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Do We Still Need Websites?

Given Our Obsession With Social Media, It's a Timely Question

By Published on . 50

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
So with all this relentless talk about Twitter accounts, Facebook fan pages and cool new apps, I have a serious and timely question. Do brand websites still matter?

Yes, I know -- even asking this question is a bit digitally sacrilegious. Websites are to digital strategy as models are to fashion, but do we really need them?

I mean, didn't things seem a tad curious during the World Cup when brands like Adidas and Nike actively promoted their Facebook page -- not their primary website -- at the end of their TV spots? Just this weekend, I saw a similar cross-feed to Facebook for Kohls. Talk about kicking the ball into a different goal.

Think about all the hoops we've jumped through to register proprietary domain names, in every country and business type -- this perpetually rationalized by an almost unstoppable parade of GoDaddy ads (titillation and all). As a domain-name collector myself, it's hard not to feel a twinge of asset deterioration.

But before you start penning the "ditch the brand website" memo, hold your tweets for a moment. Websites are not going away -- they might be more important than ever -- but they serve a different and evolved purpose today, especially in this new "social" context.

Think wholesale, less retail. Think distribution, less destination. Think serving, less selling.

At the end of the day, brands today live a decentralized, if not fragmented, existence. The brand "home" has line-extended itself into a network of smaller residences and rented apartments -- or what we might call "brand stands" -- all primed for meeting and interacting with the consumer at various stages in the purchase, loyalty or advocacy cycle. A Facebook fan page is a classic brand stand.

A smart website feeds and refreshes the brand stands. It anchors the brand database, arguably the most coveted asset, and sets the tone and standard for the brand's ethos and attitude about feedback, expression and service. Put another way, it establishes that first critical (often unforgettable) impression. A great website also smartly syndicates, re-circulates and curates social content from the brand stands.

In a seamless "just in time" distribution network, content is refreshed from the website's wholesale supply network. There are some variations to this, of course. YouTube, a de facto hosting and syndication platform increasingly popular to brands, mimics this hub-and-spoke model, but brands still control the primary distribution network or original video content.

Websites are important because you own them. They feed into your database, and the users they attract tend to more loyal and viral, a big reason we should never give short shrift to direct feedback flows. If you carefully analyze the migratory patterns of Apple influencers, for example, you'll find that the Apple website is one of the most critical and effective marketing tools. The same applies to Patagonia, which effectively uses its website to nurture what VP-Marketing Rob BonDurant described at a recent Word of Mouth Marketing Association conference as a "tribe" of advocates.

Even beauty brands like L'Oreal, Estee Lauder and Olay are effectively exploiting their websites as influencer, advocacy and customization hubs. New initiatives like Kotex U have appealed to social connectors and influencers on its website through smart sampling, online couponing and robust Q&A involving moms, experts and peers.

Importantly, if we're truly entering a POEM (paid, owned, earned) media mix model, brand websites are key. They anchor the owned, reinforce the paid and incubate the earned. Moreover, if search results are material to either your brand's reputation or purchase cycle, websites take on an elevated level of significance, as they consistently index at the top of search results. Worth mentioning here that "earned media" linking to brand websites indexes at exceptionally high rates, which for the ROI-wringers out there easily translates into "cash" advertising value. Linking is also a product of trust, and research studies consistently rank websites higher than other ad or marketing vehicles on the trust factor.

Of course, most brand websites are ill-equipped and ill-prepared for an adaptive, sense-and-respond digital "social" age. The site platforms are often impenetrably bureaucratic, impossibly inflexible and all too commonly cornered by territorial IT or "digital" managers who have little incentive or reward structure to drive innovation or real-time iteration. Most marketers -- most of whom "iterate" dozens of times a week in their own personal social-media pursuits -- have little patience for this.

And so we inevitably have lots of "work-arounds" -- essentially, rapidly assembled (and mostly "social") brand stands without a cohesive or coordinated center. Hence the overnight brand Twitter account, or the sometimes over-priced "mini-site." In the short term, that's good for innovation, but it starts to get tricky, if not risky, for short- and long-term brand equity. Consumers hate inconsistency and duplicity.

So what brands need today is a complete rethink and "refresh" of their site strategy. Flexibility and agility should be the orders of the day. They also need open feedback protocols and warm welcome mats (for example, the friendly and inviting "contact us") that drive consistency with the happy brand faces on all the external brand stands. They need to empower visitors with easy search and discovery, and enable tons of pass-along opportunity.

Most important, they need to be built to feed the next generation of brand stands sitting on mobile devices and app platforms, many of which will encompass next-generation e-commerce. Think of your next website as the mission-critical building block from which social media, mobile, e-commerce and other digital innovation draw. Keep in mind the skill that will be necessary to make all this come together. Indeed, curation, co-creation and distributed community management are the new lynchpins of "content management."

Here's a piece of good news. You don't need to figure this out in a vacuum. Both internal and external measurements can quickly get you the 80/20 on what you need to do. As with search, a website is a database of intentions, and the data flows from search queries, video engagement and FAQ pings, and feedback can wonderfully inform the content choices within the brand stand network, especially the Facebook fan page and Twitter account. External conversation is also a wonderfully underused cheat sheet.

So again, don't throw away the website. Listen, adapt and restock the exploding network of brand stands. Think less about "web master" and more about social "spoke caster."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of NM Incite, a joint venture of Nielsen & McKinsey, and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association. His column explores the convergence of marketing and service.
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