Website Building Blocks
A resource for the Open Think Tank Network
For new think tanks in our network, OpenTTN is providing a ‘starter website’, which is the basic technology and structure needed to have a basic web presence. However, a website comprises more than just technology – there are a range of common pieces of content that need to be included, such as privacy policies. Unfortunately, the requirements vary somewhat from country to country – as do the languages. As such, we are unable to produce exact text that can be copied into each section. However, in this resource we have pulled together what these elements are and described what they commonly contain. We have also linked to external resources and samples that you might be able to build from.
Having a clear description of what the organisation is and what it does is a critical aspect of any organisational website. And yet, it’s often lacking from think tank websites.
As part of the development of the On Think Tanks Open Think Tank Directory, they looked at around 3000 think tank websites and found it was difficult to tell what exactly the organisation does. In their blog, they summarised what they learned after looking at all these websites; they suggested the following when it comes to think tank descriptions:
- “The best descriptions included: who the organisation was (organisational structure, affiliations etc), what they did (including their main topics), how they did it and why. This didn’t mean simply presenting the mission or vision and assuming they give the whole picture. Rather what worked best were stand-alone descriptions that were not longer than one or two paragraphs".
- “Language is also important, and even though cultural differences exist (on what is considered good writing), keeping it simple, descriptive and to the point seemed to work best, especially if you want to connect to a more international audience. It also should not take users more than one click to find out all this information about your organisation, more than that and you might lose them".
Having said that, this description might not need to appear on the homepage. It can also be in a clear ‘about us’ section.
It can be useful to have this description as ‘boilerplate’ text that can be used in many contexts, such as; on publications, on social media profiles and elsewhere. Having both a short (maximum of one sentence) and a long version (one to two paragraphs) of this boilerplate text can be useful as you might need different versions in these different contexts. For example, the short description would work on a Twitter profile, while Facebook allows for a longer description.
The starter website has a special content type for events, and it includes the following elements:
- Title: Event titles (perhaps more than other types of content) should be engaging and provoke interest. At the same time, they should give a good idea on the topic of the event. The title might also give a clue to the format of the the event, for example ‘Monthly Roundtable’ or ‘Debate’.
- Timing: For the event pages and invitations to work properly, it’s important to include both a start date/time and an end date/time. With this website, you can select to have them as ‘all day’ events, or to add specific timing by un-ticking that box. Be sure the set the correct timezone – it should default to your website timezone, but you may want to double-check.
- Venue: If it is an event open to the public, you should include the name and address of the venue where the event will take place. With our website you also have the option to include a GoogleMap and a link to a GoogleMap – you may want to double check that it’s displaying the correct location.
- Description: Depending on the complexity of the event, the description should be no more than one or two paragraphs long. Similar to the title, it should give a good overview of what participants in the event should expect in terms of both topic and format.
- Moderator(s) and speaker(s): Depending on the format of the event, you might have a moderator or experts who will lead or present at the event. Make sure to include their names, job title and affiliations. If there is more than one speaker, this is often presented as a bullet list, with the name of the speaker in bold to have greater visual clarity.
Increasingly, think tanks are blurring the line between blogs, briefings and even longer publications. This has a lot to do with changes in technology. When the Internet first became an important channel for think tank communications, they took existing publication formats like reports and published them online in a similar fashion – mainly through PDFs. PDFs are great for continuous formatting and for printing, but they also lock information away. It can be difficult to measure how often PDFs are actually downloaded, and we can’t track what happens once they are.
These challenges of PDFs, along with the explosion of the smartphone and tablets, have led think tanks to explore more digitally-native options, especially keeping content in HTML format on the Webpages themselves. This also allows for responsive content and embedding interactive items like videos and charts.
This convergence partly explains why we’ve only developed one type of ‘content’ for the starter website, which we’ve called ‘publications’ but you may want to call it something similar, like ‘articles’.
Moreover, there has been qualitative research, confirming that people actually read in and engage with the digital environment differently than with paper outputs. A few tips are:
- People tend to skim more on the web – break up text with headings and subheadings (e.g. <h2> and <h3> tags in html) and use bullet lists to call attention to key information.
- For a similar reason, it’s helpful to keep paragraphs short – maybe just two or three sentences even. This helps break up the text and help people jump to what they are looking for.
- Edit ruthlessly – it’s not unusual for online texts to be about half the length of traditional documents. A general word count for a blog is 800 words, and between 1200-2400 for a briefing. But be flexible and know your audience. An analysis of blogs on the Nuffield Trust website found that blogs of about 1200 words tended to be the most read.
- One of the benefits of the online space is that it allows for cross-referencing other materials through hyperlinks. We don’t necessarily recommend having academic citations in blogs (though HTML-based reports might do this) - rather, link directly to the reference in the text. You can even link to other things within your own website, which might help them get found.
- Highlight key information by turning it into a link to a further resource, or by simply putting it in bold.
- There are lots of different styles of blog: they can provide deeper insight into one specific point of a larger report, they can act as a commentary on current events, and they can explain phenomenon as well. Think about what sort of content makes sense for your think tank.
For grassroots think tanks in particular, it is important to ensure that potential visitors to your website know how they can get engaged with your work. Can they become a member? Do you want them to subscribe to a regular email newsletter? Are you collecting donations?
It is likely that you will need to use a third-party service to help you to manage subscriptions and newsletters. We have suggested for newsletters using Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor. For events, we have embedded ticketing and event management in the website itself, but Eventbrite is another useful online events management tool. Part of the wider project with Larix is helping to create a member management platform, known as a CRM. More information will be available when we have it.
- What information you collect about ‘users’: This could be simple information gathered from your website (like IP addresses which are logged by Google Analytics), but if you also include an ability to sign up to emails etc, it should also include that sort of information. With the introduction of GDPR, you should also note the legal basis for collecting this information. See our briefing on GDPR for more information.
- Where and how that information is stored: Is this information hosted entirely by you, or is it stored by third-parties? For example, if you host your email distribution lists on Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor, you would need to mention this here. It is also good practice to mention data retention policies – in other words, how long will you keep this information.
- What you do with that information: You may use IP addresses and Google Analytics to tailor your website content, for example. You might use email addresses to send emails but also to target people on other social media channels. However you use that information, you should mention it in here in the most generic terms possible. You may want to ‘future proof’ yourself by saying, for example, that you ‘use email addresses for marketing purposes’ without specifying every single use. This might give you a bit of flexibility if new technologies arise.
- How users can access, correct or delete this information: With GDPR, users have the right to request all information that you have about them. You have one month from the request to collect and handover that information. It is a good idea here to outline how that process works. It is okay to charge an administration fee if you think this is going to be a time-consuming process (but do note that you cannot charge for the information itself, only for the administrative burden of collecting it and sharing it with them), but that should be explicitly mentioned in the terms.
Cookies are little pieces of information that websites store on a user’s device that allows them to have a seamless experience. They help with everything from logging in and creating user ‘sessions’ to making sure a search function works throughout the website. They can also track users across websites – for example, Google or Facebook might have installed cookies on a number of websites that you visit, so Facebook knows what sort of pages you are visiting. For our websites, the most common cookies will likely be from Google Analytics, but if there are any third-party plugins (like installing Facebook Pixel, or displaying Twitter posts on your page), they often also contain their own cookies.
Because of these privacy concerns, in 2011 the EU brought into effect a directive that is now commonly referred to as the ‘EU cookie law’. This directive effectively states that websites must notify users of any cookies that they use on their website. This is why for the last five years most websites have a pop-up cookie notification.
In principle, the new GDPR requires that users specifically opt-in to installing cookies. This means that banners that use wording like ‘Continuing to use this website indicates that you accept cookies’ will no longer be valid. To dismiss the banner, you should have to ‘accept’ the cookies. But to be fully compliant, in principle you should be able to choose which cookies are turned on and off. This might be technically challenging – and anyway, it’s not clear how this will be enforced, but it’s something to be aware of.
- Our starter website will have a basic ‘Cookie notification’ installed. It runs through xx plugin.
- If you would like to better tailor the cookie notification and actually give users the ability to turn off some cookies, consider using a service like OneTrust, whose tailored cookie notifications cost $30/month.
For websites in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, an impressum is required. In other countries, this information will likely be kept in other locations.
Information that is legally required in the impressum:
- Publishers name
- Email address and/or telephone number
- Trade registry number (where applicable)
- VAT number (where applicable)
- Intellectual property: Clear definitions of who owns the content and how it can be used. This might include not just the content that you produce, but the content that users may produce on your website/platform. This could also cover things like use of logos and other brand material.
- Termination: Right to revoke access for whatever reason you see fit -- though you may want to include guidelines here, for instance a policy on comments (e.g. if they are moderated, or what would keep them from being published).
- Governing law: This is usually a note about where your organisation is based, and it assumes the laws of that country will prevail and that any dispute will be resolved through that legal system. If you do not have an impressum, this may also be a good place to note official contact information and registration numbers.
- Links to other websites: You may want to include a note that you cannot be held responsible for content on websites that you send people to.
- Limitations of liability: A statement that makes it clear that people may use the website as is, and that you are not responsible for any service outages or how they might use the information that they find on this website. For example, in this document a clause that states; ‘This document should not be construed as legal advice and we are not liable for any action taken against you for any actions taken on the basis of this document.’
Accessibility statements are not a legal requirement, but many organisations choose to have them. They are statements that explain how you have made accommodations for users who are maybe less capable in using your website.
For example, this can be a place to describe the standards that you have maintained, but you can also use it to explain how to make information on your site more visible (e.g. through changing the size of the font). Additionally, if there are special considerations you have made, like making PDFs also available as flat html files to help screen readers for the sight-impaired, it is good to mention it here.
There are clear Web Accessibility Guidelines that most websites adhere to across the web. We have made sure that the ‘starter website’ template meets WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines – but it is your responsibility to maintain those standards, as you add new content to your website. As a general rule for accessibility, you should make sure that images have clear descriptions of what they contain in their ‘alt’ tag. You may also want to make sure all of your videos have subtitles.