate website, problems abound. Social media has a reputation. It can be an amazing network for sharing information but it comes at a price. Robot spammers on Twitter, Facebook selling fake likes to well-intentioned small businesses (think tanks included), privacy violations and increased commercialization lend social media a reputation of inauthenticity. When it comes to the valuable work of think tanks, ensuring that your research is seen as authentic, authoritative and trustworthy is necessary for securing readership and guaranteeing impact. Overreliance on social networks is a mistake.
Beyond the issue of trust, or the fact that an older audience (often a think tank’s demographic) can be turned off by social media, the very abundance that makes social media so attractive, is the thing that can deter people from it.
A corporate website, if structured properly, can offer you a search function that social media platforms will not. It can provide you with richness of information, depth and easy access that an over-abundant social media cannot. When you come to a corporate website, you are guaranteed that what you are reading has been institutionally endorsed and was written by an employed and trusted leader or expert in their field. A corporate website also offers a global view of the opinions and values an organization stands for, and not just the opinion of one lone 750 word blog.
As an example, an intern at a think tank published an op-ed in a popular blog without the approval of the think tank he was interning for. The views did not reflect those of the think tank. The byline on the op-ed listed him as a researcher at the think tank. Because the blog is popular, his work appears before some of the think tank’s major works in Google -so what’s a Communications Manager to do?
The trick to curing the postmodern blues, as always, is balance. As we venture further into new media and as information exponentially abounds, the importance of authenticity and access increases. The corporate website is not in decline, but in its renaissance. Most think tanks are integrating social media into their websites and de-bunking their content considerably. Ease of access and high focus on visuals are the trend and with the arrival of Google Analytics, the corporate website has shifted its focus from itself onto its audience. Social media, if anything, has increased the importance of the corporate website and will continue to do so as it proliferates into newfangled forms on a minutely basis. Social media will always be the place I go to watch cats playing patty cake, but when it comes to hard research on global issues, I will look to reputable publications, well-known think tanks’ websites and Google Alerts.