Building a global online network between multiple stakeholders—especially non-profit organizations—can be a daunting task. Although technical considerations are important, contrary to popular belief, the primary challenges have less to do with technology and more to do with human emotions.
While working for the United Nations, in 2002, I visited three organizations that operated top class websites: ELDIS, OneWorld.net and SciDev.net. Each of them had a reputation for excellent news services, publication quality, knowledge management and above all—buzzing online communities. The purpose of my mission was to research their success secrets in order to guide our organization through the process of developing our own global web project. After three days of meetings, which resulted in volumes of notes and technical details, all our discussions boiled down to just eight simple principles, which are summarized below.
1. Start with people, not technology Begin by forming good relationships with strategic stakeholders, players and institutions. It is critical that potential partners feel a strong sense of ownership and loyalty towards the project. After relationships have been established, then the next step is to start approaching the web project and technical issues. Doing things the other way round—a highly risky approach—is to build an amazing website and then afterwards, try to solicit partners who may not understand what they have to gain by joining ‘your’ web project.
2. Invest in either centralized or decentralized trust Trust is the primary currency of effective online relationships; it allows website operators to quickly and confidently post information without having to spend hours fact-checking every detail. To form trusting relationships, website managers can invest in trust at different points along a continuum between centralized, extended and decentralized. For example, trust can be centrally placed in one chief editor, extended to an editorial team or decentralized across a network of trusted partners (who’ve been pre-screened). Trust impacts a web project’s processing speed, risks and growth potential. In other words, trust operates like a faucet whereby networks with centralized trust can only process a small volume of high credibility content, but assume fewer risks. While networks with lots of decentralized trust can process huge volumes of content; however, they’re going to be at a greater risk for blunders such as disseminating factually incorrect or copyrighted materials.
3. Build global networks through local ownership The recipe for achieving relevant and meaningful regional content is local ownership and editorial autonomy. Although there is great value in local content, the decision to delegate autonomy to local editors and/or technical staff will always be impacted by strategic, political, economic, trust and content quality factors.
4. Decide your point between quantity and quality
Given the same editorial capacity, an editorial team could either process a few high quality content items or many low quality content items. The point between quality and quantity will impact on users’ visit frequency (for frequent publications) and content credibility (for quality materials). Most organizations would prefer to process a high volume of top quality web content; and this is no problem provided unlimited cash and resources are available. However, in the real world, given limited resources, there may be compelling reasons to process more low quality content items rather than a few excellent works, or vice versa—it all depends on the web project’s mission and target audiences.
5. Find your place between tight and stale, or loose and lively
Along the continuum between ultra-strict and ultra-loose editorial and web design standards, there is a range between too clinical and too chaotic. A website with too much control can be dull, stale and unappealing to the masses. But also, a site with too much creativity can be confusing. Achieving a dynamic website with mass appeal means striking the right balance between strict standards; while also creating space for spontaneity and creativity.
6. Adopt external standards then adapt them to fit your needs
To maintain editorial and technical consistency, it may be easier to adopt well established standards and modify them as needed. For editorial standards, the Associated Press and Economist offer good style guides. For technical standards, there are various programming standards to choose from. Standards empowered staff to learn on their own, reduce dependence on senior staff, gave them a guide when in doubt, and help to identify issues that should be raised with their supervisors.
7. Purchase ‘off the shelf’ technology, then ‘home cook’ them to fit your needs
The consensus was to purchase high quality, and flexible, ‘off the shelf’ website solutions; and then extend them to fit the project’s needs. Open source solutions can be a good option as the source code is easily modified; though there can be serious security considerations. On the other hand, purchasing proprietary software may be more secure, but inflexible solutions may force you to consider undertaking messy integration with third party applications.
8. Stand still or keep moving and learning The fast pace of online change means that effective web marketing strategies, technology and practices may lead to failure without constantly looking forward, staying ahead of the trends and taking corrective actions. To stay on top of the changing trends, consider dedicating staff to research and development or forward looking roles. Practice ‘iterative learning’, so that after each step in a process, an evaluation is made of the lessons learned, and new knowledge is applied to successive projects. And don’t forget to purchase the latest books and subscriptions to popular magazines.
This blog post is adapted from a 2002 report written by Brian Cugelman for UNV.