Taking a stand online

There was an unprecedented reaction from American CEOs after the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jason Sumner also found a surprising number of companies willing to address the controversy on their corporate websites and social media. Does this signal a new approach to managing corporate reputations online?

We often look at corporate websites after a crisis hits to see if companies are doing anything to put their side of the story across online.

Usually we find little or nothing, not even a press statement in the News area. We put this down to risk averse lawyers and conventional PR wisdom – don’t mention it too much and hope the media moves on, which it usually does. This has probably been sound advice.

I expected to find the typical online silence when I started looking at the websites of companies whose CEOs had resigned en masse from Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council following the president’s controversial comments about events in Charlottesville, Virginia– which eventually drove the US leader to disband the panel.

There was the usual reticence on the part of some, but a surprising number of CEOs and companies spoke out on their official digital channels about what led to their decision to quit.

Merck’s CEO, Kenneth C Frazier, was the first to go. There was an announcement on the pharmaceutical company’s Twitter account on August 14th, but we could not find any reference to the resignation on Merck.com.

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Intel also had nothing on its main website, but announced its CEO’s resignation from the panel on a policy blog. (We wrote a recent BC tip about it here.)

On August 14th, the same day that Mr Frazier resigned, clothing company Under Armour tweeted a statement from its CEO, Kevin Plank. ‘We are saddened by Charlottesville. There is no place for racism or discrimination in this world. We choose love & unity.’

The next day the company issued a statement in its website’s media section saying Mr Plank had resigned, and the statement still remains at the top of the press releases list on the site. The statement was also tweeted on the corporate Twitter handle.

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The Campbell Soup Company also released a statement on August 16th from its CEO, Denise Morrison, on its corporate home page and Twitter. It was still the top feature on the home page nearly a week after Ms Morrison resigned. ‘Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville,’ the statement said. ‘I believe the President should have been - and still needs to be - unambiguous on that point.’

Unusually, Campbell’s opened the statement to comments from readers. There were 145 comments when we checked the site – many in support, but some promising to boycott the company’s products.

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Several companies took the usual route of saying nothing on official channels, including investment management company Blackrock. Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi tweeted from her personal account – ‘Hatred and intolerance are a betrayal of what we stand for as Americans.’ - but we couldn’t find any statements on the website or corporate social media

Walmart’s CEO made his announcement in an internal note to employees – we did not find anything on official public channels.

Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schulz got a lot of attention in the media for his statements on the violence in Charlottesville, although he was not part of the president’s manufacturing council. This did not stop the digital team from promoting his stance heavily on the website. A town-hall style meeting he had with employees on August 15th was being promoted heavily in the company’s corporate newsroom, with a feature story titled ‘Hate has no home here’, photographs and short video.

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The mix of approaches to presenting the controversy online reflects a wider uncertainty about how best to manage corporate controversies when the combination of social and traditional media can create an ongoing storm of bad publicity that does not 'just go away’ but takes on a life of its own. Unprecedented times could mean more unprecedented communications tactics from corporates - at least in the US.

Indeed, for the moment, this has been a very US-centric debate. An interesting question is whether European or Asian companies will eventually find themselves under similar levels of scrutiny and feel the need to speak out in this way.

Another interesting question arises too. This controversy was external – something the US president said, rather than a home grown scandal, such as the Volkswagen emissions fraud, or Wells Fargo’s fake loans. Will CEOs of larger corporates continue to make the calculation that online silence is the best approach to these kinds of controversies or will the old rules apply?

- Jason Sumner

BC tip: Merck - Rise of the footer

A US pharmaceutical company’s home page footer expands upwards when the mouse hovers over it.

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The Feature

The Merck.com home page has a narrow footer panel with three headings in a row – ‘Latest News’; ‘Social @ Merck’ and ‘Other Merck Sites’.

When visitors hover the mouse over any part of the panel, it rises up the page to reveal more details under each of the categories – summaries and links to press releases; the latest tweets and social media follow icons; and links to other parts of the web estate. Moving the mouse off the panel causes it to collapse back down the page.

On a smartphone screen, the three elements of the panel are stacked vertically. The expandable footer appears to be limited to the home page; it is not on any of the section landing pages, for example, or anywhere else that we clicked.

The Takeaway

Merck’s expanding panel tries to do for footers what the mega dropdown menu has done for primary navigation. On the Merck home page, the feature is a space-saving way to let visitors see options that are not in the main menus at the top; and helps to keep the home page from scrolling. It could be a useful design in some circumstances – if footers can expand downwards, why not have the option to go up too?

It is not clear this works completely – for example, the way Merck have implemented it means they cannot have a longer home page, even if they wanted one. There are some other disadvantages in the way it is executed – on smaller laptop screens the panel obscures some of the text in the carousel.

If in doubt, a useful guideline to follow is, don’t try to innovate with navigation.



BC tip: Intel - Breaking news on a blog

The computer chip manufacturer shows another potential role for a resurgent online channel.

The Feature

Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, announced on Monday via a company blog, policy@intel, that he was quitting President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. This followed the resignation of Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier, a higher-profile event in part because the US president attacked him personally on Twitter.

We could not find any reference to the resignation anywhere on Intel's corporate website, or even a link to the policy blog (including using the internal search engine). This goes for the online newsroom too, and we could not find an official press release.

The New York Times linked to the blog post directly in one of its stories about the resignation. 

The Takeaway

Intel using a blog to break news, rather than an online press release, makes sense – a blog is direct, easy for journalists to link to, and (usually) more readable for the general public than press releases.

In this case Intel had a ‘go to’ channel - it maintains a blog on public policy and so it was a natural fit.

The fact that we could not find the blog post or a link to it on the website is interesting, but it is not unusual for corporate sites to be silent about controversies. A big reason is often legal caution (although the Intel policy blog is run by Intel’s lawyers). 

We have noted how blogs have been making a comeback, although in some corners of the IT world they are well established. Google has long-favoured using blog posts over traditional press releases to disseminate company news. But not in every corner – Apple recently launched its first-ever blog, for technical discussions about artificial intelligence).

The point for other digital comms teams is that breaking controversial news is one more potential role for this ‘old is new again’ online channel. 



BC tip: ING Group - Inviting Facebook comments

The Dutch financial services group uses a Facebook plugin that allows the social network’s users to comment on articles on the corporate website.

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The Feature

ING is using the Facebook comments plugin on feature stories in its ‘Newsroom’ section. If users are logged in to Facebook, they can post a comment at the end of articles.

The Takeaway

We have not seen the Facebook plugin used on a corporate website before. It is an interesting experiment at a time when many companies are looking at how best to interact with Facebook and other social networks.

So far, the results are mixed from what we can see. Many recent articles do not have comments. Some articles from earlier this year have four or five – see for example ‘ING is inside of me’ from May 15th. The comments we checked were a mix of employee remarks and random queries unrelated to the topic. We did not see any that were hostile though, which is probably the biggest risk to opening up corporate articles to Facebook.

We have noted ING’s willingness in the past to try new things online. This is another example; and one worth watching to see how it develops.


Seven deadly sins of corporate website usability

At our recent annual conference, in partnership with the Bunnyfoot user experience (UX) agency, we conducted some user testing on some of our delegates’ websites. Although the sessions were designed just to give an indication of how this type of testing can help web managers, they provided some real food for thought, says Andrew Rigby.

This is the latest in our series of posts about the conference, following on from our summary of six key takeaways. A guest blog from one of our speakers will follow in the coming weeks.

The sessions we ran with Bunnyfoot involved giving users exercises to complete on a corporate website that they did not know. We asked each tester to put themselves in the shoes of a corporate website user wanting to complete a relevant, two-stage task. For example, a jobseeker looking for information on a particular company’s sustainability policies before searching for a specific job.

With the help of some clever eye-tracking technology, we – and the web managers of the sites being tested – could see how the users went about trying to find the right information.

We should point out that the sessions were only indicative: we used delegates as our guinea pigs and gave each one just ten minutes to complete the tasks. Real user experience design (UX) testing would involve asking a number of users, who are actually investors or jobseekers or the like, to complete a series of tasks over a longer a period. 

In other words, our tests were not truly scientific. We just wanted to show that UX testing is relatively easy to conduct with the right equipment and the help of experts like Bunnyfoot; and to give an idea of the type insights it can reveal. 

But even allowing for the lack of rigour, seven deadly sins of corporate website UX emerged:

1. Unhelpful search

Users frequently started their tasks on external search engines, or often used the sites’ internal search mechanisms. So not only do corporate sites need to perform well on the likes of Google, but their own searches need to help users find what they want. All too often, internal searches failed to deal with misspellings or synonyms by suggesting alternatives, to search PDFs, or to present results in well-ordered lists.

2. Neglected navigation

Poor navigation meant that many users resorted to the internal search or simply failed to complete their tasks. Sometimes this was due to difficulties in using dropdown menus – some were simply too big to be used on a laptop screen. In other cases, users could not see the sub-sections or sub-pages at lower levels, and so were forced to take leaps of faith by clicking on section headings they hoped would reveal what they wanted. It was noticeable that left-hand menus – something we have championed for a while – were generally more successful and users were quick to use them; but there were poorly implemented examples of these too. 

Aside from the main menu styles, it was rare to find effective cross-linking to relevant content. It meant that if users found a page which was not quite what they were looking for, but perhaps was on the same topic, they were seldom offered on-page links to their destination. This was also true for predictable journeys which took in pages in different sections.

It left an impression that user needs should dictate information architecture and cross-linking more than they sometimes do.

3. ‘Look at me’, not ‘use me’, labelling

There were many examples of users finding what they wanted thanks to clear labelling in menus, or on-page links. Yet there were also instances of users being confused by vague section or page titles, either because several pages or themes were nested under them, or because ‘neat’ company-specific jargon or terms were being used. The absence of format icons or indicators for downloads also created uncertainty. 

Tasks were more likely to be completed on sites where web managers had anticipated the words or phrases which users would be looking for and had labelled pages and sections accordingly, or surfaced important pages higher in the website structure, rather than hiding them under catch-all section titles which did not resonate with users. Users responded well to headings labelled with their audience type, such as Investors or Media.

4. Imperfect page layouts

How a page is presented matters: there were various instances of users finding the correct page, but still missing the right information on it. Big blocks of text - especially ones in capital letters – or crucial information contained a long way down a page or only in a PDF, especially hampered usability. 

Pages with short paragraphs – getting shorter as the page continues – and with signposts to key information on them, such as anchor links or headings, performed well. Users tend to scan long pages rather than read them in detail.

5. Inconsistent images

Given that users often scan pages rather than read every word, images can provide a quick visual cue as to whether users are on the right page. A poorly chosen image occasionally undermined user confidence, to the extent that some left the page that best served their needs. Images which supported page content by reflecting the idea or region being talked about were more helpful. 

6. Painful processes

Whether it was a badly designed search mechanism, or a job application system which required login details too be entered twice, users were quick to abandon journeys – or at least voice their displeasure – if barriers were put in their way. Getting users to the right place is not enough, as they expect a painless process once there.

7. Cookie monsters

Quite a few sites were dominated by very large cookie consent mechanisms when users hit the first page. Many users either failed to dismiss these until several pages into their journey, or became confused by their presence. Of course, these notices need to be presented, but doing so in an appropriate way is important, as they can form an initial impression of a site from the very outset. Another example of something which can easily be overlooked, but can actually be a big factor in a good user experience. 

User testing can be seen as a luxury by corporate web managers, and one which is often omitted from projects in the face of small teams, tight budgets and pressing deadlines. But if time and money can be found, seeing how real users interact with a website can be very helpful – so that the UX can be tailored to their needs.

- Andrew Rigby

Guide to online corporate audiences: Contact Dan Drury (ddrury@bowencraggs.com) for a copy of the visitor profiles Bowen Craggs uses when evaluating websites and social channels for our Index of Online Excellence. Eligible recipients only – usually senior digital communications professionals working for large corporate or public sector/non-governmental organizations.

BC tip: TimeWarner - Linking out to LinkedIn

Replacing website biographies with LinkedIn profiles is a good idea taken too far.

The Feature

TimeWarner Investments is the venture capital arm of the US media giant, and has its own section on the corporate website.

The section has a biography page – ‘Time Warner Investments Team’ – which has the names and job titles of four team members – the group managing director, managing director, and two associates. There is no other information on the page, aside from two right links (one of which is a link to the current page). The hyperlinks each open new windows (without warning) to the team members’ LinkedIn profiles.

The Takeaway

Several company websites have links to LinkedIn profiles alongside more conventional biographical information. If the company leadership has a presence on the channel, it makes sense to promote these pages as part of a package of resources.

It is a useful idea that TimeWarner Investments takes too far. Completely replacing conventional biographies with LinkedIn hyperlinks may save time for the company, but it adds more time-consuming clicks for users.

We could not find any other executive biographies on the site that use LinkedIn in the same way, so maybe it is unique to the investments team, which is probably keen to make connections with entrepreneurs with good ideas.

Given that visitors to the Investments Team page most likely want the company’s money, they will probably jump through the extra hoops. In most other corporate contexts, that degree of loyalty is doubtful.


The power of persuasion: Six lessons from the 2017 Web Effectiveness Conference

There was a rich mix of presentations at our annual conference in Barcelona two weeks ago, covering a diverse range of issues facing corporate digital managers. Here, Jason Sumner and Scott Payton share six quick takeaways from the event.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing more posts about the event – including insights from usability clinics that delegates participated in and a guest blog from one of our speakers, Tim Clark of SAP.

1. Make sure your boss trusts you (and does not know much about the internet)

Simon Saville, head of Shell’s digital communications from 2000 to 2016, had 11 bosses during his tenure running Shell’s online presence. They were senior, powerful people in the organization who could influence the executive management. Crucially, they knew little about the internet, but trusted Simon. ‘That was a huge benefit to me,’ Simon said. ‘If you could be trusted in your field by your boss, then you could get things done.’

2. Choose your words carefully

A number of this year’s speakers emphasised the power of sharp headlines and punchy prose in online communications. SAP’s ‘brand journalism’ is an example of the trend, helped along by former journalists writing stories for companies. ‘Content is front and centre again,’ said Tim Clark of SAP, who sources articles from the technology company’s nearly 90,000 employees.

‘The sheer power of words is really important,’ said David Bowen, in his review of what has got better on websites in the last year. ‘The quality of editorial is being given a lot more emphasis.’ The best headlines, for example, aim for the unexpected – see tobacco giant PMI’s home page headline, ‘Designing a smoke-free future: How long will the world’s leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business.’

3. Persuading writers takes fewer sticks and more carrots

If ‘content’ is front and centre again, then digital managers will need to recruit writers. A few employees are keen to help, but some of the most interesting stories are in the heads of employees that are a) not professional writers; and b) are too busy with their day jobs to worry about what goes on the website.

Tim from SAP explained how he finds and nurtures gifted writers inside his organization for the production of articles on the company’s presence on Forbes.com, as well as on its own online channels. Tim also urged delegates to focus on publishing articles that are genuinely interesting – even if their relevance to company activities are tangential - rather than falling back on marketing puff pieces, which never fail to fail on Forbes.com.

Scott Roane of Aegon takes an informal, personal approach, contacting potential authors directly, offering encouragement and constructive feedback. With a streamlined approval process, he can sometimes get stories on the web in a matter of hours, which helps motivate contributors.

4. Connect with hearts and minds

Persuasion is an art, according to Lee Warren, a magician and motivational speaker, who closed out the first day. His formula for persuading people, ‘HAM PIE’ (‘Hearts and Minds; Picture. Interest. Enthusiasm’, prioritises emotional connections over cold facts. ‘Data on its own is rarely persuasive.’

5. Use pictures to bring data to life

Proving Lee’s point, Miles Tomlinson from GSK revealed how his team is using data visualisation techniques – charts, diagrams and infographics - to make statistics about the performance of his firm’s online communications easier to digest and more relevant to the goals of people across the business.

6. Keep an eye on the ‘internet of things’

The ‘internet of things’ (IoT), promises to connect everyday objects and machines, such as cars, dishwashers and jet engines, to the internet, allowing them to talk to each other, predict behaviour and collect useful data. While this emerging area is yet to be realised fully at the business-to-consumer level, Michael Schmidtke of Bosch believes it will create ‘new touch points and bring digital communications to the physical world’. As the industry develops, it is worth thinking about how these new ‘smart things’, such as connected cars, could change corporate digital communications. Or, as Michael asked, ‘When things become smart, will our websites stay dumb?’

BC tip: Morgan Stanley - Promoting podcasts on the home page

A US financial services firm uses its corporate home page to showcase a rising digital channel.

The Feature

Morgan Stanley’s new ‘Ideas’ podcast is a series of weekly episodes on business, finance and technology that started in June. People can subscribe via iTunes or listen individually directly from the corporate website.

To promote the series launch, the Morgan Stanley corporate website home page has a call-to-action – ‘Ideas Worth Listening To’ and a link to subscribe on iTunes.

The Takeaway

Morgan Stanley is unusual in producing a weekly series of podcasts, and in promoting them so prominently on a corporate website home page.

Although podcasts have been around for a long time, they are rising in popularity, so it makes sense to use this growing channel for thought leadership. Morgan Stanley is also using its website well to support the initiative, both to promote the new series and serve as a ‘hub’ for individual episodes – listeners can subscribe via iTunes, but they can also listen to individual podcasts in the website’s ‘Ideas’ section.


BC tip: Google – a feed that adds intrigue

An animated grid of live search terms brings the technology giant’s otherwise-uninspiring new corporate home page to life

The Feature

Google provides a panel on its recently-revamped corporate home page that shows ‘what the world is searching for now’. The panel consists of a grid of cells, each in one of Google’s brand colours. The cells constantly expand and contract to reveal search terms that the company claims are currently being keyed into its search engine. The search terms appear on letter at a time, as if they are being manually typed in.

The Takeaway

Most of Google’s new corporate home page is more conventional, and less distinctive, than ever before. The panel links promoting ‘Our values in action’ are an example of this. But the animated grid of search terms is visually striking; editorially interesting; immediately conveys an impression of innovation; and vividly illustrates the company’s core service in action.


Investor relations dos and don'ts

Scott Payton answers IR managers' questions about their online communications.

My colleague Dan Drury went to Florida last month to give a presentation at the National Investor Relations Institute’s annual conference. The topic was best practice in online investor communications.

Delegates – IR managers from across the Americas and beyond – asked Dan a lot of good questions, so we thought it would be useful to repeat some here, along with our answers:

‘When it comes to building an IR section, is it wise to hire a vendor offering fancy website services, or are you better off doing it in house?’

Whether you decide to build your IR section in house or via an agency, what’s most important is to keep the management of it tightly under your control. This includes making all the big decisions on how the section is structured; how it looks; and what information and tools it should contain.

Moreover, many investors and analysts are likely to want to venture beyond the IR section to other parts of your corporate site – the About Us and News sections, for example. So it’s important that your IR section is built and managed as a coherent and integral part of your entire online corporate presence – not on its own.

Though it may be hard to avoid if your budget is small, outsourcing your entire online IR presence to a third party without tightly tailoring it to be consistent with the rest of your corporate web estate risks causing problems and frustrations for your IR team, and for the investors and analysts who use it.

‘I’m told that HTML annual reports are very popular among private investors. Is this true?’

Our surveys and interviews strongly suggest that most private investors prefer PDF annual reports to HTML versions. Many private investors tend to read these PDFs on screen rather than printing them out, so adding hyperlinks in the contents page and elsewhere can make PDF reports quicker and easier to use.

HTML reports can make sense if they provide information and tools above and beyond what’s possible to provide in a PDF. This could include video interviews with the CEO, or interactive charting tools. But many companies have concluded that the costs involved in producing this kind of whizzy HTML annual report outweigh the benefits. Indeed, interactive charting tools and video interviews are likely to have a longer shelf life, and reach a wider audience, if they’re put in the IR section itself rather than in an online annual report.

‘Is it a good idea to include financial results call transcripts on the website?’

Yes. Analysts have told us that they appreciate it when companies’ results archives include transcripts of results presentations or calls – because they can quickly scan through them to find what they need without the bother of listening to or watching the webcast.

‘What do you think about offering interactive historical financial data on the website? Is it necessary when this information can be obtained elsewhere?’

Providing interactive data tables and tools in your corporate website’s IR section is indeed likely to be appreciated by sophisticated private investors, who have the expertise to interrogate and interpret such information but lack the access to professional data sources (such as Bloomberg) used by professional investment analysts. Most private investors are unlikely to have the know-how to benefit from such tools, however. So they’re a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’ feature.

 ‘We’re planning to redesign our IR website. The main company site will not change – but it looks dated. How critical is consistency of look and feel between our new IR site and the existing company site if content is consistent?’

First, having a separate IR website rather than an integrated IR section in the main corporate site is not a good idea. It makes journeys between IR material and other types of corporate information in which investors and analysts may be interested intrinsically more fragmented than they could be. Indeed, Bowen Craggs’ extensive website visitor survey data shows that 26% of investors and analysts visiting a corporate site do so to find out about the company, rather than to get financial information (see more on these survey findings in the report mentioned at the end of this article). In light of this, consistency of look, feel and, crucially, navigation as well as content between IR pages and the rest of the corporate web presence is indeed very important.

That said, some companies have built separate IR sites for internal political reasons that are not easily overcome. In these cases, it is particularly important to maintain prominent cross links between the IR site and investor-relevant information on the main site (such as executive biographies and non-financial performance data), so investors and analysts can find and reach everything they need as easily as possible.

‘What is the benefit of embedding investor presentations in SlideShare format compared to merely uploading the slides to the website?’

SlideShare does for slide decks what YouTube does for video. Embedding SlideShare versions of your presentations in your IR section allows investors and analysts to flick through the slide deck directly on the web page, rather than having to download a PDF first. Convenient.

‘Is it worth creating a mobile and tablet investor relations app?’

No. Many companies that have tried this soon discovered that the cost and time involved in maintaining the app far outweighed the benefits the app brings to investors and analysts – especially in cases where the IR section of the website is mobile-friendly anyway.

‘How long do you expect an IR section to last before it needs to be rebuilt?’

The fundamental ingredients of an effective IR section have changed little over the past decade – an aggregated table of results materials; well-signposted IR contact information; jargon-free information for private investors; rich background material for researching analysts; and so on.

But companies have felt the need to rebuild their sites for other, legitimate reasons. For example, the desire to make IR pages, and the rest of a corporate site, mobile friendly has been a big driver for site rebuilds in recent years (much to the delight of web design agencies). Wanting to make a site look visually contemporary, and able to handle embedded video and other multimedia material, has been another motivator.

With all this in mind, an IR section will last for as long as it continues to do a good job of meeting the needs of the fund managers, analysts and private investors you want to communicate with, on the devices they want to use – and continues to allow you transmit the messages about your company that you want to convey to these audiences.

Perhaps the most important thing of all is not how often you rebuild your IR section, but how carefully you maintain what you’ve already got.

Click here to visit the download page for our freshly revised and updated report, ‘Best practice in online investor relations: Lessons from the top companies in the world’.

 - Scott Payton



BC tip: McKinsey - Expandable sidebar

A creative variation on the ‘click-to-expand’ menu could be useful for corporate website articles.

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The Feature

An article on crisis management on McKinsey.com, the website of the US-based management consultancy, has a ‘click-to-expand’ sidebar.

On a desktop screen, the sidebar appears as a box in the left column – ‘Sidebar: Are you prepared for the worst? Twenty-five questions executives should ask themselves now’. (On a mobile screen, the box is centred across the screen.) Clicking on the ‘plus’ sign in the box expands the full story on both smartphone and desktop screens.

The Takeaway

The expandable sidebar is a neat design feature that could be adapted to improve the way corporate articles are presented online; as an alternative to pop-ups, tabs or more conventional ‘click-to-expand’ menus.

A few caveats, however – the sidebar is well down the page, meaning visitors may miss it. The heading, ‘Sidebar’ does little to draw visitors in (and may not be understood by all readers). It is also worth considering whether the ‘plus’ sign is familiar enough to indicate to readers that clicking on it will reveal more information.


BC tip: Siemens - Deutsche marks

German-style quotation marks add an element of quirkiness but will English-speaking readers understand?

The Feature

A marketing feature on Siemens’s English-language main global website describes the German engineering giant’s ‘Railigent’ service, a digital monitoring system that aggregates and analyses railway data.

The feature, ‘Intelligent transformation of rail data’, which is signposted from the home page, has a quotation from a customer, signposted by one set of large quotation marks. The quote marks are back-to-front, in the German style.

The Takeaway

The Siemens feature is well-designed for the web, with interesting images, readable fonts, embedded video and other welcoming elements to help customers engage with the material; and it looks good on both desktop and mobile.

The site has otherwise grammatically correct English, but the reverse quote marks are a conspicuous exception. Are they a quirky design element? A deliberate introduction of a slight German ‘accent’ to take advantage of the country’s reputation for engineering precision? Possibly, but English-speaking readers may be more likely to see them simply as an error.


Measuring the hot air

US corporate leaders rose up in dissent against President Trump's withdrawal from the climate change agreement. David Bowen thought it would be interesting to see how well their companies reported their own greenhouse gas emissions. 

Many US corporate bosses were swift to dissociate themselves from President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, tweeting their discontent. 

But what are they doing about greenhouse gases and - most interesting to me - are they bothering to tell us? Measuring and reporting environmental data has become a big thing in the last 20 years. They are the same 20 years that the web has become a big thing, and they match each other perfectly: the data tends to be complex, and the web is good at handling complexity. 

But non-financial reporting has been much bigger in Europe than the US. As far as I can see (from staring at websites), it is only now having any significant impact in America.

Until very recently US sustainability reporting tended to be anecdotal rather than data-driven. You are still more likely to find stories about the good things employees have been doing than hard numbers on CO2 emissions. That is changing. In our current Bowen Craggs Index, two of the top performers in this area are Ford and Dell EMC. Ford’s sustainability report has as much detailed analysis as we have seen anywhere - here is its CO2 emissions page

But I thought it would be interesting to see how much self-analysis the companies that came out against the president in Paris were publishing about themselves. 

The results are mixed, and tend to say as much about the somewhat haphazard nature of US corporate sites as about the reporting itself. 

The first company I looked at was Tesla - Elon Musk resigned from the President's Council in protest. The ultimate green company does not publish any CO2 figures I could find. Someone queried this on a forum and got this reply from a sort of fansite, TeslaTap.com: ‘Tesla is so busy creating sustainable transportation, they likely haven't had time for expensive reports that few bother reading. Not trying to be smug, but it seems more of a corporate PR game for huge corporations, more than actually doing something useful.’ An interesting argument, but a weak one. It is fine being good, but if you can't prove it, why, someone might not believe you.

Then to General Electric, whose chairman Jeff Immelt tweeted that 'industry must now lead and not depend on government'. There is data, but it's frustratingly hard to find. GE is getting ever better at hiding information on its corporate site – maybe this is one of its KPIs? There is no sustainability link on the home page, not even an ‘about’ link any more – just a search box and a scrolling list of pages 'popular right now'. After much clicking I did find greenhouse gas emissions for the past three years, with a 2011 ‘baseline’ number. The bare minimum we should expect from an industrial giant; and incomprehensibly buried.

The other high-profile corporate protesters run companies that are less in the environmental frontline but should still be reporting. And on the whole they are doing a better job at it. 

Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs sent his first ever tweet in protest against the withdrawal. He should be proud if he checks out his company's reporting effort. The Environmental, Social and Governance Report, found from the Citizenship link, has very detailed greenhouse gas data, with little arrows showing the trend in the past year. 

Like Mr Musk, Disney's Robert Iger resigned from the President's Council. The Disney site has plenty on its intentions to go carbon neutral but, as fas a I can see, no hard data - there's a brochure, but it's all about targets not results. Pretty site though

Apple (whose CEO Tim Cook said the decision was 'wrong for our planet') has very good reporting, though only in PDF form - you can get it from the environment reports page. Similar for Google (Sundar Pichai said he was 'disappointed'). 

Brad Smith of Microsoft was also disappointed with President Trump's decision. Microsoft is proud of having been carbon neutral since 2012, as it says on its environment site. I found a fact sheet with some good numbers on greenhouse gas emissions. But as with GE, it was pretty well hidden - Microsoft's network of sites is a big muddle, and Google only got me to a carbon emission page with a few facts, prettily presented, and little else. I'm not quite sure how I came across the fact sheet. As with GE, the problem here is not one of publishing good data, it's of letting people find it. 

Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook (unsurprisingly), saying the Paris withdrawal 'puts our children's future at risk'. Its sustainability site has a good deal of detailed information well illustrated, though all on a long scrolly page. Nice to look at, but sometimes pretty gets in the way of useful. With serious reporting like this, that would seem to be a mistake.

BC tip: Airbus Group - Interactivity takes flight

A clever online feature showcases an aerospace company’s impressive portfolio of aircraft and satellites.

The Feature

‘The Sky’s Not the Limit’ interactive feature on the Airbus Group corporate website begins on a runway with a cityscape in the background: ‘Join us on a special flight from ground level to the depths of outer space,’ says the introduction.

Visitors scroll up to see vehicles at different levels of the atmosphere and outer space – helicopters, transport and passenger planes, jet fighters and satellites, finishing with the ‘ExoMars Rover’.

For example, at the first level is the ‘E-Fan’, a quiet, electrically powered ‘trainer aircraft’. There are clickable buttons which call up pop-up menus with information about the plane – ‘Get to know it’, ‘Climbing record’ etc. Each of these have succinct and interesting factoids about the plane, and sometimes embedded videos. A right column says where visitors are in the sky – eg, troposphere, stratosphere, outer space.

The Takeaway

The Airbus Group feature stands out for being more interesting and engaging than most corporate website features. It also has a clear editorial purpose – to help visitors get to know Airbus Group.

Even those who know the company makes planes and satellites are likely to be impressed by the breadth of products and impressive science on display in the feature; and it is well worth looking at for new ways to present ‘about’ information on a corporate website.


BC tip: Ambev - Lost in Google translation

Relying on Google for different language versions of a corporate site has predictably patchy results.

The Feature

Ambev, the Brazil-based brewing company, has a language toggle in the upper left corner of its corporate website. The site’s default language is Portuguese, and the toggle, ‘Select Language’ allows users to switch to English or Spanish.

Clicking either of these options launches Google’s translation tool, and a bar at the top of the site says the site has been translated, to English or Spanish.

The Takeaway

The Google-powered translation, in our tests of the English-language site, were riddled with grammatical errors.

On the home page, for example, the headline on the banner reads: ‘Meet the AMA water, our launch. 100% of the profit goes to projects of access to clean water.’ Further down, under ‘Become our supplier’: ‘Wants to offer its products and services to Ambev? It is uncomplicated and fast.’ Under, ‘Work with us’: ‘The most special moments of consumers can get their hands on. See our vacancies!’

Ambev may have chosen to use the quick and inexpensive Google tool to save on translation costs, perhaps thinking the end product would be ‘good enough’. Given that English speakers will find the site uncomfortable to read at best, and at worst, incomprehensible , it looks like a cost-cutting decision too far.


Why waste the media's time when you don't have to?

An online press release archive should be a useful tool for journalists to do their jobs. So why are companies complicating things by separating press releases into different buckets that might be clear inside the company but make little sense to anyone else? Jason Sumner looks at a handful of the worst examples.

There is a lot of confusion at the moment about what should go in media sections on corporate websites, which reflects wider doubts about the purpose of company press offices when anyone with a smartphone can be a ‘journalist’.

My colleague David Bowen has written about this dilemma recently, concluding that press offices don’t know exactly what they are for any more, and so their online media sections don’t either; and suggests some sensible remedies.

The confusion about online media sections could help explain a trend I’ve spotted on a few corporate sites recently: separating press releases into two or more categories, for reasons that may be clear internally, but do not make sense to anyone else.

Three of the most puzzling examples are from French luxury goods maker LVMH, US-based Campbell Soup Company and Allianz, the Germany-based insurance giant.

LVMH – distinction without an obvious difference

A journalist unfamiliar with LVMH’s site but who wants to look for the latest release or search the archive, will need to decide whether to click into ‘News’ or ‘Press releases

Both are separate pages within LVMH’s media section, and they are given equal billing on the section landing page. Having two areas to search is already potentially time-consuming and frustrating for journalists, even if they might eventually work out the difference between ‘news’ and ‘press releases’.

But is there a difference? Not one that I could tell for sure.

The latest items on the ‘News’ page yesterday were about LVMH being ranked the most attractive employer in France by LinkedIn; several stories about LVMH’s brands, Loewe, Benefit Cosmetics and Louis Vuitton, etc; and a partnership between LVMH and Central Saint Martins, a London art school.

On the ‘Press releases’ page, there were releases about financial results, dividends and mergers, and the top story was about LVMH making a bid to take full control of its subsidiary Christian Dior.

So maybe the distinction is about ‘financial news’ and the rest? Except that in ‘Press releases’ there was a story about LVMH launching a cultural centre in Paris, in a ceremony attended by the mayor of the city and the French president at the time, Francois Hollande. Two other ‘press releases’ were about the company launching an innovation award and a prize for young fashion designers. All of which seem appropriate for ‘News’.

Perhaps the difference is about news about the wider group versus the brands? Or maybe LVMH sees ‘News’ as exciting and ‘Press releases’ about the boring stuff? Or maybe it is because of internal divisions within LVMH.

Hard to tell for sure, and there might be a perfectly logical set of criteria, but why should journalists have to work this out? The point is that the distinction is unclear enough that journalists will need to spend time clicking on both pages, when one page (perhaps with a set of filters) would be easier.

Further adding to journalists’ confusion, and potential frustration, is that the filters offered in each sub-section are different. Neither set is comprehensive, but journalists searching ‘News’ are given year and month filters, in addition to those for ‘All business groups’, LVMH and several of its business divisions such as ‘Fashion & Leather Goods’, etc. Journalists searching the ‘Press releases’ page only get year and month filters.

The Campbell Soup Company – baffling division

In Campbell’s ‘Newsroom’ section there are different pages for ‘Campbell News’ and ‘Press releases’, immediately confronting journalists with the same problem as on LVMH.com, where to click?

While there appears to be some kind of internal logic in the LVMH example, the distinction between releases is even murkier on the Campbell’s site.

When we looked, both ‘Newsroom’ and ‘Press releases’ led with the same release about the company’s third quarter results. The second release on each page appeared to be about the same story, the installation of a solar array at the company’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, each with a slightly different take. Then, further down, the release that appeared on ‘Press releases’ also turned up in ‘Newsroom’. Add to this the fact that the filters are different in each section, and the overall experience is baffling.

Allianz – filters across five pages

Allianz has one page for ‘all’ press releases – although it is badly labelled ‘overview’ in the mega dropdown menu under ‘News’. So far, so much better than LVMH or Campbell’s. However, the subject filters to help narrow down the list are on separate pages – ‘company’, ‘studies’, ‘financials’, ‘commitment’ and ‘business’, each with separate links in the mega dropdown panel, and on the media landing page. Clicking on ‘financials', for example, leads to a page with the original list filtered for finance-related releases. If and when journalists figure out the unusual system, they will potentially still need to click in and out of five pages, if they are searching for more than one release.

The above three are not the only examples. Caterpillar, the US-based farm equipment company, has ‘Caterpillar news’ and ‘Corporate press releases’. Another company divides theirs between ‘group’ and ‘trade’.

One deep, searchable archive

All of the above online press release services could be improved by thinking about how journalists actually access press releases from a website – or speaking to them to find out. In our experience, the best services are simple but highly useful – well-labelled, well-signposted, deep, searchable archives (with keyword search and relevant filters). Coming to that conclusion is probably the easy part. The difficulty comes in overcoming the internal politics – governance, in our terms – that are likely to have led to the separate buckets in the first place.

- Jason Sumner

BC tip: Airbus Group - Job search ruined in a Flash

An otherwise excellent online global job search is seriously undermined by using Flash technology for applications.

The Feature

Airbus Group’s job search tool on its corporate website quick and easy to use, with an intuitive functionality and layout. It has a quick search facility, as well as a sophisticated set of filters. The tool covers jobs around the world at the Netherlands-headquartered aerospace and defence company.

However, when some visitors press the ‘Apply’ button – if they do not have Adobe Flash installed on their computers –  they are confronted with a screen that says, ‘You need Adobe Flash to use this application. Please click the button above to install Adobe Flash Player and come back to this page to access the full functionalities.’

On mobile, there is no option to apply directly, but visitors are given a facility to email the offer to themselves, presumably to fill out the application on a desktop or laptop.

The Takeaway

Apart from relying on Flash, the Airbus Group job search is well worth emulating.

However, ‘Apart from Flash’ is enough to undermine the whole experience, at a time when Flash technology is nearing extinction as the internet moves toward HTML5 for displaying video and multimedia.

Asking people to override browser blocking systems (on Google Chrome for example) or specially download Flash players may be steps too far for many would-be applicants. You cannot use Flash on iPads or iPhones, and it is reasonable to expect some jobseekers will want to apply on those devices. Using Flash also undermines the company’s messaging about a technology company at the forefront of innovation.


BC tip: UnitedHealth Group: Accessible careers chats

An online chat feature gives a wide range of options for jobseekers to ask questions about the company and recruiting process.

The Feature

UnitedHealth Group, a US-based health insurance giant, offers online chats with company recruiters in the careers section of its corporate website.

There are chats in nine functional areas, including ‘clinical’, ‘college’, ‘consulting’, ‘customer service’, ‘technology’, etc. Each of these has further ‘areas of interest’- for example, under ‘Clinical’ there are links for physicians, pharmacy, behavioural health. Days and times are given (in US central time), with links to access the chat.

A 2-minute video explains how to prepare for the chat and what kinds of questions to ask. The web page also suggests jobseekers ask about benefits, the business, CV-writing tips, interviewing tips and locations. If jobseekers cannot make the chats at the specific times, they can email questions; and there is an FAQ.

The section is responsive so jobseekers can access it on a smartphone.

The Takeaway

UnitedHealth’s recruiter chats are unusual for their breadth of options and flexibility.

The range of functions means there is likely to be an option for most jobseekers, and also gives an immediate sense of the numerous career paths on offer. FAQs and chance to email questions are useful options for those who can’t make the specific time.

The video is welcoming, straightforward and informative; and will encourage uptake.

It is a good way to make the company seem friendly – and perhaps give recruiters a chance to cherry pick especially promising talent.


The joy of words

The power of the written word is at last being recognised on corporate sites. About time too, says David Bowen.

We have long moaned about the failure of companies to treat their corporate websites as they would their printed publications. They are, when we talk to them, happy to confirm that they are indeed their biggest publications - both in terms of page number and readership. But they are rarely prepared to appoint an editor, an essential for ensuring editorial quality. Ask traditional publishers if their magazines or newspapers had editors, and they would stare at you in bafflement. 

That is why so many of the sites we look at suffer from sloppy writing. Boring, jargon-filled, full of committee-driven 'messages' that are of no interest to the rest of the world. Fine for an internal document. Not for a major external-facing publication.

Part of the problem, as I've said before, comes from word 'content' - a soulless label for anything that fills up the space on a web page. When I was a journalist, 20 years ago, 'content' did not exist as a noun. We produced 'editorial' or - better - 'words'. They were things to be thought about, polished, loved even. Sub-editors (copy editors to Americans) were often aspiring authors (Bill Bryson for one), whose job was to add quality and sparkle where it was needed. Together, the writers and sub-editors produced words that could be painlessly, often enjoyably, absorbed. 

Now, I'm delighted to say, there are signs that some companies have seen the light. Perhaps it started with the current fashion to publish 'stories' online, but whatever the reason it's clear that words are at last being taken seriously. I am competent to talk about only about English; I hope the same is happening in other languages. 

Two home pages I looked at recently filled my heart with joy - even though one of them is from a tobacco company and the other a pharmaceutical group. They may have little else in common, but their approach to words makes them literary bedfellows.

Philip Morris International's home page says this: 'Designing a smoke-free future. How long will the world's leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business?' AbbVie has this (or it did last week): 'A scientist's retirement plan: Sterilize worms, eliminate neglected diseases'.

Why are these good headlines? Because the reaction of most of us will be first to say 'What??', and then to click the link to find out what the headlines mean. They have thus fulfilled the role of a good headline - to intrigue people enough to want to know more. The PMI headline is perhaps a one-off: it reflects a shift in strategy towards less harmful products. But the AbbVie line is pure editorial skill - put the words 'sterilise worms' into almost any sentence, and you are going to get people hooked. It leads through to one of many engaging pieces in its 'stories' section. While not all have strong headlines, enough do to suggest professional writers are in the vicinity: for example 'Could Ireland hold the genetic codes to crack serious diseases?' and 'What do tumors and snowflakes have in common?'.

You might say the masters of the effective headline are the people who write 'clickbait' links to drag us into a site. Buzzfeed currently features '11 books all Harry Potter fans must read' and '16 amazing international Starbucks items you'll want to travel for'. But these are cheap tricks, lacking skill, lacking beauty - and so tired. Won't we get bored of them? I hope so. 

Actually, there is a company site that does have '5 coolest things on earth' on its home page, but I forgive it because of the memorable lines that sit alongside. GE Reports - an online magazine that pumps out General Electric news and features - has some crackers. Today I see 'Physicists are breeding Schrodinger's cat, and it could reveal the limits of the quantum world' and 'Octopus and squid evolution is officially weirder than we could have ever imagined'. Hard not to click on those.

Of course headlines are just the hook - the quality of the words they lead to is at least as important. Although 'stories' are overdone as a fashion, where narrative is really engaging it is hard to beat. The trick is often to zoom in on an individual's story, and tell it with uncorporate gusto. That is what AbbVie has done with its sterilised worms story. It starts 'Howard Morton likes to build things. Decks. houses. Molecules. The Canadian-born scientist retired in December 2012, assuming he'd finally have the chance to focus on decks and houses. And for a year, that's what happened'. Now read on ... you have to really, don't you? This, I would bet my dog, was written by a professional writer, and a good one at that.

My favourite history section was written by a professional writer (full disclosure: he now works for us). It is BP's, and it starts like this: 'The smell was unmistakable. It was a smell you could see. The vapours rose clearly in the sunlight, and stank of rotten eggs. But to the explorer George Reynolds it was the best thing he had smelled in seven years.' That's what I call writing. Not content.

BC tip: Philip Morris International - Sophisticated sniffer

The tobacco giant’s corporate website displays brand sites and jobs based on a visitor’s location.

The Feature

PMI’s recently relaunched corporate website uses a country detection tool to change elements of pages on the main corporate site, according to where visitors are in the world.

For example, visitors from Switzerland who visit ‘Consumer Corner’ from the home page will see links to brand websites available in that country – Malboro and Chesterfield. Visitors from India who click on ‘Consumer Corner’ see the same page, but in the area for brands it says, ‘Sorry, we don’t have a brand website available in your market.’ The same is true for the UK.

Similarly, the Careers landing page has a section, ‘Exciting opportunities near you’, which displays available jobs in the visitor’s country and region.

The Takeaway

Country redirection or ‘sniffer’ tools commonly take visitors to country-specific sites – it is rarer to see elements of a page change based on a visitor’s location.

PMI uses country redirection because tobacco is a heavily regulated industry, in which it is essential not to fall foul of regulators, and marketing must be country-specific for that reason. Pharmaceutical companies may be in the same situation.

So the brand example will not be applicable to everyone. However, using a similar tool in Careers would be relevant to most large companies.

Country redirection can be annoying, because it takes visitors somewhere they might not want to go, but this is a more appropriate and subtle use of the tool.