Ever visited a company’s website and thought ‘ugh?’ A website says a lot about a company, and it is often the first point of contact between the company and the customer. Business people know that image matters. Some would even go so far as to say that image is everything and that the public’s perception of that image is reality. The image that a company portrays becomes its reality. If a company’s image speaks of success, then that success becomes real. In fact, so many business people think this is true, that they take it a step further and advocate a “fake it ‘til you make it” image philosophy.
Even hardliners who insist that a company’s business model, products/services, management and operations are what primarily drive success will usually concede that a company’s image plays a pivotal role in a company’s ability to grow and thrive in today’s marketplace. And, today, a company’s website is a major part of its public image. A company’s website can either undermine or oversell a company’s success by telling the wrong story. And that can be damaging. What does your company’s website say about your company? Is your website telling the right story?
From Cutting-Edge to Essential
Anyone old enough to have been in the work world in the 1990s can remember when it was avant-garde for a company to have a website. The World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee in late 1990, was used primarily by universities for the first few years. It wasn’t until 1993 that the first web browser, Mosaic, was born. By 1996, it had become obvious to most publicly-traded companies that a public Web presence was advisable. But the average business owner still saw a website as cutting-edge marketing.
Then, thanks in part to the dot com boom and bust, by 2001 telecommunications companies had a great deal of overcapacity because many of their Internet business clients went out of business. That, plus ongoing investment in local cell infrastructure, kept connectivity charges low, helping to make high-speed Internet connectivity more affordable. As the World Wide Web became easier to query and more usable, it also increased in popularity. By 2002, most companies understood that a website wasn’t just a marketing ‘nice-to-have’ but an important sales tool.
In the last decade, with the advent of Web 2.0, better search engines such as Google and Yahoo, lap tops, mobile devices and social media sites, a business’ presence on the World Wide Web went from novelty to necessity. A company website became essential to marketing, image and even business operations. E-commerce transformed retail operations. Even companies not involved in retail established websites as online portals for servicing customers around-the-clock.
An Equalizer That Cannot Be Ignored
The interesting thing about websites is that they allow small and mid-sized companies to compete on an even playing field with giant corporations. For the first time in history, a mom-n-pop shop and a Fortune 500 company can be nearly indistinguishable in quality and content, if not in actual size, on the Web.
Case in point. In its infancy, Amazon went head-to-head with all the major bricks-n-mortar booksellers in online sales. A big name — Amazon — and an ultra big website belied the fact that the company was a small dot com start-up. Although in 1996 Amazon was tiny in size (and revenue) compared to Borders and Barnes and Noble, it was on equal footing online… and eventually Amazon gained the upper hand. By the time that Borders went out of business a dozen years later, Amazon had expanded its product offerings well beyond books and grown to over 24,300 employees globally, twice what Borders ever employed worldwide at its zenith.
Likewise, a company with little or no presence online can be equally detrimental. Just as websites can make small companies seem equal in stature to its behemoth competitors, lack of a website can make a giant company appear small or, even worse, illegitimate. In the case of Borders, their decision to outsource their website and online sales to Amazon contributed directly to its demise. By the time Borders realized its mistake and tried to stake a claim in the online world, it was too late. In today’s marketplace, a ‘major player’ in any industry without a website will, at best, raise questions from potential employees, vendors and customers alike, as well as provide ammunition to competitors… and, at worst, make investors and creditors wonder if the company is even a formidable company, despite its balance sheet or holdings.
Websites Tell A Story
In the nearly two decades since the advent of browsers that ccan search the World Wide Web, websites have evolved to be more than just digital brochures. A company’s website should serve three main functions. It should serve as:
- the company’s information hub
- a generator of leads / clients / customers
- a customer engagement-service center
The company’s website tells a story about the company, from its history to how it does business. Through words, photos, graphics, tools and navigation, the website says the story of what a company values and how it operates. A company’s website can either oversell, under-represent or misrepresent the company. Presenting an accurate, complete and polished image is the goal. If a company undersells, oversells or misrepresents itself as something other than what it is, there is a danger that it will disappoint customers.
So what elements should a website have to communicate an accurate story about that company? Whether the website is for a law firm, real estate investment house, lender, CPA or big box retailer, a website should:
- explain in real words (not fluff) what the company does
- offer complete and accurate descriptions of the company’s products / services / portfolio (which helps with search engine ranking)
- provide case studies and client testimonials of the company’s services or customer reviews of the company’s products
- provide bios of the company’s owners/founders and leadership,
- give the company’s history,
- communicate what sets the company apart
- offer value-added information (articles, webinars, seminars, blog) related to the products or services that benefit customers
- have a glossary of terms for specialty or highly technical data
- provide a section of commonly asked questions by customers and answers
- offer customers a way to give the company feedback such as an online survey or service center
- provide contact information and contact tools, such as live chat and call generation, that are clearly visible and accessible
- provide tools so customers can share and print information from the website as needed in a user-friendly format
- provide customers with a way to save favorite items, articles or estimates
- provide tools that make it easy for customers to shop (such as a shopping cart)
- provide tools that make it easy for customers to purchase (such as credit card processing or provide a payment vendor such as PayPal)
- provide tools that make it easy to register for seminars, webinars or other informative sessions offered by the company
- provide tools that allow customers to get appointments, quotes, estimates, or calculations online (if applicable)
- provide tools that enable customers to upload and download documents as needed to do business with the company
- have engaging graphic design that is pleasing to the eye
- minimize the use of elements that are invisible to search engines such as flash
- have navigation that is easy to find and use
- use code that is easy for web crawlers to navigate
- offer a mobile-friendly version of the website for customers using a mobile device
- ensure that any customer data maintained on the company’s servers is secured with encrypting
Review your company’s website. See if it has some, most or all of these elements. Consider if it is reflecting accurately your company’s brand and position. If not, consider which additional elements your company’s website needs in order to communicate an accurate, complete and compelling story about the company. With over 70% of the industrialized world connecting to the Web daily, every company should ensure that its brand and online image align. Although photographer Ansel Adams once said that there was nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept, it may be equally offensive to portray a fuzzy image of a sharp concept.
Quote of the Week
“You now have to decide what ‘image’ you want for your brand. Image means personality. Products, like people, have personalities, and they can make or break them in the market place.” David Ogilvy
© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.