Why most business websites are not the business

(and how to fix them)

The year is 2016, which means that, as of this year, I will have been commissioning and constructing websites for twenty years. How time flies. Some of them have been tiny one page affairs, others have been extensive undertakings with hundreds or even thousands of pages, commercially commissioned video and a nine-person team working on the project.

As a social phenomenon, websites are not like any other piece of business communication. For everything else: brochure, business card, exhibition stand, ad campaign or mailing, the question is always asked: ‘what are we intending to achieve?’, followed by ‘how much will it cost?’ and ‘what will we get back?’ By contrast—and I’ve seen this in the private sector, the public sector, in voluntary organisations and charities, from one member of staff to 10,000—with websites, the project is self-justifying. Dare not to ask ‘why do we need a website?’ The only response is a withering stare. But the question is well worth asking, not to give the answer ‘we don’t need one, we’ll save the money’, but because the reason for its existence should determine what it is like.

Very high-end websites, of course, have all this sort of thing sorted. Apple promotes, sells and supports Apple products. Santander provides secure online banking. BBC iPlayer serves up BBC TV programmes. Facebook connects billions of people together, united in a fondness for pictures of cats and dinner.

For most small, medium, and even large enterprises, though, the website can be a mixed bag, a sort of uncurated museum where content created six years ago which relates to products no longer produced or services no longer sold is left to gather dust in a corner, until a tweak to Google’s search engine suddenly brings it thousands of hits. In the mean time, the front page is busy with product sliders, sporadically updated blogs, feeds taken straight from the newspapers without any kind of editing, and a procession of special offers which remind potential customers never to buy at the list price.

The technology paradox

Business websites started kicking off in the late nineties. They offered the prospect of endless amounts of free advertising, publicity without the cost of print and distribution, and a glossy, high-tech finish able to refresh even the tiredest brand. Many businesses set up sites simply because they did not want to be left behind. Techies were in the driving seat. In many ways, they still are. A trio of directors would be tasked to investigate the prospects for ‘one of those new world wide home pages’, and they would interview a string of tech-speakers, who could point to hundreds of thousands of hits on their nearest competitor’s site, could explain http, and how it differed from ftp, who knew about IP addresses, unique resource locators and could point to the weaknesses in ‘bandwidth’ which might mean the ‘servers’ would be ‘offline’. All of this, of course, is plain-speaking now, but, back then, it was unfathomable, ungraspable, for anyone who had not actually been down in the engine room, tying knots in strings and piping them to goodness-knows-where. And those people, like Danté, having gone down into the depths, could not return with any comprehensible report to the good business folk who were making the decision.

Fast forward twenty years, and we all know what websites do. However, even so, the techies have kept ahead of us. Plain HTML? No, it’s all CMS now, sir. Not WS3 standards compliant? Flash? Surely you jest. We’re on CSS3, AJAX, and HTML5 now. Not Responsive? How very old fashioned. There is a very simple rule for commissioning websites. If you ever reach the point where you think you have understood what it’s all about, you can be sure that all the standards have just evolved, the technology has been renewed, and what it is that you think you understand is actually something which was ‘deprecated’ three years ago.

The result is that the techies are still in the driving seat. I wouldn’t want to accuse any techy, ever, of attempting to take the commissioners for a ride, but the very simple interaction is that, once someone has sat and listened to talk of Bootstraps, Angular and Agile, their mind has been subtly reorientated towards regarding the website as a technology project which should produce something which looks very modern, gleams with interactivity, and which is at least a generation (i.e., 1.5 years) ahead of the new site the competitor is currently boasting about.

A better way

If you were commissioning an advertising campaign, you would not insist that all the very latest gimmicks in advertising were inserted into that one campaign. You would be looking for a big, strong, single idea which resonated with your customers. If you were looking to replace your fleet of Transit vans, you would not be pressing for the highest specification, most powerful and most technology driven. In each case, your focus would be on what would do the job. Certainly you would be interested in value-added benefits—built in Sat-Nav might save you thousands of pounds in fuel a year—but you would be carefully checking to see if the enhanced result was a good deal compared with the enhanced price.

What is it you really want?

The place to start is your business plan. What is it that a website could deliver for you better, or cheaper, or in parallel with your existing programmes? Is your website basically about marketing? Will you be selling online? Will you be directly providing services online? Are you, in fact, shifting a substantial part of your business from face-to-face to online?

The scale of your undertaking is going to be determined by the scale of your ambition. If you intend to move face-to-face services online, you will almost certainly need to do it in two stages, first with a beta-site where you can see how customers respond to the change, and then with a full-blown site once all the gremlins have been knocked out. Even then, phased delivery will be critical. Entire businesses have been lost because of an over-confident belief that online provides the answer.

Although many businesses do sell effectively online (though, often, this is actually by hooking into a larger set of sub-systems available from third-party providers), the vast majority looking to redevelop their websites (or who should be looking to it, given the non-fitness-for-purpose of their current offering) are essentially looking to promote their brand or market their products/services.

However, ‘marketing’ is a term that covers many things. Consider the classic marketing mix: Product, Place, Price, Promotion, or the extended mix for services including People, Physical Evidence and Processes. Which aspects of your marketing are you looking to boost through the web? What is the finish point? Do you want people to be able to quickly research your product/service online, conclude that it’s a good one, and put you into their shortlist of three? Do you want them to be able to check the specifications against a competitor and place an order? Do you want them to come off the web and get onto the phone?

A website, in principle, could replace a salesperson—either reducing your costs or broadening your reach. But will it? If your product/service requires an hour’s conversation with a customer for you to understand what their need is and how you should meet it, is the website ever going to be in a position to do that? Is the website actually there in order to facilitate a call to the salesperson—in which case your call to action is not ‘Buy now’ but ‘Ring now’ or ‘Book an appointment now’.

For whom?

Is your site really aimed at everyone? One of the great lures of the web is that you can now reach the entire world. Actually, in this way it is no better than the Yellow Pages. Twenty years ago publishing your phone number and type of business in the Yellow Pages would lead to a certain number of calls a month. Unless your business was general by nature (plumber, electrician, carpet fitter, holiday kennels), many of the calls would be disappointments. Notwithstanding a clear statement of ‘Dutch Translator’ (if that was you), most of the Yellow Pages calls would be from people who wanted to ask if you could do German, or French, or if you were prepared to do a couple of days work for free.

I have written elsewhere about the perils of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). There are lots of people who will be happy, for a fee, to raise your site in the rankings, but this is to no avail if your tea-cakes in Chipping Campden business is then inundated with requests from Oregon for shipments of soup.

A clear understanding of the profile of the customers you want to reach will fundamentally transform how you create your website. Are you selling video games to sixteen year olds? If so, sound-effects, moving elements, little puzzles and easter eggs and extensive video footage will be the order of the day. If you aren’t selling video games to sixteen year olds, you may actually be distancing yourself from your customers by including these kinds of things. Does your antique clocks and watches site really need a YouTube video of a watch ticking?

Not just the interactivity, but also the style will be determined by your target customers. Are you selling a premium product? Jaunty text and a cluttered page will make it look like a bargain-basement sale. Are your customers highly knowledgeable? They probably expect authoritative technical specifications and extensive support documentation.

What’s the message?

How often have you been on a website and can’t work out what the owner is trying to tell you. Aside from the obvious ‘here are the products, buy now’, many sites miss the opportunity to make their case to the viewer. This is not just for businesses. Charities, political parties, public services and clubs all have messages they need to get across. To know your message, you need first to understand your audience. If 90% of your visitors are casual enquirers encountering your organisation for the first time, you need to be able to tell them why they should stay interested in 18 characters or less—the typical reading length that goes into short-term memory.

It’s how I tell them

The audience, the message and the purpose together must determine the look and feel of your site.

This is more or less the opposite of the way most sites are constructed. For start-up businesses and casual site builders, it begins with surfing for a few themes or templates, or looking at other sites you like the look of. For enterprise level, the web-design team usually turns up at the first meeting with some concepts, based on their preliminary research. They do this because this is what clients generally want: they are embarking on a long and dark journey of web-development, and they are thrilled that the people they are commissioning to take them there already seem to have a map and a photograph of the destination.

Are you selling designer clothes to commercial buyers? If so, then you should treat them the way you would take them into your studio, showing one thing at a time, in ideal lighting conditions, with an opportunity to walk all round something and study the detail of fabric, stitching, cut and form, and perhaps to read a short ‘artist statement’ explaining how it is you came to this particular design.

Are you supplying industrial materials by the metre for the construction industry? In that case, an on-site calculator which can specify costs including delivery charges, and enables the customer to compare a range of different specifications will make life much easier for them, whereas nice photographs of your factory will be little more than… nice photographs.

Are you selling tickets to a theatre or cinema? People want to know what’s on, when it’s on, if there are tickets left, and how much they cost. Answer those questions in a way which subtly suggests the ambience and excitement of your venue, and you have won them over.

URL stands for Unique Resource Locator, but most URLs take you to a site which is anything but unique. The design is effectively the brand of the web-designer, with the site owner’s own logo more-or-less glued onto the top left hand corner. The photographs are either poorly executed shots of the staff, factory and products, or else they are impossibly glossy photographs from a stock website — many of which will have been used on thousands of other sites as well.

In most cases, a small investment in good quality photography of your team, your products/services and some people enjoying or using them will give your site a compelling unity. At that point, there is no need for sliders (which attempt to cover up the weaknesses in an image by using several), sporadic blogs, BBC news feeds, widgets giving out the time and the weather, and all the other things which clutter rather than enhance many sites.

The perfect website

If potential customers, service users or supporters arrive at your website and immediately feel that it is designed for them, with answers to the questions they have, pictures that they feel are right for what they want, and a written style that makes them feel at home, and if this leads them to the next step, be it placing an order, ringing a salesperson, making a donation or booking an appointment, and if it does this consistently whether they are using a smartphone, tablet or laptop, then you have the perfect website.

That’s all there is to it. Most sites, however, are far from perfect. However, your existing platform, be it Drupal, Concrete5, WordPress, flat HTML or cardboard boxes held together with sticky tape, is almost certainly capable of being tweaked so that it is.

As with all things web, content is king. Don’t be misled into thinking otherwise.

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