Letting unpredictable content evolve

In today’s web meeting, we discussed a few different ways to handle a specific kind of website: mini-sites. Most of our websites represent a department, program, office, or institutional umbrella, but mini-sites are different. They usually arise out of the need to publicize a particular project or effort that is very time-sensitive and/or hard to get information about. Often, the combination of urgency and last-minute information leads to stressful moments (sometimes full days) devoted to finding a place for all of the new stuff we’ve been given. We can’t predict what will be thrown our way … and yet, it has to be online in an organized fashion.

Our options

So far, we have tackled situations like these in one of three ways:

  1. We create a new website in which to house the information
  2. We create and repeatedly tweak a press release, including related links and photos
  3. We add (or revise) a section in an existing website, where the content makes contextual sense

To these, let’s add a fourth alternative – the idea that arose in our meeting this morning – posting information in chunks, as “more info” secondary pages (announcements) and tagging them in some way so they produce a subnav and thus “see” each other. Kind of like automatically making a mini-site out of related pages, but without the effort (and grace) of crafting a mini-site design or architecture.

Times Topics

This approach reminds me of Times Topics. The Times just writes articles. If there’s more to say, they write more articles. If there are infographics to add, or videos, or slideshows, they each come into existence one by one. When there’s enough stuff, it makes sense to start referencing the appropriate Times Topic from the bottom of each new article or piece of multimedia. Each topic isn’t a new, crafted subsection of the Times; it’s an automatic place where related stuff naturally collects.

Take a look at the items in the Most Popular Topics list. Each varies in the kinds of things that appear in their sidebar areas, suggesting that this system can serve a variety of purposes.

Credit Crisis - News - The New York Times
The Times Topic page on Credit Crisis includes latest developments, an overview, multimedia, links to related topics, and article navigation.

To aggregated topics, there is occasionally static information added to provide an overview. For instance, see the Times Topic on Mergers, Acquisitions, and Divestitures, which is merely a list of articles, and compare with the Times Topic on Swine Flu, which includes latest developments, an overview statement, resources, documents, photos, multimedia, and coverage from elsewhere around the web, in addition to articles.

Might any of our past efforts have been handled in this way? First we post a press release, then another, then an event, then a document, all connected by topic and evolving to form a whole. At first, we might link from the Vassar homepage to the initial press release; but after that, we might link to the topic page that has accumulated the various related stuff. And if that’s not a clear enough message, we write out a short blurb that – if it exists – the topic page is all ready to display. Last, perhaps we add a list of resources and/or related Vassar websites.

What about our recent Swine Flu info? Or the Hardship Fund? OrRoundabouts? Would any of those have benefitted from an approach like this? Can you think of others?

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