What to look for in a channel guide

As companies develop online channels the ways they present the extent of their growing estate to a website audience are many and varied, Scott Payton says.

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How can companies best use their website to provide a clear and comprehensive overview of – and gateway to – their presence across multiple online channels, from Facebook and Twitter, via SlideShare and YouTube, to Flickr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, blogs and others?

Web managers have raised the question repeatedly at Bowen Craggs events – but no one has found a commonly accepted answer. The methods used on corporate sites range from expensive and complex multi-channel ‘dashboards’ to cheap and simple directory pages plus a raft of approaches that fall in between.

Costly and complicated

General Electric, IBM and US-based biotechnology company Perkin Elmer all have elaborate dashboards on their corporate sites displaying recent tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube uploads and other content from different channels in a single visually slick grid. The tweets, posts, photographs and videos that appear in such grids are selected either manually, automatically using predefined criteria or via a combination of both methods. (All are forms of ‘curated content’, to use the in-vogue term.)

Sophisticated multi-channel dashboards can make good sense for brand as opposed to corporate sites: the entire home page of pepsi.com has been given over to a dashboard of tweets from customers talking about the drink, as well as Instagram photos of Pepsi cans and bottles in peculiar places. The format works well. 
Fancy dashboards of content from different channels can also make sense for companies like IBM selling specialist knowledge and expertise. It fills its dashboard with content from across numerous channels about reports, events, articles and other engaging material. Perkin Elmer’s dashboard is also effective, because it focuses on drawing content on a specific topic – how biotechnology research is making a positive contribution to the world – from a specific audience – scientists.

In short, to be effective multi-channel online dashboards need to have a clear editorial focus and rich pipelines of content.

Change in the story line

Indeed, it’s interesting to note that Dell and Intel have recently replaced their ‘social’ dashboards with online magazine-style pages linking to ‘stories’ rather than Facebook posts, tweets and the like. Cynics may argue that these companies have simply moved from one digital bandwagon – social media – to another – online ‘storytelling’. Probably true – but these companies would not have abandoned their costly customised multi-channel dashboards if they were attracting a decent online audience with them.

One-stop digest

Other companies meanwhile have chosen a cheaper, though potentially no less effective, method for integrating their online channels via their websites: a simple web page containing the latest tweets, Facebook posts, Google+ updates and so on. Companies taking this approach have not invested in a fully integrated dashboard: content from each channel is displayed in separate panels, but helpfully on the same page.

Cisco takes this approach, and does it well – a clean layout, clear signposting and large volume of regularly updated content from sources including its blogs and discussion forums. So does the US White House – particularly notable for its integration of an unusually large number of online channels.

The clarity and simplicity of Novo Nordisk’s multi-channel overview page is appealing, while Massachusetts-based Tufts University’s online channel hub is also worth a look: it makes neat use of tabs to organise content and links from different channels on a single page.

Directions before content

Another group of web managers is taking an even simpler approach to providing overviews of their company’s online channels: a directory page, consisting of a straightforward set of signposts rather than content from the channels themselves.

Renault’s global site has a clearly presented directory that provides useful links to the vehicle maker’s 80 or so country and brand specific Facebook pages, as well as its global Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter presences.
Getting these directory pages right requires clear presentation, allied to two key rules. Make them comprehensive (or at least make it clear what they do and do not cover); and ensure that the directory itself is easy to find. Many sites hide it in the media section, for example, where non-journalists are unlikely to look. There’s a strong argument for putting a link to the channel directory/overview page alongside social media icons in the site’s permanent footer.

Marshal your forces

A final example to convince any web manager who thinks that their organisation’s presence across multiple channels is too expansive to chart on a single page: take a look at the US Army’s online directory.

All feeds, pages and accounts on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Google+, Flickr and SlideShare run by anyone in the US Army are listed on a single page, using simple icons to signpost channels and an uncomplicated dropdown menu for filtering the list. To be sure, it’s a long list. But, like all good directories, it’s a useful one for anyone using, or managing, increasingly sprawling online estates.

First published 29 January, 2014
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