This post was previously published on the BLITZ Blog and also the Society of Digital Agencies (SODA) website.

Why a Website May Be the Last Thing That You Need

This may sound a lit­tle funny com­ing from a guy who works at an agency that makes such beau­ti­ful web­sites.  But it is true.  And once you’ve read this arti­cle, I think that you’ll under­stand why mak­ing great web­sites is not about design, but about under­stand­ing your cus­tomer, the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem that they live in.

As a caveat, this arti­cle applies mostly to tan­gi­ble prod­uct brands – prod­ucts that you can touch and hold.  Software/experience types of brands, like Salesforce.com or Syman­tec, or ser­vice brands, like McK­in­sey & Co. or FedEx, have a dif­fer­ent mix of capa­bil­i­ties that they need on and off website…and of course, they may have dif­fer­ent cus­tomers than I describe here, too.

One of our teams came up with this head­line (“A web­site is the LAST thing that they need!”) dur­ing some recent bev­er­age work – they wanted a web­site for their rapidly grow­ing brand, and to serve as a dri­ver to trial for their core seg­ment ages 21 to 34.  They knew that they needed social and mobile, yes, but they really, really wanted to make sure that the web­site was a “home” for the brand and its customer.

A home?  Brands often expect a lot out of a web­site – that it should han­dle vir­tu­ally every aspect of the cus­tomer life­cy­cle including:

  • raise aware­ness
  • pro­vide information
  • con­vert those likely to pur­chase into those who do purchase
  • con­duct the pur­chase transaction
  • sup­port the trans­ac­tion and the buyer’s use of the product
  • pro­vide a plat­form for advocacy.

And wow, that’s a lot of work for a web­site!  And this is only a par­tial list.  So here is the punch line: in many cases, great web­sites actu­ally do a lot less than this…and by doing so, they are more suc­cess­ful, eas­ier to main­tain, and cost less.

Web­sites still do mat­ter.  But, increas­ingly, most other things mat­ter more.  Espe­cially the one thing that mat­ters the most.

Fish Where the Fish Are.  We’re Talk­ing About the Customer.

In tra­di­tional adver­tis­ing we don’t erect bill­boards in the mid­dle of a for­est where nobody can see them…unless we’re going after the hik­ing seg­ment.  Like­wise, the idea that your brand is being served by mak­ing a huge invest­ment in your web­site, when many of your tar­get cus­tomers do not visit…or will not visit, is just as crazy.

And that’s a key point: very few peo­ple on the inter­net visit your site.  The traf­fic that you do get, you get at great expense, whether through money paid out for SEO/SEM, pro­mo­tions, your staff time, IT resources, agen­cies, etc.  Most of the traf­fic regard­ing your brand goes to other sites, all of them a gazil­lion times more traf­ficked than yours. These web­sites almost com­pletely ful­fill the func­tions that we listed above for mil­lions of prod­ucts and brands…and yours, if you so choose..  And when peo­ple want to know about your prod­uct, they trust sites other than yours, more than yours, for much of that infor­ma­tion, espe­cially when it is opin­ions and reviews.

All those peo­ple who spend time on Face­book, LinkedIn, Twit­ter and even (still) Myspace?  They’re not going to go to your site to find out about other peo­ple who like your product,…or to form some new com­mu­nity.  Many have tried, Field of Dreams style, to make that hap­pen.  And they rarely suc­ceed, and even then, only briefly.

Since peo­ple look for infor­ma­tion about your prod­uct more often else­where, you may want to be there too.  And those else­wheres may mat­ter more than your web­site.  Let’s put our bill­boards up on free­ways, or in cof­fee shops, or in neigh­bor­hoods, and not in forests.

Like­wise, if you want cus­tomers to be able to find other peo­ple who use or like your prod­uct, then be where they are…where the fish are.

A Mil­lion Face­book Fans Can’t Be Wrong

When we built the Gui­tar Hero 5 site, we used Face­book Con­nect to help join the GH5 com­mu­nity to the site and each user’s data.  This was a huge shift in the videogame busi­ness – not col­lect­ing email addresses and, instead, con­nect­ing the game to the com­mu­nity.  And we didn’t stop with that…we actu­ally removed some tra­di­tional web­site infor­ma­tion func­tions by “out­sourc­ing” them to the rest of the web.  As a result, GH5 was the first con­sole title ever to reach one mil­lion Face­book Fans.

The GH5 fran­chise had tons of video to show off and a lot of news buzz.  The old school approach would have been to host it all on the site.  The new school  says put it on YouTube.  Sev­eral things hap­pen when you do this: Your videos are con­nected to other people’s videos, your videos are find­able, and you just saved a lot of cost and has­sle that comes along with host­ing your own videos.  Oh, and Google pays for the band­width.  Nice.  And the search rank­ings on your videos and your (rapidly shrink­ing) web­site go up as a result.

Video was just one exam­ple.  You can link to your con­tent on Digg…and then replace the con­tent sum­mary feed with a feed from Digg that you curate.  All of your arti­cles show up, of course, but you can pub­lish other con­tent for free.  Arti­cles that your users might have oth­er­wise missed…and they also, again, improved their search rankings.

But does this make for a “home?”  When cus­tomers read any of the arti­cles, or watch any of the videos, that the con­tent is not really on the site would tend to drive the cus­tomer away from the site.   Back to where the other fish are.

If you’ve been around the web and inter­net for a while, think back and take in what a change this is from the flag-planting “What is your web­site strat­egy?” world of the prior 15 years.  In this very impor­tant way, we’re see­ing the busi­ness of interactive/digital mar­ket­ing com­ing of age.

You want your brand in front of the cus­tomer, you want to be in the news, have your con­tent read, and have your cus­tomers form a com­mu­nity?  Then drive them to where the fish are.

Swim With the Fish.  Your Web­site is Part of The Conversation.

The best part of hang­ing around with the fish is that they’re bet­ter than ever at telling each other all about your brand and prod­ucts.  Assum­ing that you’re doing the prod­ucts right, and have a decent brand, just show­ing up will go a long way.

Back to the bev­er­age brand that we were work­ing with.  Their goal is to drive trial of their bev­er­age – get­ting peo­ple to just grab a glass full and give it a taste.  They have great con­ver­sion num­bers within their core seg­ment if peo­ple just try it.  They’re doing all of the usual things to show up in retail and on-premise, and they wanted their dig­i­tal pres­ence to help serve that goal as well.

So we stopped to ask, “When was the last time any­one went to a brand’s web­site to read about the bev­er­age (or even what oth­ers had said on that website’s “com­mu­nity” pages) and then…got into their car, drove to the store and bought one?”  We laughed.  Okay, maybe one per­son did it.

And when you look into the real process that these con­sumers use to make deci­sions, then a web­site starts to seem a lot less useful.

It turns out that these con­sumers tend to try things that their friends have tried – more so than any other seg­ment.  They also are more likely to try it if they know it can be found where they are.  So if you want to drive trial, then you need to be part of the conversation…no, not the con­ver­sa­tion between the brand web­site and the con­sumer, but the con­ver­sa­tion between the con­sumers.  Go hang out with the fish.

Of the tools that are strongest in sup­port­ing the busi­ness goal, trial, the web­site is the least influ­en­tial of them all.  If you stop and think about what that means, then you get the point.  Your web­site should be dri­ving peo­ple every­where else but to your web­site.  Drive the cus­tomer into the store that sells your prod­uct, drive your cus­tomer to the restau­rant that is serv­ing it, con­nect your cus­tomer to the peo­ple that they know who have tried it, writ­ten about it, and love it.  Drive the fish back into the big pond.

And once you start doing this, all of your objec­tives change.  A web­site goal that you might want to con­sider is not “time on site” – you actu­ally don’t want them on your site – but your site’s abil­ity to drive them into the rel­e­vant con­ver­sa­tions and infor­ma­tion every­where else on the inter­net and in the real world.  Your web­site should com­ple­ment the greater fish-pond ecosystem.

But What About My “Brand Experience”?

What­ever you do on the web, it should reflect your brand and the brand expe­ri­ence.  Your web­site is no excep­tion.  But the idea that you need your web­site to be an “immer­sive brand expe­ri­ence” that is “sticky” and “con­veys the brand essence in every inter­ac­tion”  (You may have seen these before – I took these phrases from old pro­pos­als), and all that this implies in terms of fea­tures, inter­ac­tions, and con­tent, is no longer the opti­mal strategy.

What you need is for your cus­tomer to expe­ri­ence your brand as part of their life, their friends’ lives, the com­mu­ni­ties that they know, places they go, and things that they love.  That’s not easy to do, but if you’re a brand mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional, it is your rai­son d’etre to solve this prob­lem.  And the web­site will not get you there.

What, no Websites?

No, of course not.  You still need a web­site.  But let’s define a new pri­mary role for the web­site.  The web­site is the place where you can have a pri­vate and direct con­ver­sa­tion with your customer…but only when needed.  There are lots of exam­ples of this: defin­i­tive prod­uct infor­ma­tion, cus­tomer sup­port, legal issues, con­tact points, etc.

And when it is not a one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion, then you need to drive them back to the other fish, point the way and help them add to the con­ver­sa­tion.  Check out www.airbornehealth.com for an exam­ple of “web­site light”.  They don’t do much there – they don’t need to.  All of the con­ver­sa­tion is else­where.  Take a peek at the con­ver­sa­tion that is hap­pen­ing on their Face­book page.

So why might a web­site be the last thing that you need?  Before you build a new web­site, you need to build strat­egy around what your cus­tomer really needs, and where else they’ll be hang­ing out.  You know…with all of their fish-friends.

BLITZ is an Inte­grated Dig­i­tal Agency in Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia, serv­ing clients in a wide range of indus­tries includ­ing con­sumer prod­ucts, tech­nol­ogy, videogam­ing, enter­tain­ment and hos­pi­tal­ity.  Jack Skeels leads BLITZ’s busi­ness and client devel­op­ment activ­i­ties, and prior to BLITZ led Sapient’s Los Ange­les office and served as Senior Inter­net Ana­lyst with RAND.



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