You do not need a venue, and you can interact with people at a time that suits you, and more importantly at a time that suits them. This flexibility means you can often reach much wider audiences that a face-to-face event would allow.
A website can serve a number of purposes for your engagement:
Informational. If you are running an engagement project you might wish to create a website (or web pages hosted via your organisation’s website) to support it, act as a repository for resources and link to updates, articles and further information.
Educational. A website can educate an audience, providing clear accessible information on an issue or area of research that is new or poorly understood.
Inspirational. A website can be a great way to inspire a wide audience with your research, from encouraging more young people to take up careers in a particular area, or getting children excited about science.
Promotional. If you are running an engagement project that involves engaging citizen scientists or community researchers, a website can be a great way to attract volunteers and promote your project.
The web as a venue. The website itself could constitute the engagement project; acting as a virtual venue to host discussions and display contributions from audience members.
Providing a portal. If your engagement project involves ongoing interaction with a particular group or community, you might want to create an online space in the form of a restricted access portal or forum, which enables users to connect, network, share experiences and access advice and resources.
Bear these top tips in mind as you go through the process of developing a website for your public engagement.
- Do your research. As with any engagement project, do your research first. Take time to think about your audience – who do you want to engage and why? Think about the most appropriate places to reach them.
Go to your audiences don’t expect them to come to you. Your audiences might spend a chunk of their time online, but that doesn’t mean they’ll find – let alone visit – your project’s website. If your audiences already cluster on Facebook or Twitter, maybe you can join them there rather than starting from scratch. Or, perhaps you could approach a popular blog or discussion forum and discuss a tie-up. Explore existing communities before trying to start a new one.
Listen. Use digital media to gain an insight into your audiences before you engage them. Take some time to observe conversations currently taking place online.
Use digital media yourself. Take time to use different websites and digital platforms – work out how you interact with it, how others tend to use it, and how you can make this work to your advantage. The way people interact online changes frequently, so becoming an active user will help you to stay up to date.
Market externally. Don’t assume that by creating a website you’ll automatically attract visitors. The internet is huge and you need to find ways to get people to visit your site. This might include offline marketing and online marketing. Thinking about using twitter or Facebook. Visit forums. Post links to other sites and ask them to reciprocate.
Make it interactive. Make the most of the participative potential of digital technology, and empower your audience, by finding ways for people to interact (e.g. by adding comments, submitting their own contributions, participation in conversations, and forwarding/disseminating).
Start conversations. The joy – and pain – of the internet is its two-way nature. So think less about what information you can disseminate, and more in terms of sparking conversations. The real value and impact comes from long-term dialogue with your audience
Keep it short. Audiences appreciate brevity: you hone your message so they don’t waste time reading more than is necessary. Short articles; short films; pithy comment.
Regular beats occasional. Updating your web presence once a term guarantees nobody will pay any attention. Update it three or more times a week and if they like what you post, they’ll refresh several times a day to check if there’s anything new.
Think long-term. Suppose you’re building an education resource: what happens when the project finishes? If you don’t know, or you can’t say, teachers won’t write your resources into their lesson plans, because you might not be there next year. So what’s your legacy plan?
- Think about your writing style. Web pages should be:
- Short, punchy and informal. Write in first or second person, rather than the more formal third person used in most reporting and academic writing. Be direct and open. Show your excitement. Be yourself.
- Full of links. The great thing about the web is the potential to create links to further information. Keep it short and let the links do the explaining for you.
- Fun. Most people go online for entertainment purposes, so keep it light.
- Broken up. Web usability studies show that web users tend to skim read. Also, large blocks of text are difficult to read on screen. Break it up with sub-headings and bullet points, and make sure that the most important information is available to read right away.
- Inclusive. Be careful of inclusion in the language you use. The web has the potential for a global reach – national and international, young and old, and from a diverse array of backgrounds. Think about who you are writing for, and edit with that audience in mind but be aware that those outside of your target audience may read what you write.
- More than words. The web lends itself to multimedia formats. Can you include other audio, video or imagery?
Before you start
If you decide to build a webpage or website there are a few practical things to consider:
Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you do build your own site, look around for the off-the-shelf system that comes closest to what you want, and ‘make do’ with that. You’ll save an awful lot of faffing about, and chances are the twiddly bits you thought you needed will turn out to be not so crucial after all. If you don’t know where to start, sign up for a free account at wordpress.com, Tumblr, Posterous, or Wikia.
What’s in a name? Your website’s URL is the way that your audience will identify you as relevant to them. It is tricky to change a URL at a later point so make sure you choose wisely. Does it explain who you are and what you are trying to achieve?
Think key words. However, there are some things you can do to increase your ranking e.g. inserting meta descriptions, creating links and ensuring that key words (i.e. search terms) are present, right there on your homepage.
De-clutter your website. Make sure your website is clear, uncluttered and that navigation is easy. People get bored easily on the web so if they have to search for information, or go through hundreds of links to reach the one they want, they will give up.
Consider accessibility and be aware of limitations. Avoid using bright colours and complicated fonts. Online media will exclude those who do not have access or lack technical skills. Some institutions, such as schools or workplaces, may block the use of certain sites and social networking platforms.