Monday, March 29, 2010

Does Your Website Say “We Care?”

When citizens come to your website, what’s the first message they get? Is it, “we care about YOU, and we’re going to make sure you can do what you want?” Or is it, “first let me tell you about me?”

I read two interesting articles this week about how important it is to show your customers you care. First, I happened on Christina Gagnier’s blog piece: "Government must give a ***k:  a lesson from @GaryVee."  She supports social media evangelist Gary Vaynerchuk’s assertion that the most important thing government can do is show that it cares about its citizens (its customers). It’s not just letting people report potholes online – it’s doing something about it. It’s not just offering technology tools to engage – it’s acting on those ideas and showing citizens that their opinions and ideas and concerns matter. Gagnier says, “It is not the power of technology, but the power of caring. People are simply tired of having information and agendas broadcast at them.” They want to see some evidence that you’ve listened – that you care.

Then came Gerry McGovern’s weekly post, “Web design: clarity is more important than persuasion.” Gerry makes such an important point. “The customer remains invisible to most web teams and that is the single greatest reason so many websites underperform. Understanding, relating to and developing empathy for your customer is one of the greatest drivers of clarity in communication and design…get to truly know your customers and you are on the road to clarity.”

The power of listening to your customers is a frequent theme in my blog. If you listen to them, they will tell you what to put on your website. But listening is only the first part of the equation. You have to honor what your audience tells you and show them you care by acting accordingly.

Gerry points out recent market research that says you have 7 seconds to hook your reader. In that time, they decide if this site has anything for them and if it’s worth staying. Seven seconds is not much time. It means you’d better know what they came for. You’d better put it right there - front and center - so they can find it.

And – and pay attention here, web managers, because this is where the real “caring” shows – you’d better make sure that they can actually use that service - complete that task - quickly AND see success (the submitted form, the right answer to the question, the checklist they can print and use, the updates they can follow on Twitter…). What results do your customers expect? How can you show them those results? It’s not just being able to report the pothole – it’s seeing it filled.

So what does your website say in the first 7 seconds? Does it say to your customers, “I care about you!”

Related Post
Customer Service Mantra:  Listen, Respect, Follow

Friday, March 19, 2010

Past Is Prologue – Learn From Web History

Shakespeare had it right. What came before has a bearing on what comes next. That holds true with the web, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about web history lately. You see, I’m a little nostalgic this month. HUD’s website just turned 15; and as head nurturer for its first 10 years, I’ve been looking back, marveling at how far we’ve come…thinking about what we learned along the way…and wondering how our past will shape the future. So if you’ll bear with me (I know this is long and self-indulgent), I’ll share a little of HUD’s web history. Maybe you’ll recognize some of the lessons we learned.

Here is’s baby picture. Actually, I wasn’t the birth mother. HUD’s technology office (no CIO yet) put this site together and posted it in March 1995. Primitive – yes. But hey, we were on the web!

I took over as HUD’s “webmaster” (we changed to “Web Manager” a couple of years later, a title coined by a Harvard “web manager”) in April 1995. It was just me and a team of 3 tech contractors, plus the IT contract manager. One of those contractors was Sam Gallagher, and I hired him a couple of years later (eventually, he got my job!).

In the interest of space, I’m going to use links to the rest of these examples. But gosh, I hope you look at them. It’s part of the fun!

HUD home page version 4

A year - and two interim versions (lesson: the public hates it when you make big changes too often) later - we debuted our first award-winner. Yeah – I know. It looks pretty hokey now. But at the time, the praise was resounding. We were going for a warmer, friendlier face of government. We changed our website name to “Homes and Communities” to show this site was about what citizens want/need - not about HUD (little known fact – that title came from an idea that Henry Cisneros and Andrew Cuomo had floated to change HUD’s name). And we added a section called, “You, the Citizen,” to help people figure out what they could do on our website. Even then – with relatively few pages – citizens needed help knowing where to start.

Yippee! - we started earning some “awards” (in those days, it was a pretty big deal to get USA Today’s or Yahoo’s “Site of the Week”). The real benefit of awards? HUD managers wanted a piece of that action, and I got more cooperation. But most important, citizens liked what we were doing. They loved this new, friendlier government. They liked that we were using words they could understand and organizing content in ways that made sense to them. How do I know? In those days, I handled all the email that came in through the site. Thousands of emails. One of the best ways to listen to your audience.

Mistakes. That cool little ticker tape right below the graphic started eating memory on people’s computers, making them slower and slower. Lessons: just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. And being “cool” is never a good reason to do something on a government website. Learn a little, do a little, learn a little, do a little…

HUD home page version 6

In 1998, new HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo was installing a fresh look for HUD; and our website followed suit. We went lean, clean, and contemporary. I loved the look. Unfortunately, it was our least successful design. We went too lean and clean. People had to drill down too many levels to get what they wanted. Lesson: masthead navigation doesn’t work well - people assume it’s advertising and ignore it. When we moved those nav links down into the topics list…zoom! Page views shot way up. Learn a little, do a little.

HUD home page version 8

In November 1999, we launched another design…still clean, but not quite so lean. People reacted well to the white space. But we made one big mistake. See that center box: “Community News?” Most people come to HUD’s site to find out how to buy a home, how to buy a HUD home, or how to get low-rent housing. But we decided - being smarter (?) than our audience - that they should know all the good things happening in their communities as a result of HUD programs. So we smacked them in the face with that big box. Did they read it? Nope. They complained about it (why do you try to divert our attention from what we came to do? It’s annoying). Oh, some practitioners and advocates read it. But we didn’t achieve our aim. Problem was that we couldn’t make it go away. The Public Affairs folks liked it. Eventually, that box started featuring more about HUD than about communities. Audience wants don’t always win out. Just a reality. Learn a little, do a little.

HUD home page version 9

My final major redesign as HUD’s web manager went live on Inauguration Day, 2001. I guessed correctly that a new Secretary would want a new look on his administration’s website (I got a call from his top aide the next week, thanking me). So we rolled out “Big Red.” Our aims this time were to cut layers and improve our wording of topics and links. We did many, many focus groups, looking at those elements. We also circled back to that 1996 “You, the Citizen” idea by introducing “At Your Service.” We did something right because our email dropped dramatically – people were finding what they wanted.

In 2002, we added “state pages” to HUD’s site. Our “local HUD office” sites were good, but the content was inconsistent. We listened to our audience who repeatedly told us, “yes, we want to learn how to buy a home…but what we really want is to learn to buy a home in Texas.” Or New York. Or wherever they lived or wanted to live. So, with our 10 new regional HUD web managers, we created a page of state, county, and city resources for each state. We were careful not to duplicate what was already on the “national” site, but to supplement it. And we made sure that every state had the same information – because every citizen deserved to be treated equally. Those pages went up in September 2002; and from their very first month, they were among the top 2 or 3 sections on the website. Bullseye! Learn a little, do a little…

I retired, and life went on. Last year, the current version of HUD’s website went up. I like the contemporary look. The “I want to” section gets citizens to the things they really come to the website for…buy a home, find rental help…in the spirit of “You, the Citizen” and “At Your Service.” Don’t like the big scrolling “hero” box at the top (but you know that if you’ve read my previous blogs about that design device). But the beat goes on…learn a little, do a little…

History is important. It helps you avoid potholes you’ve hit before. It helps you shape your strategy for the future. Have you documented the history of your website? Do you remember why you (or your predecessors) made those choices and changes? Does your agency know? Do your colleagues know (so they can learn from your hits and misses)? Does the public know (let the sunshine in!)? Past is prologue. Learn from web history.

Related Link
HUD’s Web History

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Use Your Best Resources to Engage Citizens – Your Employees

I am up to my ears judging Clearmark Plain Language Award entries, but I just had to raise my head to comment on Andrea DiMaio’s latest blog piece, “How To Love Government 2.0 and Be A Contrarian at the Same Time.” I so agree with him that we can’t just rely on technology to engage citizens in their government. We have to put our money where our mouths are – invest our best resources to make this successful.

And what are our best resources? Or, who? Government employees. Everywhere.

I haven’t heard one single word about using that huge untapped resource – government employees working in “the field.” We have thousands of government employees working in large, medium, and small government offices in every big city and many small towns across this country. They are members of the communities where they live. They have family, friends, and neighbors all around them. If you did nothing more than ask each field office – big or small – to hold one “listening session,” you could take a huge step toward finding out what citizens want, need, and suggest.

Tell your field staff to invite their family and friends, give them an agenda, and trust them to do the right thing. They won't let you down. And citizens will start to believe that their federal government isn’t just a bunch of faceless Washington bureaucrats (sorry – but that is what many think). They will know it’s their neighbors and friends – people they know…people who understand their issues, concerns…and ideas. That’s how to open up government. Bring the government to the people and the people will engage.

Related Post
Participation and Collaboration – Let’s Make It Work

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Turn Your "News" Into Services We Can Use

Here’s one of the top stories on the U.S. Department of Labor website today:
DOL announces $2.5 million grant to continue to aid Maine workers impacted by Base Realignment and Closure actions [03/01/2010]
It links to the full 200 word press release that ends in a link to a DOL page about National Security Grants. What if, instead of that wording, you read this:
Attention Maine residents! Have you been laid off because your military base was downsized or closed? If so, your state Department of Labor can help. We’ve just given them additional funds to provide job counseling, training, and placement services to citizens who have lost their jobs because Maine’s military bases downsized or closed. To find out how you can take advantage of these services, contact the Maine Department of Labor (with an appropriate link directly to the place where citizens actually can apply for this service – or at least get more information about how to apply).
Short. Sweet. Conversational. Immediately identifies the audience that will care about this news, so the rest of us don’t have to waste our time (and there’s nothing that makes us madder at you than when you waste our time). Quickly summarizes what services are available, and gets us right to the appropriate contact point, in about 60 words. Oh, and it still credits US DOL for the funding. It turns a traditional press release into a service that citizens actually can use. It puts the needs of citizens first, while still giving the agency brownie points. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? So why don’t most government agencies take the time to turn their “news” into something we can use?

Last fall, I did a workshop for some public affairs officers at state agencies; and one thing I told them (that they didn’t much like to hear) is that press releases do not make good web content. Not on front pages of government websites. Not on Facebook pages. Not as Tweets. The audience for press releases is the press – not the general public. The general public turns off when it reads something that starts out, “Governor X announced…” or “Secretary Y went to…” They turn off when they see big “hero” photos of appointed officials cutting ribbons or making speeches. When people come to government websites, they’re looking for something that can help them – personally. And they want to know how to get that “thing” as fast as possible. So just take the time to re-write your press release into something we can use.

Oh, and here’s one more tip: show us the money (thank you, Jerry McGuire!). If you want a thumbnail sketch of what citizens are looking for on federal government websites, just visit “What’s On Americans’ Minds” on Check out that section on “pages the public visits most” on the website. See a trend? Yep. Money. How to make money. How to save money. How to get money. How to get more with your money. How to keep your money. This is not rocket science. So if you really want to grab the public’s attention, tell us what you’ve got that can “show us the money.”

I know this isn’t how most public affairs officers have been trained. And I know they face pressure from bosses who want to look good, personally…bosses who like those traditional press releases. But think about it (and explain it to your bosses) this way – if you want people to remember you, give them something they want or need. Put their needs above your needs, and they will remember you.

I always love the “Miracle on 34th Street” analogy. Remember how Macy’s Santa sends the little boy’s mom to Gimbels to get that special toy, even though Macy’s does carry something similar? The camera pans to Thelma Ritter (the mom), and she says something like, “Well, what do you know? Macy’s is putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of profits. I never much liked shopping at Macy’s before, but I will now.”

Turn your news into something we can use. We’ll get better service, and we WILL remember you.

Related Posts
Do the Service - Earn the Image
News Flash!  Government Websites Are Not Newspapers