The Website Big Three
We may chase the latest digital trends, but at its core there are three things that virtually all think tanks need to anchor their site on:
- Topics pages: the page for each of the categories (you may call them issues) that your organization focuses on.
- Researcher bios: the bios of the people doing your research.
- Research takeaways: the research papers and other outputs of your research (or, preferably, the results highlighted or summarized to be as actionable and useful to site visitors).
Why are these three in particular so important?
- These promote what your organization is about.
- These correspond with an interest someone outside the organization might care about.
- Your organization already evaluates itself on researchers and research outputs, so is already concentrated on these.
- There is a natural relationship between these three (for instance, topic pages list research takeaways, the research outputs are done by researchers, and the researchers do research on specific topics) that can ease exploration of your content.
There is naturally some tension between what those inside the organization might want (like administrative centers rather than topics and research outputs rather than actionable research insights). That said, If we set these three up right, we can do this in a way that everyone wins. This is mostly achieved by ensuring these are true two-way hubs of information, but also in how the pages themselves work.
The widest range of your audience will be interested in your topics. Of course experts will be interested in the researchers and research outputs, but those less specialized in your field will best able to connect, especially over the long term, with topics.
The list of topics on your site alone says a lot about your organization, and so that list should be chosen carefully (see Exploding Topics Pages). How you talk about and present your topics are also crucial. By topic page I mean a page that has a combination of curated (for that specific topic page) and automated listings, and not just a database dump of materials tagged to the topic. And, speaking of tags, your topic list should be a controlled list and not an amorphous list of tags that researchers use to describe their content.
Topic pages should:
- Provide context about your position or approach to the topic.
- Be current (if you’re not frequently publishing on the topic then maybe you should not have the topic page).
- Be meaty (if you only have a couple of research outputs appearing for the topic it looks like you don’t support that topic- which you really don’t if you don’t publish on the topic).
- Have experts associated with the topic.
- Is a true category, and not just an administrative grouping (for instance, if you have ‘Centers’, ‘Institutes’, ‘Research groups’, or the like, these most likely don’t really represent categories and should be downplayed where possible).
Researcher pages win in the way your organization already organizes things and also what you internally care about. Obviously only certain audiences care about the specific researcher, but some very important audiences are the ones do (such as the media). The researcher page is more straightforward than the topic page but, just like the topic page, it should be a combination of a description of the researcher (this description should be written specifically for the researcher page) and an automated list of research outputs. In particular, the researcher page needs to link back to the key topics they work on (in case someone wants something more broad) and the research outputs need to link to the researcher in case someone wants to read more in the same research thread.
Very few people care about the research output itself. The researcher does, other researchers do, and the funder wants to see the output. But pretty much everyone else cares about the bottom line or summaries: charts, key findings, executive summaries, simple statistics, speaking points, and other digestible snippets. By all means emphasize these things and don’t just have blind links to PDFs (the summary page is all most people want to see and that’s ok — we shouldn’t be evaluating ourselves on how often PDFs are downloaded).
Aside from isolated examples research outputs have a much shorter shelf life than the other two of the Big Three. Nevertheless, it is still important. Not only is it going to get generated anyway, but it demonstrates the expertise and analysis that is required for audiences to trust you overall.
Ideally you are truly highlighting the takeaways rather than just regurgitating what is in the report.
These three must be linked
You cannot have strong topic pages, researcher bios, and research takeaway pages if they do not link together.
We must meet the visitor where they arrive, but provide them pathways to content they are interested in. This will both be moving to the more aggregate view (the pink lines pointing left) and those moving to the more specific (the orange lines pointing right):
We have little control over where someone arrives on our site, but we want to make the most of when they do arrive. If they are a specialist who arrives at a research output then we need to provide them an easy means of going to the researcher page. Similarly, if someone from the general public arrives at a research output then (aside from making sure the research output summarizes in a useful manner) we need to allow them to quickly get to the related topic page(s). Here is a summary of these linkages:
One of the first things I check when evaluating a think tank site for the first time is how well these three are linked. Here’s a checklist:
- Does the template for each of these three types of content automatically point to associated content of the other two?
- Is it always the case that these linkages are two-way? If you click on a link from one of these types of pages to another one of these types, does that resulting page link back?
- Do each of these pages both provide context (content that’s written specifically for that page, such as a research output summary with a useful chart) and the auto-pulled content?
- Is there sufficient auto-pulled content and is it recent? If not, it should be taken down?
Warning: sometimes organizations add blog posts to give context or perspective on a research output, but often this would be much better to add directly to the research takeaway page. Why? If someone arrives at the blog post page but cannot get to the Big Three from there, then you’ve just managed to create a dead end for site visitors.
Summary: strengthen your Big Three
Before going too far down the path of implementing the latest trend on your digital presence, make sure you have strong topic, researcher, and research outputs pages. In particular, ensure they are each linking to each other. This will allow those looking for more detailed information to find it, regardless of where they first arrive on your site. Also, this will encourage better exploration of the research you have done.