Isn’t it about time we talked about that research tab?

By Posted in - Audience Research & Content Strategy & Research Communication on October 24th, 2017 0 Comments

The website’s research tab.

Almost all universities have them. And if they’re not up there on the main nav, they’re almost inevitably lurking somewhere else in a reasonably prominent place.

With research such a major part of the business of being a university, they make a lot of sense. Or do they?

Before I founded Pickle Jar Communications, a little over ten years ago now, I held the position as Head of Research-TV. Part of my role involved persuading universities that telling their research stories on television channels around the world and online would be great for business. I had a list of arguments on a beautifully crafted slide that went something like this:

– Enhance your international reputation

– Reach prospective students around the world

– Make your global alumni proud as they see your stories on television in their home countries

– Influence funders

– Reach policy-makers and influencers

– Connect with businesses 

The list went on…

Could we evidence any of this? Possibly. But, honestly, probably not. Nevertheless, the notion that simply “communicating your research” was some kind of magic pill for solving multiple institutional challenges in one hit was one that so many people in our sector bought into. And the resilience of the research tab on our websites is, in a way, a symptom that this mindset remains. Either that, or we’ve just got lazy in addressing the problem.

But do they actually work?

This is, of course, the impossible question. Not impossible inasmuch as we can’t measure the impact of websites and their content. We can do that. Impossible, because more often than not, we have little clarity – or more precisely, no prioritisation – in respect to what we need them to achieve for us.

When I ask universities what the purpose of their research section on the website is, the list I get back is much like the one that I used to rattle off to persuade people to get involved with Research-TV. It’s akin to throwing a load of stuff out there and hoping that some of it will stick.

Ultimately, the more objectives we try to cram into a single activity or space, the more audiences we try to serve. The more audiences we try to serve in one hit, the less relevant we become to any of them. I’d hazard a guess that the audience:irrelevance ratio probably leaps exponentially. It’s like a bad wedding breakfast in which we know we can’t reach everybody’s tastes, so we’re just going serve them all the chicken. It’ll do, and they won’t go hungry, but nobody’s going to get really excited about it.

But research is as important as teaching, so there’s that…

Well, yes, quite! Maybe even more important (so some might say)!

To suggest that the presence of a “study” or “programmes” tab – since it is also a core part of the university business – is a compelling reason why research ought also have its own tab is a nonsensical argument. Study tabs have a clearly defined objective and clarity of audience. Ultimately they serve a single purpose: recruit the best students. The same cannot be said of the research tab.

So, we just get rid of it then?

Well, maybe, yes! But there has to be another way. For me the perfect client project to sink my teeth into these days would be one that really allows me to unpick the problem of the research tab, or explore digital communications for research engagement more broadly. I’d love to test new approaches, explore new models, and consider new frameworks for how we can overtly nurture our audiences to engage with our research excellence.

The alternative model has to come at this from three angles:

1. The University strategy: what are we actually trying to achieve and how do we need to craft research communications to support this?

2. Diversified audiences: who are they, what are their needs and interests, what do we need them to do, and how can we best engage them?

3. Our resource: how much resource can we allocate to communicating with greater relevance and depth with the diverse audiences that we need to reach?

As we unravel those questions, we may start the see the research tab evolve into newly designed experiences and content strategies for connecting on a deeper level with different audience groups. At the new wedding breakfast, we offer the steak, the lobster or the risotto, with no grilled chicken in sight. We might see:

– A route to our expertise, recognising that peer-audiences often want to get straight to academic profiles, research group updates, papers and models

– Our capabilities, showcasing knowledge transfer potential, consultancy, facilities, and clear ways in which our capabilities may support others in business, industry and the third sector

– Social views and insights, sharing expert views and opinions on matters of social concern or policy, prepared as briefings for those who need to know

– Features and insights, sharing great stories that make audiences (here we’d include alumni and – dare I say it – the “general public”) feel smarter and better informed for learning more about what our research has uncovered.

Within each of these areas a different and more audience-tailored content strategy can emerge. The latter is more closely aligned with the news section of the website (while we’re at it, can we make that more magazine-style features-led too please?), while the first on our list is all about careful tagging, categorisation and connected content models to really help people find who and what they’re looking for, in the depth that they wish to access it. This is not the place for “dumbing down”.

Does the research tab die in amongst all this? I’m not sure that it entirely does, but I think we move giving it a clearly defined purpose and therefore relevance for a particular audience. When they see that tab, we want them to be sure: this is the section for me.

Exploring and designing a new approach

I need a project with a university to really unravel this properly, informed by audience research. If that university is you, then let’s chat!

But for now what I do know is that we need to get smarter about how we segment and deliver relevance to multi-layered audiences through our research communications. And a one-size-fits-all research tab is highly unlikely to be the solution.


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