Leaning on the authority of well established brand theory, I confidently assert that the overwhelming majority of businesses should have one (and only one) website.
In organisations where the web is not a boardroom priority, this credo is impossible to implement, as departmental managers wanting to hit targets and meet commercial imperatives, fill the leadership vacuum by embarking on well–intentioned but siloed web initiatives.
This provides the beleaguered departmental leader with some of the success they crave, but leaves the customer confused, as they need to know the internal structures of the organisation in order to engage with it online.
In the interests of completeness and accuracy I should caveat this by citing an obvious exception to this rule, which is FMCG product websites. FMCG branding theory assets that the overall brand is lesser (e.g. Proctor and Gamble, Cadbury’s) so the product brand might be greater (e.g. Lynx, Dairy Milk, Crunchie) as the consumer’s emotional relationship is primarily with the product brand rather than the corporate brand.
Notwithstanding this exception, the guiding principle is that the customer’s relationship is with a single brand and their expectation is that their online engagement will be with that brand (not sub–brand and definitely not departments).
There is good news on the horizon as once again web pioneers have forged the solution to the challenge. Crudely, if the BBC can house content types as disparate as sports, news, weather, TV, radio, catch–up, CBeebies, BBC Shop, BBC Trust and BBC Worldwide under a single website, then any of the rest of us need a pretty monumental excuse not to do the same.
There is much to admire about how the BBC have architected their content however we’ll focus our praise on two specific areas. Firstly the “corporate design guide” is light–touch and secondly the implementation plan is practical enough to live with the grey areas.
The light–touch principle is an important one and refers simply to the dynamic whereby individual departments are not unduly hamstrung by corporate guidelines “from head office” which restricts their own product set, branding style or creativity. The touch on the BBC is so light that it is 60 pixels deep, is at the top of every page, and comprises a logo, six links and a search box. That strip is sacrosanct across the site, with the content below at the discretion of the individual department.
The practical implementation plan acknowledges that for large organisations, their website is akin to a structural or civil engineering project, i.e. it takes months or years to implement and the traffic still has to flow when construction is underway. This means that whilst there is a premium layout to their pages (see for instance the UK news page) that pages which don’t follow that model (see for instance their Capital Markets page) still work.
The key is that there is clear leadership which sets standards and enough flexibility to enable departments to integrate with the standards in line with their own requirements.
We recently helped a large corporate organisation launch a microsite for a marketing campaign which involved above the line across online and offline media. None of us wanted to launch an independent site, but the technical and design infrastructure of the main site didn’t offer the requisite flexibility. Whilst the microsite (let’s call it productabc.com) performed relatively well, take a guess at the most searched for keyword on the site search of the main corporate website for the duration of the campaign? You’ve got it – “product abc”.
Customer loyalty lies with brands. They don’t have the time or inclination to learn new URLs to support campaigns. They expect to go to a single source, be signposted where they need to go, get the information they need, and get on with their lives. Unsurprisingly, Google feels the same way.
The Internet is a hard, ruthless place. Organisations can quite rightly struggle to keep their digital footprint healthy and their digital shadow positive. In both of those environments organisations have influence over their brand but definitely not control. However organisations have full control over their digital voice and therefore must look after it, by giving it time and energy at Board level.