Moving away from web strategies and it’s about time

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In my role one of the outputs that I was expected to create was a revised Web Strategy, which at first I was more than happy to do, I wrote the previous one so it wasn’t really an issue to simply refresh it in line with current priorities and national drivers.

However once I got going I started to notice a difference in the conversations I was having with people and more importantly the conversations with people about “the web”.

The big shifts were primarily about what people think “the web” actually is?

Some people naturally thought it was a single website and in particular the councils website, others were clearly thinking more about “the web” as a platform for service delivery and transformation and others were thinking it was an online repository for information about the council and a few other definitions as well which in their own way were right.  It is in fact all of those things and of course more…but this was certainly not the view when I wrote the last strategy.

I’m fortunate that a number of the areas above have their own strategies and are embedding “the web” directly into those strategies, so it makes it easier to simply work out what aspects we actually haven’t got a plan or strategy for. For example we have an ICT Strategy, Access Strategy, Information Strategy and we are currently producing a new Communications Strategy.

In my previous role I lead on a piece of work which was essentially an ICT focused Web Strategy, the main objectives of it are to refresh the web architecture to make it fit for purpose and also reduce costs through the provision of common solutions. This is (in my humble opinion) a web strategy as it focuses on the web as a platform from which other things can be developed and provided, after all that is what the web is – a platform.

With the other strategies all pretty much extending the remit and scope of the previous web strategy – either a spark of genius on my part to lay foundations, or it failed to meet anyone’s objectives ! – I along with a few others asked ourselves what are we trying to produce and should we produce anything at all.

This was when I remembered a conversation with Sarah Lay from Derbyshire County Council who produced a Content Strategy as part of her studies – so I contacted Sarah and whilst she was unable to share her work at this point in time she was able to provide some pointers and her justification for producing a content strategy.

This conversation and an afternoon searching the web reading articles, blog posts, research and anything related to content strategy I decided that we were missing the most important strategy  – a Content Strategy < obvious now but we simply hadn’t considered it.

The realisation hit me like a flashback as I went through the approach, expected outputs and benefits at a high level and sure enough, the reason for our current failures in our web technology and platform, our content, online services and even our online democracy offering all came down to the lack of a content strategy.

We haven’t been asking what we want our content to do, we have been asking what we want our website to do and this is the reason we haven’t fully embraced Social Media as well as why some people don’t see the value…when you come at it from a content perspective you can see a variety of benefits and added value with content.

Now I’m still working on the details but broadly a Content Strategy will help the council in the following ways:

  • Specifying the key themes and messages in line with the Communications Strategy.
  • Providing a clear purpose for all content.
  • Conducting a content gap analysis and specifying the structure of content.
  • Ensuring the councils content is accessible, reusable, shared, open* and linked*.
  • Ensuring that appropriate metadata frameworks, retention, review and content life cycles and related content attributes are in place and content is properly managed.
  • Measuring and evaluating the success of our content.
But I guess one of the key objectives and outcomes is that we hope to have increased engagement with our content regardless of where someone interacts or consumes it.
It also helps focus our thinking on what we require of technology as we need to ensure that the technology supports the objectives of the content and not a website.
This is a fundamental shift in thinking as a previous key objective was to grow the number of visitors of the council website from, for example 3.5 million visitors a year to 6 million visitors over 3 years. But what is the point in that measure if your population is only 700,000 and no one is actually engaging with content?  So it is about asking the right questions and we will continue to measure visitors but it won’t be a key part of evaluation.
Anyway getting to the point where we actually have a strategy isn’t going to be straight forward as in conversation with Sarah she reinforced the need to adopt an evidence and research based approach, which I entirely support and was surprised that as a sector we haven’t pushed this harder…in fact “we” tend to use external reports such as Better Connected as our only research base…I have my views on Better Connected and whilst I think bits of it add value, unfortunately it is not greater than the sum of its parts when you read the whole thing!
So….
We need to do some work before we can get a comprehensive Content strategy, but we are certainly in a better place now as we know the direction of travel and we know the stages we need to go through.
The first stage being an Audit and Analysis of our content, some of this is already underway but we now have a greater focus and because we are framing this within a content strategy we are now asking ourselves whether the existing methods of measuring success of a website apply across to measuring the success of content….the issue is that the majority of measures don’t exactly match so we need to rethink our approach to evaluation.
It is a journey and one we should have taken years ago, but I’m just pleased we are actually now taking it. I’ll share more over the coming weeks as things start to take shape and my thinking clears…

11 thoughts on “Moving away from web strategies and it’s about time

  1. Spot on.

    One of the really interesting areas is to think about what is meant by ‘engagement’ – what do you judge how well someone is ‘engaging’ with your content – and how do you glue email, twitter, socmed and the web together to generally lift engagement across all these ‘channels’.

    That’s one of the areas that we’re now looking quite closely at. First step is making email newsletters highly personalised and configurable by the citizen, with a real focus on place, and then delivering html and html forms directly into the email. We’re basically picking up chunks of the web, tailoring it to match what each recipient wants, and then sending out as an email. I’m not sure if that’s an email or the web ? We’ll be doing to same thing with Facebook shortly and then twitter – each citizen will see different ‘content’ according to preferences they’ve set.

  2. I can really only talk about my use of my local web sites. That’s Surrey CC and Woking BC. I only use them when I think I want to use a service – and that is very limited:
    – refuse collections,
    – planning applications,
    – contact telephone and email addresses
    are the top three.

    Yesterday’s conversation was about me complaining about parking on a pavement by a builder’s van. Which the telephone operator said it was either the local traffic officers or Surrey police. When the phone just kept ringing after re-direction, I rang the police. Yes, it is a Police responsibility.

    The message should surely be that LA web sites should signpost the correct service department as quickly as possible. Content is useful, but secondary to rapid navigation to the correct service area.

    My suggestion is that LAs should get together to develop a domain specific language, which are more efficient at routing users to areas of the web site where they really want to inspect content.

    • Whilst I agree that making navigation and signposting is critical, the idea of focusing on the content over the website itself is that it focuses on where and how people access that content, it focuses the structure of content on a website, but also allows for content to appear in other places effectively making it easier to find and access.

      More will become clearer as we move forward….your feedback and comments are welcome and help challenge the thinking.

      Carl

  3. One area of content you could consider is citizen supplied content. Being risk averse, many LAs would want to moderate it, but it would add to local involvement.

    In Woking, even a link to a WordPress site might help – it would not be expensive. Perhaps it could operate by the Council starting a thread and monitoring public responses.

    • Once we get to a fully developed content strategy, we may well see that adding value to people through the inclusion of user generated content is useful or we may see that our content should reside amongst user generated content in the first place or even both.

  4. Hi Carl, interesting piece.
    I had to pick up on your comment about ‘..the need to adopt an evidence and research based approach, which I entirely support and was surprised that as a sector we haven’t pushed this harder…’
    I actually think the sector is starting to embrace this at last. People I come across are spending more time analysing web and other customer access data, drawing conclusion and acting on them to improve services and make savings.
    Around a third of all councils use Socitm’s website takeup service that provides volume and satisfaction data for the web and shows what services are most in demand and which are failing the user. We know from WTS data that on average 40% of council web visits fail to provide visitors with all or some of what they were looking to do during their visit.
    It is undoubtedly true, as I argued in the ‘Better Served’ report I wrote for Socitm, that not nearly enough councils are collecting and analysing customer usage/satisfaction data across all channels, and without this, will struggle to maximise the performance of individual channels or produce or track important, cost-saving strategies in areas like channel shift.
    I think the concept of a content strategy is a good one, but if you are moving away from a web strategy, you (in collaboration with colleagues, obviously) should also be thinking in terms of a customer access strategy and how you are going to collect and monitor the data to inform it.
    Socitm is piloting some customer access data benchmarking with support of the Local Government Contact Council, early in the New Year, so get in touch if you are interested.

    • Thanks Vicky, we do have an access strategy and it did originally link to a web strategy but as I’ve had to revamp the web stuff it makes more sense to focus on the content and look at how content is supporting our objectives across all channels – so it seemed a better fit than what would in essence be a technology strategy fro a website…

      Is there a link between those councils that use the WTS and their ranking in the BC report… ie those that use and adopt feedback perform better?

      Would be interesting to know?

  5. Carl, there is a strong correlation between councils that use WTS and perform well by its benchmarks and those that do well in BC. Looking at levels of visit failures – ie visits where people fail to achieve what they came to the website to do – BC high performers do better. The figures are: BC 4 stars – 17% failure; 3 star – 20%; 2 star – 23%; 1 star 24%.

    Anecdotally we know of councils that are using WTS to identify opportunities for improvement and channel shift and then to track resulting improvement. Be happy to put you in touch.

    We haven’t ever checked whether WTS councils as a group do better in Better connected – that’s a missed trick and we investigate. However, if they do, separating cause and effect might be difficult – it might just be that councils that care more about their websites and therefore do well in BC, are more likely to join WTS…..

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