With internet use now a fixture of most Americans’ daily life, it’s easy to start treating web users as a mass, one-size-fits-all audience. It’s easy, but it’s also misguided.

As “information pollution” grows on the net, you need to target your content more precisely to ensure your news and information doesn’t get lost in the clutter. If you don’t know who’s online–and why–meeting the needs of stakeholders becomes a hit-or-miss proposition and might result in lost visitors to your site.

According to the most recent Harris Poll, 67 percent of all adults are now online, compared with just 9 percent in 1995. While the growth of online users has slowed substantially since the ’90s, the latest data show that more than 140 million adults now are using the internet regularly, spending an average of seven hours per week online.

As internet access gets more affordable, users are becoming more mainstream, with more low-income and older adults jumping online than ever before. Today, the internet has become what Walter Cronkite and television news was in the 1960s and ’70s–the most trusted source of news and information.

Yet, as I work with school districts across the country, it’s clear that old-style tools such as print newsletters, tri-fold brochures, and videos still garner the most time, attention, and budgets.

When crafting content for the web, keep in mind that the most ardent web users still tend to be younger, more affluent, and better educated than their non-surfing peers. They want news they can use from credible sources that is timely, relevant, and fresh.

For many audiences, that means data, data, data about their child and their school, plus information about teacher credentials, academic rigor, athletic programs, after-school enrichment and, of course, the ever-popular lunch menu.

Breaking down user numbers even further, it’s important to note that 57 percent report using the internet at home, while 27 percent report using it at work and 18 percent from other sources such as libraries, colleges, and cyber cafes.

By way of contrast, according to a study by Online Publishers Association, two-thirds of all working mothers access the internet while at the office, preserving time at home for kids, family, and other pursuits.

Working mothers tune into the web for weather and news, a key consideration for school secretaries and teachers frantically trying to reach working parents by phone on snow days, when a child is sick, or during other mini-emergencies.

Research from a variety of sources also shows that reading on the web is vastly different–and much slower–than reading print, so make sure to adapt accordingly by using journalism’s inverted pyramid technique of putting the most critical information first.

Web readers are notoriously impatient, so break down information into small chunks or paragraphs, allowing the reader to “drill down” through various web layers and pages to access the information in sections. Also, make sure you provide graphic organizers such as headlines, boldface, subheads, color, and other techniques to make scanning easier.

This is why the old technique of loading brochures, newsletters, and multi-page documents into PDFs and posting them on the web is no longer effective. The web is an entirely different communication tool than print. It is multi-dimensional and interactive, and information must be presented accordingly.

Otherwise, you completely miss the power of the web, just as computer “drill and kill” exercises bore students and miss the best learning opportunities afforded by top-notch educational software and hardware.

Keep in mind that the explosion of the internet and new media has helped usher in our current fascination with accountability and transparency. As the Association of School Business Officials pointed out last year, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”

Hiding test scores or the demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds of students frustrates parents, Realtors, and other stakeholders while doing little to improve the image of a school or district. Put the data out there, and provide the context and stories to make the numbers meaningful.

All schools, even the most challenged, have powerful stories to tell. The web provides a perfect vehicle for sharing your successes with the world. Take advantage of it in 2004, or someone else will.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

See these related links:

Harris Interactive
http://www.HarrisInteractive.com

“Those with Internet Access Continue to Grow but at a Slower Rate” (February 2003)
http://www.HarrisInteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=579

2003 Online Media Industry Year-in-Review
http://www.online-publishers.org/2003_year_in_review.html