How whitehouse.gov is changing with the times

Barack Obama begins a second term as US president with an official website that has made noteworthy progress between inaugurations, Scott Payton says.

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In this spot four years ago we assessed the state of the White House website – which had just been relaunched to coincide with the dawn of Barack Obama’s presidency. It fell short in a range of areas including use of video and photography, clarity of language and provision of engaging educational content. Interactive features and integration of social media channels were also lacking.
As President Obama was sworn in on 21 January for another term, we returned to whitehouse.gov and discovered that much has changed – and found lots from which companies and governments around the world can learn.

Calls to action


Back in February 2009, there was little interactivity on whitehouse.gov. Today, encouraging visitors to ‘get involved’ appears to be the site’s main mission. An ‘Engage’ page offers visitors a wealth of ways to do this, including…
p(. **Creating or signing an online petition
p(. **Submitting questions or comments to the president, vice-president or ‘office of public engagement’
p(. **Applying for a fellowship, internship or job
p(. **Telephoning the White House
p(. **Downloading the White house app
p(. **Signing up for e-mail updates
p(. **Posting or sharing content on a range of social media channels.
As users browse the site, they are constantly urged to do things rather than merely read things. We made the same observation about the Obama presidential election campaign site last year. I suspect that many of the online communications techniques invented and honed on the campaign trail in both 2008 and 2012 have filtered through to the pages of this site – and will continue to do so over the coming months.
There are also links to microsites dedicated to specific presidential initiatives (supporting military veterans, for instance), where visitors are encouraged to use online tools to pledge volunteering time, send messages to military veterans and start their own community project, among other activities.
Throughout the main White House site, link labels are also worded to encourage users to get involved. A button alongside an invitation to enter your e-mail address is labelled ‘join us’. ‘Stay involved in the second term’ is the heading for a panel of social media links.

Fresh, engaging content


Use of photography, videos and virtual tours has also been enhanced over the past four years.
The virtual tour avoids sophisticated 3D graphics, opting instead for a simple clickable floor plan of the White House. Clicking on a room leads to a page with either a mini video documentary about the room, a video interview with the president in the room or an article accompanied by photographs. It’s a substantial educational tool.
Embedded YouTube videos are used extensively throughout the site – mostly focusing on speeches and other public appearances by the president, vice-president and first lady. The latest weekly presidential address appears on the home page; some sections of the site feel as much like a specialist online television channel as a website. Users can download videos in mp3 or mp4 format, and are encouraged to embed or share them on their own sites or social media pages/feeds/channels.
Photography is generally strong: large, reportage-style images are used extensively throughout the site. The focus is on capturing the president and vice-president doing important things and meeting important people. The high quality of the photography itself – and judicious choice of aesthetically as well as editorially interesting shots – adds interest to subject matter that may otherwise be dull and repetitive at times. The page ‘2012: a year in photos’ is particularly engaging, with powerful images intelligently linked to related content elsewhere on the site. Pinterest users are encouraged to pin images to their boards; thousands are doing just this.
A ‘photo of the day’ on the home page is one of several editorial devices designed to encourage visitors to return frequently to the site. Features such as interactive quizzes also add interest and colour.
The White House Blog is just as prominent a feature on the site as it was four years ago: it is the first link in the primary navigation menu. It is still a purely one-way communication tool; as before, users cannot submit comments to posts. But the names and photographs of the authors of each post are now provided, which makes the blog as a whole seem more friendly and open.

Joined-up channels


Four years ago, we found little integration of social media on whitehouse.gov. Today, social channels are both extensively and coherently used. Clicking a ‘social’ tab on the home page leads to a list of four social media icons, which is common. But a clear explanation of what each channel offers is also provided – which isn’t common but is very useful. For example, ‘Join our networking group’ appears alongside the LinkedIn icon, while ‘See where we have visited’ appears alongside the Foursquare icon. Labels like this make it faster and easier for visitors to decide which channel most suits their needs.
The site also has a clearly signposted social media ‘hub’ – and it is one that ranks among the most comprehensive ‘dashboards’ of recent social media posts, uploads, tweets and similar activity. As well as the latest four tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube channel videos, the dashboard shows the latest three Google+ posts and Flickr stream photographs; the latest four Slideshare presentations; the latest two Scribd files; plus links to the White House presence on LinkedIn, Foursquare and software code sharing platform GitHub. Again, the hub makes it quick and easy for users to browse activity across all channels and decide which channel most suits their requirements.
The site cleverly exploits Facebook as a propaganda tool. On the day after the public inauguration ceremony, users were encouraged to choose from a panel of quotes from the inaugural address, each appearing in a bold font against the backdrop of an (in some cases messianic) photograph of President Obama, and share them via the social channel.

Problems to address


The White House site is still far from perfect. For example

p((. *When users first visit the site, they are immediately confronted with a pop-up window requesting their e-mail address, with no compelling specific reason given for doing so. Before or after entering my e-mail address, I couldn’t find any clearly signposted explanation of how it would – and would not – be used.
p((. *The use of a large opening image on the home page pushes a lot of important links and content below the fold, even on a large desktop screen.
p((. *Some of the policy promotion material sits uneasily with explicitly non-partisan sections of the site designed to provide information about various branches of the federal government.
p((. *Journalists, academic researchers and other visitors looking for quick, clear access to serious archive material may be irritated by the constant pleas to share content and ‘get involved’.
Nevertheless, as a source of ideas for corporate web managers, whitehouse.gov deserves a second term.

First published 23 January, 2013
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