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Fine Lines: Why Company Timelines Often Fall Flat

February 27, 2017 • Caelin Niehoff

This is a photograph of HarperCollins company timeline show in their brand experience exhibit in their corporate headquarters.

For historians and managers alike, timelines can be extremely useful. Timelines inherently show change over time and can help us visualize when, where and why things happen, whether we’re identifying economic cycles and periods of innovation or reviewing progress on an internal team project.

When we create timelines at The History Factory, we collect and organize data: evidence that can help us understand a company’s trajectory. By looking at events laid out over time, we can identify turning points in a company’s history. From there, we can ask important questions, including “What values and traditions have withstood time?” “How has the company responded to changes in technology?” and “Why have certain strategic initiatives prevailed?”

The trouble with timelines is that they denote something explicitly linear. And just as a flat line on a heart monitor suggests something that is, well, dead, a laundry list of dates is lifeless, as well. As a historian, I typically encounter three issues when I assess a company’s historical timeline:

Audiences can’t easily find the timeline.

Where is it? If visitors to your website can’t find the timeline, then you’re implicitly saying that it isn’t worth their time. Historical timelines are frequently buried under About Us pages or scattered inadvertently among leadership profiles.

The information is overwhelming.

Traditional timelines usually follow a familiar format: a sequence of events over time. But the sheer quantity of information in typical timelines inundates users with dates, facts and figures. There’s simply too much information, and key themes (such as a commitment to customer service or product reliability) get lost. Compelling evidence of your company’s perseverance and culture pales amid a litany of leadership changes and profit margins.

The content is inaccurate or outdated.

When you assemble material for a timeline, you don’t always have all the data. In fact, entire decades’ worth of information might be missing. Because timelines are often a low priority for website managers and content creators, they aren’t frequently updated. And without regular updates, the company’s most recent history never makes it on the timeline.

Companies might wonder why they should go through the trouble of assembling a timeline at all. But in today’s digital age, with corporate storytelling and authenticity at the forefront of the most successful marketing campaigns, companies face a fresh obligation to tap into their origin stories and chart their progress over decades and even centuries. Ask yourself: What can we distill from this vast inventory of information? How can we effectively share that knowledge with our key stakeholders?

At the heart of a compelling timeline is an asset unique to your company: its heritage. Developing an interesting and strategically useful timeline helps your internal team and your external audiences understand and relate to your company’s mission. Part two of this blog series will explore new approaches that will transform your timeline into a valuable point of entry into your company’s past.


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