How to put together a corporate site without it falling apart
Companies use their websites for a range of objectives from selling to reputation management. Deciding what goals to pursue should command serious attention from the policymakers. But putting even the basic elements in place quickly becomes a complex affa
“What is your corporate website for?” we recently asked a director of a large European group. “Easy,” he replied. “We know it’s used by recruits, analysts come and download reports, and we quite often use it to find out things about ourselves.” Best of all, he said, it had not cost the company a lot so he did not worry too much about return on investment (ROI).
Which is fine, but perhaps he should be worrying about ROI, and maybe even increasing the ‘I’. Other groups are using their sites to sell, to market, to service their customers, to defend their reputations, to communicate with the media, to educate, to burnish their images, to boast of their social responsibility, to talk to potential suppliers, to manage their dealers… and so on. The question is which, if any, make sense, and how to make them work together.
Begin with the thought process
Although technologists rarely have overall responsibility for the corporate site, their understanding of what a website can (and cannot) do is essential. It may not require the specialist expertise of a back-end project, but it does require an exceptionally clear head as one layer of complexity is laid on another.
The main site – typically the one with the group.com web address – should be a source of much pondering. The larger the company, the greater the ponder potential. But even quite small companies can find themselves being tied in mental knots as they wonder what to do with this paradoxical creature. On the one hand it can do so much, on the other it can appear to be worthless – or at least to eat up a substantial chunk of budget with no measurable return. The fact that your company already has a site makes things even more difficult. You may find yourself echoing the yokel when asked for directions: “Ah well, you shouldn’t really be starting from here”.
A corporate site need not be complex. When Asda, the UK supermarket group now owned by WalMart, set up its first site in the mid-1990s, it decided the only online activity that made sense was recruitment. Look at the Mars site now (www.mars.com): it is an almost pure recruitment operation, with a few adornments at the edges. There is something to be said for this approach – the benefits of a careers site are at least measurable – but most companies have gone one, two or several steps further, adding complexity as they tread.
Controlling complexity and demand
The basics now consist of material aimed at potential recruits, the media and investors, and also an About Us section. But even this mix needs four ‘journeys’ from the home page, each leading to a dedicated section.
That sounds easy, except that you will almost certainly want to use the same pages for different groups. Investors and journalists will all be offered news releases, while all four groups will be given background material. Not too difficult either – except that you can easily find yourself moving a journalist into the investor area without notice, and cutting them off from the rest of the media section. And should you give equal weight to all the groups? or do you want to favour, say, investors?
Whatever you do, you are likely to stir up internal battles, with every function demanding its place in the sun; that is, the home page. You will find the marketing folk from different divisions and subsidiaries staking a claim, too. It takes no time at all to get from a controlled process to chaos, with a mass of competing links on the home page and incoherent navigation within the site. Sound familiar?
The role of central command
This is all without trying to move beyond the basics: start servicing customers, selling or adding educational, social responsibility or other content, and complexity and tensions build quickly. The corporate website, and the home page in particular, will naturally become a battleground unless it is controlled ruthlessly from the centre. You may have the most decentralised organisation there is but if you want the outside world to see you as one group, the website must be controlled – or at least coordinated – from one point. A quick test: can a visitor get from any page in your site to the main home page without using the backspace button? If not, you are losing control.
How you maintain control is an internal matter, but the key is to have a ruling junta of senior technologists and non-technologists. They must get past the traditional dialogue: (Marketing director: “Can we do this?” IT director: “No”). Instead, they will together work out how the different layers of complexity can be added without causing confusion and which groups, if any, should be given priority. You may need to run committees and sub-committees to forge initial consensus. But once you have obtained it, seize control: on the web, only dictatorship works.
First published on 11 November, 2003