How to get ahead of the trends

Online managers at the inaugural Web Effectiveness Conference US debated three key issues dominating the development of their sites, Scott Payton reports

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Online managers from the United States were joined in Chicago last week by others from Canada, France, Germany, Russia and the UK for Bowen Craggs’ inaugural Web Effectiveness Conference US.
The diverse group found plenty of common ground, especially in the fact that their working lives are currently dominated by three interrelated trends:
•the rapid growth of mobile internet access
•the ongoing proliferation of online channels
•the increasing difficulty of getting corporate messages across to ever-more sceptical online audiences.

Divided response to responsive design and apps

Simon Saville, vice-president, communications at energy giant Shell, the top-ranking company in the 2012 FT Bowen Craggs Index, summed up the importance of the first of these trends during his conference presentation. Almost a quarter of all visits to Shell’s online content (including apps) already come from a mobile device, Mr Saville said. More startling still, that figure might break the 50 per cent mark next year.
How did speakers and delegates suggest responding to the rise of the mobile web? For Shell, building a ‘responsive’ site that automatically reconfigures itself to fit different-sized screens is part of the answer. Building an array of smartphone and tablet apps is another.
Shell’s apps are a hit. The company’s app for motorists – which includes service station and route finders – is available in about 20 countries and has attracted hundreds of thousands of downloads. It is already more popular than the equivalent pages on Shell’s website. Shell’s investor and media app is also growing in popularity, Mr Saville said. Indeed, on average, use of Shell’s apps is growing even faster than the company’s mobile web page views.
So, is the answer for every company to build a responsive website and investing in a set of apps? Not necessarily, judging by the debate in Chicago.
For a start, not everyone at the conference agreed that responsive web design is the way forward. Some were adamant that a cut-down mobile site with content, structure and navigation tailored to those using a small screen – possibly while on the move – was the key.
Others meanwhile were sceptical about the longer-term viability of corporate apps – such as those designed to cater for journalists and investors. Better to focus on the mobile web in the longer term, some speakers and delegates argued, not least because users are not required to download a mobile site in advance and put up with it cluttering up their smartphone home screens.

Governance the key to channel proliferation

There was a much clearer consensus on what to do about the second trend dominating the conference – the proliferation of online channels, from Facebook and YouTube via Twitter and Flickr to Pinterest and Google+. Introduce a strong over-arching governance process to ensure that all channels are used consistently and coherently, everyone agreed. As they did that this is much easier said than done. Even Shell, which has tight governance processes and an enviably consistent web estate, is struggling with striking the right balance between playing to the distinct editorial tone, demographics and other unique characteristics of different channels – such as its popular Facebook page – and ensuring that every channel conveys an ultimately consistent set of corporate messages.
Interestingly, one of the conference speakers, Don Schultz, professor of integrated marketing communication at Northwestern University, reckoned that the job of communicating consistently across proliferating channels comes much more naturally to companies in historically communitarian cultures like that of China, than to those in individualistic societies like those of Europe and North America. There isn’t much evidence to support this theory among the Chinese online estates monitored for the FT Bowen Craggs Index, but this may change as Chinese companies continue to take their global communications efforts more seriously.

True-life stories the bridge for corporate messages

Two speakers explained how they were responding to the third topic running through the conference – the growing difficulty of getting corporate messages across to increasingly sceptical online audiences. Both – Johnson & Johnson’s Mark Krajnak and Siemens’ Stefan Heeke – are making extensive use of mini-video documentaries to tell their companies’ stories in an engaging way.
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) had experimented with videos on its corporate home page a few years ago, but abandoned the approach because not enough people watched them. Now, however, videos are about to return to the home page, as a result of a spike in the popularity of video material elsewhere on the site. Why the rise in interest in J&J’s online video? The move from compatibility restricted Flash to universally useable YouTube format is part of the answer, Mr Krajnak said. The wider rise in consumption of online video content was another. Yet a further crucial factor was J&J’s change in video style and content, Mr Krajnak said. Viewership was down, initially, because the videos were too corporate; too ‘produced’. Now, though, there is a change in style toward videos that tell engaging stories about real people – patients, partners and customers whose lives have been improved by using J&J’s products and services.
Siemens has put video ‘stories’ in the main panel of its home page for more than a year. Like J&J, it believes that true-life stories are the answer for catching the attention of jaded journalists, consumers, jobseekers and others. The trendy word for all this is ‘authenticity’. Whether or not the trend continues, and whether it translates into tangible results, Siemens’ videos certainly get a lot of traffic: the latest has been viewed more than 175,000 times on Siemens’s ‘Answers’ YouTube channel within one month.

This time it’s more personal

One speaker’s company is, however, taking a different step towards making the content on its corporate website more enticing: it is personalising the site according to how a visitor fits into a series of predefined groups – jobseeker, healthcare customer, journalist and so on. Using the visitor’s IP address as a trigger, the next generation of the company’s site will present a customised set of video stories, news headlines (and accompanying images), as well as other content to fit the visitor’s profile.
This approach is not new: UK telecommunications giant BT introduced a crude version of personalisation to its website about 14 years ago. But like J&J’s videos, it might prove more successful second time around, thanks to new technology, more sophisticated thinking and changing audience expectations.

First published 03 October, 2012
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