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What makes a good P.R. Web site?

By Tom Geller

Contents copyright Tom Geller, 1998. All rights reserved.
This article is available for publication: Write to me at the address below for details.


Introduction and general notes

Got the time? Or, Levels of participation

Designing to fit your audience


 

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Introduction and general notes

At first glance, it would seem the Web and P.R. are natural bedfellows: Public relations professionals seek outlets for one-to-many communication, and the Web is well set up for just that. But too many first-time site creators design their sites inappropriately, based on unrealistic -- or unfocused -- expectations of who will visit their sites.

If all you want to create is a public archive of past press releases, you can stop reading now. That's easy: Simply put them on the site as they're published, add a link to your index page, and you're done. But such a site ignores other P.R. opportunities that require only time and effort to realize. Some possibilities:

Needless to say, all these features take time. Your first duty is to honestly determine: What resources will you make available for site creation and upkeep? We'll try to get some bases for this determination in the Got the time? section.

The second big decision you'll have to make concerns your site audience. Is it intended for potential customers, existing customers, service providers, the press? Just as with paper-based P.R., your communications' "interface" must be appropriate for its intended audience. We'll look at several existing sites to see how others have tailored their messages in various ways.


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Got the time? Or, Levels of participation

If this is your first time putting something on the Web, you should be prepared for the three axioms of the medium:

  1. It'll take longer to create than you think
  2. It'll take more resources to maintain than you think
  3. Usage won't be as high as you expect.
Let's look at some realistic estimates. Times don't include peer review and testing -- which, as we all know, can bog the whole thing down for months.

Creation

Task Time to complete
Create a text-based page with links to a dozen other text-based pages 1-2 hours
Organize a 100-page, text-based site 1-3 days
Create graphics for main page (subsequent pages will mostly use the same graphics) 1 day - 2 weeks
Implement a mail-based form (for surveys, e-mail, quizzes, etc.) 1 day - 2 weeks
Create a page of relevant external links 1-3 days
Custom programming in Java or JavaScript 1 day - 4 weeks

Maintenance

Task Time required
Convert existing press release into the appropriate format and upload 1/2-2 hours
Respond to reader mail (if mail-sending option is available) 1/4-4 hours per day
Check and fix external links 1/2-4 hours per week
Profoundly change site structure 1-3 weeks every six months
Site promotion (reciprocal links, market research, banner ads, etc.) varies: can be a full-time occupation

Usage

Type of site Typical number of visitors per day
Non-essential internal site a few
Unadvertised, non-obvious site for the public a few dozen
Essential internal site hundreds
Public site linked from the company's home page thousands
Acclaimed public site about the X-Files tens of thousands
Popular public site about sex or gambling hundreds of thousands


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Designing to fit your audience

As with any marketing communications, the way you design your Web site will be dictated by the sort of visitors you wish to attract. For ideas, we'll look at some real sites intended to appeal to people in four categories:

I've included part of Apple Computer's site in each category. Not that Apple has especially stunning site design; however, it's valuable as an example because its site as a whole is meant to reach a wide variety of people, from consumers to press to investors. So the company repackages the same news story in several ways, varying its presentation slightly at each stop.

While I've given a bit of critique for each site, I encourage you to trek out to find others worthy of emulation -- and those that turn you off. For only you know your audience; and after you've been to a few dozen sites, it'll be clear what will work for you.

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General public

When trying to reach the public, you have to remember that you're dealing with an extremely diverse group. Some people will have sought out your site, and will be highly motivated to read the information; most, however, will be idly clicking from link to link. You have to capture the attention of that second group with graphics and content that's immediately interesting to them, or they'll just go on to the next site.

First example: Apple Computer's "Hot News"

<http://www.apple.com/hotnews>

A few consumer-friendly points jump out from this page (which is linked from the company's home page):

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Second example: A small doctor's group in Florida

This site is a good example of what not to do. Some criticisms:

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In-network service providers

First example: Apple Computer's "Developer World"

<http://devworld.apple.com>

Programmers -- called "developers" in computer-industry parlance -- are the lifeblood of an operating system vendor like Apple. They're highly technical and usually working under severe time pressures; in addition, they need to see a way to make money through their relationship with the company. As a result, they're best served if all the technical and co-marketing resources are available to them immediately upon entering the site.

In this regard, Apple's site partially succeeds. The "Cool Areas" and "Hot Technologies" pop-ups in the lower left are good for leading visitors to desired places quickly, but the designation "Cool Areas" is too vague. And while the main text delivers some useful information, it strikes me as too P.R.-driven for business partners. Also missing is an easy way for first-time visitors to join the developer program, and a clear way to get back to the company's main home page.

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Second example text

<http://www.microsoft.com/icv>

If Microsoft does one thing well, it's partnerships. This page -- intended to build and support a network of independent trainers -- is well-targeted to its intended group. The menu on the left offers lots of ways for first-time visitors to join the program, yet also guides current members to important parts of the site. And the menu bar at the top provides an easy way to return to the company's home page.

The page isn't without its flaws, though. The main text is a bit wordy, and not as "newsy" as Apple's. There are typos, and the blue table butts up too closely against the main text -- a problem throughout Microsoft's site.

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Press and analysts

Press are of an interesting breed. On the one hand, they need ready access to facts, and need to feel that they're receiving the unvarnished truth in all communications. On the other hand, they often have to write on subjects they know little about, and can therefore be somewhat swayed by P.R. So while the writing style can be consumer-driven, it must contain all necessary technical details, be cross-referenced to background information and clearly archived, and carry a dateline.

First example: Apple Computer's "The Source"

<http://product.info.apple.com/pr/source>

If nothing else, Apple's main press relations site makes visitors feel special. Even if the press releases are identical to those on other areas of the site, they're arranged in a way that's press-friendly. Background information is kept at the visitor's fingertips with the menu to the left, and downloadable photos -- with freshness dates -- are likewise easy to find.

I think this page could be improved by:

  1. having a search box right on the page, instead of making visitors go to the "find it" button at the top, and
  2. Making the graphic for the top story smaller, or doing away with it altogether. Box shots simply aren't that exciting.
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Second example: 4-Sight

This small company provides networking and fax software, and doesn't have Apple-size resources to throw at P.R. functions. This single page of News and Events does the job in a worklike fashion. The main P.R. contact is right up there at the top of the page -- an advantage over Apple's site -- and press releases are arranged in reverse chronological order. The buttons in the bottom frame took me a while to notice at first, but I quickly got used to navigating the site through them. (Most navigation systems are at the top or left side of the page.) Strong branding reinforces the company's name and logo without being too obnoxious.

Still, regardless of the company's size, a search function is useful for any library that has more than 10 press releases.

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Specialized groups

Example: Apple Investor Relations

<http://www.apple.com/investor>

Finally, there will be times that you need to reach specialized groups that don't fit into the previous three categories. In this case, Apple Computer gathered together information it believed investors would find interesting. The effect is positive, and as part of a larger site that already contains the information, doesn't require very much work. These customized pages -- in essence, simply lists of links leading elsewhere in the site -- can give niche groups added convenience and a feeling that they're important to the organization.

But when developing these specialized sites, be sure to give them the attention they deserve. New material -- such as the "Frequently Asked Questions" document on this page -- adds depth to the visitor's experience. And, of course, market research will help you determine what members of the targeted group really need.

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This page was last updated on Friday, January 06, 2012 at 12:15am UTC. All contents copyright 2005 by Tom Geller.