Editorial: Weaving the Web-Corporate Websites

by Len Monheit

The earliest Internet sites were on-line brochures and many corporate websites are still exactly that. On the other extreme we now see websites using every recent technology trick and tool to capture and engage the viewer, resulting in sensory bombardment. Somewhere down the middle is the answer although the exact position and level of technology and design sophistication depends on your company, product, budget and market.

Many organizations struggle with the dilemma of managing a website internally or having outside expertise develop and manage the site. Obviously, if you’ve got organizational capacity and an integrated IT and marketing group (with design capability), it makes sense to go it alone. If a large part of your business is your on-line activity, then you’ll likely want to build up in-house. If dollars are tight, you’re going to need a very strong and compelling argument to outsource any component, other than site hosting. The big mistake made by companies in this situation is not getting technology, sales and marketing professionals together to develop an Internet strategy and plan.

So where do you start? The starting point is the content of the site. Companies typically launch a website with content from their latest promotional brochures, creating an on-line brochure and catalog. Much more effective is to take key lines and messages from the brochure and have the entire brochure available for download. A linear approach may make sense from an operational perspective, but the Internet is interactive and dynamic. Effective use of Hyperlinks, well thought out site navigation and a decent user interface can quickly create a user experience that is dramatically different from paging through an on-line catalog. Sites that are designed from a viewer back perspective are the most successful.

Possibly the largest value proposition of a company or product website is the ability to post current relevant, breaking information, and amazingly, not even corporate giants have taken full advantage of this capability. On many occasions, I have read about recent news or developments, corporate results in the wires, and gone to a corporate site for more information, only to find no information or reference to the latest news, even weeks or months later. It doesn’t make sense (to me at least) to invest so much in releases, investor relations or breaking research and not present this information on the website. Companies preparing for tradeshows are another example. Their resources are focused on getting new materials ready for the show, getting the clinical trial results ready for presentation, and six to eight months later, the site still has product or research information that is two years old. If part of your website is going to deal with latest company news and information, then the organization must commit to keeping this up to date, whether site management is an internal or external function. I know, from my own viewer experience, that if I’m examining the credibility of a company and their current status, I’m disillusioned by seeing news and information dating from 1999.

With all the gimmicks and neat tricks available to web designers, it’s tempting to use any and all in creating the site. The general rule is that simplest and cleanest is better, especially in corporate sites. If there are key messages you need to deliver or products and services that need to be featured and highlighted, there are exceptions.

Many websites, even in this industry, have replaced front page text with flash(animation) and images. In some cases this is fine, if a non-flash route through the site is available and a viewer can click a button to bypass flash images. Many viewers, particularly those that use the web extensively, will avoid the bombardment and go to clean, pages with ample white space. Big images and files need to be avoided as they will slow download speed and you’ll lose your viewer before the page is available. Other site design issues you need to consider are programming for both Mac and PC viewers, as well as multiple browsers including Netscape and Internet Explorer.

Having considered your viewer experience, you next need to create a system that will engage them in a business process. Whether this involves getting their names and contact information for off-line follow up, adding names to a mailing list, or delivering information to them one time or repeatedly, there must be a simple flow that takes them where they need to go on the site. Web designers need to determine whether repeat visits are desired. If the answer is yes, a value proposition, changing content or easy ways to return need to be priorities. Even if you don’t have an electronic newsletter right now, it’s always a good idea to be to collect names and e-mail addresses through the site.

Most companies in this industry use a mixture of internal and external resources for websites. Site hosting is often off-site, and overall site championing is usually internal—at the very least there is one person on staff who has clear responsibility for the site. Design, maintenance, site marketing and search engine optimization, e-mail, database administration, marketing are handled in different ways across the industry. What’s best depends on your company.

One closing thought:
E-commerce is a very small component of E-business. Just like the ultimate sale is the result of presentations, relationships and experiences, so too, an e-commerce ‘sale’ is the result of a number of ‘e-experiences’. Those companies not paying adequate attention to these e-experiences and to E-business opportunities will lose a huge advantage.

Len Monheit is the President & CEO of NPIcenter.com a leading and highly viewed natural products industry portal. He can be reached at (877) 463-0110 or by email at lenmon@npicenter.com.

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