All research institutions seek to push the thinking on their sphere of research. Since analysts specialize in particular topics, and consumers of the content (often also analysts) also align by interest, topical pages are usually a key feature of think tank websites:
Topic pages are unique for research organizations (as oppossed to, say, a consumer products company or a news company) in many ways including:
- Research organizations have a point of view or approach that is unique. Its projection of the topic needs to promote this.
- Similarly, a research organization is attempting to define the topic.
- Think tanks are not just trying to inform site visitors, but to convince and guide site visitors. The topic pages need to do this as well.
Although there are many other aspects to developing strong topic pages, in many ways topic pages are a means of providing context on topics. This opportunity is frequently missed by research organizations. Below I make five suggestions for providing better context to your research from topic pages. Note that although the focus (including the examples) is on think tanks, these recommendations apply to other research institutions as well.
Suggestion One: Quickly and clearly state where you stand on the topic
At its most basic, a research organization should clearly state where it stands or how its research is different on each topic page. In researching this blog post, I actually had a hard time finding think tanks giving any useful introductory information on topic pages (aside from vacuous statements like “we do research on economics!”). That said, there are examples of organizations clearly stating their perspective on topics. For instance, the CATO Institute hits straight with its perspective at the top of topics pages:
Here is an example page that mostly describes how CSBA’s research on the topic is unique:
Even a research institution positioning itself as objective should indicate what is unique about its research. This statement from RAND on a topic page is so generic that it could probably be applied to any group researching the same topic, and hence not especially useful:
Suggestion Two: Highlight seminal / background research or key tools
Many topic pages feel like a shock and awe campaign (meant to instill overwhelming awe in the site visitor with long and monotonous lists of research), rather than inform and potentially drive the visitor to action. For example, this page on economic theory gives me the opportunity to buy publications that are probably summary in nature, but the site visitor is not steered toward any clearly-marked background information (also note that this page does not clearly state the organization’s perspective on the topic):
Contrast the page above with the page below:
In this example, the site visitor still has the opportunity to see the list of recent reports at the bottom of the page, but also at the top of the package are background documents that the site visitor can read to get context. The above example is a fairly structured method of highlighting key information, but it can be done simply in a bulleted list as well:
Suggestion three: reward being close
Your institution does a variety of research on overlapping subjects. Your website needs to clearly express this web of research, especially since the visitor may not be exactly in the right place when they first come to your site. In fact, one of the reasons to even have topical pages is to enable better exploration of content. For example, if someone starts a visit on your site at a particular publication, they may not quite be interested in that specific publication but may want to see more about your perspective on the general topic. A topic page linking from the publication page will allow this. Also see Reward being close: an introduction.
Suggestion four: watch what the details are telling the site visitor
Although setting broad context for the topic as listed above is most important, the details on the page tell a story as well. Ideally these are also projecting your overall perspective. Consider what this list of articles tells a site visitor about the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s thinking on the topic of economic stability:
This list greatly increases the risk that a site visitor will think the institution only looks at economic instability from a European perspective.
Similarly, this Brookings page has a lot of prominent information that doesn’t seem to pertain to the topic of metropolitan areas (it should clearly have to do with the topic, clearly indicate that it’s just related content, or clearly indicate why these are specifically metropolitan issues):
To bring these first four recommendations together, consider this Heritage Foundation topic page below that does all four:
- A clear statement of the organization’s position on the topic.
- Background information is clearly highlighted.
- Related issues are listed (and in this case the hierarchy of topics is clearly delineated).
- The list of more detailed research and features is consistent with the overall position.
Final suggestion: only do topics you are committed to
All of the above suggestions take work to implement, both to initially set up and to maintain over time. This blog post just focuses on the issue of context, and topic pages need to consider other aspects (read the very short Making Topic Pages Work for more) to be ideal. We have all seen blank topic pages, and these scream low quality (the last thing a research organization wants to project). To use a non-research example, consider this page on the New York Times that not only has no information from the New York Times on it, but it emphasizes that other organizations are actually publishing on the topic:
To ensure you are truly committed to your topic pages (see this Heritage Foundation case study):
- Define what you are attempting to accomplish in your topic pages.
- Define minimum standards for your topic pages (and a process to set up a topic page in the first place).
- Work with stakeholders to attain those standards, and then track against those metrics over time.
What do you think makes effective topic pages? Do you feel your topic pages get the results you need?