Where to make your pitch

The idea that corporate communications might abandon its own nest and lay its messages down in others’ is no longer as cuckoo as it sounds, says David Bowen.

Featured sites

The most intriguing company website I know isn’t a company website. Type ‘www.booneoakley.com’ into your browser, and you find yourself looking at a YouTube page with the heading ‘BooneOakley.com – home page’.
A childlike cartoon starts, explaining that Boone Oakley is an ad agency unlike others and telling the sad story of Billy, a marketing director who used one of the big agencies and as a result was killed by his wife. The ‘links’ are within the screen and lead to other videos. Everything is within YouTube; even the contact page suggests you get in touch through its message service.
It’s intriguing for several reasons. First, ad agencies have always struggled with the web – even though their job is to be imaginative, their websites rarely are. This one is, as well as being witty.
Second, Boone Oakley smoothly integrates marketing and corporate messages. The About Us, The Clients and News sections are all videos, mostly using cartoons. Everything is soaked in the agency’s brand concoction of wit and irreverence,
Third, the obvious one. The site is built entirely on YouTube. That may save money, but the real advantage is that it’s different, fitting the agency’s need to set itself apart from the Big Four.
Fourth, leading on from this: is the corporate website becoming irrelevant? If we can do what we need on sites that people choose to visit – like YouTube – why should we make them trek to our own territory?

On its way

What relevance does this all have to comms or web managers who do not work for edgy ad agencies? Quite a lot; some of the ideas are already spreading into the broader corporate world.
The first point is specific to ad agencies, but when rolled in with the second it gets interesting. The idea of splitting communications and marketing works reasonably well in the offline world. Comms – talking to journalists, investors and other ‘stakeholders’ – is a different skill from marketing, addressing customers; talking to jobseekers is a third skill. But the distinction is much less clear online. Corporate websites tend to have a certain flavour: comms-based or marketing-based. Some companies have made a decision to flip from one to the other. Unilever looked at its traffic, and abandoned its investor focus in favour of an upbeat consumer one.
But is this the right way to think? Websites are excellent at handling complexity, so can create easy journeys and appropriate content for different groups. And if a company has a brand and messages it wants to transmit, surely they should be given to investors, recruits and journalists, as well as customers?
The contrast until a year ago between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo was instructive. The Cola-Cola corporate site looked much like any of its marketing sites: slick animation, a high profile for products but, underpinning this, solid corporate content. Pepsi’s site looked as though it was controlled by a finance director sucking lemons. Dour, dull and about as far from the fun message of marketing as it could be. It’s fixed now, but the underlying problem remains in many companies. It’s not on the website, it’s in the way different departments talk (or don’t talk) to one another. There may already be companies that have abandoned the distinction between marketing and comms; there certainly should be.

Out of site?

On points three and four, can and should companies scrap their sites, and go out instead to where their visitors choose to linger? It’s worth considering. What would you lose if you abandoned your own site and perched instead on any number of islands elsewhere? My children live on Facebook and YouTube – shouldn’t you, too?
A specific problem with Boone Oakley is that the YouTube ‘site’ isn’t very usable: navigation is basic to the point of being irritating, which isn’t really surprising as YouTube is not designed for this sort of thing. But there are answers.
Go to skittles.com and you see a Facebook page with a small floating window superimposed on it. This contains links, each of which leads to another third-party site: Products goes to the Wikipedia page for Skittles, Media goes to either YouTube or Flickr, Friends goes to Facebook and Chatter to Twitter. Skittles is a brand site, so not as relevant to corporates as Boone Oakley, but it does tackle the practical issues neatly. The floating window stays in place wherever you are, which is a clever way of holding the elements together.

Mix to match

Any ‘serious’ company would have issues with this. Where would you put press releases, investor information, your sustainability report? Where would put the ‘company voice’ – the definitive statement of a position or response to an allegation. And why would you tear up your site when Google, at least as it is now, will send so many visitors your way?
There is a middle way. Use a combination of your own and third-party sites. Human resources departments know this best. Go to Sodexo’s US careers site and you will see a ‘Network with us’ panel to the right. This leads to pages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and also on specialist sites such as the ‘military community’ (with the unbelievable URL, sodexohiresheroes.com). But the mix between third-party and home territory sites makes good sense.
Coca-Cola recently launched a new corporate home page. It has signposts for standard content in Our Company, Press Center etc but also links to a YouTube marketing channel, to Facebook, to Twitter and to Coca-Cola Conversations, the group’s ‘heritage’ blog. In other words, it is breaking down the barrier both between its own online territory and other people’s, and between marketing and comms. There’s no ‘either/or’: the web is as important as social media, and vice-versa. The trick, as ever, it to use both appropriately.

First published 02 September, 2009
< Back to Commentaries