Colin Delany Websites April 30, 2014

The Future of Advocacy Websites: Fluidity

If you missed last night’s fiery discussion about advocacy websites, never fear: you can watch the video here (the action starts about five minutes in). We had a great conversation with some honest (and passionate) disagreement — quite a fun discussion for a topic that can be dangerously dry.

Our long obsession with website appearance (usually the only aspect of a site to which senior management pays attention) is becoming less and less relevant as the consuming devices define the conditions in which our content appears.

Plus, prepping for the event gave me an opportunity to think about the historical arc of websites, from static HTML pages like the ones I first built in 1996 through the rise of database-driven Content Management Systems to today’s “responsive” sites that display information differently depending on the device on which you’re viewing them. The overall long-term trend? Websites are becoming ever more fluid — over time, they’re less about pages and more about content that adapts to the conditions under which it’s being consumed.

In some ways, it’s a process of abstraction. A “web page” was originally almost entirely a self-contained document — when you requested the page, the HTML code on that page was what you got, along with any graphics referred-to in that code. Database-hosted sites (originally Cold Fusion and its ilk, now Drupal, WordPress et al) are one step in the direction of abstraction, since they break a site down into an array of different elements like articles, headers, footers, sidebars, feature boxes, etc, and then assembled them as needed. Cascading Style Sheets are another step, since they help to divide the appearance of a “page” from its underlying HTML structure, making the page content and its presentation separately manipulable.

The future? We once viewed websites through essentially one lens — a desktop or laptop computer, on a relatively small monitor and via one of a handful of roughly similar web browsers. Now, we consume online content through a bewildering array of devices, from laptops to tablets to smartphones, on displys ranging from tiny to wall-sized, and with Google Glass and more on the horizon. Our long obsession with website appearance — usually the only aspect of sites to which senior management pays attention — is becoming less and less relevant as the consuming devices define the conditions in which our content appears.

For online communicators, the answer is clear: we have to be prepared for an increasingly fluid visual environment. My recommendation? Think more in terms of pieces of content — a story and its associated images or videos — and less in terms of pages. The content is the hard part: once you have a compelling story, you can adapt it for different media — long-form reading for a web page, an infographic for Facebook, a series of Tweets for Twitter, a video for YouTube.

Something resembling a website will be with us for a long time — and as I discuss in the recent digital strategy ebook, websites are still the hub around which the rest of our online outreach revolves. But increasingly, sites will be less about appearance and more about the actual words and pictures we use to construct a story. Websites will gather and organize the various pieces of our online content, integrating them to tell an effective story and persuade people to take action.

The next challenge? That “take action” part. More on that soon.


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