The Curious and The Needy: Does Your Website Deliver?

by · August 29, 201213 comments

Inbound marketing. Content marketing. Social Media Marketing. Internet Marketing. In a time when the whole of the marketing and communications landscape has changed faster than many companies can adapt (and most certainly before they can master), is there small wonder some brands have found themselves having zealotously favored one strategic direction and roster of tactics over another, maybe only to later command the troops to, “Quick, now go thataway?”

Publish twice daily on your assigned topic! Tweet four times an hour with these two hashtags! Know the best time of day to update the Facebook page wall! Oh my.

That’s a lot of rabbits to chase. So I wonder, in the quest to stimulate more traffic per post or incite greater social engagement, have companies ended up neglecting their online home base, the mechanism that enables self-discovery and facilitates customers need to get things done, a brand experience heavyweight? I’m talking about the website.

Information Superhighway

Once upon a time, website content was a near-to-exact copy of a company’s brochure. Pages were editorially, navigationally, and visually flat (well, except for the mind-numbing animated GIFs). Usability was limited to nerds in R&D departments building real shippable products and Dewey Decimal still reigned over libraryInformation superhighway science. The site wasn’t there to solve or sell. It just occupied space (kind of like your last trade show booth) in a perfunctory move to not be out-presenced by the competition.

No one worried about what it might take for a website to satisfy the information needs of a prospective customer. Customers used the phone. The salesperson on rotation (or appropriate to the geographic territory) would take the call, deliver his spiel. He’d arrange a meeting and get an address for the file. Business was completed over dinner and drinks, where hard criteria got discussed and soft character evaluations took place.

Our “personal” computers were used to produce sales letters, proposals, and fax cover sheets. And we had the Internet for … well, we were still figuring out what for. Someone in IT bought a domain for the company then skipped out on a few days of work to take a coding class at the local junior college.

Up the brochure copy went, dotted with photos of the suit-wearing executive team. Voila! The corporate website wasborn.

Look Away From The Squirrels

Flash forward about 20 years. Yeah, that stings, I know. It’s okay, you’re in good company. Many of us with tricked-out smartphones still remember the feel of thermal paper and its maddening tendency to curl. We all know the worlds of work, business communication, and marketing communications have dramatically changed. But it isn’t nostalgia you hear from me. It’s a call for folks in Sales and Marketing roles to take a breath – step away from the Wildfire and HootSuite interfaces – and let a couple decades of cultural and economic change teach a valuable lesson.

Greater options, sagging buyer trust, and stiffled buying power comingle with target customer’s needs for increasing amounts of information. Information needed in the discovery, evaluation, and closing phases of the decision-making process. The very reasons that social media is a force multiplier in marketing demonstrate why your website remains your best online asset. People have real questions about what it’s like to do business with your company, why your products should be considered, and how their choice reflects their own values and priorities. Websites are expected to be deeply comprehensive, rich with descriptors andsocialtoolbox
specifications, offer reassurances, serve as a conduit for initial introduction, and so much more. (The Aberdeen Group goes deeply into web experience management and the role content plays in converting customers in this report).

The website is a brand’s official dossier. The social and blog stuff are witness interviews and psychology tests.

Long Live The Website

The website evolved from an electronic brocure (all that “me” marketing we’ve talked about) – a virtual branded paperweight, really – to a critical stop along the often indirect path buyers take from needs identification to purchase. Fact is, we seldom buy anything from a brand we haven’t previously experienced without first seeing what we can uncover in search (or glean from our trusted friends and colleagues), even if we ultimately buy in a store. The stratospheric jump in website importance (as a lead development and conversion asset) has been compounded by social signals performance pressure, popularity indicators, and other electronic medals and ribbons. Prospective buyers are checking out accounts to get a feel for “the company behind the coompany,” Get Satisfaction accounts to suss out customer service attitudes, and Facebook brand pages to tune into the conversational flow. But the website remains the touchstone.

In the information economy, content is the currency and relevancy is the exchange rate for determining the value of the experience a prospective customer may have with your brand. It’s probably reasonable to assume the company you work for has advanced it’s web strategy from brochure copy and static pages with no relationship architecture to something a little more representative of the times.

But I urge you to take a long moment and ask the difficult questions:

  • Can your primary target buyer accomplish their highest-priority tasks upon visiting our site?
  • Is there a distinct progression path and right-sized information available for each stage in the decision journey?
  • Is it written for humans to read (and bots to love)?
  • Do the forms actually work, and does someone prioritize follow-up?
  • Do your prospects search for ergonomic chair cushions while your content talks about “pressure-relieving spine alignment devices”?

A miss or two here may mean you lose business to competitor, one who deeply understands how to woo prospect attention and virtually assist them down the aisle. A company who knows how to construct an integrated, distinctive brand Integrated brand experience is a no-brainerexperience.

There’s No Single Platform Strategy

“Thanks for nothing. Now on top of all this social stuff, you’re telling me we probably need to do a deep dive on the website, too.” Imagine that, a multi-platform strategy. Well, the idea here wasn’t to suggest there’s one singular strategic direction to follow. Social proof matters, just as blog content baits and reinforces perceptions. They both assist with search performance. Just take care not to let your website moulder in important functional areas. Nor should it leave visitors at loose ends, longing for a more contextual brand picture or whether your company’s product or service really is the solution to their problem. Answers should be obvious and resolutions swift.

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About Heather Rast

Heather Rast

Heather is Principal of a boutique Cedar Rapids digital marketing company. She develops brand positioning strategy and marketing communications plans to distinguish small businesses from the competition and attract their ideal customers. Her content planning, writing, and online community-building work helps larger businesses better serve their audiences with useful information that solves problems as it builds affinity for the brand.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Ginny Soskey

    Heather, as always, awesome post! Love that you urge people to ask the difficult questions–it’s tough to do so, but worth it. Thanks for taking the time to write this post. :)

    • heatherrast

      Hey there, Ginny. Thanks for stopping by. We’re all time-starved – the marketers and the audiences we aim to convert and cuddle. It can be a huge undertaking to allocate resources to address all the important touchpoints our brands have with customers and prospects. I think it’s wise to take a big step back, to reassess which business objectives the website can support and the goals it can facilitate. Sometimes that work is harder for a company to take on than it is to agree to a social editorial calendar. Harder doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get done.

  • Barry Feldman

    Well done Heather. I also love the difficult questions section. Wrote a story myself about the conversion from brochure site to marketing hub, but it has a tragic ending:

  • Fred Sheller

    I think this article goes a long way to capture the challenges many companies face in this new 
    (social) digital age. So many well-established companies struggling to stay relevant and not loose touch with the new information age, and on the other hand it seems many startups worry more about establishing a digital presence rather than delivering a working product or service.

    “Do your prospects search for ergonomic chair cushions while your content talks about ‘pressure-relieving spine alignment devices’?”

    Simply brilliant! :)

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  • heatherrast

    Addition:  Just noticed a recent post published by MarketingProfs that takes a contrasting point of view. Read:

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