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Good, Bad and Ugly

15 July 2005

Websites have become a critical tool in corporate communications strategy. However, careful development, promotion and management are essential if they are to contribute to larger business goals. Does the facilities sector understand this? David Emanuel investigates

IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to imagine doing business without internet technology. An email address is as critical as a telephone number when it comes to staying in touch. And it is simply taken for granted that an organisation will have a website.

Within our own sector, i-FM’s 2005 Audit study found that more and more facilities managers are routinely using the net. Websites are overtaking traditional sources of information such as exhibitions when it comes to finding out about products and services. Nearly half of the facilities managers taking part in the Audit said they rely on the internet for researching prospective suppliers. And an even stronger response came from a more recent PHS survey: 88% of the FMs questioned said they favoured web searches for access to news and information.

Dynamic
A website used to be regarded as an organisation’s ‘shop window’, setting out its wares and at the same time communicating messages about corporate values and market positioning.

In most areas of business these days, websites are the first port of call for information – and that applies to prospective business partners, customers, investors, employees, potential employees and journalists.

But we have moved on from the largely static shop window concept. Successful websites in today’s terms are dynamic – not necessarily because they are fitted with all the technological bells and whistles, but because they enable – and foster - communication. How an organisation portrays itself on the web has become critical, and a key factor in this is how the website itself delivers value. But research has shown, and practical experience bears it out, that a surprising number of firms create their web presence and then ignore it for long periods, leaving the site and its information to become stale and out of date – probably not characteristics they would wish to have attributed to their businesses.

Web specialist Interactive Bureau (IB) carries out an annual assessment of the sites of FTSE 100 companies. Overall, it concludes, standards have been rising steadily. But there are problem areas. IB reports that around a third of Britain’s top companies have been consistently poor performers over a number of years, and many simply appear ‘not to get it’ when it comes to the corporate website. An alarming number of them still treat their key audiences appallingly, the report authors commented, by making it difficult to find information needed.

What can be done about this sort of failure? Well, like any element of corporate communication strategy, the corporate website must be managed to ensure it not only remains in line with broad business objectives but also supports and contributes to meeting specific goals, whether these be in marketing, PR, recruitment or stakeholder relations.

The crucial requirement in meeting the challenge is developing an understanding of needs and expectations. And that means the needs and expectations of the organisation that owns the site, as well as its target audiences – who may be customers, employees, shareholders, competitors, journalists and so on.

The original brief for this article was to review in detail the sites of some of the leading players in FM. But mid-way through our research we were forced to the conclusion that the approach was unsatisfactory. The great majority of sites in our sector are very similar in design, structure and content – and when they depart from the common ground, it tends to be in a negative direction rather than towards something worthy of emulation.

The fact is, facilities is not as sophisticated as some other sectors in its application of web technology. In addition organisations are failing, by and large, to use this technology to reach out into a wider marketplace beyond their established lists of contacts/members/subscribers. So a detailed review of facilities sites was bound to be unflattering to almost everyone involved.

Nevertheless, scanning the vast number of sites in the facilities sector, as we do regularly at i-FM, means we have built up a considerable knowledge of what’s out there, together with a stock of observations.

First, the majority of facilities websites are good enough from the point of view of the casual visitor. But ‘good enough’ isn’t a mark of success. Few of these sites really work hard on behalf of their owners. Additional evidence for this conclusion comes again from the 2005 Audit. When we asked respondents to name leading brands in various service categories, most struggled to come up with more than one or two – and many of those named were not the leaders in their respective markets.

A handful of sites are at the head of the pack because they are well designed, offer plenty of useful content and provide a number of easy access points. These are followed by a second group that do one or two things particularly well, for example, explaining the various aspects of the company’s business or providing detailed management and contact information.

When things have gone wrong, the problem is typically in one of two categories. The most obvious is design: a few one or two facilities sites now look distinctly dated, while others look as though graphic design was never a consideration. Problems can also arise in content, which inevitably crosses over into structure. There are a couple of challenges here. First, the underlying structure must be robust and clear enough to stand up to the addition of new content; otherwise, the result is a maze in which it is easy to get lost. The second challenge is ownership: someone needs to take responsibility for keeping the website up-todate and fully functional. Our own bugbear here is the ‘news’ page that is months (or in one or two cases, years) out of date.

Value
None of these problems is necessarily related to money: spending more on a site doesn’t automatically make it better. The new BIFM website is a case in point. Developed in conjunction with a customer relationship management system, the package cost over £200,000. The site is visually very successful, but beneath the surface the content is uneven – ranging from almost too much to none where input from various groups is awaited. Experience shows that the wait could be a long one.

Experience also tells us that the size of the spend should reflect the proportion of the market that the site actually reaches. A carefully planned structure will enable expansion later, should that be appropriate. For an instructive comparison, consider the new FMA website: this delivers all the necessary features and content for a fraction of the BIFM’s expenditure.

With technology continuing to advance rapidly, and the cost of it generally falling, more and more functions can be built into sites – making them work harder on behalf of their owners. For example, so called ‘premium content’, such as white papers, research reports or practical guidance, can be made available for downloading via a simple registration process that captures the details of new business prospects. This will head off the danger of your site becoming a kind of uncharted island – the web equivalent of printing an expensive new brochure and then leaving it in reception with the hope that someone will come along and find it. Given the right promotion, the selected content acts as an attraction for visitors and registration ensures you are getting some value out of their visits.

Other functions that will ensure your site works harder include:
... Customer satisfaction survey systems
... Web-based mail features enabling you to send out large-scale branded and personalised mailings, and
... Interactive databases that assist in managing the contact process.

Recently, there has also been a swing towards the development of targeted microsites. Focused on a limited number of objectives, these are quick and cost-effective to design and implement. A good example is the ‘Services to the City’ site, which Rentokil Initial used last spring as a platform for a specific marketing campaign (see page 18). The site, working in conjunction with more traditional marketing techniques, combined promotion of a single event with a booking and confirmation system that evolved into a contacts database to be used in future sales initiatives. The whole package was such a success that it has been
entered for an industry award.

So, what tips can we offer for getting the most from your website?
... Start by asking some basic questions. What do you want to achieve? What features do you need to build in to the site to get back the desired level of value? How will you promote it to get sufficient traffic to deliver that value?
... Put someone in charge. The most effective sites are the responsibility of an individual or a small team that champions design and content, measured in terms of quantity, quality and timeliness. Relying on input from users is bound to leave holes.
... It’s good to talk. Establish two-way communication through downloads, client areas, extranets and similar techniques. Build in a means of tracking who is visiting the site.
... Stay on top of it. Don’t let the site ever look neglected - and use every opportunity to promote it as a valuable source of information worth a visit.
... The focus of the web development process is no longer about building corporate sites, but about building a business solution. The technology is there – we just have to make the best use of it.

... David Emanuel is managing director of marketing communications specialist Enigma and the award winning facilities news and information service www.i-fm.net


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