Summary: Our audiences will increasingly find ways to use our web content that are more convenient than visiting our website. This won't reflect well in our stats, but we shouldn't fight it.
People often wrongly assume that traffic to the Foreign Office website is the main measure of the success of digital diplomacy: if traffic goes up we're doing well, if it goes down we're not. It's not the measure I use. In fact, I would be very happy for traffic to our official sites to go down if it meant that we were delivering our digital diplomacy objectives better elsewhere.
I'm very proud of the new look Foreign Office website. I think that it looks great, presenting rich - and almost-real-time - content clearly and effectively in an interface designed to serve what people have come to find. 800,000 different people visit the site each month. Most of them have a good experience, getting what they need, and occasionally finding content that they didn't know they needed. The team of people managing the site are doing a fine job.
I'm also involved in some work to refresh the user interface for our blogs, and provide all off-platform Foreign Office content with a consistent look and feel. We'll do the same thing for our all our embassy web content too, so that visiting the UK in Iran website will provide an experience comparable to visiting the main FCO website.
Our official online presence matters - it's our shop front. But I also accept that whatever work we do to make our content work well in a neat, branded package, the package itself is irrelevant to many people.
If you visit our pages on the Middle East, the content sits nicely in our consistent FCO visual identity, and it offers helpful links to other related content on our embassy and partner websites. But that's only 1 way that you might choose to access our content. You might subscribe to an RSS feed, or our email alerts instead. If you chose to, you could consume our content unencumbered by the Foreign Office brand, and without the clutter of suggested links from our editors. Increasingly, that's exactly what people are doing.
Similarly it's probably more convenient to read the Foreign Office news alerts than it is to visit the news pages on the Foreign Office website. And it may be quicker to subscribe to our travel advice RSS feed than visit the individual travel pages. But we should be pleased that people are using our content, rather than worried about the stats for our official branded pages.
Web users consume more web content now than ever before. But they also use more tools to help them do it, spending less time visiting traditional websites.
Personally, I find that I access the web mostly by using a combination of syndication services, dashboards, aggregators, mobile phone applications, and widgets, rather than by browsing websites. I read lots of blogs, but I tend to read them using iGoogle or similar, rarely visiting the blog itself unless I want to participate in the comments. The user interface becomes redundant to me if I don't ever see it.
Add to this the trend towards active participation online, rather than passive consumption of information. People now expect to take part, and they access the web via services that facilitate interaction. Our audiences are more likely to start their online journey from their Facebook homepage than the Foreign Office homepage.
So what does this mean for digital diplomacy? Well, I think it might mean that as digital becomes more important to diplomacy, traffic to our official websites will reduce - the increase in influence of our digital campaigns will probably not be reflected by an increase in the PageRank of our official website. It means we'll need to focus more on providing reusable content that works equally well in different digital contexts. And it might mean that we run effective digital campaigns based entirely on data, collaboration, participation and outreach without surfacing anything at all on our official websites.
As digital diplomacy becomes more important, our websites will remain as our shop front. But our content will be more important than our websites. And I think that our reach into spaces where people are having conversations and influencing each other will be even more important than our content.