Mathew Lowry

Not losing sight of the basics

It might seem strange for me to say this, but lately I’ve been wondering whether the EU institutions are now paying too much attention to social media.

Don’t get me wrong, they have a thousand reasons for getting social media right – and also ensuring that they don’t get it wrong by poisoning the well or having a Nestle moment.

But let’s not lose sight of the basic fact that serious investment needs to be made on the Institutions’ sites in terms of (in no particular order or rigour):

  • audience-driven, non-organisational information architecture
  • design
  • search engine optimisation
  • content structured for the web which explains why, as well as what: particularly illustrations, animations and audiovisual which are useful, as opposed to:
    • designed-to-be-viral YouTube ads which say nothing, explain nothing, and are as contagious as fossilised Kleenex;
    • Smiling Happy White Families from American stock photo sites. There, I said it.
  • search
  • document libraries and news resources which tie related items together and don’t require a PhD and two hours to find
  • coordination to avoid redundant information
  • coordination to ensure up to date information
  • timeliness (proactive and reactive)
  • basic interactive tools for programme and event support
  • dynamic web publishing (yes, the EC still publishes static files …)
  • multilingualism

and half a dozen other basic things which sites like EUROPA need to get right.

This is not a question, as Ron Patz recently posted, about EUROPA competing with Google as a method for finding EU documents.

In fact, Google is almost always the best method for finding a document, if you know what you are looking for. If EUROPA was only serving hyper-specialists in EU affairs, all it’d really need to do would be to publish documents with decent metadata and invite people to use Google.

I’m exaggerating to make my point, which is that any website is a lot more than a document repository, and EU websites must serve a huge array of audiences, from hyperspeciaists seeking the latest detailed information to those stumbling across EUROPA for the first time, and everyone in between. In many languages.

Hey, noone said it was easy. Which is basically my point.

I really do think social media has a lot to offer, but getting these basics right is important, too, and this requires a sustained, ongoing effort – a site like EUROPA doesn’t get ‘done’, to then be forgotten. So I’m wondering whether the newfound fascination for all things Twitter may distract resources from the basic task of providing acurate, up-to-date, readable, comprehensible information about what the EU is doing, why and how.

This is not an optional extra – if the EU can’t inform Europeans what it is doing, why, and how, we shouldn’t be surprised they are increasingly disenchanted.

And a solid EUROPA base, finally, is absolutely essential to any active social media campaign.

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  1. The advantage of social media is that you can do it bottom-up, by devoted individuals.

    Getting all the rest of the EU web rights needs agreement between different Directorates, bodies and institutions, which is much harder to do than to show presence in social media.

    In addition to that, part of the fact that EU officials are slowly joining social media already enriches the chaos because they can

    a) give relevance to otherwise hidden information by commenting on current affairs and sharing links to these docs, and
    b) help finding information that you otherwise wouldn’t find because they, upon request, may direct you to the right place
    c) they will realise what the real FAQs are and may be able to ask for updates of the EU’s respective websites.

    So while I agree that it is totally important to get the basics rights, social media involvement may actually be a solution to some of the issues you highlighted above – less structured but more prone to a step-by-step reform that seems more natural within the EU context.

  2. Believe me, when you say “Getting the EU web rights needs agreement between different Directorates, bodies and institutions, which is much harder …”, boy, do I know what you’re talking about…

    You’re right, but – like I think almost everyone looking at these issues – you haven’t considered the problem of scale.

    This is a subject for another post I am planning, as I’ll go out on a limb and predict that 2011 will be the year when those piloting EU social media within the Institutions will suddenly realise what Clay Shirky is talking about when he refers to the asymmetry of fame.

    SO, stand by for another post. In the meantime, help me write it by asking yourself this.

    You (Ron) are an EU hyper-specialist uber-geek, right? If you or Ralf or Jon ask the EC a question via Twitter, you’ll get an answer. But just because that works for you, will it work when scaled up?

    Put another, more stupid way: should everyone in Europe follow EC officials on Twitter so that they can get questions answered? Do you really think that’s gonna work?

    What works at a small scale, with a few people inside the Brussels Bubble pioneering the use of social media, is unlikely to scale to a continent-wide, 23-language, two-way information strategy.

    Hence the need to get the basics right, and to use that to support social media in an integrated coherent way. Social media is not a panacea to solve the challenges the EC faces when organising its online presence.

    Believe me, I wish it were.

  3. I’m in fact considering scale and I also know that you know how difficult it is to reform the EU web.

    The point I was making is that when the scale of requests will rise beyond the early-adopter-EU-geeks because the EU institutions become more visible in social media over time, those EU officials actively using social media will realise that they become overwhelmed with questions that could easily be answered with better websites and easier-to-use search tools.

    The public pressure and demand that EU presence in social media might create over time would thus be the argumentative basis for reforming the general web presence. I think most EU bodies don’t have a clue what people are searching (and not finding) and only through public requests they may realise that people actually have problems using their web products.

    Without concrete external pressure, EU institutions and Directorates will be able to continue their useless interinstitutional fights about how pages should look and about what tools should be implemented – and social media might be a way of creating this pressure.

    But there are more arguments against what you are saying:

    Nobody is forced to follow EU spokespersons. But having a known place where questions can be asked (e.g. a page on Facebook or a hashtag that a group of EU officials follow to answer questions) may offer ways of solving website based search and replace it with social search.

    And this is where scale also becomes important: Having such public questions will not only make it possible for officials to answer questions. Others – like the EU uber-geeks – may also join in and support those who have questions that can easily be answered. Officials only would be needed to step in when there is no such social support or when the answer is not known publicly yet.

    So scaling up requests is not just raising burdens but it also means that there will be more people able to intervene and to help. The question of scale should thus not be regarded as a simple matter of burden.

  4. I sincerely hope we’re able to get to the point where EU officials feel “overwhelmed” by the response they’re getting on social media. Ronny is absolutely right – that sort of thing would be a catalyst for change.

  5. Your post ably summarises the challenges for Europa. But the Commission cannot afford to wait until it has ‘got Europa right’ before it begins to make use of social media. It has to move forward on two fronts – improving Europa as a portal for content discovery and at the same time experimenting with Facebook and Twitter as platforms for distribution and engagement. In fact, this is exactly what it is doing – if not as rapidly as you or I might wish. The two big challenges for social media engagement will be scale and speed of response. Corporates are scaling up with teams of knowledgeable, tech-savvy enthusiasts, empowered to respond authentically in real time – and, as Ron says, building around them a community of independent brand advocates. Can the Commission find a way to communicate outside traditional draft-comment-approve content creation cycles? And can it learn to embrace constructive criticism as market feedback? I hope so, but it is not going to be easy.

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