Have you read enough pieces yet on what makes a great website?
You have probably seen quite a few articles and posts addressing this. We here at SMB Research know we have seen a lot of material. (SMB Research includes at least one fairly good article on SMB Research’s Top 20 Favorite Reads of 2010.)
Many of these articles seem to take a cookie-cutter approach: it should go without saying at this point that a website needs to have good navigation, and that a website needs a “Call to Action”.
We think there are a number of other critical website features and best practices that get too little attention.
SMB Research has spent quite a bit of time looking at websites – companies’ websites, as well as just about every other kind of website. We have spent the better part of a combined 25+ years talking to software and technology vendors, end-users, and service providers – trying to align the capabilities of one with the requirements of the other. This has required thousands of hours of research, including researching the information available on companies’ websites.
In one specific engagement, a year ago or so, SMB Research even created a framework (Inform, Involve, Navigate, Analyze) for assessing the states’ websites, to assess how, and how well, states were presenting on their websites their use of federal stimulus funds. We assessed and scored each of the 50 states’ websites, and ranked the results. We have looked at a lot of websites.
SMB Research sees some critical website features for websites which are getting far too little attention; we will suggest some Best Practices in several areas than can provide a much better user experience:
• Who you are
• How to contact you
• What you do
• Where you are
• Social Media
Who you are
Visitors to your website should also be able to quickly see who your leadership and management team is, as well as the people who are the first points of contact for your visitors, customers and prospects. Although this is all part of ‘who you are’, almost every company disperses these pieces of the puzzle to different areas on the website. If the visitor is lucky, this information is easily accessible on the front page, or perhaps one level below the front page. More often, this information is scattered, and variously included under ‘About us”, or “Company’, or ‘Contact Us” or perhaps included under ‘Corporate governance’ on an investors page (the implication being that you should not be interested in who their leadership is unless you are an investor.)
Best Practice: Your company’s contact information, or link to your contact information, should be at or near the top of your website. Surprisingly, this link is found, more often than not, at the very bottom of the website. What message is this sending to your visitors about your company’s desire to hear from them? Hand a stopwatch to someone, and have them find a contact’s name, phone number and email address on your website. Can they do this in 15 seconds or less? Where were they at the 15-second tick mark? That is probably where someone’s name, phone number and email address need to be.
Best Practice: Names, titles, and Bios, at least, of your leadership team should be easily accessible. Could the average person, using a stopwatch, find the names and titles of your management within 15-20 seconds? Extra credit is awarded if you, like Qualcomm, provide the ability to download a hi-res photo or the Bio.
Best Practice: Double extra credit is awarded if your company, like Visibility Corporation, the ETO (engineer-to-order) ERP company, make each leader’s name clickable to open up an email to the person.
Best Practice: Companies should provide prominent visibility and accessibility to those people that you would like to serve as first points-of-contact for the visiting public. Oracle gets a fair grade here. In no more than 3 clicks, you can get to the locations and main phone numbers for regional offices in Massachusetts. Best Practice would be to provide names, direct phone lines, and direct email addresses.
Not so Good Practice: Providing only a webform to fill out as so many companies do, or providing only an “800″ call center to call into. Customers, visitors, and prospects expect better than this. Customers and prospects are probably justified in feeling that if a company cannot personalize the experience in this initial step, then the amount of personal touch in the rest of the company’s systems and processes is suspect.
A research and business intelligence firm started following us on twitter recently. Interestingly, it is near impossible to find even one person’s name on the entire website – we have yet to find any names on any of the contact pages, and their “corporate” page is a blank white page. A decidedly antisocial firm wanting to engage the social media does not compute. We have politely declined, pending some further transparency and forthrightness on their part.
In another recent interaction with an aspiring technology pundit, this person seemed too take particular pleasure in taking the easy potshot, while avoiding direct dialogue. On their website, he and two co-pundits provided no contact information or Bio information whatsoever. An oversight, or something else?
Best Practice: If you are going to have a presence on the Internet, and use that position to comment and critique from an analyst perspective, you need to provide full contact information to enable a dialogue. Failing to take care to provide your contact information (and other appropriate disclosures) may turn what is at first just (?) a glaring lapse in judgment into more serious questions about professionalism.
What you do
Your website needs to spend as much, or more, time telling the visitor about what you do as it does talking about what products you have, how to use your services, what your target market is, or how big your company is. As obvious as this should be, we are continually surprised by how many companies’ websites seem to use all of the expected words without providing any coherent expression of what the company does.
Can you tell from the company name who Coler and Colantonio, Inc. is or what they do? No, of course not. So Coler & Colantonio makes sure that when you visit their website the first thing you see is an exceptionally clear statement of what they are about: “Coler and Colantonio provides engineering and scientific consulting services to the Energy, Land Development, and Government Market Sectors.“
Best Practice: Somewhere front and center on your website should be a concise statement of what your company does. The average person should be able to find this on your website within 5 to 10 seconds.
This statement of what your company provides is best when it is tight and straightforward – but should be in sufficient detail that someone can immediately make a ballpark estimation of whether your company provides what they need.
A process manufacturer looking for an ERP system should be able to tell if your software solution is intended for discrete or process environments. Someone looking for a consultant should be able to determine whether your company is in fact a consultant or an analyst, and if an analyst, whether a technology analyst or a financial analyst.
Anyone visiting your website should be able to tell within 5-10 seconds whether they are on a website with something to offer to them. Dan Kraus, of Leading Results, may have something when he says “Please don’t tell me what you do. Your website should tell me what I get.“ Telling us what you do would be at least a big step in the right direction up for too many websites. Tax Master‘s ‘We Solve Your Tax problems’ may be the gold standard.
Clearly, one of the ways – reported to be increasing – to tell your market who you are and what you do is via video. I cannot speak for Miles, but I find a great number of the videos on technology-related websites to border on being mind-numbingly uninteresting.
So I was very happy to see Beagle Research‘s Denis Pombriant inject some optimism into the future of video in his article, “Social’s Killer App Is Video and Vice Versa“. He may be able to persuade me that, well, not all videos have to be brainkillers.
Video may be a way for you to show what you do. When you find it hard to describe this, why not show it? If you are a company with fairly broad capabilities in die cutting, for example, how can you easily describe this to someone in an engaging way? Who even knows what die cutting is? How could you describe your capabilities in a way that engages?
G&L Precision Die Cutting thinks they have an idea, in this video on their website – “Watch us at work“. Somehow this company has found a way to make a short video about die cutting that is more interesting than many talking heads. Maybe ‘even’ an industrial company can show us a thing or two about how to make effective use of video. Have a look, and tell us what you think.
On the other end of a spectrum, Darryl Praill has taken a different innovative approach to using video to tell you about who he is and what he does, which I find no less engaging, albeit in an entirely different way.
Best Practices: Use video only when you feel that you understand the medium and the right reasons for using it well enough. Don’t rush to video for fear of being left behind. Video is too tricky, and the internet is littered with poorly done videos that do not improve upon what more tried-and-true technologies. If and when you are going to do something with video, here’s hoping that you will show some of the imagination that have been suggested by Denis Pombriant, G&L Precision Die Cutting, and Darryl Praill.
Where you are
The more locations you have, the more difficult it is to present this information in some form that is useful to your visitors. We understand the challenge. Still, too many companies seem to just use the list of locations to demonstrate their size and breadth, forgetting that visitors will want to use this information to figure out which location is the main headquarters site and how to quickly make contact with any of the remote locations. One example of a great layout: Arkeia Software. Here is a company that wants you to know where they are, how to reach them quickly and easily – and provides a photo of each location. Moen‘s corporate locations page is another nice way to show all of this information in a fairly nice layout with most of the necessary information. Adtran‘s map is a great example of how to provide a map that is more helpful than the typical Google maps (which in my opinion is overused for this purpose.). Give me Adtran’s map any day.
Best Practice: If you are going to provide a full listing of office locations or sites, make very clear first which location is your headquarters or main location. Ensure that it is possible to copy and paste your contact and locations information from your website – do not encapsulate these in Flash (as so many companies do). Provide some information about each site: functions / roles at the site; or at least the main number at the site; perhaps even a name, direct phone number and email address.
SMB Research agrees with those who say that a blog is almost essential these days for most companies. Twitter is, it can be said, also quickly becoming de rigueur these days for many – not all – companies. Your customers and prospects, service providers, competitors, and industry influencers are likely to be using these and other social media to have a continual conversation about your company and your market. If so, your choice is to either participate – or wish you were participating. Companies who have mastered an appropriate way to use a blog, or twitter, or who have intergated the use of each of these together are way ahead of the game.
Blog Best Practices: If you are going to have a blog on your website, the blog must be prominent, visible and easily accessible. The blog should have an owner or owners, and provide their contact information – this information is missing from too many blogs. Each blog post should have an author’s name and provide the author’s contact information. One of the quickest ways to lose visitors and followers (and trust!) is to have blog posts authored by departments or companies – with, astonishingly, no apparent human intervention. (Companies don’t write posts – people do.)
Twitter and Blog Best Practices: Companies that integrate their blog and their twitter feed get a multiplicative effect from the two channels. Having the company’s twitter feed on the blog makes the blog continually updating, and relevant. Alerting the twittersphere of new blog posts keeps your twitter feed thriving, and brings continual traffic to your blog. Treat these channels with respect, however. Companies who are under the delusion (as many companies seem to be) that they can use these channels to aggressively carpetbomb the ethersphere with their company names are likely to be marginalized and left to do some damage control. These and other social media are engagement channels – opportunities to participate, share, influence, and add value to the conversation, and to profit from the give-and-take.
SMB Research has a lot more ideas and insights to share on how to leverage your website, whether you are a small-to-medium business (SMB) or a large enterprise. SMB Research can provide you with some very good assistance; we will not hesitate to provide a hand-off to some very good social media experts who can advise on an integrated social media strategy when that is appropriate.
Give us a call and let’s start the conversation. 781 904 0408.