Do I need a blog?

Q. Should I have a blog on my company website?

It depends on your customers and business sector you operate in.

If your business is owned by a figurehead or well-know personality, then it may make sense to leverage off that and have that person blog. In general, most customers really don’t care what the CEO has to say otherwise. They’re more concerned about meeting their own needs.

If you already have a one-to-one relationship with your customers, then a blog is a very good way to add value. For instance, if you already have a newsletter mailing list. Think about using the newsletter content on your blog and let people make comments. You may be surprised how much value a dedicated customer can add to your business through a blog comment, and it makes you appear open and honest about your business.

A useful business benefit from blogging is to help build or strengthen your relationship with your customers through the comments and replies to your blog posts.

Many people now expect to be able to interact with a company through the web by leaving suggestions and comments, in either your blog or your social media site. They want more than just a simple Feedback page, mostly because so many companies don’t monitor the feedback page or bother to respond promptly (I’ve never understand why companies do this – you wouldn’t setup an 0800 line and not have someone manning it).

Blogs often allow people to leave comments, perhaps about something the someone said in the blog. It’s a great way to get tips from your customers, but only if it’s natural for your customers to use the web for this. I’m unlikely to visit the website of my local butcher, just to see what the owner has to say, but I’d definitely be inclined to let Telecom know what I think of my broadband being offline.

Be prepared for the negative comments though, take them on the chin and respond professionally. Within the bounds of decency, don’t censor negative remarks – it will make you look more honest if others can see what was said. Better still, make a plan for a PR disaster and how you will handle it through your blog and website.

But isn’t blogging dead?

In many ways, Facebook has replaced blogging as a way of interacting with a marketplace. Like a blog, it can certainly be a very good way to get feedback from customers. But you have less control with Facebook than you do with a blog and it can back-fire on you, so consider how you want to interact with your customers.

On the other hand, many blogs have become successful communication additions to a business and some have even spawned a profitable sideline.

At Wired we blog to share ideas and thoughts with our market. Hardly anyone comments. And you can always turn off commenting on a blog if you wish!

Some links for more reading:

 

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Is your homepage really that important?

Is your homepage really the most important page on your site? Yes and no.

Yes it is

Your home page is your shop front, and often the first thing people see when they visit your site. It’s a big opportunity for you to capture their attention. But not that big.

Research (see reading links provided below) shows you have a very short amount of time to capture attention on the web before the visitor backs out or goes somewhere else. Between 8 to 10  seconds, in fact. So make sure customers can get what they have come for, quickly and easily.

If you don’t know what your customers want when they visit your site, find out immediately. Why do you have a website?

Don’t waste time with “Welcome to our web site…“, the history of your company, or explanations about how your site works. No one will read it anyway. Cut to the chase and make it easy to find your catalogue or list of services.

And don’t be fooled into thinking just because your webstats show your homepage is the most visited page, it’s working. Google gives more priority to a company’s homepage, so people will most likely find it first. But then they can do two things: visit another page on your site, or leave. Check your bounce rate on your homepage and try to find out if your homepage is working for you or against you.

No it’s not

At the same time, the homepage is not that important. Like a shop with many entrances, your home page is not the only way people can get into your website.

In general, most of the visits to your site will come from search engines, in New Zealand mostly from Google. Using Google, people will find all the other pages in your website, and will very likely bypass your homepage. They may land on a product page, right in the middle of your site, or they may discover some page you had forgetton about and hadn’t updated the prices on in twelve months.

How can you plan for this? Here’s a simple test: imagine being transported, Star Trek-like, randomly into the middle of a large shop. You’d want to get your bearings quickly, right? Whose store are you in? Where are you in the store? Where’s the service desk? Where’s the door?

Now run this test on your website. Pick a page somewhere in your site and see if you can get some context as to where you are. What can you do from the page? Where can you go?

Better yet, run this test using real people, not your staff or best mates. Get honest feedback about what it is like to use your site. You’ll be amazed what you will learn, and the improvements you can make from that feedback will give you a better website and more business.

Links for more reading:

 

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Welcome to our web site, really

Q. Should I have a “Welcome” message on my website homepage?

Not any more. It was fine in the early days of the web, but web users are more sophisticated now. For a business or organisation it’s out-of-fashion, looks a bit unprofessional, and is a distraction for your customers who’ve come to your site to do or get something.

In fact, research indicates people don’t even bother reading such statements anymore, so you’re wasting valuable webpage real estate, that you could be using to sell products or your message.

Be customer-focused

Better to find out what goals your website visitors have – why they visit the site, what they want to get done or find, not what you want to tell them. Then make sure they can achieve that goal quickly and easily.

The exception would be if your business has a strong or well-known personality fronting it, and your opening is that person speaking. Just be aware few will read it, so keep it short and put the person’s name and photo near it.

You better be pretty sure of yourself though, because even Steve Jobs didn’t have his mug and a welcome statement on the Apple website – he featured his products.

The same goes for statements about the history or development of your company, even if your business is a hundred years old and very well known. Put those in the “About us”.

Links to more reading:

 

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Things we learned from BIWA 2011, part 1: ‘You can deliver TV over the internet, but the internet is not like TV’

Michael Hill International have hit last place in this year’s Best Investor Website (BIWA) survey. This isn’t big news, the company have been consistently in the bottom five for investor relations communication since 2008. But their websites have always appeared to be firmly directed at retail customers, suggesting that shareholders are not a priority audience. In 2010 they decided that their new site would take advantage of the web’s ability to deliver moving images, putting most of their web content in video form: Michael Hill TV.

What you get visiting the MHI site in Windows without Silverlight installed

I believe there is a time to use multimedia online, and a time to present written information. Companies confuse these at their peril. Making such decisions is all about understanding ‘audience and purpose’. Customers may well be persuaded to buy jewellery because it represents an ‘aspirational lifestyle’. In effect: jewellery ‘looks flash’ and makes you feel flash. And the Michael Hill site uses moving images and sound to hammer this home.

But investors don’t make financial decisions in the same way. They make rational decisions based on market information, past performance and reasonable expectations of future performance based on corporate strategies. In other words, it’s about the numbers. And websites can do a great job communicating this.

Some information – such as plans for the future and summaries of recent corporate results – may be well-conveyed in video presentations. But most investor websites also favour reports, graphical presentation of statistics, and links to data feeds or independent market analyses. Good investor websites run the risk of being labeled ‘dull’ because they ‘stick to their knitting’ at the expense of leveraging off the ‘all singing, all dancing’ possibilities of online video – but by doing so they do meet the needs of their target audience.

The MHI site on an iPad, without Silverlight installed

By way of example, if you want information on the share price of Michael Hill International from their website, you have to download Microsoft Silverlight software so you can view the site at all. I didn’t want this software, and to be honest, I haven’t met anyone who really does, yet if you have to access the MHI site (as I do, every year), then you’ll have to take the time to get this first. Recently Silverlight has become more compatible with iPads and mobile devices, but it is also worth noting that excessive reliance on ‘singing and dancing’ web technologies does present serious issues for this growing market segment. Essentially, your site won’t work on them.

Once you have the right software, you then have to click down four levels into the site to where you are promised ‘share price history’ is to be found. And history is right – a rather plain-Jane table will tell you what the share price was last month. Most NZX50 sites will tell you – on their homepage – what the share price was twenty minutes ago, so as an investor, visiting the MHI site tells me mainly that the company doesn’t really care what I know about them. Other corporate information is contained in PDF reports. If you’re looking for specific information, you’ll need some time to download and check a few of these, as the site doesn’t have a search function. Googling specific information about their financial performance directs you elsewhere, such as to the NZX site. The PDFs on the Michael Hill site are not even searchable this way.

I could go on, but you get the picture. What the company’s website does do is show animated images of jewellery, and advertising. And of course it sells these things. It may do this very well (though you will still need that software first, as well as plenty of bandwidth) – but if you wish to access even basic data on company performance, look elsewhere. And in today’s challenging and competitive investment environment, relying on third parties to convey investment information about your company is giving up control of the conversation. You also defeat the legitimate expectation of investors and their advisors that you, as corporate governors, will have the courtesy to engage with them in a dialogue about your business. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

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New business prepares for take-off

Today we have a guest blogger, Karen Simmons, Company Director. Karen wrote to us after reading our Preparing for Take Off book. Here’s her story:

“There is certainly a lot to think about when developing a website and we found this out when we were getting one made for our previous business.  Unfortunately for us, we hired a Web Designer who was recommended to us by a web developers’ industry group and our experience with him was frustrating and disappointing.  After six months, he had not delivered what we had asked for and what he told us he would.  Sadly the amount we had invested with this web designer was wasted and we had to start all over again.

“By contrast, the next company we worked with were great and they put together exactly what we asked for.  They were a delight to deal with and really listened to us when we discussed our business and the experience we wanted to present to our customers via our website.  We received many favourable comments from customers in New Zealand and overseas about our website, and they particularly liked the fact that we regularly updated it with new information on what we were up to, which kept them coming back.

“Developing our first website was a real learning curve as there were so many points to consider in that we didn’t just want it to look good, but it had to serve the purpose that we wanted it to for our customers.  We are confident that we achieved that.

“We had a retail shop about 18 months ago and with the recession hitting, decided to move our business home.  It was the best thing we could have done and we realised then that our website was the window of our business and a great way for people to see that we still existed.

“We have now sold that business and are moving onto a new one.  We will be putting together a new website for this business and will use your book as a tool to ensure that we endeavour to develop a website that gives our customers a great, informative, easy to use experience when they visit our new website.

“Great to know that you are providing a service that takes an outsiders view of a website.   We agree with you that often the person developing a website doesn’t see it from the way a customer might.”

“Once again, thanks for your thought provoking book.”

— Karen Simmons, Company Director

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In cyberspace no one can feel an earthquake

Most of you are probably aware that here in Christchurch we’ve recently experienced some major seismic interruptions to ‘business as usual’. This has been pretty noticeable in Lyttelton, where I live. There are very few commercial premises that are actually safe and usable in the wake of the quakes. Sadly this also applies to bars, so I recently found myself at the bar of the local working men’s club, which has opened to non-members since there’s nowhere else for us to go.

 

The old Wired office in Cashel Mall after the 22 Feb shake

I got talking to a neighbour, Simon, who has a business selling high-end designer furniture. I knew that his premises had suffered damage, so I expressed my commiserations about the general disruption and downturn in sales that must have followed. ‘Oh don’t worry about it’, he replied, ‘it’s worked out really well. This has proved what we already suspected, that keeping shop is a waste of time. We don’t really get many sales from the showroom. The real result of the whole mess is that we’ve been able to get out of our lease. It’s pretty good, actually!’

I was delighted to hear this, but still rather surprised. I asked him exactly what he meant. He replied that prior to the quake they were selling over 60% online through their website, mainly out of town – and that the main result of the quakes was that now their local customers were also ‘visiting’ their online showroom and as a result online sales were now over 80% and growing.

‘We just need a small warehouse’ he explained. ‘I’m sorting that out now. Any customers who really want to see our products in the flesh can go there by appointment – so we’re completely free of the need to keep shop hours: more time for fishing and drinking!’ And drink he did, with a broad smile of contentment like we haven’t seen often enough lately.

I swear, with my hand on my heart, that this exchange really took place – purely by chance, in a local bar. I say this because it totally confirms my own prejudices and beliefs about the power of a good website to drive all sorts of businesses, including furniture sales. While I was surprised by what Simon told me, this was mainly because I hadn’t thought of him as an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, and I was unsure if customers at his end of the market (low volume, high value) would embrace online shopping.

Apologies; espresso services are temporarily suspended in Lyttelton.

This story also conveniently confirms one of my other recent concerns – what can we learn from this disaster that will help us live better and more sustainably in future? Shortly after the big quake in February I was interviewed on Lyttelton’s community radio station. The discussion was on two main topics, improvised toilets, and urban recovery planning. On the latter topic I was pretty clear, that the first step in the new development was to ensure that the whole city had a more workable transport and communication infrastructure (light rail and fibre-optic broadband, please). And after that I said I was sure that we need to direct our economic growth towards leveraging our technology, communication and information skills to build better businesses.

Simon’s designer furniture experience is an example of how even small-scale enterprises can do that by harnessing the power of online sales. He’s got a pretty good website, which allows customers to contact the business if they want to, or else to simply order the item they want to buy. They don’t have to negotiate our currently terrible roads, they don’t have to worry about whether the business premises really are safe, and they don’t even have to waste time whether trying to find a working cash machine within a mile of their shopping destination. No wonder they’re lining up to buy from Simon, he’s one of the few in his business sector who was already prepared to respond to the challenge of post-disaster business conditions.

There’s a lesson there for all of us, one that I’ve started discussing with my colleague Greg Comfort, who has a few ideas of his own. I’ll report more on this discussion shortly.

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What we learned from BIWA10: part 2

The last posting looked at the main trends we could detect from the results of BIWA10, the Wired survey of the NZX50 websites. Now that we’re into 2011, it’s time to consider what else we learned.

The strongest new trend evident was the rise of so-called ‘ethical marketing’.

For several years the number of sites in the NZX50 appealing to the social and environmental conscience of investors has been increasing. In BIWA10 half the sites use either social or environmental responsibility as a plank of their investor and customer relations strategies.

Appealing to the conscience of investors is not a new trend, but recent events, including the crisis of world banking and continued concern over climate change have made major corporations even more keen on ‘green-washing’ and related strategies.

Of the 25 sites, ten specifically featured only ‘social responsibility’ (including sponsorship and charity initiatives), while eight featured only ‘environmental responsibility’ (including sustainability initiatives). Seven sites included both these elements.

Significantly, this was especially true of new designs. Of the 15 new site designs in 2010, 12 included either or both social and environmental initiatives.

Clearly, this trend is now seen as part of a successful approach to online investor relations. The PR benefits are clearly seen as worth the investment in adopting these strategies which are not directed at maximising profit, but rather at attracting investment.

‘Social media’ are not yet important in NZ online investor relations.

The BIWA10 was the first time that we surveyed the NZX50 sites to see how many were using Facebook, Twitter and blogging to enhance communication with investors. We found that unexpectedly, despite media coverage of these new tools, only eight sites in the NZX50 use one or more of these ‘social media’:

  • five used Facebook
  • four used Twitter
  • and three were blogging about corporate affairs.

The use of social media is not related to a high BIWA score. The companies using these tools to communicate with investors are not those who are already maximising their web presence to communicate with this audience. In other words, listed companies in NZ have yet to successfully harness the communication power of these new interactive strategies.

Some companies clearly used social media to communicate with customers (rather than investors), but this happens outside the corporate sites that we are surveying. Only when they are used for targeted investor communication will these tools become more widespread in the NZX50 sites. And this will only happen when listed companies become more accustomed to focusing their online strategies on communicating with potential and actual investors.

At present, given the number of NZX50 listed companies with below-par websites, it’s only fair and reasonable that they should avoid social media. Until they succeed in mastering the basics of online communication, a move into the riskier waters of Facebook and Twitter will only expose their shortcomings to public scrutiny.

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What we learned from BIWA 2010 – part 1

Well now we’re looking at the end of the year, it might be a good time to consider what we learned from this year’s Best Investor Website Awards (BIWA2010).

New sites continue to do better. The most obvious thing, which shouldn’t be news but is, is that newly-designed sites in general are better than older ones. This was not always the case. I was disappointed in 2008 to discover that of the sites that had been redesigned in the 2007–08 year, only half had improved their ranking.

So in 2008 a site that was redesigned had the same chance of being either improved or made worse. The outcome, rather than being a sound investment in improved user experience, was the same as a simple coin toss.

graph_new_web_designs_biwa2010

Percentage of new designs improved across years

This year 80% of the redesigned sites have retained or improved their BIWA rankings. Each year more and more of the new site designs show an improved experience for the investor audience. In other words, if a listed company recently paid for a redesign, this year there was four times the chance it would be improved for users rather than made worse. That makes paying for a new web design look like a fairly solid bet, if you want to enhance the experience your actual and potential investors have in using your site.

I think that this turnaround is a product of broader understanding about user-centred design within the NZ web design industry – which is good news, if a little overdue. It seems that our efforts at Wired to agitate for enhanced understanding of users and their needs is bearing fruit – or are at least in tune with the times, since probably it’s not ALL our doing!

‘The Gap’ is widening – I’ve been arguing for the last couple of years that the NZX50 is gradually splitting into two ‘bunches’, like a cycle race. The leaders have made an effort to design online information for the investor audience, and those in the trailing bunch have still failed to understand the point of this.

Following on from my earlier point about new designs being better, this year six of the Top 10 company sites feature new designs. But by contrast, in the Bottom 10, there are still three that have new designs which are frankly still not up to scratch.

graph_highlow_gap_biwa2010

The ‘high/low’ spread in BIWA scores

The overall spread of BIWA scores between top and bottom was only 39 points in 2008 – but in 2010 this had increased to 54 points. And while the best and the worst are moving further apart, the overall average score of the BIWA remains much the same around at 66 out of 100. But don’t be fooled! This does not mean that there’s an even spread of scores from top to bottom. There really is a ‘gap’ opening between the top 10 – whose average score increased this year by two points to 82.5 – and the bottom 10, whose average score decreased by three points to 46.2.

And what is the message of all this? Any listed company wanting to enhance the online information it offers to investors should seek the advice of web designers with experience in understanding the investor audience. Because these guys are going to give your investors a web design suited to their specific needs – and that’s what your competition is doing, which is why your investors are increasingly likely to expect it from you.

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How to avoid info overload on your website

Customer centric evangelist Gerry McGovern always gets me revved up with his weekly posts about being customer-orientated on websites. His recent piece about information overload really pressed my buttons, particularly this sentence:

When it comes to information, we really need to shift back to a focus on quality, not quantity.

Information overload thanks to the internet has always been an issue for me. I’ve never enjoyed the information rich media sites of the big publishers, the newspaper and television news sites, finding them over-whelming and massive time wasters. Yet the drive to stay informed often makes me re-visit such sites, time after time, with the same poor experience.

So when Gerry McGovern disagrees with technology boffins telling us the problem is not too much information but rather our poor filters, I’m reminded of the things I was taught when working in the NZ Government Printing Office and legal publishing business.

Editors, writers and, yes, librarians are meant to help us find and understand the quality information by doing some filtering for us, yet in so many ways their role seems disturbed by the internet and the world wide web. Thanks to the scroll bar you can easily create a web page so full of information that finding something interesting to read just becomes tiresome, and according to research and experience quoted by McGovern people are dis-engaging.

Overload more than economics is a reason I think the big publishers have had trouble getting people to pay for content on the internet. It’s not just because we can get it for free elsewhere, it’s because the value of published information has been reduced so much by the electronic interface, that people find it difficult to put a value on it to themselves. So they don’t. 

When everything was published on paper you had a natural constraint, a hand-brake pulling on and slowing you down. Now thanks to electronic interfaces on everything from your personal computer to your phone, publishers can just add more, and all we have to do is scroll to cope with it.

I don’t think so. We need to show more restraint. And beautiful as they are, I don’t think the iPad or the latest app technology is going to save publishing until publishers get the message people like Gerry and others are pushing. Think about your customer.

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Don’t try this at home kids pt.2

In my work as a user experience consultant I’m often asked to review sites that customers are concerned about. One classic cause for concern is that a site for some mysterious reason is so far down the Google search results that it might as well not exist. There’s a whole industry of charlatanism around ‘search engine optimisation’ – the alleged science of improving a site’s rankings.
I don’t claim to understand how Google ‘really works’, but I know a few things. The contents of headings and the initial paragraphs of body text is very important. Google’s search tools will analyse these to identify keywords to assists in ranking sites, and they’ll become aware if terms are repeated too often. My best advice is to carefully craft these words especially on your homepage, to reflect what you site is really about and at whom it is aimed.

So why do some sites do especially badly at this? I saw a classic example of this recently in a site I was asked to review. This had been designed by some ‘Flash Harrys’ in the corporate branding game, and it certainly smelled like a pile of money. At first glance the homepage content looked pretty good, the keywords I was looking for were all there. Then I performed a simple check – I put my cursor on the page and tried to select some text from the first paragraph. No go – nothing – nada – nyet, Kapitan…

Why could I not select the text? It wasn’t text at all, it was a picture of some text. Not the same thing at all, Veronica.

Google’s software endlessly trawls the internet reading text and following hyperlinks between sites. If it’s not actually a hyperlink, or formatted text, Google’s digital elves can’t read it – so it may as well NOT BE THERE.

My clients had paid good money for a site where all the principal content pages looked like pages of relevant text but were in fact images of text. As far as Google was concerned it was a site without content, and that was why it was ranking very low on the search results.

So my hot tip for evaluating your own website is – if it looks like it has a lot of unusual formatting overlaying text and images, logos and other branding devices – check that the written content really is text, and that there really is a heading at the top.

Try my cursor-selecting trick, or click ‘View > Page source’ in the browser window, if you can’t read the page content anywhere in the page source code, chances are it isn’t text at all. And in that case your site is ‘search engine sub-optimal’ – and if that worries you, you need to get it fixed – and fast.

Because increasingly – if your business can’t be found on the net, it can’t be found at all.

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