The Corporate Website: Five Strategies for Making Your Site More Relevant and Social

Corporate marketing messages do not always reflect the market’s perception of a product or service. The practice of “push” messaging was designed to shape a brand and suppress its inevitable weaknesses. After all, even the most reliable products and services have the potential to behave in ways not anticipated by the consumer. And in the past (pre-Web) world, customer experiences were usually self-contained, disconnected and not easily shared with others. Companies were therefore able to control customer expectations and take decisive corrective measures on their own terms if something went awry.

But in today’s connected marketplace, people outfitted with low-cost digital devices and personal publishing tools like blogs are sharing and distributing content that can have a dramatic impact on brand perception. Companies can no longer ignore the content customers create and the methods they use to spread it. The solution: companies must not only listen to their customers, they must also engage them online.

AN EVOLVING WEB

In 1989 Sir Tim-Berners Lee developed the information protocols and markup language necessary for sharing and transmitting pages on something he called the World Wide Web. But many people had already created communities for themselves on the Internet. From the mid-1980s on, technical enthusiasts had been using pre-Web forms of online communication to interact with each other. Bulletin boards (BBS’s), ICQ, The Well and service providers like AOL and CompuServe were the predecessors of today’s thriving social networking websites Facebook and MySpace.

From a historical standpoint, the origins of the Web are rooted in sharing and collaboration. And the centralized Internet communities of the 1980s and ’90s are now distributed and autonomous, super-connected and armed with blogs, mobile technology, video cameras and messaging tools like Twitter. Services like YouTube and Flickr are free, and annual “pro-accounts” cost less than a month of basic cable TV service.

The conversations are no longer technical but instead have become product-oriented. An example of this involves the popular new smartphone, the Apple iPhone. A Google search on the term iPhone hack returns blog posts and You- Tube videos on how to extend the functionality of the device. Not only is this content not produced by Apple, it ranks on the first page of the Google search results.

Indeed, the corporate website serves a different function than it did a decade ago. At first, marketers tried to force it into a one-way monologue designed to push messaging to consumers. The early corporate website was often no more than an electronic version of a company’s print materials. Now – as the iPhone example shows – this is simply not possible.

But although firms cannot control the “conversation,” they can certainly develop content for it. Features like events, career opportunities, company photos, and product information and demos are not static components permanently bolted to the corporate website. They are instead hosted off-site using specialized Web services like SlideShare, Flickr, Blip.TV and Upcoming. com – services that are uniquely designed for the content they host. These content items behave more like mini-campaigns or social objects that customers can use to write about and share in forums, blogs and social networking profiles (Figure 1).

FACTORS LEADING TO THE EMERGENCE OF THE SOCIAL WEB

To fully examine the impact of the social Web on the corporate website, it’s important to identify several of the reasons why the social Web emerged.

Wireless Internet and mobile. Internet access is now faster, less expensive and ubiquitous. Cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta and Boston have either already implemented municipal WiFi programs for providing free or low-cost wireless Internet access or have plans to do so. People no longer need to be tethered to their desktop computers or laptops in order to connect with someone online.

Consumer electronics. Low-cost digital devices like camera phones capture audio, pictures and movies, allowing for instant communication of this media between friends as well as much wider audiences. The combination of Web services and mobile technology gives users the ability to broadcast and publish to the Web from any location. For example, the Nokia N95, when combined with Qik, a Web service for broadcasting video, gives users live video streaming capability right from their cell phones.

Personal publishing. Personal publishing is either inexpensive or, in many cases, free, and blogging platforms like WordPress, Movable Type and Live Journal are easy to use. Some of these platforms allow their developer communities to develop plug-ins, useful components that increase the functionality of the products. Today, more than 70 million weblogs are being tracked by Technorati, a search engine for blogs, with more than 120,000 being created worldwide each day.

Web services. Services like YouTube and Flickr are free to consumers; an annual “pro account” costs less than a month of basic cable TV. The range of available Web services includes tools for messaging, keeping to-do lists, managing projects and sharing bookmarks.

Search. For many, search engines like Google are the primary interface for interacting with the Web. Search engine results pages return a variety of content, including business websites, news, social media sites and various file types (such as video and audio).

STRATEGIES FOR MAKING YOUR WEBSITE MORE RELEVANT

By employing the following five strategies, you can ensure that your website will become more relevant to your users.

Promote disclosure and transparency. Networked markets have expectations. They want access to as much information as possible about a particular product or service. In many cases (particularly in ecommerce scenarios), the buyer and seller are geographically separated. For this reason, the buyer and seller hold unequal amounts of information. Disclosure statements are tools businesses can use to bring information asymmetry into balance.

For example, PayPerPost, a company that connects content providers like bloggers with advertisers, caused a debate in the blogosphere about the need for disclosure. The company paid bloggers to write about products without requiring them to disclose that the post was paid for in the body of the post. A search for the company name in Google returns the following search results on the first page: “PayPerPost Offers to Sell Your Soul”; “The PayPerPost Virus Spreads”; and “PayPerPost tests your ethics, &Edelman’s fake blog for Wal-Mart.” This is significant because search engines like Google are providing a permanent digital reminder of the issue for anyone searching on the company name.

Let the network spread your content. If no one knows about your products or services, they can’t buy them or tell their friends to buy them: this is the premise for content distribution in a connected marketplace. Syndication functionality built into widgets gives users the ability to spread content quickly and efficiently.

Hugh Macleod, a marketing strategist for South African winemaker Stormhoek, has leveraged these tools to good effect. As the writer of the blog “Gaping Void: Cartoons Written on the Back of Business Cards,” he allows readers of his blog to copy the content for noncommercial purposes as long as they give attribution and don’t alter or otherwise transform the work. As a result, his tiny cartoons, often witty and humorous, are syndicated across hundreds or perhaps even thousands of blogs via a combination of widgets and Creative Commons licensing.

Own your words – all of them. Whatever electronic content you develop, develop it as if it were going to be seen by the outside world – even videos, blog posts and Email that are intended for internal use only. If you don’t want to see a particular piece of content spreading out over the Web, don’t create it. And if it does spread, make sure you can stand behind your words.

For example, one of Yahoo’s internal memos (to be seen by its executive team only) referred to the company’s waning resources as being “spreadable like peanut butter.” The document was later leaked to the Wall Street Journal, which republished the memo and ran an article entitled “The Peanut Butter Manifesto.”

Employ microchunks and permalinks. Microchunking is the practice of cutting down digital media into usable pieces. Each piece has its own address (known as a permalink), which should contain relevant keywords indicating what the content is about.

For example, late-night talk shows lend themselves to the practice of microchunking. The entire show is typically an hour long, including a monologue, some guest appearances and even a musical performance. Instead of distributing the entire hour-long episode as a complete video, the content owner could offer each segment as its own clip with its own address, plus an RSS feed so that all future segments could be automatically downloaded.

Tear down the walled garden. The corporate website has evolved from a static brochure to a dynamic aggregator of both on- and off-site opinions. Instead of trying to keep visitors on site, the website directs visitors to relevant conversations in blogs, comments and social networking sites. Thus, marketers have evolved into the role of trusted advisors, behaving as custodians who actually send users to other sites that might interest them. The days of “opening a new window” are behind us.

The computer manufacturer Dell is using its community of PC enthusiasts to influence how the company rolls out new product offerings. Dell Idea Storm is a Dell-sponsored website where users submit and vote on features like the ability to order machines without preinstalled software. The fact that Dell is now selling machines with the Linux operating system is being attributed to feedback that was first discussed on the community-run website.

Know when to say you’re sorry. When faced with major public relations incidents – for example, a wide-scale product recall – companies often have no time to mobilize the traditional press release process. In such scenarios, a chasm is likely to emerge between corporate messaging and the reality of what’s happening in the market.

Blogs provide an appropriate business communications tool for rapidly transmitting news and updates to the market. For starters, the architecture of blogs means that their content is microchunked automatically. New posts have permalinks, and posts are assembled into categories. Users can subscribe to feeds, and the comments section is designed to enable the website owner to interact with website visitors. In addition, blog posts are well suited for embedding content from off-site Web services like PowerPoint presentations and audio and video recordings.

JetBlue, the discount airline, was forced to cancel all fights during a snowstorm in 2007. Faced with hundreds of unsatisfied customers and a major customer relations backlash, the airline’s CEO, David G. Neeleman, decided to use YouTube to deliver his message. The company was able to move quickly, posting the video within days of the first delayed flight. Mr. Neeleman issued an apology, outlined a short-term plan for corrective action and instituted a passenger bill of rights. The video was watched more than 300,000 times, and more than 300 comments were left.

A Google video search for “youtube + jetblue” returns not only Neeleman’s “Our Promise to You” video but also a video from a delayed passenger documenting the three days it took for him to get home. Both the customer and JetBlue were using a common space even though they weren’t directly engaged in a dialogue (Figure 2).

Don’t underestimate your audience. Customers no longer have to wait on hold for customer service. Instead, they can post their service issues on a blog, revealing potential weaknesses in a product or service. They can escalate an issue on their own, particularly when a customer-centric super node like Consumerist.com picks up on it.

For example, in 2006 Vincent Ferrari, who at that time was an AOL customer, wanted to cancel his account with the Internet service provider. The AOL representative did his best to encourage Ferrari to keep the service, but Ferarri, dissatisfied with the experience, posted an MP3 of the conversation to his blog. The recording quickly spread, and many former AOL customers shared similar experiences attempting to cancel their AOL accounts in the comments section of the blog post. Ultimately, more than 1,000 comments were left. Ferrari was later interviewed about the experience on NBC News’ “Today.”

CONCLUSION

Given the external factors that helped shape the social Web, marketers are faced with new challenges when developing relevant messages and interacting with customers. Since customers and prospects alike are outfitted with innovative and inexpensive publishing tools today, many customers are finding themselves acting as “influencers,” with their recommendations and opinions capable of reaching thousands of people. By using the strategies for engagement outlined in this paper, we hope that the connected marketplace is brought into balance, and becomes more of an ecosystem that raises the level of customer service, encourages relevant messaging and results in better products.