Company websites… who cares?

Yesterday, Jeff Bullas posted a blog entitled ‘Is Facebook killing off the company website?‘ It’s based on a study by Webtrends that looks at the effect that Facebook has had on the website traffic of a selection of well-known brands. It’s a good post, and one that raises a key point, but unfortunately like some businesses it is 80% concerned with Facebook and 20% everything else. The issue here is not Facebook – internet behemoth that it is – but about the value of the company website and its place in the wider online strategy of all companies, large or small. In fact, Facebook won’t be the most relevant social network for a lot of companies, especially those without a B2C focus. The real gem inside the post is simple – make the most out of aligning all your digital assets. But how do we go about that? And what is the value of my company website in this scenario?

Taking a step back

I love the 90'sIt isn’t the 90’s anymore, but let’s pretend that it is. As businesses start to realise the value of a burgeoning internet, they are all lining to up to create their own little piece of web real estate. Things start off simple: just a name, an address, some contact details, a little blurb to say what you do. Really it’s nothing more than a glorified entry in the Yellow Pages.

Over the next decade, that online directory entry will grow and grow, getting ever more complex as businesses try to cram more information into it, desperate to be relevant to any visitor. It’s understandable though, because it’s pretty much the only place you have:it has to try to be relevant to everyone.

We’ve now reached a point where the question of relevance has changed in emphasis. Relevance isn’t just content, it’s also channel.  And as a result, the company website has to change.

What is the value of a company website?

The value of a company website lies in its authenticity. It’s the one place where the company has control, from the carefully selected domain name to the honed and polished content. At the very lowest level, if you want to find out how a company positions itself, you visit the company website.

But that’s it.

Your company website is no longer the best place to engage with prospective employees, to advertise your services, to create thought-leadership positions, or to generate leads. The explosion of social networks and other web services has meant that there are a host of specialist services available that can be utilised to increase a company’s web presence. It’s a similar scenario to digital TV; channels have become more fractured and more focused, and for each channel there is a target demographic that they are designed to exploit in a way that more generic channels cannot do.

The Twitter Fail Whale
Twitter's Fail Whale has become an iconic symbol, despite its negative connotations

Hold on, you want me to trust everybody else with my stuff!

At this point I’m sure there are a few people who are asking this; it’s a completely valid question. The answer is yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying, but you don’t need to worry about it for a number of reasons. I’m going to put my IT hat on for a moment, so bear with me.

  1. The people behind a lot of the services are quite likely as well prepared for downtime as you are. Online services are always susceptible to downtime, whether from DDOS attacks , weight of traffic, hardware issues or simple human error:  the Twitter ‘Fail Whale’ has become an iconic symbol over the last 5 years. But they are businesses too, ones that rely on being able to provide high-quality outage-free services, and as such they will have structures in place to deal with these issues.
  2. A distributed network of services delivering your online presence is more resistant to failure than a single site. If you have one site and its down, it’s down 100%. Having a number of independent services providing content minimizes the risk of 100% downtime. We do the same on a hardware level at our data centre; spreading elements physically across locations and logically across multiple nodes.
  3. You’re not alone. Many companies have started using third-party services for online communications. The internet is the great equalizer, small or large you can use these tools to your advantage.
  4. Having a third party service go down doesn’t reflect poorly on your brand, it reflects poorly on theirs.

So there’s no reason why you shouldn’t create a more distributed web presence, but how do you go about doing it?

Mapping your online real estate

The first step to working out how you create your online presence is to work out what sort of content you have. From the content you can then work out the most relevant way to present it.

Here’s a theoretical example for Acme Corp.

Blended services - example
Acme Corp - online presence map

I’ve identified four types of content that are pertinent to my users: Social content, Positioning content, Communications content and Functional content.

Social content is about building personality around the company. Its purpose is to entice the best new employees by showing what it’s like to work here. The content is upbeat and slightly frivolous, so I’ve selected two matching online services. Facebook will be the main area for photos and stories about social events, and for sharing information that we find interesting outside of work. The main contributors will be the staff themselves. We’re also using Last.fm; music is really important to the team in the office, so we’re going to share our musical playlist with the world. Later on we might also include Spotify and Flickr.

Positioning content create a clear set of focus areas around the business. I want to create a thought leadership position around the key personnel within the business and make sure that their thoughts and opinions are heard. Personal brands are a big topic right now, so I’m going to leverage those personal brands, exposing people’s strengths and experience. For this I’m going to use LinkedIn and maybe Flavors.me (if they have a profile). To provide these people with the platform to talk I’ll use a WordPress blog, and maybe Lanyrd to spread the word if they’re speaking anywhere.

Communications content is all about publicity and PR. Whatever happens in the business, it will get published as communications content, from official press releases to office parties. Twitter is the obvious platform of choice for this.

Finally, functional content is the real nuts and bolts information. Where are we, who are we, what are our products and services. All this will go on our company website, which will form the hub of all the other services we use, pulling them altogether.

Of course, there will be an element of crossover, where we push content to other channels once in a while – using individual Twitter accounts for positioning work for instance.

As we can see from this example, there are numerous ways to blend services together to create the right online presence for your business.  And within this blend there is still room for the corporate website; we just need to be aware of what its purpose is and why people will want to visit it.

Maybe it is the 90’s again?

Well, it might be for the company website at least. It’s time to go back to the basics. Your company website still has a part to play, but it’s a limited one.  Give it the attention it deserves, but let’s not forget that there are many other ways to connect to the audience we crave – and it’s not just Facebook.

What is… Groupon

Now that the dust has settled, and the hyperbole surrounding Groupon’s growth has subsided, we can now take an objective look at the service it provides. Here’s a 5-minute guide – or at least a 5-ish paragraph guide – to Groupon.

What is Groupon?

Groupon LogoGroupon is a collective buying service. Put simply, it offers discounts on products and services which only become valid once a set number of consumers buy into them. The numbers required may change, as will the amount of discount you get, but the principle remains the same: once enough people buy, the discount becomes active and everyone benefits. Consumers get the discount and businesses have the peace of mind that they have generated new customers and have enough take-up to make the offer pay off.

Sounds great in principle

And so it is. However, businesses need to be careful when they construct their offers. In January, a Japanese café was inundated with buyers for the traditional New Year’s meal “osechi”, leaving them unable to meet demand and leading to disappointment. Predictably, complaints were widely posted on the Internet. Usually, Groupon provides advice to businesses to stop this happening, but due to their rapid growth, the Japanese employees had not yet been trained to provide this service.

How did it get so big, so fast?

Groupon was launched in the US in November 2008, and its growth since then has been outstanding. It now covers over 565 cities around the world and has seen its web traffic grow from just 2 million unique visitors per month to over 15 million (source: Crunchbase). Annual revenue is around $2 billion. They are the market leader in the group-buying category by some distance.

In December 2010, they turned down a $6 billion offer from Google, a defiant move that shows the confidence they have in the marketplace and in the group-buying concept. This was after turning down approximately $2 billion from Yahoo in October 2010.

Their growth has been fueled by a mixture of acquisitions (Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Phillipines and Taiwan), aggressive IP protection (MobGob), partnerships (eBay, Ning) and smart deals (Gap). But also, and in some ways more importantly, they’ve come to the fore at the right time, catching the zeitgeist for the hyper-local service.

Zeitgeist… ?

As I’ve written before, following globalisation is localisation. The rise of mobile devices and geo-location technologies has led to a upsurge of interest in creating personalised web experiences. Service providers from search engines to advertisers are using these technologies to get closer to consumers, offering them more targeted information. And while pure online spend may be rising, connecting consumers with local businesses will always generate good return as that’s currently where the majority of our spend takes place.

FourSquare is also based around these principles, but works the other way around to Groupon. Rather than introducing new customers to a business, it rewards consumers for their loyalty, with regular customers earning greater rewards. Using the two services together could provide a strong basis for generating and retaining consumers.

Shoppers queuing at a till
Groupon makes the queues a little more bearable (Credit: George Yi)

Does it have any value for B2B Marketers?

There’s no doubt that Groupon started out as a pure B2C proposition. It’s perfect for lower-value, impulse-led purchases, but it may well hold value for B2B organisations as well, even though the decision-making process is much slower. March saw the first B2B deals being made available, led by IT consulting firm Ajilitee. Their daily deal offered 50% off $25,000 of consulting and proved a great success for them, not in direct sales but as a demand generation tool. Although Groupon would prefer deals to demand, this has led to Groupon putting more resource behind B2B deals through Groupon Stores and redemption-tracking software.

Despite its market-leading position, the future isn’t completely clear for Groupon. It must continue to provide relevant offers and not become a home for drab low-value voucher code discounts, and it also faces competition from Living Social. However, it’s size and stature should keep it ahead of the game in the B2C space.

And B2B? Only time will tell whether B2B collective buying services will be successful, but (excuse the pun) they should certainly not be discounted.

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Why no analytics?

At the end of January, Forrester released their Agency Predictions for 2011. Since that day, one of the predictions that Sean Corcoran made has stuck with me. He said:

#6. Everyone continues to (pretty much) fail at analytics.

Analytics positions are hot at agencies right now. Every type of agency is trying to improve their capabilities. But the truth is that marketers themselves are still very much fragmented in their approach, and until that is sorted out, the great majority of agencies will be stuck managing the data in their corner of the world. Expect improvement, especially with real-time metrics, but agencies will continue to struggle to tell the full story through analytics in 2011.

The big question here is ‘Why?’ Why can’t agencies use analytics effectively for their clients? Why are we so fragmented?

 

Graph showing upward trend
Analytics should be our friend. Is it?

Before we start, let’s remember that Analytics and Reporting are different things. Reporting is the simple act of understanding what happened, usually after the fact. Analytics is the ongoing use of reporting and data investigation to improve ongoing activity. Reporting has its place; it’s good to know how many visits we had on our website this month or which were the top 5 posts on our blog, but until we put those facts into context we’re not going to learn anything. Analytics – treated the right way – takes us to that next level. In this case, maybe we would change our content strategy or look at why numbers on the site were falling; who knows, maybe they’re linked!

So why are we failing? In my experience, there are three reasons.

  1. Short-termism
    In all honesty, I’m not sure that’s even a word. But it is an issue. So many Marketing departments think in terms of quarters and half-years, focusing on delivering for that time period and not thinking beyond it. If we’re going to get the best from analytics, we need to plan much further ahead so that  our core digital assets can evolve over time. Analytics require forward planning; we must understand what the success factors will be prior to a campaign starting or a website launching. That way we can cut the data correctly and understand whether the actions we take move us closer to or further away from our goals. Short-termism is the antithesis of this, focused on execution only. Get it done, get it out, then give me the reports. This approach discards any learning and dooms us to repeat the same old mistakes.
  2. Cash
    Where there is an appetite, we do our very best to shoot ourselves in the foot. High-end analytics packages are expensive, really expensive. Unless a site is transactional in outlook and focussed on the sales funnel, the price just doesn’t weigh up with the return. And time-wise, they can take up to 4-6 weeks to integrate into a site, which is just too long for most businesses. Of course, there’s also free analytics packages, such as Google Analytics and Piwik, they’re both good but to get the best out of them you require in-house knowledge. Until client’s have the appetite to invest in using the analytics available, agencies aren’t going to skill up as much as they could; there’s simply not the incentive, just another salary on the bottom line.
  3. Technology
    We’re in a time of rapid technological change. The landscape is changing so fast that metrics are hard to define, because there isn’t the understanding out there, or the research, to make clear decisions. Take m-commerce for example, although retailers are scrambling to put themselves online, via native apps or mobile apps, there isn’t yet the historical data to understand how effective they are. They’ll understand the revenue generated, granted, but what about average conversion rates, dwell time, how does my app compare when matching against other industry players? All this will come in time, but for the moment we’re all playing catch-up.

Unless agencies and their clients can start to think long-term about their digital real-estate, we will all continue to fail at analytics – to a lesser or greater degree. As agencies we must present strong strategies with the client’s business objectives at heart (not just our own creative vanity), and clients must have the cojones to put some money and resource behind a long-term digital strategy that is supported from the top levels of the organisation, or at least the top level of Marketing. Once that’s done we might start to see a change.

Until then I won’t hold my breath, instead I’ll just wait for the 2012 report to tell me the same thing, but I’d love to be proved wrong.