From our archive : What the conference gathered

| June 10, 2009

As last year, the overwhelming impression from our annual Web Effectiveness Conference – indeed, from all our meetings – is that people running large web estates share many issues, wherever they work. That was particularly noticeable this time because as well as our usual crowd of blue chip corporations, we had several international organisations (including The World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Patent Office) and also a major non-governmental organisation, Amnesty International.

Connections on the move

I was most struck by the (possibly accidental) scheduling that put Owen Pringle of Amnesty right ahead of Florian Hiessl of Siemens. The common theme was the mobile web. Florian Hiessl described how he had launched a simple but neat mobile version of siemens.com This was just after Owen Pringle had related how Amnesty was busy using mobile phones to communicate with – and get feedback from – the inhabitants of Kibera, a vast slum on the edge of Nairobi. At the moment the mobile effort is based on SMS text messages, but the move to web-enabled phones will bring Siemens-style communication to a vast number of people who are unlikely ever to own a computer.

Both speakers had numbers that showed the significance. There are 4 billion mobile phone users now, against 1.3 billion people who have internet access. Two thirds of those users are in the developing world and by 2011 more than 50 per cent of the African population will have access to mobile telephony. Florian Hiessl stated that by 2012 more users will have access to the internet via their mobiles than from their PCs. In 2007 406 million people had mobile web; by 2012 1.3 billion will have. Penetration rates are lower in poor than rich countries, but not by the great multiples that characterise PC use. In China, mobile internet penetration is 6.8 per cent – only a smidgeon behind Germany’s 7.4 per cent.

This is very good news for the developing world. As Owen Pringle says, “the digital divide is shrinking because of mobile phones”. It is also potentially massively significant for companies and organisations that will be able to talk directly to (and with) a great swathe of the world’s population that is currently out of reach. I see business as well as communication models being rethought wholesale.

Everyone’s in the media now

Our keynote speaker was Andrew Gowers, former editor of the Financial Times, author of the Gowers Report on intellectual property and soon to be head of media for BP. He also founded FT Deutschland , which, he pointed out, could be the last traditional national newspaper launched. Ever.

As media organisations struggle to find a model that allows them to pay journalists to do proper journalism, non-media organisations needed to do some serious thinking, not least because, thanks to the internet, “every company has become a media company”. It has also hugely increased the risk of reputational damage: “The web is a vast edifice of comment built on a narrow foundation of fact… a damaging view in one country can easily become received opinion worldwide”. This means companies must change how they think about how they get their word out: “If you think that by communicating with 12 people [as traditional press offices do], others will follow, you’re wrong”.

This can, however, be good news for organisations that get it. “Journalists will need more and more help because they will have less resources and time”. And if you have trouble getting the resources you need, he advised you should borrow from McDonald’s in the UK: “A consultant calculated that reputation stories were costing it £138 million. That got senior management’s attention”.

Questions of governance

Most of the speeches covered what we can broadly call governance – the chief worry for all but a blessed few web managers.

The complexities of running a large global web estate were highlighted by Shell, which has been wrestling with the issues for longer than most. Marco Nieboer explained how the group has a network of full-time web managers, dividing markets into three tiers and doing its best to cut the size of the web estate right back. Edna Yahil described how Philip Morris International was also cutting back – this time on languages. The aim is to reduce the number from 27 to six – though countries such as Japan can have their own local language sites if they like. Both companies are trying to make their estates more manageable – I suppose the trick is to do that without depriving valuable visitors of the service level they need.

Stuart Bartram, who runs Aviva’s site, explained why he was now part of the group’s branding effort, and so how marketing and corporate communications really can work together on the web. A big issue; to return to.

David Green of Deloitte seems to have got many of the governance problems licked – he put it down to ‘Irish charm’ (his), but I suspect there’s a good deal of hard work behind it, too. He was talking about ‘brand protection’ – the different ways villains can cause you problems – and in particular domain name issues. Life will become more complex when the regime is liberalised; you could spend a banker’s pension on buying up every URL you ought to have.

Accounts and accountability

Simon Quayle of GlaxoSmithKline gave a thoughtful presentation. Should corporate websites tell stories and, if so, how can you get people to take them in? From the audience Florian Hiessl of Siemens said the trick is to use video, Katia Reck of Novartis thought search engine marketing was the way to do it. More research is needed here.

Tracy Green’s description of the way the British parliament (all those MPs, all those expenses) is trying to become more accountable was fascinating. The level of openness is already way ahead of anything a corporation would be asked to do – though it did occur to me that private shareholders might well be treated a little more like voters. My favourite quote from her: “There’s no point in trying to do all this web 2 stuff unless you have the website right”.

Down the road

My colleague, Dan Drury, ran a workshop about measurement. What value would delegates put on particular actions? The holy grail (which we expect to find any day) is how to put a monetary value on a non e-commerce website. I was surprised by how many useful numbers we were offered; the grail gets closer.

One of the most intriguing speeches was by Simon Lande of Magus. ‘Vendors’ are not usually let in, but he didn’t try to sell anything; instead, he did a good job of explaining what the semantic web is. I nearly almost understand it now, and I instinctively like the way that it is trying to improve what some people (not me) call ‘web 1.0’.

Finally, we had a couple of sessions on social media. Sabine Kostevc of Roche gave a talk that was slightly sceptical but also highly constructive. We then had a workshop to talk through the issues. Lots of interesting ideas, with one intriguing dichotomy: on a show of hands, a third of the delegates think Twitter is a flash in the pan. But about the same number were ‘tweeting’ from the conference (search for #wec09 on twitter.com to see the posts, though don’t be confused by those from the identically-tagged World Education Congress…).

It was also noticeable that web managers are a good deal less sceptical about blogs than they were last year – which makes me wonder if in a year’s time they will be coming round to Twitter. We’ll see.

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Our Bowen Craggs Club membership has enabled us to benchmark all aspects of our digital presence against global all-sector best practice, share lessons and ideas with peers, and get both quick-win and longer term recommendations for improvement. Bowen Craggs is also providing us with valuable advice on our approach to online communications following the acquisition of G4S by Allied Universal.”
 

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