From our archives : How companies are warming to spinning the web

| August 16, 2006

Back in 1998 the internet was the driver of a new industrial revolution, traditional business models were supposed to be blown away and if you were not busy ‘incubating’ your own internet business you may as well pack up and go home.

In 2000, of course, that view went spectacularly out of fashion with the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Many organisations put their internet projects on the back burner or took them off the stove altogether. But it is clear that they are now steadily and relentlessly coming to the conclusion that the web is the future, not the past. And not just for e-commerce: the ‘soft’, unmeasurable, areas of corporate information, recruitment, reputation management and marketing are starting to receive at least as much attention as is e-commerce, with its nice hard figures. It is these soft areas that are my focus.

Most of the pieces in Spinning the Web are about the corporate website – a company’s main site, typically signalled by its name with ‘dot com’ on the end. But the columns are of relevance to substantial organisations in the public or non-profit sectors, too. Issues such as coping with the media, recruits, reputation management or international networks will also be encountered by governments, international organisations and charities.

Today in History

It is easy to see why these sites tended to be neglected in the early years of the century. It is less obvious why they are now again becoming a focus.

The answer can best be explained by history. The first business websites were set up by IT professionals who were having fun playing with the new medium. A website could be built for close to nothing and anyone with a little skill could set up something quite plausible. Best of all, the rest of the business had close to zero understanding of the medium, so the ‘techies’ could do what they liked.

Not surprisingly, few sites were aligned with business goals. Typically, copy would be poured from a brochure onto the web, some fancy graphics (maybe animated) would be added, and that would be that. When marketing or other departments did get involved there was no great improvement – they were in the hands of the IT people and anyway had little understanding of what the web was or could do. What they could grasp was that a website did not cost much and millions of people could see it.

As a result, websites grew up like weeds. Where other new technologies have had to be nurtured until they established themselves, the web has always had the opposite problem: how to stop sites popping up, uncontrolled, all over the place.

Early movers

The first corporate sites were equally poorly thought out. ‘Our rival has one, so we had better have one’ was often the justification. There were some exceptions. Asda, a UK retailer (now owned by America’s Wal-Mart), decided that the only area that made business sense was recruitment, because savings on costs there could be measured reasonably accurately – it was right then, and some believe it still is (look at Mars.com for an example).

During the dotcom boom, slick new media companies came to the fore, persuading companies that they needed an expensive web presence. This was not a time when hard returns on investment were demanded, with the result that many companies went for a marketing-led approach that did little to serve different stakeholders’ needs. Some attempted to impose a standard look and feel on their subsidiaries’ sites; most did not.

There were positive and well-focused attempts to get it right. Human resources (HR) departments kept investing, while investor relations teams, realising that the web allowed them to make announcements simultaneously around the world, looked for ways to build on this. But there were few attempts to consider the corporate web presence as a coherent whole – lack of co-ordination was a problem, with internal politics being played out all too visibly on computer screens across the world.

The Dark Ages

The collapse of internet euphoria did not change the direction, but did mean the corporate foot was taken right off the pedal. The lack of budget did not have a dramatic effect, simply because it costs little to keep a website going and make modest enhancements. Instead, there was a gradual degradation of many web presences though, as before, HR teams tended to keep up the effort. Indeed by now it was clear the website was the main starting point for all young people, and increasing numbers of older ones, to research a potential employer. It behove any HR director wanting to attract the right talent to keep their area up to scratch.

By 2003, large corporate and organisational web presences tended to have a similar profile: a core site going a bit ragged through lack of interest, bar a tolerable investor area and good but disconnected careers section; dozens or hundreds of country and business sites remaining distinct, with intermittent links to the centre; and no governance structure to speak of – individual subsidiaries were allowed to do their own thing. Where a common look and feel had been introduced, it was almost invariably falling apart through lack of interest, control and funding.

The Renaissance

It was inevitable that competently-run organisations would at some point realise that this could not go on and, in the past two to three years, there has been a good deal of rethinking. In some cases this came from an almost casual attempt to get to grips with a communication channel that the organisation owned, but did not well understand. One group scared itself silly by adding up the cost of its websites around the world, and realised it could cut a third off the bill by bringing them together (individual websites may not cost much, but when you add them together and cost your staff’s time properly, it is easy to get into millions). Another carried out a survey and discovered that a completely different set of people were visiting its sites from the ones it had assumed.

More often, the motivation has been a somewhat vague feeling that ‘things have been allowed to slip’ and that something needs to be done. But what?

I put the organisations that have decided to do something into two categories. First, those that have gone for a superficial re-skinning of their sites without any attempt to tackle the underlying problems. To return to my ‘weeds’ metaphor, they have created a beautiful bed of flowers at the centre, but have allowed weeds and bushes to ramble uncontrolled elsewhere. Look at the General Electric site (ge.com) for a surprising example: it looks lovely, but as you dig deeper and deeper the coherence falls to bits. If GE can’t get it right, it’s not surprising others too fail.

The second, smaller group is the one that I believe has the right approach. These are companies that have taken a long look at the web, and thought hard about how they should be exploiting it. In most cases this has meant carrying out market research, seeing what others are doing, analysing their own needs in detail, and drawing up a strategy. The technical side then cuts in. Should existing websites be drawn together onto one platform? Should the web be built in-house or by an agency? Domestically or offshore? Finally, the ‘good’ companies then consider governance: once the shiny new site is up and running, how can it be managed to ensure it does not fall into disrepair – that the weeds do not spring up again?

Astra Zeneca Logo

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