In Alice in Wonderland the Mad Hatter is doomed to live his life at tea time. He and his companions cope by moving round a giant tea table, leaving behind the detritus of their last repast in order to begin again at a new place setting.
Some organisations have embraced archiving. But often there’s a clear driver. For example, they have archivable product of intrinsic value. The US Congress digital preservation program, designed to preserve political historic context and the British Library web archive, come to mind. I select these 2 at random and don’t want to get drawn into commenting on their execution. Newspapers and libraries have always archived and are therefore predisposed to do so digitally.
And, within the context of this blog, neither do I want to get into the technical developments that enable archiving. What interests me is why so many of us are Mad Hatters? What’s the mindset that prevents us engaging with archive projects and what are the implications for brands?
Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of how important their online touch points are, not just in terms of sales and information but as an extension of brand. At CDA we talk about usefulness as the essential online brand attribute. Online, people don’t want marketing messages. They want facts and information, fueled by clear navigation, that allow them to get on an do.
But what do businesses do about content that’s no longer current?
1. The simple answer would seem to be: take it down.
For much material that probably makes perfect sense. If it has no intrinsic value, even as a matter of record, then it can probably go.
But you need to be asking some pertinent questions around this and not acting in haste (because it’s the easiest solution). These questions should exend to considering links that inhabit the pages you are considering taking down – not just out from them but links in from other pages and other sites. Sites that may well belong to other organisations and are therefore are outside of your direct control. (CDA recently undertook a BBC archive project where link evaluation was the critical factor.)
2. Plenty of content can probably be kept digitally but not made available.
I remember being told about a tobacco company that keeps everything on the basis that they don’t know where their next class action is coming from and they can’t afford not to have a record of everything they’ve said and written (web is just a part of that).
3. But there is also a great amount that should be archived in a way that still allows public access.
An easy example is past copies of annual reports and accounts.
But a publicly accessible archive also stands testament to organisational longevity. Even at a subliminal level this is an important brand attribute, particularly in financial services and the public sector.
So, I hear you thinking, we’ll keep all these pages up then? Ah, if only life was that simple. Pour me another cup of Darjeeling and I’ll explain.
The web, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, exists in the here and now. For online users it is forever tea time. They’re looking for content that will allow them to do things now and are evaluating against personal criteria that allow them to make judgements about this in the fastest time possible. A matter of seconds. They expect web content to be current because they are.
Archive pages need to evidence the fact that they are archive in nanoseconds. They also need to evidence that they’re still up there because they’re useful in some way. Obviously a date helps but is it really clear? Explore some of the dustier corners of mega sites and you’ll find all sorts of pages, PDFs, printer friendly versions that seem to exist outside of time and space.
And there is a clear governance issue here. Take the hypothetical case of a health site that over the years has written and commented on various reports relating to diet, including how many eggs we should eat. (I choose eggs because the guidelines seem to go up and down like Topsy. I have no idea what they currently are but I’m healthy and I like omelettes.)
And this health organisation has done some pretty impressive work over the years; collaborated at a government level and the like. To take down the older reports would mean their online presence is diminished. Plus, they are a valueable site for research and student traffic who want to access this past material. Password protecting a whole load of content would be counterproductive in terms of this traffic (having considered this approach thoroughly) and also reflect badly on their brand. They’re a public health organisation.
But say I’m an overweight man in his late 50s with heart and collesterol issues. In an attempt to look after myself I visit this health website and download information about diet. But in my haste I download previous advice on eggs. Six months down the line I’m facing a coronary bypass and there’s a leaflet in the doctor’s waiting room about no win no fee legal advice.
Now I have no idea what the legal argument would be in this case. But up until the end of last year I was Chair of Governance for a small UK NHS organisation so governance and duty of care are things I feel very strongly about. Could something like this never happen? Or is it just a matter of time?
So, I hear you thinking, we’ll take all these pages down then. Ah. Cut me a slice of cake and I’ll explain.
This brings me back to an earlier point. Your past is part of your brand. If you were at a dinner party with someone who refused to talk about anything that happened pre-2008 you’d be a little suspicious. Wouldn’t you?
So archiving has to be about striking a balance. It’s about governance, curation, usefulness and record. If you have sites and pages languishing out there because it’s just too complicated to consider doing something about them, well… have you met my friend the Mad Hatter?
Useful links (that take you to CDA main website pages)
>> How useful is your brand?
>> Brand usefulness – help not hype
>> How people use language to search online
Useful links (you’ll leave the blog and CDA, so we’ll open these in a new window for you)
>> British Library UK Web Archive
>> US Congress archive program