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Good, Bad and Ugly II

15 June 2007

Two years ago an analysis of websites in the facilities sector found companies settling for second best (or worse). Now, older and wiser - and with more technology available - are we doing better? Sadly, no. David Emanuel explains.

SO MUCH RUBBISH. SO MANY OPPORTUNITIES MISSED. So much money spent, and where's the benefit? Writing on these pages in 2005, I concluded that on balance the web presence of facilities companies was good enough for the casual user. On balance means that the sites reviewed ran the gamut from really quite successful to all but neglected by their owners, with the majority somewhere in the middle. Good enough means the site was reasonably attractive to look at, all functions worked and basic information was provided. Good enough is not praise for achievement, however, nor is it something that any business should define as an aspiration.

Two years on is the picture more impressive? More effective? More creative? No, No and No!. Even companies that have relaunched their websites over that period have generally shown little ambition to capitalise on new web technology, differentiate themselves through design or content, or integrate their sites into a larger marketing strategy.

The fact is, the facilities sector was then - and remains - remarkably unsophisticated in its understanding and application of the principles of marketing, which encompasses an organisation's web presence amongst other things.

Marketing is not the same as business development; and precious few PR consultants can be relied upon to address real marketing needs. There is a whole series of useful articles to be written on these topics, but the element that concerns us here is communication. By and large, facilities companies (no less than the various institutions and associations in the sector) are not good communicators. They tend to be poor at defining and expressing their messages, poor at targeting and poor at timing. Marketing communications is not normally about trying to avoid saying something; nor is it about saying anything in hopes of attracting a bit of attention. Marketing communications is about presenting a thoughtful message to the people you believe will see the benefit in receiving it.

In many cases, press relations is one area of particularly poor performance¡­..but don't get me started on that.

Delivering value
Websites are all about communication. We have moved on from the concept of a site as an organisation's 'shop window', a largely static presentation of its wares together with basic information about corporate values and positioning. In most areas of business, websites are the first port of call for information - and that applies to prospective business partners, customers, investors, employees, potential employees and journalists, as well as the competition of course.

Increasingly, success in website design means being dynamic - not necessarily fitting all the technological bells and whistles that are possible, but enabling - and fostering - effective interaction.

Can you truly say that you believe your website is delivering value? Facilities organisations are failing, by and large, to use web technology to reach out into a wider marketplace beyond their established lists of contacts/members/subscribers. They are not building informed potential buyers or business partners; nor are they building their brands effectively in what is, by anyone's definition, a highly competitive marketplace.

Two years is a long time in the facilities business: just consider how many new contracts have been awarded have changed hands, and how many people have changed jobs - not to mention the ongoing M&A activity. Since we last took a view on this landscape, a few leading companies have carried out major site makeovers. Where is the evidence of growing sophistication? Where is any new ground being broken?

As in the previous analysis, a handful of sites are at the head of the pack because they are well designed, offer useful content and provide a number of easy access points.

These leaders 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, providing detailed contact information or offering downloads.

Lessons worth learning
But the overwhelming feeling is that we in facilities could learn a lot from sites in other business sectors. One worthwhile exercise is to remember to look with an analytical eye at the various sites you visit, whether you're catching up on the news, checking football results, looking for a book or ordering groceries. If you like a site (or don't) - why? Is it appearance, overall organisation, ease of use, responsiveness, added features?

It's also worth having a look at the results of this year's Webby Awards (http://www.webbyawards.com/). Since 1996 the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences has been handing out praise for excellence on the internet. Current award winners are featured on the site, and there is plenty of inspiration for new ideas of all kinds.

One site, developed by an IT company (who would have thought they were creative?), actually uses the need to move from 'good enough' to something more memorable as its central theme. InLogic (http://www.inlogic.co.uk/flash.asp) is an inspiration to any organisation wanting to get away from the ageing 'shop window' concept.

So what do we need? In addition to a good hard look at the words and images used on a site, ensuring that they are accurate, relevant and truly targeted at a defined audience, consider these opportunities to set yourself apart:
.. A more human, more engaging style (see InLogic)
..More creativity (Ambius has established its own style while the other Rentokil Initial businesses have gone for uniformity
http://www.ambius.com/home.aspx?langtype=2 057)
..More relevant features, eg videos, presentations, webcasting (Advanced Workplace Associates has launched Workplace TV - at no great cost but effective nonetheless http://www.advanced-workplace.com/)
..Added functions (see for example DTZ's 'search for a person' function http://www.dtz.com/portal/site/UK/)
..Greater differentiation (Serco's previous design featured strong and engaging graphics on each page; the current site has shifted towards the 'good enough' position http://www.serco.com/)
..Action FM (www.actionfm.org) is clean and functional, and produced on a shoestring. And what niggles (or worse)?
..No interactivity: no downloads, no way to register for updates or additions, no way to capture the details of interested visitors
..No search function: fatal when coupled with inadequate or confusing navigation
..No links: undermines value, especially when content veers towards the superficial
..No evidence that anyone is taking responsibility for the site, keeping it fresh and up-to-date.

Usability is a fundamental consideration. Some years ago, Top Gear drew out some elementary lessons for car designers by lining up half a dozen vehicles and asking a handful of average drivers to get in each and start the engine within 60 seconds. Should be simple, shouldn't it? And in most cases it was - though not for a top-of-the-line TVR, a beautifully engineered piece of machinery but one that was so much in its own world drivers struggled to figured out how to make it run. The industry has one or two websites like that: highly structured, content heavy, multi-layered navigation - but can you find what you want quickly?

Optimisation is another important issue. In simple terms, this is about constructing a site so that it is search engine-friendly. Search Google on 'facilities management'. Ignoring the companies that have paid to be singled out, we find BIFM and FMA near the top of the list - evidence of effective optimisation. How many pages down the list do you have to go to find your organisation? That's evidence of ineffective (or absent) optimisation.

Adding features and functions to sites, or correcting weaknesses, doesn't necessarily require vast expenditure. It is a happy fact of the web that spending more on a site doesn't automatically make it better. The key lies in understanding what your users want and expect, then using the available technology to deliver that - or, ideally, a bit more.

The facilities industry is still young - and it shows in the degree of sophistication we see in its marketing, and specifically in its websites. The positive message here is that there are big opportunities for those first-movers that take on board the need and demonstrate a more mature response.

..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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