Knowing when to say no and yes

Digital managers have no shortage of opportunities to adopt the latest piece of clever technology. How to tell which to go for, and which to avoid? By David Bowen.

Digital managers in large organizations are very desirable creatures. At least they are to people who want to sell them things - let's call them vendors. Of course Bowen Craggs is one such, and I will give no guidance as to whether you should or should not use our services. But I do have some thoughts about whether you should dig into your pockets for pieces of web functionality that may (or may not) be worthwhile.

Once you have invested in something, you should be able to get an idea of its effectiveness using traffic analysis, market research, and so on. But you will need to stick with it for a while to get meaningful results, so this can be an expensive business.

May I suggest another approach - to piggyback on the experience of others? If something has come and stayed, it is probably safe to adopt. If it has come as part of a broad fashion, then gone away, it is worth ignoring, at least until that particular wave returns. If it keeps coming and going, be suspicious - it is probably something that vendors try periodically to sell, but the business case is dubious. And if no-one has yet given a piece of functionality enough of a chance, you may have to take the risk. Here are some examples of each type:

Here to stay

  • Video has always been theoretically possible on the web, but in the days of dial-up modems it was more likely to irritate than excite. No longer true with broadband, and we can all think of videos that work better than text or photos. A couple of warnings: if you have a significant audience in parts of the world where broadband is not widespread, you should still ignore it. And it is not a good way of getting information across fast, so if you want to be useful to journalists and analysts, for example, either avoid it or provide transcripts (much faster to read).
  • Responsive design is not going away. We were dubious at first, because too often it was accompanied by a deterioration in the desktop experience (and corporate sites are still primarily views on larger screens). But that, mostly, has been fixed.
  • Ingenious interactivity: watch others to see what works. For example BP keeps on upgrading the charting tool it has long used in its investor and, now, CSR sections. It must have a reason for that. Many companies have stuck with interactive devices to bring their stories to life. A nice new one is Unilever's history, which includes (for 1955) the first UK television commercial (so you get a video too).

Riding the fashion

Innovations in navigation tend to be driven by fashion. The most obvious is the current trend to hide menus - we believe we are now close to 'peak hiding' - but there have been others in the past and there will be more in the future. This is a problem, because to ignore fashion runs the risk that you will be accused of being old-fashioned - but if you do have to follow it, at least do what you can to minimise any drawbacks it brings.

Corporate apps came - and went, as companies realised they brought little a responsive website could not, but were a lot more expensive (though see my exception under virtual reality, below).

Coming and going

Personalisation is making a comeback - as it does every so often. I remember getting frustrated by the BT website in the late Nineties: it was so full of personalising tools that it was desperately slow. Of course personalisation is huge in marketing (the whole Facebook data thing is about it), but it also makes occasional incursions into the corporate world - and then leaves. A few years ago Aviva allowed shareholders to tick boxes to configure a page to suit them; it no longer does. France Telecom allowed visitors to drag widgets around its home page  to the same end; it no longer does. There are some examples that do have a specific use. For example the 'consumer corner' on Philip Morris International's site will show brand information to people in Switzerland, but not to those in most other countries - a regulatory trick that makes sense. But generally decent navigation allows people to see what they want without any need for clever technology - that goes for 'country sniffers' too.

HTML annual reports come and go like the swallows in Spring. We did research a few years ago that suggested that neither financial professionals nor retail shareholders made much use of them. Yet they are on the up again as IR teams see that other IR teams are using them more (encouraged, certainly, by vendors). The growth of mobile does make PDF less useful - and therefore HTML more useful - but think hard before you decide that it is finally here to stay.

Too soon to know

Virtual reality has been around for such a long time - without any real impact in the corporate world - it is tempting to dismiss current experiments as mere fashion. We are not so sure:  there have been real changes in technology that could make virtual reality, and the related world of augmented reality, stick this time. Faster internet, of course, but this is also one area where apps could make sense - especially if they are aimed at jobseekers. Exxon Mobil's virtual reality app is impressive, particularly when viewed on a VR headset.

Chatbots are much talked about. We will return to them, but my initial thought is that they are rather similar to advanced search engines, such as ENI's. Both must be built round a database of prepared answers to be helpful. Whether typing a question to a chatbot is easier than typing it in a search engine is of course a moot point.

Podcasts are on the up. I can see why they could work - a good way to absorb information while you are travelling. But it does raise the question of why they have not taken off before, given their simple technology. Still, keep an eye on Morgan Stanley to see if it continues to promote podcasts on its home page; if you do not want to take the risk, let your friendly investment bank test the market for you instead.

First published 28 March, 2018
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