Rethink Your Web Strategy or Fail

Not an Afterthought: Many Marketers Still Forget What It Takes to Excel in the Online Space

By Published on .

Let me paint a picture of the world today as a company sees it and then again as a customer experiences it.
Three Best Sites
Users can submit, vote on and purchase best-of designs. This is a powerful model of user co-creation.
It's ugly, but it's enticing to the dog lover. Ads are placed as 'sponsorship,' which makes it relevant to users' interests.
Another great example of a site that is built around user interests, organization and input, and is engaging.

A company, maybe yours, has a home page on its website where it organizes the user experience so that users can learn more about the company, its products, its vertical solutions and so on. The idea is based on going from the highest "levels" of content to deeper and deeper levels based on specificity.

The customers, instead, go to Google, type in search strings of keywords or needs, and click through to find the specific data they're seeking. Sometimes. Sometimes customers go elsewhere, not even knowing your company offers the right thing for them. In doing the search, Google effectively becomes the user interface that creates a customer's experience of your site and content.

That's not necessarily what the web marketing team, let alone the CMO, of any company is planning on, is it?

Give them a reason to visit
All of us know the web has a huge impact on our experience of brands, products and services. As one point of data, the internet now represents nearly 20% of media consumption, a significant measure compared to newspapers (about 5%) and magazines (about 3%), according to ACNielsen.

Talk about needing to take it seriously.

So here's the key question: Do you have a relevant web strategy? Or do you have a traditional marketing strategy with advertising, demand-generation campaigns and a PR program, with some web stuff added as an afterthought?

I work daily with major brands and what I see is still a bolt-on strategy. We need to rethink that.

I am always amazed when I go to a site I visit frequently and it forces me to go to the same standard home page. Good for them, not good for me. It wastes my time and it keeps me away from what I want.

Google backroad is main avenue
Customers aren't passive any more. And they're price-shopping your products in ways you may not even imagine. If you had a bike shop and knew customers could receive a $250 government rebate on a folding bike for commuting, wouldn't you want to pull those people to your site, phone and store? Instead, "your" customers Googled "folding bicycle" and found several bike shops and manufacturers' sites. Then, a few lines down from the first entry, they hit the mother lode: a site containing "Folding Bike Information," somewhat dated, but with enough detail so that they could get 90% of the way to a purchase decision without even considering your company's products.

Why? Because websites -- at least the poor ones -- focus on the brand and a silo of products or services. Customers have little reason to come to the site, except to buy. But buying is one sliver of the web. The online medium should be used for the full spectrum of awareness, consideration, preference and purchase.

Companies expect users to come to their site, but don't support creating an experience. Instead, the customer is given information. We need to turn websites into places where customers can play, learn, enjoy, build communities and exchange information. Ultimately, the experience should be so fulfilling that they are passionately interested in knowing more about your company and its products and then seek to belong to that brand.

Web 1.0 brought information access to the masses. With Web 2.0, customers and companies are more transparent than ever before. Online brochures, blogging as pitchman and posing won't work in Web 2.0. When a company starts acting and posing like the demographic it wants to sell to, it's downright alarming.

Still, marketers fail to remember what it takes to excel in the online space: customization, co-creation, use of influencers and personalization.

The winners
Consider the winners. Amazon enables everything from content to advertising to be context-driven. If I've expressed interest, Amazon can track and propose recommendations. All of us have likely gotten so used to Amazon's excellence in this domain, we might even take it for granted. But what other site that can do that level of content customization?
Three Worst Sites
For a high-traffic site, it is all text and is difficult to search. This site should offer users the ability to customize searches
They've got a beautiful, fash-driven site, but it's all about product, product, product. This site is so 1996.
Like Panasonic's site, Nikon's site focuses on products alone and is essentially a glorified brochure.

At, you can submit, vote on and purchase best-of designs. The model is powerful. Co-creating with your customers maximizes your chances of success when releasing your products: Category enthusiasts know your products as well as market preferences, and they help create products that get picked up by the rest of the market.

Lego started a small group of key user influencers to shape their next-generation Mindstorms product, aimed at adults. According to Wired, four years after its release, Mindstorm still sells 40,000 units a year at $199 a pop (with no advertising) and has become Lego's all-time best-selling product.

Dogster is the prototypical community site -- it's ugly as a Chinese Crested, but it's hard for a dog lover to resist clicking. It's all about the subject, and advertising is placed as "sponsorship," which puts it in relevant context to users' passions or obsessions.

Finally, Nike and Converse have changed the rules of the game by letting me create shoes how I want them. The idea is to grab people emotionally and intellectually so that they are sucked into interacting. I started with a few clicks to see what kind of shoes could be made and soon I was in love with the brown, white and orange shoes with my company tag on them. The purchase was a natural connection. Not because I needed shoes, but because they made my vision real -- I wanted those shoes.

So what does this mean in terms of web strategy?

From a business and innovation angle, you've got to make ways to co-create with your customers. While it's not yet perfect (people who vote on something may not necessarily buy it), it will become a powerful way of both designing and creating offers. It will also form our affinity and brand association.

Move from one too many communications and enable a conversation. Recognize that our new world is much more egalitarian. Customers have a lot of feedback to give you.

And always find ways to customize your offers. Consumers expect us to have different "audience settings." A web page that doesn't recognize who the person is limits the conversation. Users should be treated differently than non-users, who should be treated differently than competitors. Let customers post comments, share tips, share information and add data. The company that figures how and when to do this is going to win big.

Incubate influencers as market advocates. Smart marketers will drop spending on campaigns that cost a lot but don't get at the crux of building and deploying an influencer marketing strategy to shape perceptions in partnership with customers.

Finally, change the metrics. We'll know we're in the right place when marketers lose the "they searched 12 pages of our website" mentality and any other metric du jour currently being used to claim victory in the battle to persuade customers and influence their behavior. We'll know when site usage relates more to the category and less to the product; the customers will have gained so much from you and with you, there would be no question of what product to buy.
Nilofer Merchant is CEO of Rubicon Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based firm that creates business and market strategies for high-tech firms' complex business needs.
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