Is your international company interacting effectively with its customers on the worldwide web – or is your website so far behind the times that it looks like it belongs in a museum? Below, Charlotte Beugge talks to some of the experts who help companies create an online presence – and, in the process, a corporate image…
Websites have changed hugely over the past few years. Which is why, if your company’s website isn’t up to date, then your content may not be helping your business. It might even be damaging it.
The days of a packed homepage overloaded with information and a few dull photographs of the company’s offices, experts say, are gone.
For starters, the “look”, they explain, is important. To get an idea as to what they mean by the “look”, they advise company executives to start by looking at stylish websites in other industries, to begin to get an idea what can be done, and is being done: The New Yorker magazine’s website, for example, is widely admired.
Style isn’t everything, though: there are also some content fundamentals you need to get the fundamentals right.
As Arabella Dymoke, of the Good Website Guide, warns: “You have 60 seconds to engage people before they move on. You need to give them the right information quickly, and allow them to navigate easily.”
Keeping it up to date
Michael White is the digital account director at the London financial PR company Lansons, and also runs one of the top 10 public relations blogs in the UK. (http://michaelwhite.online).
He says that while websites were “static places” back in the “early days” of the 1990s, containing little more than the basic information about a company, “today, they have become integrated with social media, [and] are active places where information is updated all the time.”
So, for example, he notes, corporate websites today will have links to YouTube videos embedded in them; links to their own Facebook site and LinkedIn profile; and an embedded Twitter feed.
The message, in other words, is that one’s website these days should convey the sense that it’s a centre of activity, like the company it represents.
The ‘right’ social media
That said, with both established and new social media channels to consider, website experts note that it’s important to ensure your business is using the right ones for it, and its image.
Explains Wes West, creative content lead at Bottle PR: “If you think you can bring something interesting and engaging to Instagram, that’s great. But it’s important to think about how much time and effort you put into the platform, versus the value you’re likely to get out of it.”
Another thing to bear in mind, website experts note, is that you will need to keep social media sites up to date, too, along with your main website: an out-of-date social media presence could be worse than not having one at all.
How do your customers view the site?
Fewer people are sitting in front of a desktop computer these days. Websites are increasingly being viewed on tablets and smartphones; content is even now being read on smart watches. This means that your company’s website needs to work on all formats.
“Who are you targeting?” White urges company executives to bear in mind.
“How are they getting the information?”
For financial companies that have a lot of information they wish to convey to their website’s viewers, the website design experts urge companies to research how their audience is reading the information they’re posting, and then design a website that best accommodates the audience viewing habits that their research has revealed.
For example, they note, it might be better to target one’s audience with weekly emails, rather than relying solely on website visits.
And then there’s the browser question, Dymoke points out.
“You need to check how your site will be seen using different browsers – so check it on Firefox as well as Google Chrome, for example,” she says.
“And it’s essential to check it across different devices: it can be tricky, but it’s important [your website] looks good across all of them.”
‘Don’t do it yourself’
You might expect website design experts to say this, and they do: it’s worth paying for the expertise of a good website designer – an amateur site, they stress, can make your company look amateur.
“A website is often the first point of contact for a potential customer – or the first place they go after meeting a representative of the management firm,” explains James Simpson, managing director of The Marketing Campaign Co, a UK-based marketing agency.
“This makes the design of the site important. If it’s not professional, some people will be put off right from the start.”
“Like any other piece of marketing, when it comes to looks, first impressions count,” adds Bottle PR’s West.
“Digital designers have dedicated their lives to understanding the semantics of colour pairings and typography, along with hundreds of visual skills.
“When starting work on a new website, it’s important to realise that if you’ve spent your career working in the financial industries, you’re probably not best placed to be dictating the look and feel of your website.
“A better approach is to find a web designer or digital agency which you trust to really understand the brand you want to portray.
“Give them a clear brief based on your business needs and let them lead the design of the site.”
Graphics and visual tools
Flooding the website with information is not always a good idea – and for details you need to include, it’s worth thinking about how you do this. While companies will want the head office address on the site there are up to date ways of doing this. White says: “Integrate Google maps on to your website so users can find where your headquarters are. Everyone understands and likes Google maps, and it is a better way of showing your location than simply writing on your address.”
Simpson, though, says that including lots of information “is absolutely fine, as long as it’s easy for a customer to find what they need. So a well-designed, clean site with intuitive navigation is often best”.
Indeed, he adds, for financial companies, it can be important to include lots of detail – such as history, team members and products – to “demonstrate credibility”.
For his part, West says financial planning tools and data visualisation can be great, but he adds: “I think it’s important to understand what you hope to get out of them. On one hand they can be a fantastic piece of content marketing that can set you apart from your competitors. On the other, they can be drains on your time and finances, which fail to attract any new clients because they’ve not been publicised properly.
“Make sure you get basics right before doing anything too complicated”.
Like all industries, that of the website design trade has its own expressions for certain things, and one that you might hear is “pumpkin hacking”. According to Michael White, the Lansons digital account director, this comes from the idea that in order to grow the best pumpkin you can, you must first weed out all the stragglers – so only one pumpkin gets all the nurturing. In website terms, this means monitoring one’s website data, and only investing in the content that is found to be keeping customers interested.
If a certain type of content isn’t showing results after a period of time, this theory goes, it should be cut it loose, like an unripe pumpkin that is failing to flourish, in a patch in which others are growing well.
In website terms, this means you then would concentrate all your efforts on growing that successful content, which should then tie in to delivering the company’s ultimate business objectives.
‘Clear content strategy’
According to website experts, the desire to overdo one’s website content can be strong, particularly, they say, among investment companies. But they stress that only content which is truly useful should be included. (See box, right.)
“Generally, content is the last thing to be thought about, when it really should be the first,” says Bottle PR’s West.
“Businesses tend to underestimate the importance of having a clear content strategy, as well as the time it takes to produce the content.
“Agencies can provide rich and thorough content strategies, but the first step is to understand why you’re creating each piece of content, and what you hope it will achieve.”
Simpson points out that content creation can take a long time. He adds: “Clients will often want to write the copy for the site themselves – usually to save on costs. However this can be counterproductive, because they may struggle to write in the correct way for the web, and be too busy to devote the necessary time to the work.”
Time to ditch the PDFs?
Graphic tools for showing the performance of one’s company for example can be great – but you can overdo it. “Content has to be useful,” stresses White.
Keep it to updated, relevant articles – and, as said earlier, don’t dismiss using older technologies, such as email, rather than relying on your website to be your main, or even only, tool for reaching potential and existing clients.
This brings us to the PDF, which is the format many companies choose to use for such things as their annual reports, which they expect viewers to access via embedded links on their websites.
White cautions, though, that because “PDFs are designed for printers, not screens”, few people may end up printing these out, and would actually prefer to read the content on their screens.
White says he recommends something called Turtl (www.turtl.co), for such situations.
“It’s a tool which allows you to get across the important information of a financial report, for example, in a graphic, readable way.”
No grey men
Last but not least, there’s the awkward dilemma of whether or not to feature photographs of key executives at the company on one’s website, particularly if they happen to look a lot more like one’s great-uncle Fred than, say, George Clooney.
“Old white men in suits are something to avoid” on corporate websites, West says.
“I think photography for the financial sector always risks feeling quite cheesy.”
Nor is he a fan, he says, of what he calls “those clichéd photographs of bright young people getting their first mortgage”.
Illustrations, in some cases at least, might be preferable, he advises.
To see a summary of website do’s and don’ts, compiled from the recommendations of website design practitioners, click here.
This story first appeared in the March issue of International Investment, which may be viewed online in its entirety by clicking here.