Few corporations would discount the value of positive press. You would never know this given the results of our recent usability study.
In our study, 20 journalists attempted to use the press areas of 10 corporate websites to gather information for story assignments. Among other tasks, the journalists tried to find basic information about each company's financials, management, and commitment to social responsibility, along with a PR telephone number.
On average, journalists found the answer to each of these simple questions only 68% of the time . If these sites were being graded in a U.S. school, the average grade would be no higher than a D.
Design for Users On Deadline
Many of our findings on Web-based PR usability relate directly to the fact that journalists often work under tight deadlines. They need answers fast and don't want to wait for irrelevant downloads, such as the photograph of a piece of toast that was forced on our users by a major federal agency.
In our study, we visited journalists where they work. Many journalists are freelancers or work from home, typically using slow dial-up connections. Many also have old computer equipment and do not feel an obsessive need to download all the latest software. Thus, non-standard data formats like PDF, Flash, and QuickTime tend to clog their limited Internet connections. In several test sessions, PR information actually crashed the journalists' computers. Not a good thing if you're looking for positive coverage of your company.
Another finding? Journalists spurn the informational black holes that populate corporate PR areas. They don't want to register to read a press release; they just want to see if it contains anything worth using in a story. And they don't want to send questions to generic email addresses. What do you think the odds are of getting a useful quote from something called " firstname.lastname@example.org " when you're on deadline?
International Usability: Even Worse
Don't ignore international PR because you assume your overseas agencies are handling it. Even if they do a good job, your corporate website still plays a role in international PR since journalists from all countries will visit the site.
Among our test users, we included journalists from the U.S. and Europe, and we included both U.S. and European companies among the tested sites. Usability dropped dramatically whenever a test had an international component , such as testing a European company with U.S. journalists or a U.S. company with European journalists.
Providing a perfect site for international users is hard, but the basic guidelines for international usability are simple. For example, journalists thought that a list of press releases contained nothing but old news because it violated one of the most basic internationalization guidelines: Use global date formats. When the top press release on a site was dated 10-03-2000, a European user naturally assumed that it had been released on the 10th of March and concluded that the site was stale. This test session was conducted in late 2000, and the press release was in fact dated October 3rd; something that would have been communicated better by spelling out the name of the month in the date.
Journalists' Information Needs
The Web has arrived as a basic research tool for journalists. When asked how they would get basic information about a company, all the journalists in our study said that they would begin by doing some Web research. About half the journalists started by visiting the target company's website; the other half started by searching an outside service (mainly Google, but also traditional services like Dow Jones Interactive and Lexis-Nexis). This finding emphasizes the necessity of having a clean corporate website with a clearly labeled Press section that can quickly provide answers to journalists.
The top-five reasons journalists gave for visiting a company's website were to
find a PR contact (name and telephone number),
check basic facts about the company (spelling of an executive's name, his/her age, headquarters location, etc.),
discover the company's own spin on events,
check financial information, and
download images to use as illustrations in stories.
This basic information must be easy to find and you should cleanse it of the marketese and excessive verbiage that smother the facts on many sites.
Guidelines for Improving PR Usability
Journalists don't have time to wade through complex navigation trees to sift factual wheat from marketing chaff. Companies that want accurate media coverage should design their websites with journalists' needs in mind, specifically their need for fast access to facts and figures as well as a simple way to contact a live person in the PR department. These are commonsense steps that are rarely taken.
We have published a report from the usability study with detailed examples of PR designs that worked and didn't work. The report is now available in a second edition, incorporating findings from a follow-up study in 2003. The 219-page report contains 75 design guidelines for improving the usability of a corporate website's press area.
The usability guidelines are all actionable and easy to implement at a cost that is trivial in relation to most companies' PR budgets. In fact, the guidelines can save companies money by emphasizing simpler design and by letting journalists' download photos from the site instead of having them FedEx'ed.
Even the simplest guidelines are often violated , thus reducing the impact of the company's PR efforts. As an example, the 10 sites we studied comply with only 63% of our advice about how to present press releases online. Ultimately, PR-related usability comes down to a simple question: Why spend a fortune on outbound PR (trying to pitch journalists) while you neglect simple steps to increase the effectiveness of inbound PR (satisfying journalists who visit your website)?
Update: New Study, New Edition
We have conducted a new study of how journalists use PR sections of corporate websites. The second edition of the report is available for download . It contains several new design guidelines.