Monday, August 26, 2013

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Michelangelo's Pieta'
Art has been big business since the Renaissance. On this day a mere 515 years ago, the French ambassador to the Holy See in Rome commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt the Pieta' as a funerary statue. The artist was 23 years old. Today the work of art is a centerpiece of St. Peter's Basilica, where it remains an economic engine for Vatican City and Italy.

Suffrage parade, NYC 1912
And 93 years ago, U.S. women finally won the right to vote by virtue of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Suffrage was a landmark of the Roaring Twenties, one of the doors to modern economic times. Tip: Look into your business's bylaws and celebrate a turning point--perhaps the appointment of your first woman officer?

Monday, August 19, 2013 Web work wins Apex Award’s 125th Anniversary timeline with video for the law firm Jackson Walker has earned a 2013 Apex Award of Excellence for special purpose websites. Co-created with our project partner Communications Design Inc., the anniversary site was one of only two winners in its category. Jackson Walker L.L.P. is a national law firm based in Dallas. JW's culture is unique, as we quickly discovered--easygoing and success-driven all at once.  It was a delight to video-interview so many of the partners, who narrated stories about the firm and its key cases with such verve and precision. 

Above: Entry page of Jackson Walker's award-winning
125th anniversary website.
“You were invaluable to us in the process of collecting our history and then presenting it to the world," noted our Jackson Walker client, Interactive Communications Manager Ellen Henderson. Back at you, Ellen!

Apex Awards are well-respected in the world of corporate communications. Award criteria include "the quality of graphic design, editorial content, and communications excellence."

The 1960s spread (below) includes a video about the firm's work in Alaska and a pop-up with more about cofounder Jess Walker, who literally wrote the book on oil and gas law--a treatise still used in law schools today.

Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike in early August, we couldn’t help but notice a giant image of George Washington wearing stylish sunglasses: “Not your forefathers’  Valley Forge,” the billboard promised. It was paid for by the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ltd., which promotes the region around George Washington’s 1777-78 winter headquarters as a destination for vacations and conventions. Established in 1963 by Montgomery County, the Bureau was privatized in 1999 and now has some 300 business members in southeastern Pennsylvania. Its About Us page is here.

The above-the-fold image on the About Us page is not captioned, and doesn’t shout “Valley Forge!” or “George Washington!” or even “Convention!” to us. A well-chosen collage of smaller images with more obvious meanings would convey the Bureau’s purpose more effectively.

Accessibility: B
The Staff Contacts page has a great list of contacts, whether you want to reach the organization’s visitor service liaison, book a hotel, or schedule a convention. We don’t often see Contact pages that are so well organized, easy to read, and thorough: well done!

We would have given Valley Forge an “A” in this section, except that this wondrous wealth of information is virtually hidden in the sidebar, under the uninformative heading “More About / Bureau Staff Contact.” It’s so rare to see a good contact page that many visitors to the site will assume the minimal information at the foot of the About Us page (mailing address, phone, fax, generic email) is all that’s available. Another link to the Staff Contacts page should appear at the foot of the page, in a sentence that explains what’s available there.

Products/Services and Personality: D
Our Commandment 1 of About Us pages is “Know thy audience.” Who is this About Us page aimed at? For visitors to the Valley Forge area or locals who want to support Bureau members, it offers no easy way to find the members of the Bureau -- not even a simple alphabetical list with website links or contact information.

For a local business considering membership, the page doesn’t give concrete information on the benefits of joining. Where, how, and when will it promote our business? Some quotes from past or present leaders and members would be much more enticing than the information that Montgomery County maintains fiduciary oversight through appointment of the agency’s board of directors.

Curiously, the pulldown menu under the Visitors heading on the homepage has a tab for gay-friendly. Now that pays off the promise of “not your forefathers’ Valley Forge.” The site’s About Us pages could benefit from a bit of the liveliness found there.

Business history (including relationships with the government) is important, but always keep in mind your particular audience: tell the story in a way that will make them want to use your product or join your organization.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Worklife Gem

Every so often you come upon a book that plunks you into a work life with stunning clarity. I lucked into such a volume while vacationing recently in Middlebury, Vermont. There in our room at the Swift House Inn was "46 Years of Pretty Straight Going: The Life of a Family Dairy Farm" by George Bellerose. The cover was extremely inviting; the design by Mason Singer first-class, showcasing beautiful duotone images photographed by Bellerose. But the text is what really drew me in. It's mainly an oral history. The author asks the right questions, records the answers accurately, and keeps himself out of the way. 

Larry Wyman as pictured in "46 Years of Pretty Straight Going."
Photo by George Bellerose,
courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center.
Yes, I stayed up late every night until I finished "46 Years." For a corporate historian, this kind of personalized business history is more involving than any novel or mystery. What a life Larry and Grayson Wyman had during their 46 years of farming in Weybridge. Not an easy life--for the most part, not much different than a 19th century farming life--but a worthwhile one, despite all its personal and financial demands.

The ending is sad. It explains why family farms have been decimated, and why the Vermont I fell in love with during my teen years has gradually been depleted of all those cows that used to dot the landscape. (The New Jerseyan in me feels compelled to note that the Wymans grew up in the Garden State--in Chatham in the 1920s and 1930s. They always knew they wanted to farm, however, and they migrated to New England early on.)

Unfortunately the Vermont Folklife Center, which published the book, was closed the weekend of my trip. I would have liked to congratulate them in person for an incomparable achievement. I was delighted to read that various grants allowed the book to be donated to all public libraries in Vermont. In 100 years -- maybe as few as 25 years -- people will read this book to understand an almost vanished way of life. A review of the book by the Oral History Association is here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Barnes Foundation: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

The Barnes Foundation was established by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a chemist, in 1922. Today the collection encompasses more than 2,500 objects worth an estimated $25 billion, with particularly strong holdings of paintings by Impressionist and Modernist masters such as Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Degas, and Van Gogh. The Barnes has two locations: Barnes Philadelphia at Logan Square (the art collection) and Barnes Merion (the Arboretum, established by Laura Barnes). The main About Us page (“About the Barnes”) is here.

Even if you've never visited the Barnes, its name is likely to tug at your memory for something unpleasant ... A scandal, maybe? If you’re involved in the art world or live near Philadelphia, you know that for over a decade, the move of the Barnes Collection from its Merion mansion to center city Philadelphia was a matter for public debate and judicial review. It was even the subject of a documentary, The Art of the Steal.

Our Commandment 4 of About Us pages -- “Don’t take your own name in vain” – advises you to refer visitors to outside sources who can testify to your value and credibility. Since the Barnes ignores this negative publicity, curious visitors are going to learn about it from sources who might be very unsympathetic. At the very least, the Barnes About Us pages should offer links to rave reviews of the new Barnes Philadelphia facility, which opened in May 2012.

Products/Services: D
The main About Us page would be improved with an overview such as the one that appears as the first question on the FAQ page (“What is the Barnes Foundation?”). The headings as they currently appear, “Campuses,” “History,” and “Careers and Volunteering,” aren't very helpful. About Us pages are supposed to tell visitors what you’re about. Oh, and in August 2013 the History page contained this sidebar: “The Philadelphia campus will open in Spring 2012. Sign up for our newsletter for the latest news.” Obviously the Web site writer needs to sign up! Has no one updated this site for a full year?

And also: Where are the pictures on the About Us pages? The kind of pictures that make you say, “Oh, that’s where that painting is!” or “Oh, I've got to get to that museum!” Showing Dr. Barnes’s earliest acquisitions, or the ones that became his favorites, would really punch up the page about him. Likewise, showing the arboretum would make Laura Barnes’s story much more vivid. Yes, such images appear on the main site, but you should never assume visitors to your About Us page have already spent time elsewhere on your site – or that they’ll ever go there, if you don’t make the trip easy and enticing.

Personality: C
The pages on Albert Barnes and on Laura Barnes are good, as far as they go. But why not mention, for example, that Barnes visited Gertrude and Leo Stein’s home in Paris, where he met Matisse and Picasso? That he originally restricted visitors to 2 days per week, because he conceived the Foundation as a school rather than a standard museum? That he prohibited loans from the collection or color reproductions of the works in it? That Matisse is reported to have said the Foundation was the only sane place in America to view art? All these details would make the personality of Dr. Barnes more vivid and rouse our curiosity to see his collection. Instead, The Barnes squanders so many corporate storytelling opportunities.

Accessibility: C
The Contact Us page offers mailing address, phone, fax and general email for Barnes Philadelphia, and the same, minus email, for Barnes Merion. In the long list of departments on the same page, offering names and emails would help convey the impression that the Barnes Foundation really does want to hear from us.

Write your main About Us page as though it might be the first and only page on your site that a visitor sees. If your company has been getting negative publicity, either address it directly or send your visitors to coverage that tells your side of the history.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!

Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.