Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Strategic Communications and the Web: Rapporteur's Summary

Sep 29, 2006

The meeting was called to order at 12:30 pm by the event’s host Devin Stewart of Policy Innovations, the Carnegie Council’s online magazine on globalization. Mr. Stewart characterized the purpose of the day’s meeting as an opportunity to amplify innovative ideas through content sharing. The meeting evolved from the relationship between Mercy Corps and the Carnegie Council, and Mr. Stewart added that it was his hope to “keep this forum going” in future meetings. It was suggested that another meeting could occur in 2007, perhaps in Washington, D.C. Following Mr. Stewart’s welcome, the participants introduced themselves and shared information about their organizational mission and style.

Erin Thomas of Mercy Corps, co-host of the meeting, then spoke about that organization’s website Global Envision. Mercy Corps views itself as part of a larger initiative to share technology and content with a network of partner groups, she said. The meeting was designed to facilitate that goal. Next year, Ms. Thomas said, Mercy Corps plans to introduce a hunger library in New York City as well as several new youth outreach initiatives.

While introducing Gene Lewis, the first of the day’s two presenters, Mr. Stewart referenced a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “How to Get Attention in the New Media World.” Mr. Stewart acknowledged that this headline neatly summed up the purpose of the meeting. Gene Lewis is the director of web development for Digital Pulp, a New York based Internet technology firm that has been in existence for ten years and provides strategic marketing, web design, content, information architecture, and application development.

Digital Pulp’s diverse client list includes the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Atkins Nutritionals, Adidas, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Science Magazine, and the Clinton Global Initiative. According to Mr. Lewis, Digital Pulp facilitates interactions between technology and humanity. He explained that his goal is to leverage and implement technology to best address the concerns of individual Internet users.

Digital Pulp’s approach to working with clients is divided into three stages: discovery, design, and production. During the discovery phase, Digital Pulp listens to its clients concerns and desires in a series of stakeholder meetings. The design phase includes concept analysis, brand review, and a tech review. Finally, in the production phase, the design is implemented and the website is launched.

When approaching the individual needs of Digital Pulp’s clients, explained Mr. Lewis, the technology professionals he employs are faced with a common set of strategic challenges. First, they must understand their audience. According to Mr. Lewis, this means defining and accepting the organizations core principles. “Don’t try to be everything to everyone,” he pleaded with the participants. The audience clarity that this approach provides, he explained, allows an organization to use its website to say more with less. Mr. Lewis expects a website to act as a “digital shepherd” by helping the audience self-identify content and quickly understand it. He identified several methods for identifying a websites core audience. These included analyzing web traffic with an eye toward the pathways that are the most popular. He also advocated the active collection of information from the audience through the use of surveys and polls. The audience “will not be offended,” by these requests, he reassured the participants.

Among Mr. Lewis’s insights was his belief that the internal perceptions of an organization are frequently at odds with the external perceptions of the web audience. Digital Pulp tries to challenge an organizational client’s traditional method of operating. This can often involve challenging entrenched philosophies. But Mr. Lewis believes that the website user should always be the focus of design and content decisions. As an example, Mr. Lewis offered a story of a client that preferred to promote its product using vocabulary that was not widely used by its target audience. This type of disconnect between provider and user highlights the value of an external perspective.

Mr. Lewis noted that organizations typically suffer from overcrowding on their website’s homepage. Preferably, he said, a homepage will be as simple as possible. As an example, he cited Google.com, one of the most popular sites on the web and one that presents users nothing more than a search field. Mr. Lewis again urged the participants to shepherd their website users to self-identify desired content.

Mr. Lewis also urged the participants to consider a more commercial approach to their websites. He noted his distaste for “mission statements” on organizational websites, commenting on the importance of engaging, entertaining, and inspiring users. According to Mr. Lewis, an organization’s website should tell the story of that organization while embracing current trends. He conceded the necessity of remaining “brand appropriate.”

Content, according to Mr. Lewis, is the most important aspect of any website. He stressed the value of metadata, or data that refers to and describes other data. He urged participants to “liberate” their content by separating it from its display. Wikis, blogs, mashups and RSS are valuable and flexible tools that can be used to complement content and enhance user utility.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Mr. Lewis fielded questions from the participants.

Q: If your content becomes a gateway to your site, should you change its location in order to steer users toward your homepage?

A: No. If a user is being referred to content on your webpage from a search engine, there are tools available to alter how that content is viewed. In other words, if someone navigates to the content from within the site, it can display one way. If they arrive from outside the site, it can be displayed in another way. Perhaps in a way that encourages them to dig deeper into your site.

Q: How can Google maps be used?

A: Google maps are intended to be leveraged from the outside but it can also be integrated into your site. It is a map tool that does not make things more difficult. Google API allows you to embed maps into your site. I definitely encourage you all to find existing tools that can be integrated into your site. If there is something out there that is available and costs nothing, use it.

Q: Can you speak a little about open source content management systems?

A: Some good ones are Plone & Zope. They are XML driven and are a great user interface. Another good one is eZ Publish from Norway. Rugby is also good for community interaction sites.

Q: What other interactive tools besides blogs exist for small offices with limited staff?

A: Small organizations need to think about what content can be most easily updated. Remember that you can use technology to refresh content instead of doing it manually. Set up rotation features so that someone in your office doesn’t have to go in and change your front page every day or every week.

Q: What models exist that can aggregate the critical views of users?

A: RSS can be used for collaboration and planning, Wikis, Flickr, Bloglines, Pop URL’s can all be used by your readers to see what’s hot in the world.

After a short break, Mr. Stewart reconvened the participants and introduced Todd Rengel of Animus Rex, a website design firm based in New York that provides marketing communications, information architecture, user interface design, advanced web development, and database integration. Mr. Rengel began by outlining his view that the primary challenge for the participants was to translate the concerns described by Mr. Lewis into practical decisions.

Mr. Rengel emphasized the primacy of content. In his view, without unique and compelling content, a website will see no traffic. He urged the participants to remember that there will always be new technology to convey content but the quality of the content will remain paramount. He articulated a belief in clarity, both of identity and mandate urging participants to be clear about their mission, objective, and mandate. This is occasionally a source of some confusion in an organization, he remarked to laughter.

Like Mr. Lewis, Mr. Rengel affirmed that self-reflection is the essential first condition for success. He suggested that the participant organizations ask themselves a series of questions in order to hone the usefulness of their website. These included:

  1. Who are our targets?
  2. What do they need?
  3. What do we have to offer?
  4. What are our resources?
  5. What resources do we need?
  6. What is the value of the website to us?
  7. What is the value to our target audience?
  8. What is the value to our funding base?
  9. How much are we willing to invest?

The answers to these questions should provide a roadmap for the web designer to create a site offering targeted and robust content.

As an example of how to make better decisions, Mr. Rengel offered a graphical device intended to help organizations maximize their website design. The model encouraged organizations to rate potential initiatives according to their importance to the organization. Mr. Rengel said he advises clients to drop any initiative with a ranking of 2 or lower. The remaining initiatives could then be plotted on an X-Y axis with X as a measure of cost in terms of time and Y measuring monetary cost. Initiatives plotted in the low cost/low time quadrant could be considered “low hanging fruit,” according to Mr. Rengel, and should be implemented. Other initiatives could then be eliminated or pursued based on the individual preferences of the organization.

Mr. Rengel promoted the value of this model as a tool for justifying decisions to financial stakeholders. In addition, he emphasized the strategic value of the model in terms of both cost effectiveness and value to the user. Reinforcing his desire to see clients get a fair return on their investment, he pointed out that initiatives with low value and low return should be jettisoned quickly in order to streamline decision making. To this end, he urged the participants to adopt quantitative methods, such as metrics and benchmarks, to gauge the successfulness of the their website.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Mr. Rengel fielded questions from the participants.

Q: What are your thoughts on video formats?

A: Digital video is an example of an area in which websites get bogged down in a high-cost trap. Those that force you to make bandwidth decisions are ridiculous. Use YouTube and Flash video, which are format free.

Q: Don’t you have to worry about target accessibility? Many of the participants in this meeting are development organizations and in many cases our users are in parts of the world that may not have access to high-speed Internet connections or where older, slower computers are the norm.

A: I advise my clients that simpler is better. Properly designed sites, meaning ones that follow good web standards, can mold to all capabilities and be delivered to any device. Think about your target. Keep things text based as much as possible. Keep all this in mind during the designing process. That said, all browsers have the option to shut off pictures, so your site should be viewable to anyone with a computer. Let me also say that this ties in with my advice to know who your target audience is. If you target audience is 150 years old and lives in a place with no Internet access, then, well, you may not need a website. When I ask clients why they want to pursue certain features on their site and the answer is, “Everyone else has this,” then alarm bells go off for me. Know who you are and who you want to reach.

Q: What can be done to optimize results from search engines?

A: Have text instead of image and content that is relevant to your site. Be aware that search engines have a difficult time indexing. So keep that in mind and name folders according to content. Use good SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Refer the link on the page back to your site (use good self-referral). Make friends on the net. Have links on their sites and vice-versa. Make sure that tagging is done efficiently so that searches are more useful. Google ad grants are a good tool. They give reports on how to increase traffic and improve SEO.

Q: What can be done for sites with a lot of information?

A: Think dimensionally. Simple is better

At this stage, the discussion opened up to all participants.

Gene Lewis: With regards to knowing your target audience, I recommend downloading the JAWS application, which allows you to experience your site through the ears of a deaf person. Everyone here should do this.

Evan O’Neil (Policy Innovations): Is it possible to increase search engine traffic to your site?

Rengel: The best way is to have text-based content instead of image-based content. Also, content must be relative to the site and it should be specific. Search engines have a hard time indexing.

Lewis: Self-referral is a great way to get SEO. If you think about it, the search engine itself is going to be opposed to the very concept of SEO. In the world of search engines, relevance should be the issue, not who wants to optimize traffic to their site. Everyone wants to optimize traffic, so search engines have to be crafty about how they operate. The Google algorithm is a closely guarded secret.

Stuart Gaston (Mercy Corps): Links matter. It is believed that Google gives weight to the number of similar sites that link to your site.

Philip Auerswald (Innovations journal): I’ve heard that a link from a dot.edu site is more valuable in the Google universe than a link from a dot.com or a dot.org.

Lewis: That is supposedly true but only in certain regions of the world. It may be more valuable to have a link to your site from a dot.edu in the Northeastern U.S., say, than in West Africa. But, by all means, get a dot.edu to link to your site.

At the conclusion of the question and answer session, Mr. Stewart referred again to The Wall Street Journal article and its claim that 90% of “word-of-mouth” happens off-line. In this spirit, he proposed that each of the participants introduce the basic concept of their organization and discuss any innovations that their website features. The websites were displayed on a wall during these presentations and presenters guided participants to relevant sections of their sites.

Mr. Stewart began the “show and tell” portion of the meeting by discussing the Policy Innovations website.The site is in the format of an online magazine, featuring innovators and their ideas for a fairer globalization. A future goal of the Policy Innovations will be to facilitate spidering among organizations in order to aggregate content and provide tailored search results. Mr. Stewart pointed to the site’s 25 Innovations for a Fairer Globalization feature as a unique feature and invited submissions.

Anya Schiffrin described the website of Columbia University’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue as a place for reporters to get publications and find out about events. The principle goal of the encyclopedia-like site is to provide reporters in less developed countries with a resource for writing on issues related to finance, economics, and globalization.

Denise Wolk explained that the concern of Educators for Social Responsibility was teacher- and professor-development and interpersonal relationships. She cited the organizations e-newsletter as the most innovative element of the website.

Nikhil Chandavarkar explained that the mission of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs website is to provide U.N. delegates with access to translated documents. He detailed the use of focus groups to collect feedback from delegates using the site and referred to the monitoring of all unique visitors.

Nayan Chanda outlined Yale Global Online’s operational methods and its use of commissioned articles as well as articles culled from the Internet. He noted that the search mechanism allows users great latitude to tailor specific search criteria.

Philip Auerswald of Innovations attested to that print publication’s interest in building content partnerships and establishing a legitimate dialogue on the subject of innovation and innovators.

Joanne Bauer of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre outlined the need for her organization to simplify and present a massive amount of content in a coherent way. As the site serves as a repository for a large and varied amount of content, the natural challenge is always to maintain orderliness.

Jeff Marn and Thomas Stec of Foreign Policy magazine said that their website leverages the value of their writers and editors, allowing them space to create content that might not have a place in their print edition. The site is free and regularly updated but seeks to complement and reinforce the benefits of a print subscription. Messrs Marn and Stec referenced their efforts to use the site’s blog to promote content that is subscriber-only.

Rebecca Weiner of Globalization 101.org cited an “Ask the Experts” section as the principle innovation on her site. Meanwhile, the site offers non-partisan insight and analysis on globalization for educators and interested parties. The site features videos presented in “bite-sized” pieces in order to better appeal to students.

Jeffrey Allen of One World United States detailed his efforts to tag data more efficiently so as to increase the efficiency of content searches. He also highlighted the importance of making sure that everyone within a diverse organization is “on the same page” as far as what labels mean in order to avoid overlap and misidentification.

Katarina Wahlberg of the Global Policy Forum claimed that the organization’s website seeks to avoid academic jargon and views enhancing the accessibility of U.N documents as its principle responsibility.

Sandra Sitar described Ashoka’s use of rotating information to make the site more dynamic. She noted the site’s use of HTML coding instead of Flash in order to accommodate less sophisticated users. The site offers related links in an attempt to guide users to content.

With this, Ms. Thomas and Mr. Stewart thanked the participants and invited them to spend further time discussing potential partnerships and content-sharing opportunities.

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