Digital Communications: What is your homepage for?

In my day job I manage social media accounts and homepages for large organisations. I tend not to blog about that much, but I’ve recently been trying to quantify my approach, to nail down exactly what it is I bring to an organisation. What follows over the next few blogs is, in effect, my personal statement of intent – this is the philosophy I will champion if your organisation hires me to look at your online communications.

There are two predominant approaches to the homepage of a big organisation that isn’t primarily a business – by this I mean perhaps a Government Department, an NGO or a Charity, Foundation or pressure group.

The first is to treat the page as, in effect, the front page of a brochure. The primary focus will be on unchanging static links to content describing what the organisation is and does. These pages will favour large, splash graphics and simple mission statement sentences, with changing content pushed further down page, relegated to second tier importance.

The second is to make the front page a dynamic shop window for a regularly updated collection of compelling content which allows the work of the organisation, and the voices of the people who work for and with it, to speak for itself. It should be a collection of stories about your organisation, it’s work and its people, which will communicate who you are and what you do far more compellingly than a few paragraphs of bland corporate permatext.

I’m not saying you should do away with the ‘About us’ and ‘Who we are and what we do’ pages, that would be madness, if only because a large percentage of your visitors have been trained to expect them. Such pages need to be present,  prominent and professional. But they must not be the primary business of the page – they should be secondary to *stories*.

Compelling stories communicate your aims and identity far better than yet another focus-grouped infographic.

The message may be slightly less focused or targeted, but the content will aim to compensate for this by being more engaging and attempting to encourage more repeat visits and deeper engagement.

In my experience, the latter type of homepage is always the most effective communication tool for any organisation.  But as I champion this type of page I constantly bump up against one recurring counter-argument: but is this supported by the stats and how do you measure ROI?

You see, the argument customarily employed for adopting the primarily static version is that it reflects the stats and user journeys; that it caters more specifically for ‘what people want’. But I question this.

It may be that the majority of people who visit your organisation’s homepage simply want to find out who you are, and then leave. But to cater primarily to this audience ignores one key fact:

The value of one engaged fan is many times greater than the value of one casual visitor.

If your organisation successfully engages one person with good content, makes them a fan, makes them feel an investment in your work and identity, that relationship is far, far more valuable in terms of reputation on and offline, and, potentially, in terms of revenue, than ten users who read a bland prepared About Us page and then go away again.

The primary business of a homepage platform in the current, socially driven internet environment should be to recruit and enthuse ambassadors.

If a homepage creates one fan who likes what you do, it does your organisation far more long-term good than if it neutrally informs ten passersby who leave the page enlightened but not engaged, and with no strong feelings about you either way. Those fans will share your links, mention you on Facebook and Twitter, talk about you favourably on and offline. They will sell you to the world far more effectively than you can sell yourself.

This is not news to anyone who’s been paying attention, but I’m surprised how often I have to keep making the case.

The stumbling block to this approach, however, is that the awareness raising these ambassadors do on your behalf is almost impossible to quantify. This makes many people very nervous, and they instead place their faith in stats. But blindly following and obsessing over stats is a mistake.

The social internet is far more random, chaotic and quixotic than any stat can ever convey.

Yes, stats fulfil the deeply ingrained desire for quantification, ROI assessment and all the gubbins that teams use to quantify and justify their work. But it’s a mirage, an illusion, a fool’s pursuit. It has to be thrown aside. The uncertainty of the new internet must be accepted and embraced.

Rather than primarily being a doorway to information about you and secondarily a portal to engagement, the best practice homepage should primarily seek to engage and secondarily seek to inform.

Information is a necessary consequence of engagement, but engagement is not necessarily a consequence of being informed.

Behaviour on the internet is unpredictable; a minor connection can snowball, even years later. The safest, best, most valuable way to manage online communications is to provide large amounts of compelling content and then to be approachable, honest and nice at all times to those people who respond to it, even if they respond negatively.

The primarily static page may *seem* to favour your immediate goals by answering the immediate needs of the largest number of visitors to the homepage. However I would argue that in the long term it ends up sacrificing both quantity and quality, and fundamentally misses the point.

Such a page is a homepage designed for the internet of 2006, not the internet of 2011, and it will not serve your organisation well.

Hire me.

I was responsible for planning and launching this: http://www.dcms.gov.uk/

I currently manage this: http://www.britishcouncil.org/

I only very occasionally blog about my day job. When I do this, please bear in mind that none of the views published here necessarily reflect the views of my employers, publishers, family, friends, pets, children et al. I mean, they might do, I haven’t asked them, but best take it as read that they disagree violently and think me, frankly, a bit of an embarrassment. It’ll be safer for everyone that way.

1 Comment

  1. A really compelling argument Scott – engagement over information every time! I really like the point you’re making about how difficult it is to quantify the value of engagement.

    Information delivery is, I think, essentially print/broadcast thinking taken onto the web – i.e. it really doesn’t get the particular genius of digital platforms – the opportunity to participate in conversations through being simultaneously both publishers and consumers of information.

    The old school thinking reflects a mentality forged in the technology of the 20th century – reflecting the one to many pattern – deliver the same message to everyone. Provide the ‘official’ information.

    I think you’re spot on in thinking about a home page as gateway into interacting with a brand, and the many voices within it – a diversity of voices, debates and conversations, and the opportunity to participate in them. Great point, well made.

    Reply

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