Why ‘corporate’ is a deadly word

While the obituaries are being dusted off again for the corporate website, online group-level communications is in rude health, David Bowen says.

At Bowen Craggs’ annual conference next week we’ll be touching on a hardy perennial question: Is the corporate website dead?

Extra fertilizer was provided last year by the then head of digital at The Coca-Cola Company, who said it was. That helped stir a new flurry of pieces: only last month a Forbes article was headed ‘Content is king and the corporate website is dead’.

The problem is not so much that the answer is yes or no, but that it is the wrong question.

Terms and conditions

The first issue is one of semantics. ‘Corporate website’ means different things to different people. In Europe it means a group’s main website – nearly always the one with ‘dot com’ after its name. In the US it often has a much broader meaning and includes what we would call brand sites, different beasts altogether.

The second issue is linked to this. So much of the discussion on corporate websites comes from the brand and marketing communities. A piece on ClickZ.com by Roger Katz of Friend2Friend says: “Coca-Cola’s declaration was important, because it speaks to a question increasingly posed by consumer brand marketers – what to do about the corporate website”. Fine for him to discuss how it affects his community, but it is only one community. Should it be deciding the fate of the corporate website? I don’t think so.

Whatever the definition, ‘corporate website’ just doesn’t sound important enough. Worse, it is tainted with ‘corporate communications’, the Cinderella department that does… well what does it do?

Here’s a better question: How should we use our main group-level communication channel? That should get the boss’s attention. Shouldn’t it?

A vibrant constituency

The group.com (or .fr, or .in or whatever) site is the first place many people will visit if they want to know anything about the company – they may get there direct (30 per cent, according to our research) or by referral (20 per cent); more likely via a search engine (50 per cent). It should therefore also be the place where the group presents its best face to the outside world.

Who are these visitors? The two biggest groups are likely to be customers and job hunters. We will present figures next week (24/25 June) showing that even where the group name appears on no products, huge numbers of customers visit corporate sites because they want to know about the company behind the brand. Think of the bad publicity Apple has had over its Chinese factories, of the long running boycotts of Nestlé, of BP in the Gulf of Mexico. But it isn’t just about defending reputations, it’s about building a positive image. Conventional advertising and PR can play a part, but increasingly the internet is taking the lead.

Then there are people looking for jobs. I have yet to meet a company that doesn’t claim that ‘our people are our most valuable asset’. Anyone seriously interested in an employer will look at the group website – where else would they go? Now add journalists (if only to check on the spelling of the chairman’s name), financial analysts and investors (the real passions of the board), government officials, NGOs, CSR people. All those served by the corporate communications department.

Fit for needs

With all these people coming to the website, what to offer them?

That will depend on the organisation.

Coca-Cola did everyone a favour by stirring up pre-conceptions with its whizzy online publication, but it also set a lot of hares running off in the wrong direction. The Coca-Cola Company is at the extreme edge of what we might call the fluff/nitty-gritty spectrum – it does not even make its own product (beyond a syrup it sends out to bottlers); it is a pure consumer-marketing confection and as such its main channel must have a pure marketing role.

Go the other end of the spectrum – to mining companies such as RioTinto, BHP Billiton or Vale. They get stuff out of the ground. The few new customers they acquire will be most unlikely to find them via the web. What these companies need is to hire the best people and come across as responsible in an environmentally edgy industry.

In between are the pharmaceuticals, oil companies, retailers, engineers, IT groups, FMCG companies and so on. All have different needs that balance ‘fluff’ and ‘nitty gritty’ in different measure – there is no one model that can serve them all. 
Nor is the main website equally important for every company. On a different spectrum, neither Coca-Cola or RioTinto would be much damaged if their websites went up in a puff of smoke. Those that use their sites to sell, for example in IT, would be lost. Any company with the potential for reputation collapse (think BP in 2010) would be taking a huge risk by failing to keep a high-quality channel open to the world. There are other spectra – not least the relative importance of websites and social media channels. It is all very complex.

Structured response

The most cerebral companies do not follow fashion but work out what they, themselves, need to do to handle this complexity. For example, Siemens does not have a group-level marketing function. But it saw that huge numbers of customers were coming through its websites, so it created ‘Customers and prospects’ within corporate communications. The labels don’t really matter. What does is that Siemens saw the reality of what was happening online and adjusted its organisation to match.

Few can do that – others weep when they see what Siemens manages, but the only real difference is that Siemens’ senior managers understand the importance of online communications, while theirs do not.

As long as ‘corporate communications’ remains the Cinderella department, producing no products and no obvious sales, it will be ignored. Rename it ‘Group-level marketing’, and we may get some real reorganisation. But that is the sort of decision that can only be made at the very top and, as I said in a column earlier this year, board understanding of web communications is too often miserable. Change that, and we can change everything.

First published 18 June, 2014
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