Webmasters: Link affinity and customers

Keep the site updated. Focus on the customer. Comply with rules and regulations. How can a federal Webmaster keep up?

I previously wrote about the benefits of networking and pointed out that mailing lists and online discussions provide ways to exchange ideas with colleagues. Now, I want to focus on the broader concept of communication, especially with regard to affinity groups and people who use federal Web sites.

In recent months, federal Webmasters have been inundated with new requirements focusing on customers. For example, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that Web sites be accessible to people with disabilities. New Office of Management and Budget guidance limits agencies' use of "cookies" to guard the privacy of agency Web site users. And the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act restricts online collection of personal information from children under 13.

That is a lot of information for small and emerging Web shops to manage. When one person can only work part-time on updating a Web site, it's hard enough making sure that links work and information is current. So, how can Webmasters learn about new regulations that affect their Web site? How can they learn about what other bureaus and agencies are doing?

They can enter affinity groups.

Support for the one-person shop by way of networking, informal training and question-and-answer sessions is invaluable. Such support can be found in affinity groups. This is true not only for small Web shops but also for new hires, newbies to the field and those who are just looking to keep informed.

As described in a Tom Horan, deputy director of the Emerging IT Policies Division at the General Services Administration, affinity groups are composed of "like-minded folks who get together to address professional issues that matter to their communities."

Those groups require an investment of time and resources, and volunteers are their driving force. With the support of their agencies, affinity group participants reap the rewards of staying informed and help other agencies by spreading timely information to members.

Customer satisfaction is the latest hot topic for affinity groups, as demonstrated when volunteers gave a workshop on the 13 elements of Section 508 and when they gathered for a brown-bag meeting to share best practices and guidelines developed for their agency's Web design.

I urge you to read "The Cluetrain Manifesto; The End of Business as Usual" and memorize one of the book's most important tenets: Markets are conversations. Disregard the book's apparently commercial focus. Government sites conduct a kind of business — regardless of whether this includes commercial transactions.

Take stock of the first chapter, "Internet Apocalypso," and go full steam ahead in your affinity group of choice.

Here are some conversation starters for Web affinity groups:

    * What is our target audience?

    * How do we present our Web site in innovative ways?

    * Do we serve our target audience in a more-than-adequate manner?

    * How do we overcome our bureau's organizational hierarchy to reflect a more user-friendly interface?

    * Is it easy to find information on the site?

    * Is it easy for visitors to our site to contact someone about technical problems as well as content-related questions?

    * Do we make our Web policies (privacy, for example) clear and easily understood?

    * How can we improve what we have online?

Tang is a Web designer in the Information Technology Group of Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va.

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