Next time you are building a new website, do make sure that you have a comms person on the team.
by GUEST EDITOR Helen Gill
For me, the power of social media as a PR tool is the power to publish your own content and start to influence and shape the agenda so that you don’t always have to rely so heavily on media relations any more. That’s why I don’t like the phrase ‘online PR’ or even ‘digital PR’ – it just feels like a way of doing what we’d always done but in a slightly different format.
I prefer the term ‘digital communications’ – and by that I mean much more than just social media management. A recent job ad for the BBC’s new Head of Digital Communications said: “the digital communications team is responsible for shaping the BBC’s digital reputation, and leading the innovation story.” It is that story that we as communications professionals can make the biggest contribution to and, despite the power of social media platforms, that story still starts with a really good website.
However, websites are all too often developed by technical people with little or no communications expertise. And that’s where things go wrong in terms of digital communications. We work with web developers who say that their lives would be much easier if they had a ‘brand story’ to drive the whole design and build of the website. Instead, the focus is usually on what the website needs to do from a technical, functional point of view and the content comes later.
So, here’s my three reasons why you can’t build a decent website fit for the social media age without a comms expert. Hopefully it’ll help fellow comms professionals make a case for why they should be involved as a strategic adviser and critical friend right from the outset and not just as a copy writer as an after-thought.
1. Content is not just king, it’s master and ruler of the universe!
‘Content is king’ can be a mis-leading phrase. It has come to mean that we should place all our emphasis on creating lots and lots of content with all the right keywords that will get us noticed by as many people as possible in the hope that one of them likes it and takes the bait. The quality needs to be OK but only in terms of relevance and originality so that Google gives it a big thumbs up.
When a comms person is brought in to write the copy after the structure and design of the site has already been established, it’s usually already too late to really influence the direction of it. But when they are there from the beginning, they can spend time doing all important audience insight research (which is now so readily available online) and fully understanding how the whole organisation works and behaves to build up a really authentic brand narrative which informs all the assets, structure and content. We always start web development projects by producing a brand communications guide that is consulted on and agreed by everyone within the organisation and then used as an internal policy document to ensure that the team remains true to its ethos and the website content is a real reflection of who they are.
2. The user experience is human, not robotic
When content doesn’t lead the way in the development of a website, its structure and functionality is often determined by technical experts who define the ‘user experience’ based on formulae and theories of how the kind of people they are looking to attract ‘typically’ navigate around and engage with websites of that kind.
It is doing most people a dis-service to assume that they will arbitrarily follow an instruction because it is in the right position and colour on the page to attract their eye. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have shown that the interface just needs to be a basic shell in which users can read, create and share their own content. Users are incredibly savvy and it is they who now create the user experience, not the other way around.
3. There’s a big wide world (web) out there
As PR/comms people it’s our role to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of an organisation as well as the voice. We’re the ones who have to take an outward view, constantly monitoring what’s on the agenda. That’s why it’s so important that we are at the centre of website content development. The worst thing a website can be in this day and age is static. It needs to be constantly evolving and adapting to meet the demands and interests of its audience otherwise it will disappear into the ether never to be visited again!
Again, this is the part of building and maintaining a decent website that technical web developers may miss. A comms expert will think about how the content can remain topical and relevant over time by monitoring and tapping into what’s trending. But they’ll also think beyond individual users. They’ll think about the design, build and content of the site can encourage debate, conversation and, most importantly, sharing. We can’t always rely on search engine optimisation to help pick up on what people are Googling because what if they’re not Googling it? What if they’re flicking down their Twitter or Facebook news feeds and they just stumble across something that they would never have thought to Google and then they end up on your website?
So, there’s my two penneth, for what they’re worth. I should stress that I’m not trying to undermine web developers at all in this blog post. From my conversations with the ones we work with, I actually think it would be hugely beneficial for everyone if comms and technical experts worked much more closely together in the development of websites.