Every once in a while (about once a week or so) I am asked to take a good look at a bad website. In quite many cases, I find myself looking at a large corporation’s B2B website then (of a listed company, often).
Over the years, I must have looked at around three hundred of them. Funnily enough, my findings largely break down to a Top 5 list of recurring issues. In other words: 90% of the 300 websites I’ve scrutinized over the past 10 years share the same 5 issues. They have become stereotypes.
And all of them are rooted in similar organizational foundations, issues, and boundaries, it seems.
Standard corporate websites come in boxes
The idea of a standard three-column layout dates back to the Nineties.
The idea of “modularizing contents” into boxes makes quite clear that not the content is planned, but its appearance. “Formal manipulability” is the unspoken paradigm for most corporate websites. Agnostic towards actual messages, or contents.
Little boxes, filled with ever changing contents. That seems to be what corporate dreams are made of.
Corporate websites use stereotyped photography
Business people pointing at things on screens, business people shaking hands, business people in a meeting situation, business people smiling towards the camera while their meeting mates are bokeh-ed into the background … oh come on.
Alternatively, you’ll find photos of people with helmets looking at buildings, at cranes, or operating heavy machinery (with helmets). Never looking towards the camera, as they are so focused on their task-at-hand. Seriously.
Thirdly, you see the obligatory testimonial portraits (of customers and VPs alike), hammering out a common “Striving for excellence” or “Very satisfied” statement.
Very convincing. Especially, when you are offering “highly customised solutions”.
As everyone else in your industry does.
What’s wrong with the main page contents
Certainly: the corporate website’s content is like a shop window, helping busy visitors to catch a glimpse on everything that’s possibly important for them. The obligatory testimonial image carousel, with some heart-warming teasers about the latest achievements of company xyz underneath. In the right side bar box the “Latest News”, “Quick links” (when listed, often with “Latest Annual/Quarterly Report” and/or “share price”).
Everything (or better: something for every target audience) needs to be present on the front page. The result: content clutter, and utter boredom.
And, on a side note: most of these contents are pointing again to contents, not to things users could actually achieve on the website.
Avoiding to be contacted through publishing contact information
Oh – I particularly love it when you are asking me: “What are you looking for?”
My answer: “I bloody don’t know yet. I want to figure out why the hell your website came up for my search. And, in essence: I want to speak with somebody who can point me towards the right direction.”
Understandable: Every member of every target audience has different purposes for contacting a corporation. Sales inquiries shall not go to the IR department, media inquiries shall not aim towards the Board of Directors.
But we too often see a rough mixture of business division contacts, audience-specific contact points, and local offices. You make your audience select from a list of all countries and overseas territories the UN acknowledges. That easily makes over 220 entities, and you are cramping them into a single alphabetical list, starting from “Absurdistan”, all the way down to “Whatnotistan”. This is pretty much giving me an impression of an organization that wants to accommodate everyone.
I may simply want to get the nearest point of contact, I may not even know whom to turn to within a multimillion Dollar business with over 10000 employees. Show me your ten most important markets on the top of the list, so that I can know whether to expect a powerful service organization in my country or not.
Oh, and (no offense meant): “American Samoa” has had total population of 69543 inhabitants in 2011. Nevertheless, this country appears fourth in your country list.
Selecting this country on the most recent website I encountered brings up one contact point in Denmark. And one in Germany. Good morning, Sir! Your contact points for American Samoa are not even within the same bloody time zone than the market you are targeting!
Lack of “do”-context for product information pages
Equally appealing as a hole in the head: assume I have made my way down to a product page, found something that I want to know more about. Not a sales or service inquiry, but just a question whether this product can do the dishes as well. Do I get a contact information within this context?
Certainly not: “Please select your country.” “Please select your industry.”
Results are then listed by country, by city and by business unit. Alphabetically.
Legacy content: “About this site”
My favourite so far: “This site is optimized for Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 and Netscape 6 browsers…” Wow! In 2013, this is truly cutting edge.
But it gets even better:
“…The choice of browsers is based on the data received from our website user logs. The site is best viewed at 1024 x 768 pixel resolution or higher.”
The page concludes with the notion “Last updated: Sep 20, 2012″.
Oh my. Heartbreaking, isn’t it?
As a matter of fact: one wouldn’t believe how many legacy contents an average corporate website can have. Some pages just exist on template level with hard-coded contents in it, and are hardly ever touched after they have been initially created (they don’t even appear in the regular document tree, and are thus easily overlooked).
But to take up the cudgels for the poor content editors on corporate websites: none of this can be considered your fault. Particularly in larger corporations content editors, web masters, and the internal IT play a rather marginal role these days, and hardly get any appreciation.
But these certainly are not the only residues we see at work on so many corporate websites.
In essence, we see the issues with corporation’s websites rooted in the following five traditional principles of organizing corporate information:
(1) When these websites were built first, the idea of “more in-depth content is better” was prevailing. Publishing contents, and never expiring any, was the resulting action. Even in the 21st century, old contents are still migrated away from outdated infrastructures.
Whether these pages and contents are popular doesn’t matter much. As most corporations have quite expensive stuff to sell, any look at any of these pages could tip the scales for a potential prospect visitor.
(2) In 1996, the release of an HTTP server add-on for Lotus Notes (named “Domino”) set a standard for corporate document management. This paradigm of a client-server setup with a central content repository is still prevailing in today’s Enterprise Content Management Systems.
The resulting content repository structures are often based on a central (internal) storage paradigm where no proper distinction was made between internal and external readers. Audiences and their needs, and the purpose of the presented documents, were neglected from the start – and still are today.
(3) Splitting the organizations in “business units” and “business enabling units” was creating the responsibility split between “content” and “infrastructure”. Corporations are bound to this distinction until the present day.
This as well may explain why the contact information has so little context on most sites: product content is created by a different organization than the contact pages, which are either coming from “Corporate Communication”, or from the “Sales” organization.
(4) While B2C brands have meanwhile understood that ease-of-use is a core asset of their websites, corporations still perceive their websites as places where only particular content interest are satisfied, i.e. customers and prospects will just go for getting either contact information or product information, investors go there for getting Financial reports, media representatives go for corporate information.
(5) Despite all attempts to clean the market through outright acquisition of competitors, most corporations still behave as if they were acting in a seller’s market.
“Our products are the best in the market”, and “Our products speak for themselves” are mantras from a bygone era.
Making your products (and especially: your services) accessible is the primary goal of a corporate website. Most things corporations sell these days are not simply mass market products, but are embedded into carefully crafted, individualized services.
This requires a different approach to communicating. “Feature”-driven communication needs to be amended with “Benefit”-driven communication. This transition is not easily made, as most of the organization’s legacy material is still very likely feature-driven.
Yes: corporate websites often suck – and they do so for a comprehensible reason: what has worked before, is not easily changed. The pity is: you won’t be able to afford your content piles much longer. Or, more precisely: you won’t benefit from it much longer. It’s a liability, not an asset. And in order to sail the shallow waters of volatile markets and customer needs, you need to get rid of the inert mass that only documents how mediocre you have become meanwhile.