If the web has done anything particularly well, it is to make the world a smaller place. That is exactly what The World Affairs Council found when they launched their website to better connect with their 11,000 members. As an organization that had previously depended on newsletters to keep their members up-to-date, the web provided a way to connect with members at a drastically reduced cost, to reach a wider audience, and to provide information in a much more timely manner.
In this 1996 interview with retired diplomat and former World Affairs Council President, David Fischer, we get a glimpse at the motivations that inspired the organization to get online, and the benefits that came about as a result.
What is the primary business of the Council?
DF: The World Affairs Council has been in business for 50 years. And we're really in the education business, providing people information about foreign affairs, international relations and how they impact their daily lives.We've got 11,000 members scattered through the Bay Area. And we attract heads of state. We have in our main meeting room, for example, a very impressive list of people which I think begins with Eleanor Roosevelt and ends up with the Dalai Lama. So we have international statesmen, diplomats, people who effect foreign policy from around the world, who speak here at the Council.We're actually the largest foreign affairs organization in the United States, which strikes people as somewhat surprising, based here on the west coast. One would expect such an organization to be in New York or Washington. But with 11,000 members, we're significantly the largest such organization in the United States today.
How do you communicate with your members and are you doing anything different now?
Traditionally, we hold pubic programs. That's to say, we're a speaking bureau. We invite in a speaker and he meets with 100 or 200 people in the audience. But with an organization with 11,000 people that's not a very satisfactory way of getting information out to people. But like many non-profits we have resource constraints. We don't have much money. And in order to reach 11,000 members in the traditional way, either to print information, or by sending out newsletters, it's been very expensive. So we're looking at ways to drive down the cost of providing information, the Internet is clearly one of the directions we want to go in the future.
Why did you decide to use the Internet to reach your membership?
Partly because I'm a computer hacker. I must be the only retired, the only ambassador, who spent much of his time overseas breaking into the secure computers of the State Department. But I am, in fact, deeply interested in computers and always have been. And I see this technology as revolutionary. And how one can carry information at relatively low cost, whether it's through the traditional ways today of bringing up a print on your screen. But the future of audio and two way video is terribly, terribly exciting.
How long as the Council been using the Internet?
I began to explore it in the early 1994. We have developed our own Website only beginning in the early fall of 1995.
How do you use the Internet to support the efforts of the World Affairs Council?
In the first instance. this provides us ways to give up-to-date, current information to our members. We're promoting it within the membership. We've done surveys which show that at least 30% of our 11,000 members have computers or access to computers that are on-line. To the extent that those people can log in, they can find out, for example, what the latest program information is. I use it as a marketing tool because the Internet, of course, is not prescribed to any geographic region. So we try to be an organization with a national reputation, as being preeminent in the field of foreign affairs. The Internet gives us an opportunity to broadcast who we are, to people not only in San Francisco, but in Chicago, or Philadelphia or Washington. So we find that's very useful.
We're beginning to look at new technologies which will provide people, for example, audio transcripts of our speakers' programs, on the Internet, directly. Right now that's a very expensive process for us. We have to tape it on a cassette. We have to transcribe it. We have do various ways to get that information to people, at very high cost. The Internet reduces that cost to practically zero.
How do you not lose your membership by making content available that way?
That is an issue of concern to us, particularly as we move, as we will, over the next three or four years, to two-way video. People, in essence, will be able to see our programs sitting in the privacy of their home, by logging on to the Internet. But I think they'll always be a place for live, face-to-face communication. That's what the organization stands for, the ability for people to question a speaker, to engage in a dialogue. And clearly, that dialogue is much more satisfactory face-to-face, than it is via audio or two way video. Over time, however, I suspect that the membership will gain more people who become aware of us through the Internet, than those people we might lose because they're able to access the information free from their home computer.
What has the response been from people on the Internet?
Well it's very funny because, clearly, when you are on the Internet you're not, as I said earlier, prescribed geographically. And I think the first month that we had a website, we had over a 1,000 hits, people who accessed the site from Finland. Now those are people clearly we are not trying to reach directly. But one of the issues that we are concerned about, and that we've looked at, is whether or not providing information free to the membership, does that diminish their incentive to join the organization. And I think those are issues that have to be looked fairly carefully by any organization. But it was our conclusion, that on balance, we would acquire more membership, more potential members by people who became aware of us than we might lose by members who thought that by subscribing or simply getting the information for free, it was not worth joining the Council. So I think there's a balancing act here and it has to be weighed fairly carefully.
Have you had contact, for example, with people in Idaho coming to San Francisco, that might want to attend a program?
No we have not. And, and frankly, it's conceivable that that's happened. But we have noticed that in program reservations, for example, we're now getting three or four reservations for each program by people who learned about us over the Internet. We've received a number of membership applications or requests for information, from people who found us on the Internet, at our website.
What's your philosophy regarding doing business on-line?
Well I think that for us, and I can only speak for a non-profit organization like the Council, this is a bit of an experiment. We're not, at this juncture, looking at ways to acquire income directly from being on the Internet, we are looking at it as a marketing tool, as a way to get people to know about us. We're also as a strategic goal, trying to attract younger members in this organization. And clearly, there's a direct correlation between the age of the audience in their ability or frequency of use of computers. And that's certainly a benefit for us.
We've discovered, I think, that virtually 70% of our younger members, people under the age of 30, are very familiar with computers. Most of them are on-line. Most of them have Internet access. And so that's a very important goal for this organization. As I said, we're not looking at ways to acquire income directly, either by selling a product or selling a service. It's primarily a marketing tool to the general public. But it's also a new form of service to our membership. Many people can not, for example, come directly to a Council program. We find it, as we move to two way…as we move to audio, for example, audio cassette transcriptions of programs, that's an additional service, an additional reason for people to join the Council, to feel part of the organization. And they can benefit from it without necessarily coming directly into a program here in San Francisco.
What was the primary motivation for creating a website?
We got into this business, I think, long before it became de rigeur, that everybody had to have a Website, because I was looking at ways to provide information, that's the business we're in, is providing information at lower cost. And the Website offers that, of course, as a cheapest possible form.
What were your considerations in planning the Web?
Well, first and foremost I think for us, and I can only speak as the president of a non-profit organization, our Website is primarily a marketing tool, to allow, to get more people to know about us. That's very important. We don't have an advertising budget. The traditional time kind of PR marketing which is available to a private sector is often not available to non-profits. So this offers us that potential at low cost. We want to provide up-to-date service to our membership.
In our current, printed newsletter, we have a six week gap between when the newsletter goes to press, and what period it covers. In other words, to produce a newsletter for let's say the month of July, we have to close that newsletter in the middle of June. And we may have programs that fall into our lap, or which we get, there's no way to let the membership know. The Internet is the easiest, most efficient way to give the membership access to up-to-date information. It's a very inexpensive way to provide information. So I think, it, it serves a multiplicity of purposes for the Council. It improves our image in the community, it makes it appear, as I think we are, modern and up-to-date. It is a bit of an experiment as we move to new forms of communication, whether it's two way video, or other forms that may become available.
How did you plan the website?
Originally I looked at this, and this was in early 1994, I looked at the possibility of going on a commercial service to create, if you will, a foreign affairs forum on a commercial service. But there was very little interest on the part of the major providers. At that point, the idea of websites were just beginning to become popular. And so I developed, frankly, on my own, writing out a website on an experimental basis, which I put here in San Francisco, on a Universe server, and developed that. But finally we hired a graphics designer, somebody who could help us develop some graphics and make the page look relatively modern and attractive to people. I probably could have saved a lot of money, because consultants are expensive these days, and there are 17 year old kids out there who are dying to create Web pages for people. It's relatively simple, and it can be done now at far lower cost.
What was total cost in this project?
Well I think that's a little hard to quantify because I did a lot of it myself. But in terms of the actual dollars and money we expanded, it cost us about $1,500 to get the site up and running.
Is there a monthly or annual budget to maintain this?
Right now we're on a server and we have somebody who processes that for us and it's very low cost. It's less than $100 a month. Obviously, we could go on to some other servers that would be free of charge, but I want to make sure that we have somebody who can change the information rapidly, can meet our own needs on an hour to hour basis. And therefore, from our point of view, it's far better to pay somebody to do that than depend on the good will of the pro bono organization.
What sites did you look at on the Internet that were appealing to you?
I looked a lot of pages. And I frankly didn't find anything that I felt suited this organization. I think it's very important in developing a site to know who your audience is. You know there are a lot of things on the Web today which are very flashy, a lot of graphics. But we're in the business of providing information, not entertainment. And it's very important, therefore, that we have a website that is fast. People can look at it, get what they need and get off.
As you well know, the more graphics you have, the slower the download. We are seen as semi-serious organization. Again, I stress, we're not in the entertainment business. And the things we have on our site our serious. They involve international relations, and foreign policy and government and politics and those things. And, therefore, the site kind of looks that way. It may not be as flashy as a lot of the things I've seen on the Internet. But again, that's not our style. We also, if you've seen our site, we've tried to maintain a style that's throughout the Council. The newsletter, for example, looks very similar to the printed newsletter, so that people feel comfortable. Our membership understands it. They can look at it and say, oh yes, it's just like the Council's newsletter. I know where I am. And that's important for your membership and for anybody who uses your site.
Did what you want change as you were getting into this?
One of the great things about the Web is that it changes every week. We have the ability to change not only the information in it, but the format. And so we, for example, this weekend have just changed our site. It's not a time consuming process. It's relatively easy. And there are always new things that we want to put out on the Web, and perhaps new formats to do so. We're going to moving to a program that's called Real Audio which will allow people to listen to Council programs directly over the Internet, without going through the process of downloading a very, very large file and storing it on their hard disk. The technologies are changing rapidly. And we, like everybody else, have to got to change in order to keep up, take advantage of those technologies.
Can you talk about the layout?
Well that's why I hired a graphics designer. I'm not a graphics designer. I'm an educator. I'm a diplomat. I know the substance and I know what information I wanted to put on the Web, but how to do it, and how it should look, I think that's really the purview of a professional graphics designer. And that's what we hired that person to do and I think she's done a good job.
Would recommend hiring somebody to set it up and then evaluating the relationship?
I think so. It's important to have, to run your site by the professional. What may look good to you as a businessman, or as a non-profit executive, or whatever, may not look very good to your audience, to your customers and graphic designers, that's their business. They're good at it.
What are other long term ideas that you have?
We are doing a program here in the Council, for example, with the former American Ambassador to Moscow. And we've advertised that program on our website. But we want to go a step further, which is to give people links on that program page, which will allow them to look up information about the situation in the former Soviet Union. So that somebody coming to a program looking at, let's say, I'm interested in this particular program at the Council, gee whiz, I'd like to get some more information before I go to the program. And right on the page, here are five or six links where you can simply connect to another site, whether it's in Russia, or whether it's to the State Department, or whatever it may be, to make people feel more participatory in the process, to give them more access to information. That's a marvelous tool of the Internet.
You already have some links.
Right. We have a page on our website, which basically is two separate areas. One is U.S. Government resources on foreign affairs. And I think it's probably the best compilation that I've seen on the Internet anywhere, which allows somebody to go in and find information from official U.S. Government sources. And we have a second area which is simply a page of links, of hot links, to sites all around the world that deal with foreign affairs, whether it's the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Argentina, or whether it's the Prime Minister's office in Hungary. These are sites which are now available on the Web. And as you well know, one of the great difficulties of the Internet is finding where you want to go. This is like walking into the stacks, the open stacks of the world's largest library. And we've got to provide guides to people. And that's what that page does. It says here are 50 or 60 or 100 sites which we have discovered are the most interesting about international relations and foreign affairs.
Are there advanced features that you're using?
One of the things that is most exciting for me is the fact that we can use the Internet, our website, as a place to promote debate and dialogue. That's what we as an institution are all about. So every month we have a provocative question, which we try to frame in a fair fashion. Two points of view, and ask people, what do you think? Cause that's what the Council stands for, is to promote dialogue, get people engaged, give them an opportunity to express their point of view. And if that site is developed, and enough people respond to it, we would use their responses in order to turn to policy makers and say, this is, this is what our public thinks about a key issue. So I think that offers an enormous possibility in the future.
Did you create new material for the site?
Well, clearly, a lot of the stuff is a reflection of what we already have. And that makes it easy. Our newsletter, for example is easily translated into a format which we can easily put on the Web. We don't have to duplicate that effort. But we also do have new information on there which is more relevant, perhaps, to the audience we're trying to seek. There's a suggestion in there, for example, on scholarships. A long description now of the scholarship opportunities available here in the Council which we think is attractive to a younger audience, the kind of people who are accessing our Website. So, yes, we do write things especially for that site, but it's also a reflection of other publications and other information we have here in the Council.
How long did it take you to implement the whole process?
A relatively short period of time. We're speaking in weeks, not months. In developing things it's an ongoing process. The site changes all the time. Not only in terms of the information we put on it, but also in the way we present it. So it's an evolving process. But I think from the date when we decided we wanted to do this, to the date in which we first had a website, it was a matter of three weeks.
How are you promoting the site?
That's a very good question. In the first instance, we're providing a service to our membership and we've announced our page, if you will, to our members in the traditional print media, our newsletter, we've announced it at programs. We've run, in fact, some programs on the Internet for our members telling them how to access the site and what, what's on it. But we're also trying to reach a broader audience, people outside the 11,000 membership. And in order to do that, we've registered, if you will, we've put our name up on a number of Internet directories.
You can search those sites by key words. So we're listed under politics. We're listed under government. We're listed under foreign affairs. We're listed under international, on a number of major directories. Web Crawler, for example, Yahoo!, these are major yellow pages, if I can use that analogy, on the Internet. Registering is a simple process, it takes you five minutes. There's no cost involved. When people now say, I'm interested in finding out about a foreign policy issue, they will go into those directories, type in the key word foreign policy, and our page will come up, along with perhaps 10 or 20 or 100 pages where they can access us.
How has the site effected your staffing needs?
Right now, no, because, I suppose, in terms of maintaining the site it takes us perhaps five to seven or eight hours a month, to maintain it. As we move however, into new technologies, into audio, ultimately into two way video, then clearly we're going to have to relook at what our personnel needs are. We're going to have to shift people, perhaps from doing the traditional kind of print media newsletters, and flyers, and all the other things we've done, to moving more and more into maintaining a real site on the Internet. But right now we can do it with current resources.
How else are you using the Internet?
Here at the Council we have the largest foreign affairs library west of the Mississippi. And our library until recently was a traditional print oriented library. We have 6,500 books and a couple of hundred periodicals about international relations. But more and more the library is becoming a resource center. We've established two computers, two Internet terminals upstairs, which allows people to go beyond our collection. So if somebody comes in and says I'm interested in the latest trade statistics on Argentina. We may not have that in the library. But our librarian, who is very knowledgeable and very well trained, knows where to get that information on the Internet. So we provide the same service in a different media. And I think that's generally the direction that all libraries are going and certainly ours is doing that. So that's an important area for us.
Are there pros and cons of using the Internet?
Well right now it's a marketing tool for us. So that everybody who knows about us through the Internet, who may not have known about us before, is to our ultimate benefit. They may not become a member. But they may attend a program. They may tell their friends about us. It enhances our reputation not only in the San Francisco Bay Area where we're physically located. It enhances our reputation nationally. We're able, perhaps, to attract a speaker, a head of state, because he knows that his remarks will reach not only the audience in the room, not only the audience on our weekly radio program on public radio, but he has the potential to reach people all around the world. The better known we are, the more people to access the site. I see no downside at all. It's only positive for the Council.
What would you advise others in setting this up?
Ask yourself a very hard question, why do you want to do it? Why do you want to go on the Internet. And I think that there are as many answers to that question as there are businesses. For me it was a relatively easy question to answer because I'm in the information providing business. And Internet is the cheapest way to reach the largest number of people in giving information. If you're selling a product than clearly there are other aspects and other issues you have to discuss. But I think it's very important to ask yourself, why am I doing this? This has become a fad.
As you know, there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, individuals, who are putting up their own Web page. And I ask myself, to what end? To what purpose? So that somebody can download my photography. That doesn't make much sense. But there are other businesses that I think are doing very well in selling products, in getting their information disseminated to as broad an audience, at the lowest possible cost.
I think one of the key things that people have to understand is that this is not a panacea. The Web and Internet have suddenly become very, very popular. And everybody wants to get on, on the Web. But it doesn't answer some strategic questions for any organization. It helps in marketing. It helps in providing information. It helps in a number of areas. But it won't solve every problem. It is a still a relatively new technology, which is not accessed by the broad market as a whole. But nonetheless, it offers some very interesting tools to target a very specific audience. In our case to reach out to younger people. We're based in San Francisco. This is the multimedia capitol of the United States. I want those people to be members of the Council. And those, that particular audience that I'm seeking to attract, uses the Internet the way that I or my wife or my kids use the telephone.
Any suggestions for aspiring organizations?
For non-profits I think it's a wonderful way to serve your membership, to reach out and market your non-profit organization. And, again, to target it. Because the people who are going to find you on the Web are people who are specifically looking for the information or whatever it is you provide. If you're running a non-profit, for example, which is interested in saving the rain forests of Brazil, when somebody comes onto the Internet, they're going to be self determining. They're going to say I'm looking for information on rain forests. Or I'm looking for information on ecology. Or I'm looking for information about Brazil. Whatever it is that they want to find. And low and behold, your name will pop up. So you'll reach an audience that is already very interested in the service you provide, or the information you provide or the product you sell.