Why it’s time for a quick fix

In 2007, website owners should resolve to get up to speed with the pace of broadband take up. One French carmaker is already well on the way.

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Amid the excitement and fluff of ‘Web 2.0’ it has been easy to miss an organic development that is rather more important: the mushrooming of broadband access. This year site owners should be taking advantage of it. Peugeot Citroën, the France-based car manufacturer, already has, and its site is worth raiding for high-speed ideas.
According to the OECD the number of broadband subscribers in its member countries – broadly, the developed world – rose by a third in the year to June 2006. Nine countries have more than one inhabitant in five with fast internet access. They include South Korea – which has long been way ahead and is still in the top pack – the Nordic countries and Canada. The US has 17 per cent penetration, the UK 16 per cent and the European Union as a whole a little less than that. Given that everywhere except Korea was in low single figures five years ago, there is little doubt that most of the developed world’s inhabitants will have fast internet connections in a handful of years.
The numbers understate the real effect of broadband, because internet users with an always-on connection will inevitably use the web much more than those who have to wait through all that cracking and hissing. But what can website owners do to exploit this newly invigorated audience?

Let’s get buzzy

A silly question to ask YouTube, the site that lets us make, watch and spread videos, because it would not have got far without broadband. Some consumer sites also make much use of Flash animation, while media companies such as the BBC are riding the bandwagon with aplomb. But what of your average Jo Company?
It is cautious, not least because it is nervous of anything that could be inaccessible – not easily read by people with sight or other disabilities – and the current ‘best practice’ corporate site is clean, elegant but static. General Electric is a good example. Contrast it with the home page of Peugeot Citroën. It could hardly be more different, using Flash to assemble a series of information blocks onto a background picture. There is no attempt to coordinate colours and it is surely neither static, clean nor elegant.
What it is is buzzy. Run the cursor over a link under The Group, and it will turn rapidly purple. Do the same under You Are, and it will generate a new set of links as well as a different picture. At bottom right is a box running a slide show promoting different features; at bottom left is a video. This week it is about a gizmo that squeaks if your car drifts out of a lane – the video starts playing immediately on the page, not in a separate window.

Differentiator drive

This is the sort of page that would have made me heave with despair in the old days. The animation is standard Flash-driven stuff – slow-loading and on a modem connection plain annoying. Worse, there no is non-Flash alternative, though if you have a screen reader you do get a tolerable service as the whole page is replaced by a simple list of links.
But let’s look on the bright side – what does the approach add if you do have broadband? Quite a lot, because it makes the site fizz in a most uncorporate way. It speaks of innovation, a message that Peugeot Citroën wants to get across (it is, after all, the group behind some of the great originals in motoring history). It is attractive for potential customers and also for people looking for jobs. If you want to work in the automotive sector, this looks like an exciting place to be.
Beyond the home page the site keeps up the buzz by mixing multimedia with lively feature-driven content. The Magazine, promoted on the home page, has strong material, including a piece on old and new propulsion technology and clips of an animated science fiction film for which Citroën designed the hero’s car. The design is lively everywhere, with much use of the pastel colours so favoured by French companies, and Flash videos scattered around.
Exploitation of broadband is the most obvious sign Peugeot Citroën is trying to be different, but not the only one. Of the three main sections on the site, one is called You Are (a journalist/ stockholder/ analyst investor/ candidate). This is a user-centred way of providing corporate information to target groups. It works and it is different. Where most companies have one investor section, the company has two – for stockholders and analysts respectively. This, too, shows an understanding of the quite different needs of these groups, and it makes perfect sense.
There are things to complain about. The standard of English needs much to be desired (would it not make sense to hire an Anglophone editor?). I’m sure many people will hate the look. And, as I said, if you have a dial-up connection you will probably steam with frustration. But as with its cars, Peugeot Citroën has refused to follow convention and is looking to the future. Now, who will follow it?
First published on ft.com 5 January 2007

First published 10 January, 2007
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