Why giving out your web address may not be such a good idea

Over the last few months, Transport for London has been running a series of adverts, principally on tubes, buses, stations and shelters encouraging people to behave responsibly when using their services and encouraging people to visit their site www.togetherforlondon.org.

However, the website side of the campaign has been criticised for getting only derisory amounts of traffic with, for example, only 12 ideas posted up during December. Or as an Evening Standard story put it before Christmas:

An official website hailed as “Facebook for commuters” was branded a disaster by experts today.

Together for London was billed as a forum where travellers could work together to improve the capital’s transport system. Yet two months after a high-profile launch by Transport for London, the site is a virtual ghost town.

So what went wrong? And what are the lessons which also apply to advertising political sites?

Where the Together for London adverts went wrong

It’s not as if the Together for London site hasn’t been widely advertised on posters such as this:

Together for London advert from TfL

When I’ve asked Londoners whether they remember seeing these adverts, there is a high level of awareness – but almost no-one remembers that it is advertising a website. People remember the figures, remember the message that you should be nice, but not that the poster is advertising a website.

Yet look again at the poster: it’s pretty clear, there in large text right under the two people, along with some copy (“join in at…”) which directly urges you to visit a website.

What has gone wrong, I think, is that you just don’t expect a poster telling you how to behave to also invite you to go to a website. A poster about a film? Sure, you expect there to be a web address to see trailers, get more information and so on, and so we’re used to searching out the poster to find it. But a poster telling you to do this or not do that? You don’t expect a web address, and so unless you pay very close attention it’s easy to miss that it is there as you eye glances over it.

The lesson? You need to not only give people a web address, and a reason to go to the web address, but also you must do both in a context where people are expecting such information.

For example, step one would be to put a web address on a political leaflet. Achieves something; if someone has decided they want to get in touch with the party, then hunting out the web address on the leaflet makes it easier for them to do so. But they’re not normally going to see a web address and then think, ‘oooh, a website! that’s unusual! let’s go visit!’

So the next step up is to give people a reason why visiting the website will give them something they want, such as “visit our website to find out the latest news on schools admissions: www.anytown.libdems.org.uk”.

But even with that, design and context is important. Does the surrounding content make people expect there to be an option to find further information? Is this text placed somewhere where you’d expect to find a web address? Or is it placed and designed, for example, in the form of a banner – just where a reader may expect boring details or adverts to appear and so where the eyes of the public just wash over it without the information registering? (And yes, you can find examples of material I have produced that fall foul of this; consider this posting a summary of some of the things I’ve learnt.)

But should you use a web address at all?

If you follow central government advertising campaigns, you may have noticed that they increasingly do not mention a specific web address at all. For example, as Martin Belam has documented, the ad campaign promoting action to cut CO2 asks us to “search online for ‘act on CO2′”.

At first this may seem puzzling, because how can you be sure that, even if your site is top for that search result at the moment, that it will remain there? And if you run internet ads on that term, aren’t you having to pay out when instead giving a URL would have saved money?

A good example of the perils of this was a recent navy recruitment campaign, where I hit the internet to do the search the TV ad told me to do – and ended up at a recruiting site for the US Navy, because I picked the “wrong” search result to go through to.

The reason though this is being done lies in research which shows that people have a much better recall of messages such as “search online for ‘act on CO2′” than “go to actonco2.direct.gov.uk“.

For leaflets and other similar literature which people may have to hand when they are using their web browser, I think giving the actual address is still best, particular as local political sites often cannot rely on dominating the search results for similar phrases in a way that a national government site can.

However it is a useful tip for those giving speeches, taking part in hustings, touring local firms and so on. Asking people to keep in touch and let you know their issues by searching online for your name or your local party’s name may well be a better bet than giving them a web address. Of course that depends on such searches bringing up your site, but if they don’t you’re missing out on other traffic anyway so that would be a good thing to tackle regardless.

And remember, the next time you want the very best in political blogging, search for “pink dog blog”.

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