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Five Building Blocks of Effective Congressional Web Sites: Audience

Criteria for the CMF Mouse Awards

Audience | Content | Usability | Interactivity | Innovation

The First Building Block: AUDIENCE

The fundamental rule for the success of any communications effort, including an effective
Web site, is to know your audience. Therefore, audience is the first building block. If you
know and clearly define your audience, it will be much easier to select the content, the
format, and the kinds of interactive and innovative features to provide for your users. Every
building block that follows will be shaped by the users of your site.

So, who visits your site? To understand the different audiences that use your site, you
should think of your Web site like a specialty store inside a mall. There are two types of
customers: the first are casual shoppers who come into the store because it looks interesting
and it might have something they want. We will call these users “newcomers.” They
are going to need help, ask lots of questions, and can range from having a vague idea of
what they want to having a very clear need but being unsure of how to fill it. Students,
teachers, and many constituents are examples of newcomers. The second type of customer
are those who came to the mall specifically to shop at the specialty store. These
are the “experts.” They know exactly what they want and why they are there, and they
primarily need help tracking down a specific piece of information or service. Members of
the press and activists are examples of experts.

A successful Web site will be user-friendly for both audiences. Experts know what they are
doing, so they are primarily concerned about content. If you have what they need and give
it to them, they will be happy. Newcomers, on the other hand, need an explanation of the
content as well as guidance on how to find it.

In addition to serving two types of users, there are two fundamental approaches to providing
information and fostering communication:

  • In the proactive approach, you build your site to anticipate the needs of the different
    subsets of your audience. An example of this approach would be having a section of
    your Web site devoted to the needs of a key constituency (e.g. a section for small
    business owners with information on grants, loans, and press releases that would
    interest them).
  • In the reactive approach, you build your site to address the most common needs of
    your audience. An example of this approach would be having a section of your Web site
    that addresses the most commonly requested information your office receives (e.g.
    providing online flag request forms or a casework FAQ).

Building your Web site is not a matter of choosing one of the two approaches, but rather
determining what mix of the two is appropriate. Member, committee, and leadership offices
will have different subsets in their audience, depending on their function or jurisdiction within
Congress, and thus will need to take different approaches to their Web sites based on
their goals and priorities. The key to creating a successful Web site lies in identifying the
various audiences your site attracts and determining the best way to meet their needs and
accomplish your goals.

To help offices with this task, Figure 21 (in the 2006 Gold Mouse Report) describes the typical audiences we identified for
Member, committee, and leadership offices and the considerations each office must take
into account when identifying their approach.

Congressional Web sites by their very nature have the potential to attract a diverse audience. Therefore, it is even more important when planning and managing your Web site to consider the needs of both the audience your site naturally attracts and the audience you want to target with your site. Defining and catering your Web site toward these audiences will go a long way in helping your Web site be a success.



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