Why the route is open to change

As most companies run round in websites that like the cars of the 1980s are variations on a few basic models the time is ripe for fresh thinking, David Bowen says.

Our LinkedIn group has been carrying a fascinating conversation around the way the Coca-Cola site is going (my last column is part of it). The theme is the big one in our area: what is a group website for?

Whatever the detail, I much agree with a point Coca-Cola’s Ashley Brown makes: “The corporate web should be the target of constant innovation, with no sacred cows.”

He clearly feels there has been almost no innovation up to now. Whether you agree with that or not, it does feel as though it is a good time to take this most valuable piece of company property and to shake it hard.

Déjà vu all over again

Until the mid-1980s, motor cars were becoming increasingly ‘samey’ – small variations on a handful of basic designs. Then they started to diverge as manufacturing advances and leaps in imagination brought us people carriers, SUVs and – now – a spectacular range of oddities from the Nissan Cube to the Range Rover Evoque. It is an altogether more interesting time if you like wheels.

Are we now in the Eighties of the corporate web world? Well, there has been some real innovation (by Siemens, for example) and plenty of polishing – people who need corporate information generally get a better service than they did a decade ago. There have been social media and apps – though their effect has been less than the noise around them would suggest. And there has been a recent trend to innovate in navigation, which is as sensible as launching a car with the foot pedals reversed.

But it is true that most corporate websites are following one another in circles with no great effort to do anything fundamentally different. As with cars, there is a trans-Atlantic split: to generalise wildly, Americans use their sites for selling, with corporate information as an add on; Europeans do the opposite.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they started thinking differently, to give us the Evoques and Cubes of the web world? 
Rather than blithering on about navigation, why not go back to basics? What are you trying to do, and what are the tools you have to do it with?

Revolution without the ‘r’

We could back beyond the web and start again. I wrote a pre-web book about multimedia that assumed virtual reality was the future. But it is websites that took us by storm and I don’t see them giving way soon: they are just too flexible. So, how they might evolve?

Ashley Brown points out that National Geographic started funding expeditions, but is now a media company. The Coca-Cola site has, he would say, morphed from being a corporate information provider to being a media site. Why should other companies not make similarly radical transformations?

As I said in my last column, every large organisation is sitting on a bundle of its own stories – all waiting to turn the corporate website from a desert-dry repository of facts into something groovy and engaging. Coke is one publishing model. Siemens, with its commissioned short films, is another. Or look at General Electric with its chaotic but engaging magazine-style material on sites with strange names like Txchnologist and Healthymagination.

An easy lesson here: hire an out-of-work journalist (plenty of those around) to turn your most-read publication – your website – into your best publication.

But this is fairly tame stuff. Where else can we go?

Paths less trodden

A few years back a cry would have gone up to scrap the site and go with social media instead. A US advertising agency, Boone Oakley, did this in 2009. Instead of a website, it had a YouTube channel. But YouTube (and Facebook and LinkedIn and all the others) have horrible usability – they are hopeless at handling the complexity a company needs. The Boone Oakley website is now just that: a website.

Apps are another fashion, and well done they can be impressive. Shell’s Inside Energy app – a multimedia magazine – exploits the strengths of the iPad well. But it is not, and is not intended to be, a substitute for a website.

The king is dead

Let’s be radical. Can we kill the corporate website?

One idea that came up in our LinkedIn discussion was ‘floating off’ corporate information to a trusted third party – like Wikipedia, only trusted. An old-fashioned professionally edited encyclopaedia, perhaps? It’s a nice idea, because it would combine the warts and all approach of Wikipedia with the trust of, say, Britannica. But what is the business model that would make it work?

On the same theme, would financial analysts not prefer one giant third-party site where they can get all the information they need in one standardised place? You could say they have it on their Reuters and Bloomberg terminals. But they don’t: if they did they would not use corporate sites (which they do).

What about going precisely the opposite way – keeping the website as a filing cabinet, a store of facts? Can this ever be the right approach? For some companies, surely. Take PotashCorp, the world’s largest fertiliser company. It lists products on its site, but potential customers are limited in number and all know it. What it needs to do is to impress investors, so its core is a high-quality investor relations section. This makes sense: Potash is based in Saskatchewan, Canada, not a local trip for many investors or analysts. They do not need stories, but hard facts.

Corporate plus

Or, we could keep the corporate website as a corporate website, but have a separate online magazine. Mr Brown says corporate visitors benefit from the magazine material, so he won’t be going that way. But I can see it working for some companies.

Heading in a different direction, we could think about the convergence of internet and television (the Siemens approach only more so). Or maybe I wasn’t so wrong in 1992 and virtual reality is the way forward (Second Life was just too early). Many possibilities.

We often say a website reflects the company that owns it – and particularly the silos and divisions that make it so dysfunctional. Several companies have set up ‘newsrooms’ to try to break the barriers down. But will anyone go further – destroy the distinction between marketing and corporate communications, for instance? That would inevitably change the whole nature of the website. There’s a sacred cow

First published 04 December, 2013
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