During the winter and spring of 2016, I undertook a six-month co-op in communications at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), a non-profit research organization in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. WHOI is the largest oceanographic research center in the U.S., and is at the epicenter of global research in marine science: they study everything from the geological formations of the ocean floor, to the strange species that live at deep-sea hydrothermal vents, to the effects that ocean acidification will have on marine organisms.

Such a wide-ranging research institution requires high-quality communication tools, mainly an extensive website, which is used to appeal to donors, other scientists, prospective researchers and students, and laypeople who simply want to learn about the ocean. Fortunately, the communications department does a masterful job of managing, developing, and maintaining the website: www.whoi.edu – no bias here, obviously.

According to Danielle Fino, Manager of Marketing and Digital Communications, the website gets about 14.5 million page views each year, and consists of around 60,000 unique web pages which capture more than 800 websites – that includes lab websites and blogs. Unsurprisingly, the website has changed a lot since its nascence in 1997, but its role as the public face of WHOI has remained the same. Working at WHOI gave me a peek into the thought processes that go into making a website work for the target audience.

Upgrades Make a Difference

As a demonstration of the sort of changes I’m talking about, here’s a quick breakdown of how WHOI.edu has evolved over the years, courtesy of the Wayback Machine at archive.org.

Here’s what the home page looked like in 1997: Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.19.45 PM.png

Here’s what it looked like in 2005: Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.20.38 PM.png

Here’s what it looked like in 2011: Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.20.38 PM.png

Here’s what it looked like in December 2015, just weeks before I started my co-op:Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.22.51 PM.png

And here is it after the overhaul in that happened in February 2016 (these screenshots are from today):Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.24.02 PM.pngScreen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.24.14 PM.png

I arrived at the tail end of the 2015/2016 upgrade project, so I didn’t actually witness the legwork that went into this transformation. However, it was clear from the exhaustion of my colleagues that it was a challenging endeavor. Fortunately, statistics show the upgrade has certainly been worth it.

According to a briefing from September 2015, WHOI’s target audience includes potential donors, educators and students, members of the press, external researchers and in-house scientists, and members of the public. The upgrade was meant to create wider engagement within that diverse audience and achieve a number of other goals, like:

  • Increase audience understanding of the ocean, what it means for humanity, and the need for 
ocean research
  • Increase audience loyalty; inspire and create WHOI advocates
  • Increase discoverability of WHOI.edu resources and information

The analytics from early 2016 are a sign of success. Here’s a graph of how the number of site visits has changed over the years, including a projected outcome for 2016 (taken with permission from a 2016 advisory board presentation):

Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.51.08 PM.png

In 2016, the number of visits to the site is projected to increase by more than 10%, and the number of cumulative page views is expected to increase by 40% to nearly 21 million. Viewers are also spending more time on the website and clicking on more page links. Though the upgrade has made a difference in how many people come to the website, there’s got to be something keeping them there.

Content that Counts

Obviously, one of the most important parts of any website is the content. My main job during my internship was to write – mostly long-form stories for Oceanus magazine, the institution’s print and online publication that covers the breadth and depth of research that happens at the institution. Oceanus articles feature a variety of researchers – from senior scientists to Ph.D. students – and gave me the opportunity to build my skills as a science writer; that is, to take a complex scientific topic and write about it in a way that appeals to anyone interested in learning about science.

That goal persists through the other content on the website, which includes news releases on new studies at the institution and a feature known as “Image of the Day,” where a different photo of an event, undersea phenomena or researcher is featured each day, accompanied by a 100-word caption (I wrote probably around 30 of these captions while on my co-op). The team also dabbles in multimedia, occasionally posting videos, photo slideshows, or audio stories that showcase the research. All the content is designed to inform readers and viewers with varying levels of science knowledge while also promoting the research at the institution.

The website also serves as a resource for people who simply want to learn about the ocean. A section called “Ocean Topics” features short articles that describe different aspects of the life, conditions, and future of the ocean. By combining so many different types of content, the website appeals to all of the different corners of WHOI’s target audience. The question that remains is, what is the best way to actually reach them?

As the digital age continues to evolve, social media plays an increasingly important role in spreading news. Though not a lot of WHOI’s traffic comes from social media, social networking platforms like Facebook (65.2K followers) and Instagram (13.2K followers) are an opportunity to create an ongoing resource for those interested in staying abreast of news about the ocean – i.e. people like me. I always enjoy looking at the Facebook page, which is maintained by Web Science Writer and Editor Ken Kostel. The Facebook page adds a personal touch to the world of oceanography by calling attention to articles from throughout the marine science community, not just at WHOI. This gives followers like me a feeling of being part of the WHOI community, as well as a better understanding of how that community fits into the bigger picture.

Overall, WHOI.edu not only does more than an adequate job of providing a public face for the institution, it’s established itself as a premier source for content on oceanography in general. That’s not easy to do. It’s especially important for WHOI to be a trusted resource as so much is happening so quickly, and ocean conditions and the climate will continue to change in upcoming weeks, months, and years. Stay tuned since there’s a high probability that I’ll be linking to (and hopefully writing!) additional stories from the WHOI site in the future.