It often takes a crisis to discover the weaknesses of a system, and so it proved on Monday, 2 February, the day of the heaviest snowstorms to hit London and the south-east for over a decade. Even worse, I was due to fly on the day and, even worse than that, it was to have been a jolly involving lots of friends, convivial meals and, perhaps, the odd drink.
When I awoke bright and early to travel to my flight, I wasn’t surprised to see the snow as it had been forecast with uncanny accuracy by the Met Office. So I consulted various websites to discover my travel options only to find that they had been affected by their own form of snow blindness.
I will spare the names here but the pathetic lack of useful information on some of the best-known sites covering transport infrastructure was lamentable in the extreme and left me hiking towards the M25 in the vain hope of thumbing a lift from some brave and generous soul to the airport. Some hope, and by the time I returned home cold, wet and not particularly impressed with life, it was to the TV and radio that I turned to gain some real-time insight into what was going on. Laugh? I thought I’d never start.
So, what are the harsh lessons to be learned from the harsh weather? Here, in no particular order, are my Top 5 suggestions, or Mike’s Mandates if you prefer, of how to run a real-time website.
1. Update the damn thing. There’s really not much point in having a beautiful looking website if the information on it is duff. An icon depicting sunshine will be deemed pretty but also pretty irrelevant by the traveller stuck in scenes reminiscent of One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich. Content is often forgotten by those charged with creating a web presence and too many assume that it is a one-off job to be completed by a deadline shortly before the site launch. In fact, changing content is the lifeblood of virtually any site and information that has gone stale is quite literally worse than useless. It will create a negative impression of the organisation; it says you are slothful and slow to react, rather than dynamic. For transport sites, that means that if catastrophic weather is hitting, you need to tell people what you are doing about it, and what their options are.
2. Have multiple points of access. If you run a site where visitors are likely to be arriving from a range of places, you really need to be thinking about making sure you can get usable, useful content to them, rather than trying to persuade them to come to you. At a basic level this should include translations, mobile editions of sites that look good on small-screen devices such as phones and PDAs, adding support for RSS and other news readers, and other updating mechanisms. Email and SMS updates are nice to have for some and essential for others. For travel and transport sites this is particularly important as passengers will often be accessing sites on the move and from many different regions and geographies.
3. Get your story straight. We are all multi-channel companies these days from bricks-and-clicks retailers to print-and-web publishers, and it’s critical that, within the umbrella organisation, we are all singing the same tune, or at least possess a passing knowledge of the various solos taking place. That doesn’t mean that you can’t offer specials on one channel and not the other in order to persuade users to buy over the web, for example, but it does mean that all the component parts have a fair idea of what the others are up to, in order for you not to appear as disjointed and uncoordinated as a pantomime horse. Travel companies might want to reconsider their strategy of telling people that trains aren’t running and then running half-empty trains.
4. Advise as well as inform. Providing basic information is just that: a basic requirement, but you also need to go the extra mile and tell people what their best options are. If the trains aren’t running, then tell them about the state of the roads, buses, underground and trams. OK, so it’s not technically “your job”, but sites that add value (terrible term, but you know what I mean) by becoming trusted sources of useful information are stickier and soon become loved brands. Consider the way that search engines like Yahoo and Google transformed themselves into information portals, by way of example.
5. Love novelty. It really doesn’t matter if you think Twitter is for short-attention-span simpletons, or that blogs are for desperados with poor social skills, because that’s only your opinion and the customer is always right. If adding a new way of reaching the customer is available, quick to do and can be achieved with a low level of risk, go ahead and do it.
Oh, by the way, fans of irony might be delighted to learn that the main reason I had planned to travel to the Nordics was in search of, you guessed it, winter sports.