Online lessons from the G7

From tips on audience engagement at the White House to the pitfalls of responsive design at Downing Street, there is much to learn from the online ‘estates’ of the world’s most powerful people, Scott Payton says. 

Here at Bowen Craggs, we often describe a corporate website as a company’s ‘window on the world’. The same is true for state leaders. So we decided to tour the official online residences of each of the G7 heads to answer two questions:

  • What features and approaches stand out?
  • What lessons and/or sources of inspiration do they offer corporate web managers?

The White House

Notable features

A heavy focus on encouraging citizens to ‘get involved’ with the administration has characterized the White House website throughout Obama’s time in office.

Indeed, ‘Participate’ is a main-menu link – leading to a page listing a wide array of tools for asking questions, joining Google Hangout video discussions, signing petitions and applying for an internship, among other activities. There is also a signpost from here to the site’s ‘Social Hub’ – an unusually comprehensive and lively ‘dashboard’ of activity across an exceptionally wide range of social media channels. A tab on the Social Hub allows users to switch to an ‘Engage’ page that offer a visually engaging list of yet more ways to make contact and sign up for various initiatives.

The site also has a ‘White House Shareables’ page providing a host of oven-ready videos, infographics, cartoons and other pro-Obama materials for users to post on Facebook, Pinterest and other channels. A clever propaganda tool.

There are numerous other thoughtful touches on the site – from a large, striking Photo of the Day to an elaborate multimedia tour of the White House.

Finally, there is a White House mobile app, providing news and live streams of events and other services.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

If you’re looking for new ideas on how to encourage customers and other groups to ‘engage’ with your company online, this site is brimming full of them. Of course, not all will be appropriate in a corporate context – but some could well be, with some thoughtful adaptation.  

The Élysée Palace

Notable features

Like its Washington equivalent, the online home of the French Presidency works hard to encourage citizens to ‘share’ content via their own social media accounts. Everything from photographs to diary engagements are accompanied by Twitter, Facebook (and sometimes also Google +) share icons.

The site is also highly ‘visual’: from the home page onwards, photographs and video clips are given editorial priority over text. The approach works in terms of engaging the casual visitor – though those seeking to conduct deeper research may be frustrated.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

This site shows how images and other visual elements can be more powerful than pure prose in terms of giving visitors a clear, compelling overview of an organization’s activities and initiatives. The neat, intuitive scrolling calendar of events on the Élysée home page may also hold potential as an addition to corporate sites – in the investor relations section, for example.

Die Bundelkanzlerin

Notable features

In the real world, Angela Merkel has built a formidable reputation as a leader who has eschewed ‘personality politics’. The Federal Chancellery website takes the opposite approach. ‘Angela Merkel’ is one of just four primary links. This has three sub-sections – an illustrated timeline of recent foreign trips; a fairly standard resume-style biography; and, most interestingly, a slick slideshow profile of Merkel’s life and career.

This slideshow is notable for a number of reasons.

  • It is intuitive on all devices: desktop and tablet visitors can use a clickable timeline to jump between dates; large arrows to move forwards or backwards; and iPad-style buttons to click on different images/captions within a particular time period. Tablet users have the added option to swipe through the slideshow. Crucially, the iPad-style navigation elements do not make life awkward or confusing for desktop users, as is often the case.
  • Images are striking and editorially engaging.
  • Captions are concise and informative.

Elsewhere on the site, there is a rather clunky but absorbing virtual tour of the Chancellery; users can, for example, click on portraits on the Chancellery walls to view details of their subjects.

All this helps to convey a sense of ‘openness’. Yet the site does reflect Merkel’s private nature in one way: unlike its French and US counterparts, there is little attempt to encourage visitors to ‘share’ content via social media: the focus is tightly on ‘informing’ – though not at the expense of being engaging.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

A good example of how a relatively simple images-and-captions timeline can work well in terms of conveying a person or organization’s history – if navigation is carefully built, images thoughtfully selected and captions sharply written.

Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street

Notable features

The first striking difference between the UK leader’s online residence and that of his French, German and US counterparts is the fact that it is not a standalone website.

Number 10 Downing Street has, like other formerly separate parts of the UK government’s online estate, been consolidated into gov.uk.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. However, as David Bowen wrote recently, the structure of gov.uk is geared up for visitors wanting to complete a specific task – apply for a passport or download a tax return, for example – rather than browse different categories of information. In addition, the design of .gov.uk is responsive, meaning the web site adjusts to fit any screen size. This makes it mobile friendly, but the way responsive design has been implemented in this case, eg, lacking conventional navigational tools in desktop ‘mode’, means that the structure of the site undermines visitors’ ability to find out about different aspects of the prime minister’s office.

Indeed, from the 10 Downing Street landing page, all options in the main menu take users away from the 10 Downing Street section – and the lack of an in-section menu (where sub-sections could be listed) means that users must spend time hunting for relevant in-text links on a long scrolling page.

Images are functional rather than engaging, as are features such as the prime minister’s biography. There are notably powerful filters to help visitors find relevant speeches and articles, though.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

A reminder that a navigation structure tailored to help visitors complete a specific task can seriously undermine their ability to browse between multiple types of information.

Office of the Canadian prime minister

From looks, via structure, to signposting and choice of fonts, this site shares a great deal in common with an online newspaper or magazine. The result is an editorially engaging site. Yet ambiguous labeling of some main-menu links (‘24 SEVEN’ and ‘FUN’) – including one that leads without warning to a completely separate site – risks leaving some visitors scratching their heads.

The 24 SEVEN link leads to an interesting ‘online magazine that publishes shareable content’. With is big, ubiquitous ‘SHARE’ buttons, this site does a similar job to the White House site’s ‘Shareables’ section. Yet with its magazine feel and lack of clearly signposted introduction, some visitors are likely to be confused about how it differs from and/or relates to the main prime minister’s office site.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

Another interesting – if confusingly executed – example of how users can be actively encouraged to spread the ‘party line’ via their own social media accounts.

Office of the President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic

Notable features

From the plain-text PDF biography to the tiny-thumbnails image library, this site falls dramatically short of other G7 leaders’ online presences in both style and content. To be fair, basic information – such as press releases and speeches – can be found here, but the overall impression is one of neglect.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

None.

Office of the Japanese prime minister and his cabinet

Notable features

While visually slicker and more carefully curated than its Italian counterpart, this site again focuses largely on imparting basic news and information. The Japanese version of the site’s home page did have a main-panel signpost to a video during our March 2015 visits – but on click this led us away from the site to a YouTube channel. Potentially confusing and disorientating.

Lessons/inspiration for corporate web managers

None.

Overall, in the online world, the US president is ahead of his G7 colleagues when it comes to informing and enthusing online visitors – though the French president and German chancellor are not too far behind. As for the others, it might be time to call in their web teams for an improvement summit. 

First published 04 March, 2015
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