The Un-Dying of the Microsite

My Prescription for Reviving an Old Web-Marketing Standby

By Published on .

David Armano David Armano also writes the popular Logic + Emotion blog.
If there's one type of headline that gets attention, it's about claiming the death of something. Well, I'd like to proclaim the "un-dead" nature of a format that I think has the potential to become something more powerful than we are currently seeing.

The microsite was adopted by the marketing community as a tool of convenience. Continuing to add sections to our large company/product websites every time we wanted to promote a new product, feature or service simply became too unwieldy. And specifically for advertisers, well, they needed an online extension for their campaigns to live in the digital space.

And so the formula had begun. Launch a campaign, build a microsite, buy online media to drive traffic to it. Everything was in its place -- advertisers now had a presence on the web, clients were happy about it, and the big money was still being pumped into the traditional channels because that's how it's always been done. In the past year lots of us have had a grand ol' time proclaiming the death of the microsite, and with some validity. Fact is, the internet is littered with thousands of them and the majority are either promotional in nature, designed to win awards vs. serving up value, or simply provide no incentive to ever return to them. On top of that, most of the microsites I come across are difficult to use, take way too much time to load, crash my browser or use contrived marketing language written by professionals who have spent years perfecting their craft.

The reason microsites have come under fire is because amateurs have provided more compelling experiences in many ways. Sorry, it's true. If you Google a product name, it's not uncommon to come across a blog which has reviewed that product and is ranked higher than the professionally produced microsite. How do you think Engadget became so wildly popular? Still, I think the microsite format has legs. Here's why, and here's what we can do differently.

Analyze Digital Behavior
Where I see the opportunity for microsites lies behind simple human behavior in the digital space. Think about how the typical person interacts with digital media. My friends and family outside of the industry still send me links via e-mail. Simple copy and paste -- the lowest barrier there is. Most "regular" people I know still bookmark WEB PAGES. They aren't managing multiple feeds, readers and social bookmarks like I do. I am not a representative of mainstream digital behavior. I don't have numbers to back this up, but going on intuition and personal experience, I'm fairly confident that this is the case. Think about how you use the web. For all the talk about mobility, widgets and portability, my guess is that you still spend a lot of time on simple, good old-fashioned hypertext WEB PAGES. Microsites have lost some luster not because of the format, but because marketers and everyday people don't often think alike. We the people are looking for something we can use, and instead get a lot of bells and whistles that don't reward us for our time.

Offer Content, Context, Connections
Next we have to ask ourselves why formats like blogs, social networks and other manifestations of emerging digital media have become so popular. Blogs look nothing like microsites. But what they have in common is the delivery. Web pages -- pages that can be bookmarked and e-mailed, among other things. And they offer niche content, lots of links and, of course, the ability for people to talk back. Long-form content is the new design language -- I have become a convert. Debating the above-the-fold argument is a moot point -- we should start channeling our energy into debating how we can provide VALUE to users who are clearly getting it elsewhere. I propose that we breathe new life into the microsite format by fundamentally rethinking it. Look at the visual above this post. What if microsites evolved into content-heavy, long-form web pages that aggregated not only your own content, but content from any place you could think of? Instead of being concerned about linking away from the "site," that would be one of the primary objectives. I've found through my own experience in social networks that if you link to others and do the legwork of curating relevant content, people remember this. And guess what? They actually come back for more! Microsites can deliver this, simply because the format consists of web pages and links. We've just over-engineered the whole enchilada.

Develop a Content Strategy of Distribution Plus Aggregation
Take a look at Lenovo's Voices of the Olympic Games. The content actually lives across multiple platforms -- and it is all about content. Producing it quickly, updating it, uploading it via the popular networks that fuel the long tail. It looks nothing like a microsite but if you break down the components, it's still a web page, or at least that's one of the main components. The core difference is content and distribution. Traditional microsite thinking has marketers writing the copy, designers and developers building the site and a launch date followed by a maintenance plan. But if microsites begin to evolve into more "blog-like" experiences, they can quickly be launched, edited and refreshed, and have all the flexibility in the world to pull in the open-source third-party applications that are pervasive on the Web. Events can be streamed live, photo galleries can live on Flickr, and video galleries can live on You Tube. And there's a tremendous opportunity to actually embrace users who are generating their own content about your products. You can make them the star -- and they'll probably link back to you in return. The difference isn't in the technology as much as it is in the mind-set. In order to pull this off, we'll need to think more like bloggers, uploaders, journalists and mash-up artists than marketers, copywriters and designers. Take a look at what 37 Signals does when they live stream video -- it takes very little production value to achieve this, and the result is the sort of direct engagement that web users are craving.

Ask 'What's Next?'
Like anything else, what I'm proposing isn't a silver bullet. And it would take big mind-set shift for many organizations to pull this off. But it's worth looking into. I recently came across a microsite for HP featuring Shaun White, and, not being part of the apparent target demographic, I really can't judge if the site experience makes sense, but I did notice one thing. The site had clearly embraced a more "2.0" approach by offering multiple social bookmarks. But if you actually bookmarked a video, then returned to your link, it took you to the first page of the microsite where you are greeted by Shaun's talking/dancing avatar. You have to dig up the video all over again. I'm not a 20-something, but I have a hunch this would piss them off. But I don't blame the format -- if that video was worth sharing, a simple URL could have sufficed. Better yet, getting involved in the comments about it would take things a step further. It's probably a good time to rethink what the experience of a web page can be. I think the simple format has a lot of potential, if we just look at things with fresh, new eyes.
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