Website as glass window: Ideas for compelling content

January 30, 2012

Much of our best work is private.

One of my guilty pleasures is to stroll around the local terraced streets at dusk, around the time that people put a light on, but haven’t yet closed their curtains. Each lighted window is like a diorama, a box briefly displaying the inhabitants living their lives – watching TV, playing the violin, rocking the baby, in an environment that could be anything from Arts and Crafts to Zen Minimalism.

It’s a lovely glimpse of real lives. (I don’t think I’m a voyeur, really)

And that brings me to an important website function. As a window on your world.

If your website doesn’t actually sell anything at all, it’s quite possible you stopped reading this series some time ago.

But websites also exist to present a face to the world – a window on the organisation’s workings, if you like. You might want to share your knowledge with the world, or show off the stuff that you have inside. You might want to justify your public funding by sharing what you have with the people who can’t visit. Ultimately, you might want to attract visitors, or great job applicants, or demystify what you do.

And one great way of doing that is to use the website as a way of making some of your hidden work much more visible.

There are two kinds of strategies for doing this. One is resource-focused, the other is people- (or story-) focused.

Resources

Or, in the unlovely phrase of one of my old bosses, ‘Sweating the assets’. Making good use of your stuff.

If you have a lot of stuff (like a gallery or a library), then you may want to work on bringing your hidden treasures out and talking about them. For example, the Wellcome Collection (a London museum dedicated to the history of medicine) has a lovely blog in which curators talk about important objects and current exhibitions.

The British Museum took this one step further, in an inspirational radio series last year (museums! on the radio!), called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects.’

More simply, the curators of important collections are now making it possible for people all over the place to appreciate what they have hidden away. Old databases are being digitised and catalogued so that they can be explored by people who are too far away ever to drop in.

This approach isn’t just for museums and galleries – if you have Stuff, you can talk about it, show it, and generally weave a story around it. The key is to find a story, and bring out the connections.

People (Getting behind the scenes)

Readers love to get behind the scenes. Websites don’t do it enough. Think about film and TV. Many films on DVD are released with a director’s commentary, or a making-of documentary. Reality TV has spawned thousands of hours of behond-the-scenes footage, often of pretty mundane stuff. There’s something very fascinating about seeing how things are done.  If your work is very abstract, then simple behind the scenes stories can really bring your work to life.

What’s interesting here is that you may not be the best person to spot the interesting story. It can be sparked by the wrong-headed questions that you get at parties, when you tell people what you do. Or the war stories that you swap down the pub. You might need to put yourself in someone else’ shoes entirely.

Some ideas:

A day in the life of a…(Sales trader at a Tokyo bank)
Interviews (Sir John Sulston, talking about genomes)
Standard questionnaires
Lists (10 things we should know about you)
Case studies
Before and after stories
Diaries and blogs (Expeditions to Antarctica)
Stories about the work
Stories about all the different people who make it happen
The virtual tour – video and photos
Confessional/confidential
The story behind the launch
From idea to reality

Finally, some advice on creating people stories: get your colleagues involved, and always seek permission. This can be creepy when imposed from above, but people are pretty good at thinking through these ideas, given the chance. Hidden little human stories that bring your work to life.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Pippa January 30, 2012 at 11:55 am

Enjoyed reading this post, Alison and your business is well named – your approach is so humanized. Love it.

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Ali Mac February 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Thanks very much! Really appreciate it.

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Alison Clayton-Smith January 31, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Love the ideas on behind the scenes. Might mull these over for my own site.

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Ali Mac February 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm

There are lots of things you can do – some great feature series, for example, that go behind the scenes of particular issues.

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