Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What is a website to do

Ive been asked to contribute for another article on the web, this time looking at design and build.

My piece is still way too long but is included below.

Its interesting going thorugh my thought process, because the aims of what a website should achieve haven't changed, just the ways to accomplish them. Anyway this is my first draft which will change. See what you think.

The commercial web in the UK took off in 1996 which is ten years ago now. Back then a few of us were talking about building relationships online and electronic commerce online but most of the actual sites were simple brochures delivered online.

A lot of companies have spent a great deal of time and money on the presentation of their site but many still lack those all important strategies which engage their audience and prompt a potential customer to begin a dialog with them.

I sat down back in 2000 with a major FMCG manufacturer and we talked about whether people were really going to buy peanut butter from their website in the future. At the time their feeling was that people were going to, and so setting up eCommerce was a good idea. I wasn't convinced and today you still can't go to their site and purchase a tub of peanut butter. Instead you can go to tesco.com or ocado.com and purchase it there. It's about looking at who your actual customers are and realising that they may not be the same as the ultimate consumer of the product. It has never been the case that a large FMCG had their own store where people purchased goods, instead they operate through a distributer who sell to large supermarkets and small shops who in turn sell to the consumer.

For a brand it is about making a decision whether you want to support your existing sales channel or compete with it. Companies that do sell direct such as Dell have a clear business model, they know their customers and so implementing eCommerce is a logical and natural step for them. Amazon proved that a direct selling brand can be built but out of the thousands of .com eCommerce companies who tried to set up not too many of them have seen it through to today. Amazon and Dell took the view of providing information and tools which customers found useful to support their buying decisions. PC World understood that whilst the web is an essential tool which consumers base a buying decisions, the actual purchase mechanism is just as likely to be offline as it is online.

That is really the key point, a website should be about an organisation's customers, and most websites forget this. Your customers will use the web to interact with you and make buying decisions, but ultimately consumers do not like to be forced to purchase in a particular way, they see this as a personal decision and so choice is important to them. Lead with your products or services and how they benefit your existing customers. Show the features and advantages of your products but always link them to the customer. The ubiquitous About Us section has a place in the site but generally visitors will be engaged more if the information they see first is about them and relevant to them. Hearing about the company's history does tend to be of lesser importance to most customers and so give it less prominence in the navigational architecture.

There should be one of two aims for every website.

a) Sell products directly to customers
b) Build relationships with customers.

The first option is obviously leaning towards eCommerce operations but it is only really suitable if your company sells directly to consumers offline, It isn't going to be applicable to every company by any stretch of the imagination. What might be however is setting up Extranets for your large customers to be able to manage their orders with you, and track their progress. Its about making you easier to do business with.

Most companies should be ensuring that their website is focused on building relationships with customers and the other important stakeholders, and this is again where a solid strategy will help. For publicly quoted companies there is a lot of value in separating your corporate site from your customer site as these audience segments are usually interested in different things. So the corporate site is aimed at investors, recruitment, press and media. The customer site is then free to concentrate on providing the relationship building mechanisms that will retain existing customers, and attract new ones.

We are also seeing a dramatic change in how media works and your website should be flexible enough to accommodate this. In days gone by you would promote your products by purchasing the widest reaching mass media method you could afford and advertise that way. Your message would then trickle down from the top to the bottom so that everyone heard of your product and went out to buy it. What we are now seeing is a fundamental change in consumer behavior where mass media is not having the same effect and is even beginning to be distrusted by consumers. We are seeing wholesale reductions in mass media revenues whilst digital viral and direct marketing are taking more of the marketing pie. This is because consumers now would rather base a buying decision on their own research or on a friends recommendation than on a TV ad, which suits the digital medium very well. Consumers today are more likely to be commenting publicly on your products than ever before with their blogs and on bulletin boards so harnessing this power is very important. Web 2.0 is upon us so every corporate site should be implementing RSS and inviting consumers to comment on their products to spread through these social and viral networks. It is important now, more than ever before, to ensure that the benefits and advantages of your products are understood, and consumers are getting very informed so they will know if you are lying to them. Transparency is therefore seen as a distinct advantage by today's consumers.

Accessibility has been a legal requirement of website design now for several years and yet the vast majority of sites fail the most basic tests. It is therefore important that companies select suppliers who do understand that accessible and usable design isn't just for people with disabilities but improves the likelihood of ordinary consumers making buying decisions. Its just financial and common sense. I therefore hope that the enormous inaccessible completely Flash based sites become a thing of the past, as they were usually a waste of money. Flash has its place, but it isn't the main tool in website development.

Many of these things are going to require a lot of courage but if you harness the power of the social networks then your products will be welcomed by the marketplace and your brand message will have the kind of penetration you used to dream of with a return on investment that will keep your shareholders very happy. The worst thing of all that brands can do right now, is nothing.

This generation of websites should not be seen as a cost center but as a profit center and so planning and setting goals is very important. I developed a methodology for digital communications called The Interactive Mix, which is centered on what a digital presence needs to achieve for the organisation in terms of the bottom line, and plans everything from this point in terms of Driving traffic to the website, Acquiring customers in order to establish relationships, Converting customers through tools that facilitate buying decisions and finally Retaining customers through regular updates and communications. And these four key aims should be the cornerstones for the websites built throughout this year.

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