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.

The future of the internet isn’t mobile…

But surely it must be? With 230,000 iOS devices and 200,000 Android devices activated every day how can it be anything else? Even Facebook is building a phone.

The near-future of the internet is mobile, but as B2B marketers we must be aware of how internet usage is changing in the long-term, and what this means for our campaigns and communications. Thinking in terms of individual channels and devices will only limit our ability to fully deliver for our clients in the future.

So how is the internet changing?

1. Our ability to access the internet is becoming ubiquitous
The most amazing thing about the internet is arguably not the content, but the creation of the infrastructure that carries it. Millions of interconnected computers, millions of miles of cable to carry data between them, and all the protocols and hardware that direct traffic from one place to another. This process hasn’t stopped yet, and being ‘online’ is becoming a more and more ubiquitous experience. The data on the internet is available through many channels and in many locations.

2. We are increasingly using web-based services, not web-based content
More and more we are basing our internet usage around key services and applications, such as Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Spotify. Users are blending these services together to create their own online experience: Facebook for social life, LinkedIn for professional life, Delicious for bookmarks, Remember the Milk for tasks, Spotify for music. These services feed information to us, rather than us having to seek it out, which makes our online life more integrated with our offline life.

Some of these services are tied to a single device, but the majority are available wherever you are, and it is this portability that makes them so useful. For example, Netflix allows you to watch movies online, but not just through your PC, you can access them on your Xbox, PS3, Wii, iPad and internet-enabled TV or Blu-ray player as well.

3. The content available on the web is changing
In 1990, most traffic on the web was based around FTP (File Transfer Protocol), which took up 57% of the available bandwidth, but twenty years later video owns 51% of this bandwidth. Standard web-based traffic such as web pages and other downloads is now only 23%, down from approximately 55% in 2000. Video is the big growth area and the available content is growing rapidly. The ability to access this video-based content is also growing, with users no longer restricted to their PC. Cisco’s latest forecasts see 66% of mobile data usage being video-based by 2014 (see Figure 2 here)

What do these changes mean for those of us in the business of creating content?
It’s important that we aren’t overly rigid in our approach to creating content; we mustn’t think in terms of devices. Today we are producing mobile apps and web-based sites to deliver our services, but in a few years’ time we may be looking at a completely different landscape where it is impossible to know exactly where and how our content is being viewed. Some of these changes – Internet TV for example – may be game-changing as the distinction between online and broadcast blurs even further.

In some cases, we may well be faced with the decision to concentrate on particular devices and channels at the expense of audience numbers, or to take a more general and less tailored approach that can be viewed across the widest spectrum.

Regardless of which route we take, the ability to deliver a consistent experience across all channels is paramount, and our ability as an industry to understand the options and deliver this consistency will be crucial.