We ask an awful lot of our organization’s Web site.
It must define who we are, what we do and how we came to our mission. Increasingly, though, it must also speak to a dizzying range of audiences, each one requiring unique content and a distinct voice.
And as communications challenges multiply and grow more complex, organizations must now consider something that likely inspires fear, trepidation and more money: building a second Web site.
We took the leap at the Association of American Railroads —a national advocacy group that includes the major freight railroads in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as well as Amtrak —and called it “subtraction by addition.” That is, we mined from the first site to seed the second site.
A second or companion site means the main site doesn’t have to be all things to all people. It no longer has to try—and inevitably fail—at simultaneously speaking to both grassroots and grasstops; the general public and policy makers; and to key internal audiences.
The main organization Web site can narrow its focus and serve as the authoritative, high-level explainer of the who, what, why and how. The new site is then free to provide a breath of new content that can better illustrate and help an organization tell its story.
With the help of Washington, D.C.-based Home Front Communications, that’s just what we did with the online face of the AAR. Our online constituents include everyone from policy makers and investment analysts to member companies and their employees. A close examination of our audiences, their needs and our goals resulted in two distinct Web sites.
AAR.org uses numerous facts, weekly freight rail traffic reports, rail industry safety standards and high-level content to provide timely updates on the industry to those who need it most.
It has a rich repository of content, appealing to repeat visitors who want to better understand freight rail’s influence on the U.S. economy and how it intersects with public and regulatory policy.
FreightRailWorks.org is designed to engage audiences in the policy realm, who need an accessible, tangible entry point into the facts and figures behind the industry.
In other words, content on what makes freight rail work. It allows us to tell powerful stories about the work we do and provide the kind of compelling data visualizations that show impact.
Creating two Web sites with distinct messaging didn’t happen overnight. It was a process, and it is still evolving. Here are five tips to get started:
1. Define your audiences: The first step is to define your audiences and set clear goals for targeting each. We generally like to group visitors into three categories: interested, informed and expert audiences. As you move from interested to expert, you go from users who want general information to users who know exactly what they’re talking about. Each group will come to you in search of very different content.
2. Get integrated: You have to first develop an integrated communications strategy. Let the strategy lead—and the Web design and development will follow. Once you have articulated the communications goals for each audience, you can determine the precise nature and structure of each of your sites. While an academic may be willing to wade through a lengthy treatise, a layman is more likely to be engaged by an infographic or short video.
3. Content is the engine: Powerful storytelling provides a better emotional connection to your readers and leads to better retention of information. The average Web site visitor spends relatively little time on your site, so you need great story lines to pull them in.
4. Connect and cross-promote: We have been able to funnel targeted traffic from one Web site to the other by interlinking our sites and cross-promoting content. Those inbound and outbound links improve the sites’ SEO.
5. Make each site unique: Content varies from site to site so that search engines recognize them as two distinct destinations; duplicate content on multiple sites may have a negative effect on overall search ranking. Best practices dictate that when launching multiple Web sites, you must make the user experiences unique.
By developing two distinct sites, we have been able to communicate more clearly with all of our target groups.
The addition of a new digital property—however painful that process may sound—can also save a lot a lot of pain later on, if and when you need to contort and expand your single organization site.
This article was written by Patti Reilly, senior VP of communications at the Association of American Railroads. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.