What was in the air in Paris

First reflections from the Web Effectiveness Conference identify the issues exercising online corporate communicators as they learn to live in exciting times, Elizabeth Olsen reports.

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It didn’t quite have the essence of the Paris Spring of 1968 but the word revolution was again being aired in the French capital when corporate website managers from around the world converged on the Hilton Arc de Triomphe on 14 and 15 June for the third annual Web Effectiveness Conference.
While outside on the streets the Force Ouvrière trade union was busy on the Tuesday demonstrating a traditional tool of social change, the overthrow being debated inside was that of the old order of website governance. And yet the message had a familiar echo to it: ignore the people at your peril.
Indeed, the revolution is already underway, according to Florent Vial of French company AREVA, in his presentation on day two. The duty of a company is no longer just to put out information, he said, but to create a dialogue with stakeholders. Dialogue is as much the core of brand strategy for a B2B company as a B2C company. In Mr Vial’s manifesto, B2B is really ‘B2C2B’ – the idea that the company must first address the final consumer before it is able to sell to businesses. To this end, AREVA is innovating with on-platform live chat and social dialogue with end-consumers.

A future on the move

Florian Hiessl of Siemens, by nature one of the online world’s corporate innovators, produced some eye-catching statistics to support his company’s thesis that the future will increasingly be about mobile.
The internet is moving from a static offer of information to a dynamic flow where users collaborate to create, share, and forward this information, he said. As mobile web use continues to increase, the mobile site will become as important as the classical site and mobile apps will offer dedicated content for specialised use (press or news apps, for example). His analytics backed up the argument: a 1500 per cent increase in usage of Siemens’ mobile website in one year, a full 10 per cent of the traffic seen by the classic website, and equivalent average amounts of time spent (pages viewed, etc) on both versions.

A new balance of power

Delegates were challenged from the outset to contemplate a new web order. Leading off the conference with a discussion of governance of the dot com and finding your audience, Stéphane Aknin of AXA polled the assembly with the central question ‘Who runs your company’s website?’. The majority of attendees raised their hands for corporate communications, with a smattering of marketing, a few hybrid/integrative models, and no takers any longer for the IT team. His reaction? Today this is the case, but tomorrow the dot com will be run by the users. Increasingly, social exchange across the web will represent the core value of a company’s web estate.
In laying out AXA’s model of website management Mr Aknin bulleted the point that evidence-based knowledge is key, and surveys and user testing are important tools. This was echoed by Marco Nieboer of Shell: continuous user testing is essential as user expectations steadily evolve.
The web as a two-way street was a recurring theme: it is no longer a platform for unidirectional presentation of content. With that comes the responsibility of receiving comments directed at the corporation, and the subsequent responsibility to provide answers, GSK’s Simon Quayle said. While the corporate website is not dead (yet), he added, it is now part of a broader web estate with social media and other off-platform content.

A measure of change

While opinions on social media ranged from “the jury’s still out” (Jerome Colombe, Alcatel-Lucent) to “it’s a done deal” (Jim Sterne of the Web Analytics Association), there is no doubting the topic is at the forefront of many minds in the corporate web management world. Not least of the concerns is measuring the effectiveness of social media, the theme of Mr Sterne’s presentation. The key to social media, he said, is to use it not just to put your message out, but to bring information back into the organisation. Echoing other speakers, his advice was to listen to your stakeholders, taking advantage of the new platforms available to do so.
The value of social media can also be measured through its direct return on investment, Philippe Borremans of Van Marcke Group said. Conversion of online discussion to face-to-face meetings, e-mail contacts garnered, customer insights gained, and improvements in readership of content and search position are all potent metrics.

A note of caution

But before you do anything, Mr Borremans and Simon Goldberg of Abbott advised, remember: social media needs governance. Written and active communication of policy and process guidelines within the company should be based on acceptance that you do not control off-platform content and never will. Respect the medium where everyone with an opinion is given a figurative loudspeaker. The business purpose and objectives for a new social media venture should be clearly defined before engaging with all appropriate stakeholders: legal, regulatory, HR and so forth.
In-house audiences can also be used for exploring external functionality and applicability in the internal laboratory that is the intranet, Patrizio Regis of UniCredit suggested.

A spectre at the feast

Not all the old truths are for overturning, however. One constant in the future of online corporate communications will be that content is still ‘king,’ according to Siemens’ Mr Hiessl. The changes in web communication do not obscure the primacy of good quality, relevant content.
Nowhere is this more so, as events regularly continue to show, than in the area of reputation management, one of the main themes of the conference. David Bowen went through the very recent history of BP’s handling of the oil drilling platform disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent pollution, showing how changes in the company’s use of the web shifted in line with strategy.
And if there was a word of the conference more potent than ‘revolution’ it was ‘Greenpeace’, uttered with a mix of admiration and fear. Greenpeace’s single-minded and radicalised assaults on corporates, together with its mastery of the web and social media, make it both a model to follow and, for some, a formidable and hard-to-confront foe.
Elizabeth Olsen attended the conference in her capacity as an analyst with Bowen Craggs & Co.

First published 16 June, 2010
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