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Stephen Hale
Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London

Why websites matter less and less

Posted 21 December 2009 by Stephen Hale  

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.

Stephen Hale
21 December 2009

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>> The stereotypical perception of a website is static content, circa 1997. Dynamic content, a la blogs and social networking sites, are still websites if they are preceded by a http structure, no? Thus, websites aren't changing but the manner in which governments need to publish content and engage with those who read and respond to the content are more important. Agreed? <<

Ari Herzog
21 Dec 2009

>> Now if only Copenhagen had been a globally transparent, online summit. Can you get on that one, SH? <<

Paul Hughes
21 Dec 2009

>> Totally agree. There might be a good example with visa issues. Consular stuff makes up the bulk of clicks by any foreign ministry website visitors as people understandably need exhaustive info on all aspects of their travel abroad. They will therefore download a booklet with that info and rather use the booklet than go back several times to the same webpage. The traffic measurement would be a too simplistic approach to evaluate how successful digital diplomacy work is. It is about content and outreach, with a website as only one of the tools. However, I won’t play down a page rank. It shows not just the number of clicks but how popular the platform is and how often the content of the website concern is quoted or used in other websites, and many other critical things as well. <<

21 Dec 2009

>> I agree with you that in terms of web traffic and importance websites are entering a period of relative decline. Alexander's comment is interesting and from that I see websites being utility lead; a place for key information and resources basically service led. In terms of Digital Diplomacy the website should imprison key content on issues like Climate change or nuclear weapon but leave the keys out so the user can easily extract the web content and to use and Share a key word. So tools that allow users to share content should not be tucked down the bottom but placed in full sight of the user. Another way of looking at your website is to think of it as a warehouse. So content can be taken out and published and promoted on social media sites. Posting shorter versions to Facebook or tweeting key lines on Twitter. Prior to publishing to the website questions that will be posed in the future are:I 1. Should I publish this content on my website or would be better published somewhere else? 2. How would I promote this content on 'social media'? Websites are still relevant, still good but like blogs will need to overlap and intergrate with 'social media'. <<

21 Dec 2009

>> You mention RSS "You might subscribe to an RSS feed" however a recent article in ReadWriteWeb suggests that 'RSS Reader Market in Disarray, Continues to Decline' So if users are not reading content in RSS Readers then one place they clickthrough to content is via Twitter which operates akin to an RSS for some. <<

21 Dec 2009

>> Another great post, Stephen. A decrease in traffic should in many cases be a measure of success: helping people perform their tasks without having to go out of their way to your brand-laden corporate website. Which means we have to find much more sophisticated ways to measure and demonstrate the value of digital in future. That's not to say the data from web stats isn't worth anything - it's enormously important in improving the user experience once people are on the site; including getting them to the right place if this one ain't it. <<

Neil Williams
23 Dec 2009

>> As a fellow website developer the current fco website is a big improvement but still could be a lot better. I very much like the new state dept website which is clearly the leader in this field. <<

31 Dec 2009

>> It’s certainly a complex online ecosystem these days. Branding can reinforce a good reputation and needn’t be seen as detracting from content. I think that wherever possible the ‘neat package’ should transferred onto mobile platforms, such as website mobile versions and iPhone apps, which have their own unique branding and user interface challenges. Where content is stripped bare via feeds or social media absorption, clearly the content itself becomes the brand. Editors and producers need to come up with strong, rich, compelling stories that reflect organisational values and are pushed toward appropriate audiences. These fragments of content, orbiting around the official website and probing new spaces, should ultimately lead some users back to home base. <<

Rodney Zandbergs
30 Jan 2010

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