What we learned from looking at more than 3000 websites

10 April 2018

The Open Think Tank Directory  is a collaborative initiative by On Think Tanks that aims to collect information about think tanks and related organisations from all around the world and make it public to support networking and research about think tanks. The list currently comprises over 2,680 think tanks and includes information such as: organisational description, research themes, name and gender of leader, research topics, staff size, website, contact details, social media, etc. It is an ongoing project, so far we have almost completed the information of think tanks in the Americas and are working our way through other regions.

To develop it, we had the arduous task of reviewing organisational websites to identify if they were think tanks or not and to collect from them the information needed to populate their directory profiles. So far, we have reviewed more than 3,000 websites and have learned a lot from navigating them. Not only about the think tanks themselves but about what seems to work best to communicate who a think tank is and what it does.

The following comments, reflections, tips and suggestions have been put together out of this review process and reflect what we found to be best practice.

  1. Describing who you are is often overlooked or not given the importance it should have

In many of the websites we reviewed it was very difficult to identify what the organisation does, and even harder to identify what they are!

The best descriptions include who the organisation is (organisational structure, affiliations etc), what they do (including main topics of research), how they do it and why. This goes beyond the mission or vision, and ideally should not be longer than one or two paragraphs.  Language is also important, and even though cultural differences exist on what is considered good writing, keeping it simple, descriptive and to the point works best- especially if you want to connect to an international audience. It should only take users one click to find out all this about your organisation- more than that and you might lose them.

Some of the best websites also include staff names and their profiles. This provides a better and deeper understanding of the organisation. Highlighting the expertise of your staff also contributes to establishing your credibility. Ideally, also include your board, advisory committees and any other networks your organisation belongs to.

  1. Websites should work for known and new users. They are a space to showcase your credibility

Think tank stakeholders might already know the work of your organisation from engagement in other spaces. For new users, funders and peers, however, a website is a way to get to know an organisation, what it does and how it does it. Your website should work for users that already know your work, but also be descriptive and inviting enough to encourage new users to engage with you.

A website is the storefront of an organisation, it is not only a repository of the work an organisation does, but it is also its ambassador.  As such it should be inviting and engaging. This, in turn, will motivate users to connect with it.  Your website should be easy to navigate, and interesting enough for users to want to stay and learn more. Overly crowded websites (or overly stark ones) where information is difficult to find puts off users and, in some cases, negatively affects the perception of credibility of the organisation. Your website is a space to showcase your credibility, and the following tips and reflections can help you identify what it should include.

  1. Organise your publications

Surprisingly, not every organisation shares their publications on their websites. We know that some publications cannot be shared because of contractual issues, but they should at least be referenced on your website.

The majority of organisations we reviewed do share some (or all of their) publications, and they do this in many different ways. Some organise them in separate pages by research theme (and even subthemes), while others organise them in separate pages by type of publication (books, reports, policy briefs, etc). These configurations make it somewhat difficult and cumbersome for the user (us) to find specific publications or get a sense of the work an organisation does. Having a centralised search function works best, along with being able to choose to review publications by type or topic.

One of the criteria that think tank communications need to fulfil to build credibility is being useful, and the website is the repository of all the useful things an organisation can share with its audiences.

  1. Be transparent. Let users know who funds you and make it easy for them to understand this information 

Some organisations (although not as many as we would hope) share financial information. However, most that do upload their audited financial statements. Financial statements are very difficult to read and don’t do a good job of summarising key information on turnover and major donors. Despite the effort towards transparency there is still some way to go. When sharing financial statements, include at least a small paragraph summarising and highlight the main aspects: turnover for the year and main donors.+

  1. The best websites are easy to navigate and find information, and are visually appealing

Website design and layout is improving and new technologies enable think tanks to better showcase their content. But investing in a website overhaul is useful only if the new layout is used to its full potential.  Websites should help users get to know you and your work. If they do not, then maybe it’s best to wait until you have the time and resources to properly improve your website.

A website should be easy to navigate and the information easy to find. A study in 2002 found that users considered the design and look of a website as the most important factor in their credibility assessment (46% mentioned it), followed by its structure (28%) and focus (25%) of the information. We agree: websites that have the best design (in terms of layout and overall look) convey more credibility to us. Also, images work very well and are recommended, but only if they are good. If you do not have good quality photos or if they are irrelevant to your work they can hurt more than help.

  1. Show that you are still active and let users know how they can contact you 

Many of the websites we reviewed seemed stuck in 2006 when they were first created. Not only is the layout outdated, but it is impossible to tell if the organisation is still functioning.  In many cases we had to refer to their Facebook or Twitter accounts to see if they are still in operation. For some users, this might subtract from the overall credibility of an organisation.

Some organisations had no way of contacting them and did not even share (or maybe did not have) social media accounts. Ensure that you put at least one form of contact.

In summary, reviewing organisational websites for the Open Think Tank Directory  made us realise that, even though they are crucially important for communications (specially in a digital world), websites are sometimes overlooked and forgotten by think tanks. We also learned that the best websites are not the flashiest but rather the ones that let users quickly get to know the think tank, what it does, how and why.