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Making the Most of Milestones: Four Tips for Creating Effective History Timelines
12 / 09 / 16 | By: Jen Giambrone
With its 35th anniversary approaching, History Associates faced a question that will be familiar to many companies and institutions—how to mark the occasion. How best to highlight events in our past, while also telling a story about who we are and what we do? What form should it take? In years past we have written articles and a lengthier history and even produced a short video, but wanted to try something new this time around.
We chose to create an interactive, online history timeline for a number of reasons. In the words of my colleague Carlyn Swaim, an expert in creating multimedia presentations for a variety of museums and organizations, timelines create “more engaging experiences” that “take advantage of Web technologies and ultimately appeal to a wider audience.” They are multidimensional, and allow users to modulate their level of engagement — they can scan headlines, peruse entries, or dive deeper with links to additional content. As noted in the infographic in the upper left, timelines also tend to be light on text and lend themselves to the incorporation of visual media, creating opportunities for additional messaging through imagery.
But making a timeline is not a simple matter of stringing together a series of events in an organization’s history. The infographic illustrates the deliberate steps that we went through to create a timeline that tells our story on multiple levels. We have helped many clients navigate this process and the many questions and decisions that come up along the way. Throughout our experiences we have also developed best practices for building effective timelines. Here are a few of our key findings.
Choose the Right Platform
Think carefully about your needs and constraints before selecting a platform for your online timeline. We chose to use the Zoom Timeline tool, a low-cost option that could be easily integrated into our website architecture, but we have also worked with clients who chose to build impressive customized timelines that allow for greater interactivity and flexibility of design—the National Philanthropic Trust’s History of Modern Philanthropy, for instance. Custom websites require more technological know-how to build and maintain compared to the relatively user-friendly out of the box options. However, out of the box options might not support the look and feel you need.
Connect to Online Content
Whichever platform you choose, you should make the most of your timeline. It will teach users about your organizations’ past, but can also serve as a gateway to other pages on your website. Use hyperlinks that will lead to information about services, products, and expertise.
It is critical to develop goals for your project before selecting events and developing content. Developing a short list of themes and criteria for the timeline will help ensure that each entry stays on message and contributes to the overarching story. Once events are chosen, we recommend using a matrix to track how the themes apply to each event. A matrix will illustrate consistency and relevance, and help weed out events that do not meet your goals as well.
Tell a Story
Perhaps the most obvious approach to creating a company history timeline would be to select events that seem to have had the most immediate impact, but that can result in a timeline that feels disjointed and random. Standalone events do not always contribute to an overarching narrative. Instead, use your themes to find events that tell a cohesive story about the evolution of your organization. While developing our timeline, for instance, we chose not to mark each time the company moved into a new office. While the moves had a considerable impact on staff at the time, they do not have much meaning to outside audiences. Nor did they have a long-term impact on the nature of our company. We chose instead to highlight events that demonstrate History Associates’ wide array of capabilities and clients, giving readers a better idea of who we are and what we do.
Throughout our 35 years in business, History Associates has worked with a wide range of clients to tell their story in the best and most effective way possible. Think a timeline might be right for you? Contact us to learn more about how we can help you record and celebrate your organization’s past.
“Our story is about the clients we serve and the work we do. As the client for this timeline, I like how it tells that engaging story as a feature of our virtual storefront and allows us to add to it as the story continues.” – Brian Martin, History Associates President