How companies are failing to develop their hottest property

A corporation’s most valuable piece of real estate is arguably the square foot that is the home page of its main website – the one you reach when you type in www.group.com. So why do so many corporations get such a poor return on this asset?

Featured sites

Last Wednesday (11th), the day of the Comcast Disney bid, I tried to find out what the bidder and the target were saying about it. Guessing the address, I typed in www.comcast.com, and was immediately presented with a banner saying “Comcast proposes merger with Walt Disney Company” and links to all sorts of handy information. I then typed in www.disney.com, and was greeted by a cartoon theme park headed “Disney Online – Where the Magic comes to you”. Its “Special places to visit” included Mouse House Jr and Surf Swell Island but nothing to do with the company. I found what I wanted in the end, by clicking on an Inside Disney link and fighting my way through to the boring bits (and eventually to a very brief statement about the offer).
In other words, Comcast comes across as loving its shareholders, Disney does not – in which it is not alone. I have just carried out a “three click challenge” for a new magazine called Real IR in which I had to find contact details for the investor relations (IR) team in, you’ve guessed it, three clicks. On some it was simple: Nokia was a doddle, while I got there in just one click at Carrefour. The company that caused most problems was British Airways. Its home page is aimed singlemindedly at the traveller. I did eventually find a way to the investor section, via an Inside BA link, but it took me many more than three clicks. Tesco and Microsoft are as bad – you will not find any corporate links unless you scroll down the page.

A prejudicial imbalance of service


So, Comcast good, Disney bad? If you are an investor, that’s about right. But what if you are a consumer – which then is more engaging and useful, Disney or Comcast? Carrefour or Tesco (clue: you can’t buy anything from the French site)? To confuse things further, what if you are a politician, a child, a potential supplier, a lobbyist or belong to any of the other ‘stakeholder’ groups served by the site?
Websites should have no problem serving all these groups: the medium is terrific at handling complexity. But few corporate home pages manage the trick of serving everyone without favour. Most shout ‘We care most about our investors’, some say ‘We are all about our customers’. Very few manage a balance – and even fewer appear to give tuppence for those other groups.
Why is this? And does it matter? To answer the second question first – yes, it does. The corporate home page is a powerful purveyor of brand, whether the company likes it or not. It has for a while been the first place where potential employees will look, and increasingly is the first stopping point for potential customers, suppliers, lobbyists or whoever. What they see when they first tune in will consciously or subconsciously affect how they feel about the company.

The politics of segregation


The lack of balance is often a result of internal politics. The home page reflects the ‘ownership’ of the site, and usually this means it is in the hands of either corporate communications or marketing.
Sometimes this lack of co-operation has led to a complete separation of sites. Go to www.pepsi.com and you will find a consumer site, with no links at all to the corporate site, www.pepsico.com. Would you guess that address? British Airways has a separate address for its professional investors (www.bashares.com) and another for its individual shareholders (www.bashareholders.com). This might not matter if the sites were easily accessible from the ba.com home page. But they are not: ‘Inside BA’ may sound slicker than ‘About the company’ or ‘Corporate information’ but, as we discovered during the three-click challenge, it is not instantly understandable.

Equal rights of audience


Who then does get it right? Companies where there is either exceptional co-operation or where a higher force is busy banging heads to together. Kraft Foods’ home page is the most explicitly balanced site I know. It is divided into four segments: Business Update, Kraft Cares (corporate social responsibility, and we don’t make you fat), Brand Close-up (marketing) and Food & Fun (stuff to keep people coming back). The BP site has a careful mix of links and images, while Shell splits the home page horizontally: broadly, top is for customers, bottom is for investors and journalists.
All these groups are saying ‘We care about everyone’. Which is, of course, what the others should be saying too. I wonder if they will ever realise that?

First published 25 February, 2004
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