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.

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Still nervous about Social Media… here’s the bottom line

Money - image by AMagill

Image taken from Flickr - AMagill

Over the last few years, the perception of Social Media has undergone a dramatic transformation. Long the preserve of the individual, and used solely for social networking amongst friends and family, it is now increasingly being used by business to communicate with their customers. But there are still many businesses that fear social media, who are either nervous about getting involved or that have made a decision to stay away.

This is unfortunate, as Social Media is providing real benefits to business, from sole proprietors to global corporations. These benefits are not just tangible, but also measurable.

Here are two key reasons why you should look to Social Media to help move your business forward.

1. Social Media = Dramatically lower cost-per-lead

Businesses that spend more than 50% of their marketing budget on Inbound marketing activities are spending more than 60% less per lead generated, compared to those that are spending 50% of their budget on outbound marketing. That’s a staggering difference, and shows the cost-effectiveness of using social media, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and PPC (Pay Per Click advertising). Outbound marketing includes direct mail, events and telemarketing.

Let’s look at those numbers. If we invest £25,000 in generating 5000 leads using outbound marketing, we pay £5 per lead. Using the same budget on inbound marketing, in which we would pay £2 per lead, we could expect to generate 12,500 leads (assuming the potential audience is there).

It’s this cost-effectiveness that is pushing marketing spend towards inbound marketing and away from outbound. And if that cost-effectiveness wasn’t enough, the quality of the leads is higher. Inbound marketing engages users, creating warm leads that are more likely to convert. Which brings us on to reason 2.

2. You can generate revenue from Social Media

It’s been a long-held view that Social Media is only really good at generating brand exposure. That’s true, but it’s also a successful route to generating revenue. Of the companies using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a company blog, approximately 40% have acquired a customer. Dell has been a model for this approach.

After a shaky start, which became known as “Dell Hell”, in which Jeff Jarvis, a prominent blogger, spoke out about the poor customer service he had received, Dell has completely turned things around. They have embraced Social Media as a way of getting closer to its customers, and have used it to drive innovation and sales. In 2009, they generated $6.5 million of sales through their interactions with customers on Twitter alone. Including Facebook into that total brings it up to $9 million (source: Steven Felice, President, Dell SMB).

Sony has also used Twitter as a sales platform, generating £1 million from their Twitter feed directly. They have also used Social Media as an integral part of their Cybershot campaign, which accounted for £12.5 in revenue (source: Nick Sharples, Head of Corporate Communications).

These numbers may be small when compared to the annual sales figures across all retail platforms, but they do show how effective these emerging digital channels can be.

More and more, companies are expected to have a presence in the Social Media space. Consumers have been given a voice, and they are using it. Businesses of all sizes have been given the perfect opportunity to engage with their consumers and build a relationship with them, at a cost that would not have been possible just a few years ago. It requires a different mindset, but those that are able to make the transition are starting realise the benefits; not just in the perception of their brand, but on the bottom line too.

Figures taken from HubSpot’s 2010 ‘State of Inbound Marketing’ report.

What is Quora? And what does it mean for B2B marketers?

Quora logoJudging Quora is going to require some distance and objectivity, as we’re in the middle of a huge amount of hype right now which is liable to distort the arguments around it. Given that, here’s my take.

Why has Quora been successful?

Quora’s initial audience was very closely related, coming from a small set of industry verticals centred on tech start-ups and the tech industry in the US. At the same time, the tech journalists who follow start-ups also came on board and were able to get access to a group of very influential Silicon Valley VC investors and start-up CEO’s. So, the questions being asked were getting answered by the key people in a position to answer them.

Great, so it’s the new Twitter then?

Well, no, what remains to be seen is if the site can remain relevant with a much larger and more defocussed audience. If the majority of questions remain unanswered, or if the answers supplied become less authoritative, the site will suffer as a result. This is their biggest challenge.

So, what is it then?

Quora is indicative of a new approach to information search and retrieval on the web. Users are looking for more defined pieces of information that are authoritative, short and to the point, and crucially, that come from people that they trust and are within their social circle. In this respect it is a next generation approach to the old ‘Q&A’ sites, such as Yahoo Answers, hooking into the fact that we weight our opinions based on those around us.

Qwiki takes the same approach to information creating short visual wiki presentations.

And that means what for B2B?

Should it take off and continue its massive two-month growth, then it will become part of the social media landscape for most B2B companies. Monitoring the topics and questions that are being asked online, ready to step in and provide information openly and quickly. It also provides the opportunity for thought-leadership.

Okay. But what if I don’t like it…

No problem; for a more light-hearted view on Quora, you can always go to Cwora (http://www.cwora.com). Enjoy!

Making sense of it all – Part 2: the marketer

You can find part 1 of this blog entry here.

Wasn’t it nice in the days before social media, when communications could be put into little campaigns, all neat and tidy? Sure, we had customer care and sales that had a kind of ongoing conversation with the client, but, on the whole, we controlled when and how we communicated with our customers and leads. It was much easier then, with our plans and our schedules.

Too Much Social Media

Image from Flickr - credit to Kexino (http://www.flickr.com/people/kexino/)

Okay, I’m still being facetious, but this lack of control over the communication of our brand, and the sheer volume of activity that social media networks generate, can catch marketing departments unaware. Unlike traditional marketing activity, this is a real-time conversation, a non-stop campaign that’s already started.

The good news is that it is manageable and there are some easy steps we can take.

1. Treat Social Media with the same attention to detail as all other channels
It all starts here – don’t treat social media as an afterthought. It’s been done before and the results are usually bad. Not convinced? Check out ‘Social Media screw ups – a history’ then come back. Social media should be considered as a core part of the marketing strategy and should tie in to business objectives – it’s just the day to day mechanics of communication that are different to more traditional marketing techniques.

2. Understand your Social Media landscape
Tracking your social media exposure is extremely difficult without the right toolset. 2010 saw an explosion in the number and quality of the tools available, from Hootsuite to Radian6, both of which monitor multiple social media sites and networks. Here at Volume we use our own internal tool (SociView), but whichever you choose, the important thing is to use one. Good tools will provide you with the means to monitor, respond and analyse your brand online; giving you the data you need to create effective strategies

3. Understand the limitations of what you can do
Once you see the amount of information online, you’ll quickly realise that controlling every word is an impossible task. Relax, this is the way it should be, and there’s no point worrying about it. The days of total control are gone, and with it the old marketing mindset. Use your tools to map and separate the official (your blogs and feeds), the unofficial (partners, affiliates, fans and brand-enemies) and the temporary (bad and good experiences looking for an outlet). Start listening and filtering the noise, then you’ll know when you can…

4. …be a part of the conversation
And it is a conversation, we can’t rely on the same set of skills we use for one-way communication. The people we choose to represent us should be selected carefully. When you have the chance to get involved, acting the right way is paramount and can stop bad situations escalating unnecessarily. If someone’s happy with you, by all means retweet them, but make sure you stay humble and polite – acknowledge that you’re getting a helping hand. If someone’s unhappy, make sure that you deal with it with the same level of attention – admit your mistakes and learn from them.

We can see this approach already being adopted by Dell – ready converts to the social media space, who have had their fair share of “learning experiences” along the way – when they announced the setup of a dedicated ‘social media listening centre’ to manage the 22,000 Dell-related posts every day.

Although a lot of us won’t be dealing with quite that much, putting the right people and tools in place will help you to stay in control and, hopefully, make sense of it all.

Agree or disagree with my point of view? – I’m happy to discuss, so please post your comments.

Making sense of it all – Part 1: the consumer

Wasn’t it nice in the days before social networking, before intelligent spam filters and privacy concerns? You could just send out a few thousand emails and watch them land on the virtual desks of the people in your bought list. Everything was so much simpler then, there was even the slight possibility that someone might open your email and take a look because they didn’t have 500 emails sitting permanently in their inbox, looking for a home.

Okay, I’m being facetious, but there’s no denying that our job as marketers have got more difficult in the last few years, and it’s going to get worse.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer, it shouldn’t be difficult, as let’s not forget, we’re consumers too.

In this digital world we have more information than we could possibly ever want. Whether it’s videos to watch – 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute on YouTube – or articles to read – 25% of all tweets contain links and your average user receives approximately 40 tweeted links per day – we are flooded with information. Some of it will be important and some of it will be rubbish, but the challenge remains to be able to filter the good from the bad.

Automatic priorotisation of your messages

Image taken from Google's video introducing Google Priority Inbox

As a result of this information glut, especially the glut of messages, companies such as Google and Facebook are starting to introduce technology to help their customers manage their inbox.

Google Priority Inbox works out which mail is important to you using a combination of factors, including if how often you’ve emailed the sender before, Whether you have opened messages from the sender before (or just deleted them), whether the email contains keywords similar to those in emails you have read previously, and finally, whether you’ve replied to them before. Message that it deems are important get given priority billing at the top of your inbox, pushing unimportant mails down into the main bulk of email. Users can help train the system using the ‘Important’ and ‘Not Important’ buttons. Interestingly, early figures are showing that, on average, users are spending 15% less time each day reading email, and a significant 43% more time reading important mail compared to unimportant. These figures are compared to Google Mail users who haven’t enabled Priority Inbox, but they still give an insight as to how reading habits will change.

Facebook Messages is yet to roll out, but is grabbing a lot of attention. Their approach is to combine all communications into a single conversational view, so that email, chat and SMS all appear side by side. Using this paradigm, all messages would appear side-by-side in a single fluid conversation. For the user it’s a simple experience, for Facebook it’s a great lock-in tool. A key element of Messages is the ability to filter incoming messages, in much the same way as Google Priority inbox. However, Facebook has the added advantage of being able to see which senders you are friends with by looking directly at your friends list, not just your previous activity. Any messages received from sources outside this list get automatically moved to a separate folder that isn’t visible by default, and in some cases, will be automatically bounced back to the sender.

In the desktop space, Microsoft has included their Outlook Social Connector built in to Outlook 2010 (although it also works in 2007 and 2003). This add-on connects your Outlook to your social media accounts, and supports Facebook, LinkedIn and others. Although this is currently used simply to add contextual information to your contacts, it’s a simple jump for Microsoft to start using this information to prioritise and filter your email based on your relationship to the sender.

Although these technologies are all in relative infancy at the moment, there is no doubt that they will improve, and the fundamental idea behind them – that your social circle, personal and business, is the most important group with which you communicate – will be realised more effectively.

A few days ago, a B2BM Blog posed the question: Email is dead, email is not dead, arrgh! Which is it? Well, it’s neither. As with all things, it evolves over time. Communication systems that were once distinct (telephone, IM, Email, SMS) are merging, through the use of portals such as Facebook, Google and Outlook, into a single communication system. And with that convergence the rules that govern those systems will also merge.

So, as marketers, where does this leave us?

Put simply, we are going to have to make friends. Moving forward, to maximise our ability to engage and communicate with our customers across all touch points, we must become part of their social circle, and that will require a very different approach. Social Media will have to take the lead as we become more responsive, more personal and, ultimately, more human in our marketing activity. Those brands that can pull consumers to them (rather than push at them) will find themselves well set, taking on the affectations of web celebrity and gathering followers around them. Hopefully creating a strong group of brand advocates.

That’s enough for now. In part 2, I’ll look at how we can manage our clients growing social landscapes effectively and harness the relationships we build.

Let’s be Open about things

There is a misconception that to get the most out of Facebook, you have to be on Facebook.

Not true.

Certainly you can create a fan page or a company page, and get your followers to ‘like’ you, but beyond the numbers what are you getting? Social connections don’t automatically mean that you understand your audience better.

In the past, we relied on producing great content to attract our users, and with the promise of more exclusive content, tried to convince them to fill in cumbersome login forms so that we could understand our target market better. It’s not a great tactic and overall it doesn’t produce great results.

There is a better way.

OpenID LogoOver the last few years there has been a move to try and simplify the experience of using the web, and in particular how we store and supply our information to different sites and services. At the head of this move is a technology known as OpenID, governed by the OpenID foundation, a group that consists of representatives from Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and IBM.

The premise of OpenID is that web users can create one login and then use it anywhere on the web. In fact, most of us have an OpenID without even knowing it. Google and Yahoo accounts are both OpenIDs; although Facebook and Twitter aren’t. But even so, services such as Facebook Connect and Twitter’s implementation of XAuth provide a similar experience to end users.

Initially, there were more Chiefs than Indians, with all the big web companies wanting to sign up to the programme as OpenID providers and not enough sites accepting them as logins. In hindsight this is unsurprising, as control of information is the very essence of the big web players such as Google and Facebook. But over time this has changed. Now there are many sites where these IDs are accepted, from Fox News, Digg and FriendFeed to Kmart and Sears, and the good news is that it’s simple to get your site accepting them too.

So how does this benefit our users? When they arrive at our site they can choose to login with a pre-existing account, so there’s no need to enter a username, choose a password and go through the rigmarole of activating your account. They simply enter their email address and password and they’re done. There’s a great explanation of how this works at http://openidexplained.com/.

Login to Ficly

In return for making things simpler for users, we get back some additional profile data from them when they log in. The data you receive changes by provider and dependent on consent from the user, but can contain data such as their name, gender, birthday, email, time zone, address, postcode, country, web page, contacts and phone number. All this without filling in a registration form.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from adding an additional couple of questions to the login process in order to capture more client-specific data as and when necessary.

So what does this mean for marketers?

Utilising services such as OpenID and Facebook Connect we’re lowering the barriers to engagement for our targeted users. This, along with positive brand association with services they already trust with their data, will make them feel more comfortable about sharing their information with us, increasing registration rates and the amount of data captured. And the more data we capture, the more effectively we can target.

It’s in our interests to start being Open.