Monday, October 5, 2015

How to Write a Great Website Timeline (Part 1)

Like a well-written corporate history, a well-written website timeline can be a great marketing tool: it can set your organization apart from its competitors, let you brag a little, and tell your story in a way that makes your company memorable. In decades of writing corporate histories, we’ve created dozens of timelines and looked at hundreds more. (For some examples, see our blog posts tagged with “web timelines.”) In the next two weeks, we’ll look at the website timelines for two corporations that have more than enough resources to make wonderfully effective timelines ... But did they?

Here’s’s series of questions and guidelines for writing a great website timeline.

1. Consider your audience(s). Will your readers be your clients or possible investors? In other words: will they be more interested in your products, or in your mergers and acquisitions history? Consider separate timelines, if appropriate.

2. Use major events as centerpieces. Given your target audience, what are the six to eight major events in your company history? Make sure these don’t get lost in a barrage of less important data.

3. Build story into the structure. Given that website visitors have notoriously short attention spans, can you make your timeline a connected story? A series of problems and solutions? A brief history of a niche subject, with your company in a starring role? A humorous escapade, like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s timeline narrated by Colonel Sanders?

4. Layer in larger timelines—maybe. Do you want to keep readers laser-focused on your company, or will you set your company’s achievements in the wider framework of science, business, politics, or pop culture? Will your framework be your company, your community or industry, the United States, or the world?

5. Add images and captions. What will you use for visuals: current or archival photos, logos, advertisements? Any item with an image will get more attention than an item with only text. Captions will get more attention than text. Choose your visuals and captions accordingly.

6. Strategize the structure. Will you have one long timeline, or split it into or sections? If sections, what are the best divisions? Decades are easy and obvious, but if your major achievements came in 1932, 1939, 1955, and 1959, consider breaking the timeline in a way that gives those dates get more attention. Don’t forget to mark business anniversaries!

7. Make navigation easy. Is the layout easy to understand? (In July, we commented on Boeing’s bafflingly complex timeline.) If you’re using tabs for sections of the timeline, can readers see that option on both laptop and mobile screens?

Next week, we’ll analyze how one major corporation handled its website timeline.