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What’s wrong with your website (and how to fix it)

June 29, 2023 #Insights
What’s wrong with your website (and how to fix it)
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Like it or not, many policy research organisations need a website redesign so that their audiences can understand their mission and access their work. Here, Head of Strategy Natallia Nenarokamava looks at the key issues and offers some solutions.

We design build and maintain a lot of websites for our policy and research-focused clients here at Cast From Clay. 

This means we spend numerous hours exploring the websites of policy institutes, research initiatives, think tanks and universities as part of our initial landscape research for website redesign. The overall picture isn’t exactly great. Here’s why.

Your website is all about you (and, no, that’s not a good thing)

Anyone new to a policy organisation’s work has had this experience on websites before: clicking around, but remaining mostly unenlightened. If you’ve experienced it, it’s highly likely a policymaker, researcher, or journalist is having the same experience on your own website.

It can even be worse for regular visitors looking for content. They know it is there, but there is no way for them to find it unless they memorise the exact choreography of clicks.

With new digital, your information has to be thought through, tastefully supported by your branding, and carefully curated.

The cause is simple: research and policy organisations often fail to distinguish between internal and external communications. That means all of their internal conversations about structures, branches, focus areas, reports, topics and impact flood their digital space.

The result? People trying to learn about what you do end up learning very little. It’s the equivalent of a clothes shop where items are displayed in alphabetical order because of how the staff’s stock-checking system works. In other words, an internal concern leading to an irrelevant and illogical information structure.

The value-add of keeping internal needs removed from external communications is simple: you enable people who haven’t participated in your internal discussions (ie, most people) to understand what you do quickly and efficiently. 

Solving this means research and policy organisations must adapt to ‘new digital’, where complexity is taught through simplicity, where less is more. With new digital, your information has to be thought through, tastefully supported by your branding, and carefully curated.

A good rule to remember to help you achieve this – it’s about your users, it is not about you.

Your brand lacks nuance

Your audiences want to see what you have to say, what new thing you bring to the table and what makes you different. And most importantly, why they should listen to you. This all comes down to your brand – your values, your vision, your story, your voice and your character. 

No one will remember your work streams, departments or clever pathways. What people will remember is a clear tagline, a unique look and feel of the site, engaging content, interesting authors, original illustrations and fun interface. When it comes to digital – detail really matters. It’s why Apple religiously refines buttons and perfect sounds.

Yet, it’s hard to talk to policy organisations about branding. “It’s not serious enough.” “It’s too marketing-y.” “It’s not what we do.” “Not what we care about.” Research and policy organisations’ interest and investment in branding rarely goes beyond the logo, the icons and some stock footage. 

This creates a matrix of identical bluish websites with story-ousted people performing staged acts on every picture. 

Whether you care about it or not, brand is what defines you to your audiences even before you mention your research. Brand is this first split second decision on whether they want to engage with you or not, whether they trust you or not. To paraphrase McLuhan, brand is the message. And you need to get this message right. 

So, if your policy organisation is planning a website redesign, start by reviewing your brand and making sure it has enough capacity to expand to a digital presence worthy of its pixels. 

You’re two tech-generations behind

If research and policy organisations have not adapted to new digital then they’re way behind with new new digital: the recent rapid leads in AI and machine-learning that have profound and multiple implications for the research and ideas industry. Here’s just one example…

If you are familiar with the vexatious word “SEO”, or Search Engine Optimisation, it’s about to become much, much more important than it already was.

With the rapid development of generative AI, the role of researchers, think tankers, most importantly their content, has risen greatly in significance. From verifying facts, preventing racial and gender bias, fighting wars or vaccine disinformation, to advocating for policy change in the age of fast data, research institutes offer high-quality information to inform our societies.

This is crucial when the astounding processing capabilities and complicated algorithms of generative AI hit a dangerous wall of being unable to verify the information presented. Take Google’s disclaimer: “Bard may display inaccurate or offensive information that doesn’t represent Google’s views.” And this is not a short term problem. When Bard finally gets Google Search capabilities, information prioritisation and verification will become a very big problem.

The necessity to communicate with machines has always been there, we’ve just managed to mostly ignore it. Until now. With a real risk of a stagnation of human knowledge in a loop of limited web data and linguistic bias, researchers and academics will have to step up their game.

At the very least your site needs to be indexed and optimised for search if it’s to show up in these new information sources.

If any of these challenges ring true to you, we can help. Get in touch.

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