Corporate website usability: more vices…and some virtues

As we did last year at our annual conference, we conducted some user testing in partnership with the Bunnyfoot user experience (UX) consultancy at our recent event in Lisbon. Here, Andrew Rigby reports back – once again some familiar themes emerged, along with some new insights into corporate web usability.

We tested 14 different websites over the course of two days, with conference delegates asked to carry out a relevant two-stage task (or tasks) on each site. Jon Dodd, CEO of Bunnyfoot, oversaw the sessions with assistance from me.

Eye-tracking added to the insight that the tests provided. Of course, with such a small test sample, and the familiarity of our users with corporate sites in general – although not the sites they were testing – any conclusions drawn can only be indicative of possible results from more comprehensive user testing.

But we think that, as we explained last year, the tests did show the value that can be gained from real usability testing on corporate sites – something that a couple of presentations at the conference also touched on.

Search to the rescue – or not

Once again we saw users either resorting to internal search to find pages, or simply using it instead of attempting navigation. Yet few internal search engines were truly helpful, and some were very poor.

It was suggested that, in at least one case, this was because the corporate site search engine was being shared with customer-facing sites, and set up to rank results on keyword density rather than relevance. This resulted in older, less useful results being surfaced - such as old quarterly results announcements, rather than the latest ones.

It should be possible to adjust search engine behaviour across corporate and customer-facing sites, to ensure corporate sites return relevant, recent material for their audiences.. If this is not possible, consider circumventing the search engine with promoted results for popular searches, and in any case use keyword/phrase completion tools to help users.

Navigation sometimes needs help

Although our small 2018 sample showed generally improved navigation and orientation from last year, there were still some sites on which users became lost because helpful location cues such as breadcrumb trails, or a menu highlighting indicating the current section (or indeed menus themselves), were missing or obscured.

Another persistent trait we saw was the eagerness of users to identify themselves as a certain audience, and look for a similarly-named section, such as Customers or Patients. If your site does not have sections for each potential audience, pay attention to where they might end up or what they may be looking for – and provide effective cross-linking to their desired destinations.

For example, a pharmaceutical company had some information on a new drug in its Pipeline area, and not under Patients, as it is not yet licenced or in production. All very logical, except a user looking for that drug might not know its status and so simply head to the Patients area. In this case, cross-linking from the Patients section is essential.

Avoid ads, signifiers and page furniture

We also noted that users could easily ignore design features which companies were relying on as links. For example, on several occasions visitors missed hotspots or panels with text over an image. Jon Dodd says is this is common and results from our increasing tendency to ignore anything that looks like an advert.

There were several examples of carousels or images filling an entire browser window, and fooling users into missing the information they wanted further down the page. While some companies tried to avoid this by adding downward arrows or ‘Scroll down’, the need for such signifiers indicates the design is not working well enough. The design itself should communicate that more valuable material is available down below.

Components which looked like parts of the page furniture could equally be overlooked, so be wary of enclosing important links or calls to action in full-width bars or areas that could be mistaken for the top or bottom of the browser.

Lack of information ‘scent’

Users missed some clear onward links because the information ‘scent’ was weak. For example, brand carousels that did not explain why users should be interested in the range of brands, or the information users would receive on brand pages; or adverts for annual reports which did not pull out an interesting key headline or message. 

Surface some of the valuable content from below to inform and entice users to follow – avoid just another bland title with a corporate stock picture.

The state of tabs and filters

Tabs and filter mechanisms need clear labelling and ‘selected state’ indicators. In a few instances users were confused by the presence of just two tabs, where it was not clear which of the tabs had been selected. Another hindrance to usability was hiding information in open and close mechanisms, without an ‘Open all’ feature, which is common on FAQ pages.

Cross-country routes

In keeping with the theme of the conference, communicating effectively across cultures, we tested routes between country and global sites – and they were often found wanting. Country site selectors, like any call to action, need a visual cue, such as an icon or arrow, to attract users’ attention, and they need to be consistent across the estate. Also avoid the common error of using flags to denote language and risk offending for example French speaking Belgians - some of the sites we saw got this right but others did not.

Register for the ‘Best of WEC 2018’ web meeting on September 26th, 2018

Were you unable to join us at our Web Effectiveness Conference in Lisbon last week? Did you attend and are keen to share the learnings with your team after the event? Join our web meeting and relive the Best of WEC 2018.

To register, visit our events page (and scroll down to September events)

For more commentaries, tips and downloads for online corporate communications professionals, visit our website.

If you have a query or for more information about Bowen Craggs, including the visitor profiles* Bowen Craggs uses when evaluating websites and social channels for our Index of Online Excellence, please contact Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com.

*Eligible recipients only – usually senior digital communications professionals working for large corporate or public sector/non-governmental organizations.

What do 400,000 surveys tell us about your corporate website?

Our archive of corporate website visitor surveys, which we’ve been conducting for clients since 2011, continues to grow – to more than 425,000 currently. We recently presented an update on what this body of research can tell us about how to serve your visitors more effectively. Here are the highlights.
 

For a full recording of the web meeting, please email Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com. 

Corporate website measurement is maturing

Digital managers want to measure engagement and journeys rather than simply tracking visits or downloads through analytics: they want meaningful information – did users achieve their tasks and if not, why? Using surveys and analytics together, as we do for some of our clients, can help answer these questions. We are able to see at a granular level, what particular audiences did on a site, or where visitors failed when trying to do something specific.
 

There is much room for improvement when it comes to ‘goal achievement’

Only just under half of survey respondents, 48 per cent, say they achieved their goals on corporate websites. Nearly a quarter of respondents say they definitely did not achieve their goals, and 28 per cent ‘partly’ achieved them.

Jobseekers and customers continue to outnumber other visitors, but only sometimes succeed

The largest audience on websites, according to our surveys, is jobseekers, and the biggest reason for visiting a corporate site, at 39%, is to search for a job.

at_a_glance.png

The second biggest audience continues to be customers, at 25%: confirming what our analytics  suggest – that customers are indeed present on corporate sites, whether site managers want them to be or not.

Of those, almost half come for customer service or to find out about a specific product. Sites which fail to address those needs, or at least to direct customers to the appropriate place to serve them, risk alienating customers.

Our surveys suggest this is happening more than digital managers may like. Customers may be the second biggest audience on corporate sites, but they are least likely to achieve their goals of all corporate audiences, with a goal achievement rate of 41 per cent. Journalists and CSR analysts do not fare much better, with a 46 per cent success rate, while many web managers might worry that their largest audience, jobseekers, only succeed half of the time.

Jobseekers have the most positive perception of the brand, and customers the least

We measure how corporate website visitors’ perceptions of a company’s brand improves or declines after visiting the site. Jobseekers are the most likely audience to  have their brand perception improved after visiting, at 55%. In contrast, only 34% of customers have their perception of a company improved by a corporate website visit. Investors, on the other hand, tend to leave with their perception unchanged: a challenge to investor relations teams?

Failure to achieve goals is linked to a decline in brand perception

Overall, 44 per cent of survey respondents leave with a better perception of the company (in itself an opportunity for improvement), but only 24 per cent of those who fail to achieve their goal do so. Helping website visitors complete the tasks they came for could improve the company’s reputation.

brand_failure.png

To discuss our measurement services, including how we can help with visitor surveys and analytics, please contact Dan Drury ddrury@bowencraggs.com or see our website.

For more information on the Bowen Craggs Club, visit our website, or contact Lisa Hayward, lhayward@bowencraggs.com.

MiFID II: Rise of the websites?

Much has been written about MiFID II, the EU’s revamped Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, which comes into effect on January 3rd 2018. Andrew Rigby takes a look at the potential implications for digital managers.


MiFID II is a package – a very long one at almost 1.5 million paragraphs – of EU legislation that aims to bring greater transparency to financial markets. Ultimately the EU wants to make it easier for investors to see what they are paying middle-men (brokers and asset managers) for: research on and meetings with companies and their management teams in particular. The costs for these will have to be unbundled from charges for buying and selling shares, which has not been the case to date.

So while the bulk of the impact will be felt by financial institutions across the world – because any transaction that touches the EU is affected – there are likely to be implications for IR and communications teams.

If research and corporate access now has to be paid for in a more transparent way, it is reasonable to assume that there will be much less of both from analysts in the post-MIFID II landscape.  And what is produced and paid for, will have to be of high quality. IR teams will also need to work harder to communicate the company’s investment case directly to investors: produce more information themselves, and arrange and deliver more meetings.

It seems to us that this is where the corporate website can help, in two ways.

It can fill the gap created by the decrease in freely available research, by providing free access to company information for investors, journalists and other audiences.

And it can provide more detailed information for those producing paid-for research. This might be especially useful as the effects of MiFID II begin to become apparent. IR teams may need to scale up to deal with the increased workload, but this may take time to achieve. In the meantime, the website can be used to deliver information at scale, so it is worth talking to the IR team to see how the company website can help them.

More hard financial data might be useful, but so will a clear statement of the investment case, and ways to make senior management more accessible may be important – videos and webcasts. Our recently published ‘Explain Yourself’ index may be useful here. It highlights some of the companies which are best at telling their stories and presenting their leadership teams.

One particular aspect worth considering will be consensus estimates. With less research, it is not clear how the likes of Bloomberg will compile consensus, and consensus based on algorithms or crowd sourcing is still in its infancy. Once again, the onus may be on companies to manage and distribute consensus – so the website comes into its own. Barclays has a good example of a consensus estimates page.

screenshot-www.home.barclays-2017-12-04-13-21-19-789.png

Finally, with IR teams potentially needing to target investors more directly rather than through brokers, website measurement may assume greater significance to IROs. Building a picture of who is coming to the website, from where, and what they are looking for, could be very helpful…even if other pieces of EU regulation, both existing and future, limit how forensic you can be. But that is a topic for an upcoming blog…

For those who would like more background on MiFID II, we have prepared a short Q&A.

The five biggest performance gaps in corporate digital communications

Corporate digital managers at 25 of the world’s largest companies have told us their teams’ top priorities for the next 12 months and where they think they are falling short. Jason Sumner and Lisa Hayward share the five biggest performance gaps across the group.
 

The Bowen Craggs Club, a new networking and research community for corporate digital managers, launched over the summer. As a first step in joining, we asked club members to sit down with us for in-depth conversations about their teams’ priorities, strengths and weaknesses in a number of core performance areas such as content strategy, measurement, relationships with internal stakeholders and managing high-performing digital teams.

We’ve had 25 conversations so far, and it seemed like a good time to share a little of what we have learned (on an anonymous basis of course). We asked members to score their teams on a scale of 1 to 5 across a number of skills and competencies, and then identify which of these skills and competencies they most want to improve on.

As a result, we were able to identify the areas where there were the biggest gaps between desired performance and self-reported outcomes. Here are the top five:

1. Failure to set or consistently use key performance indicators (KPIs)

‘Measurement’ is regularly near the top of digital manager challenges whenever we’ve run short surveys in the past. This time the long-form interviews allowed people to expand on the reasons good intentions so often lead to frustration when it comes to KPIs. Even in otherwise top-performing organizations, we found that the barriers are deep-seated, company-specific, political and even psychological. Three of the most interesting were:

  • In one organization, KPIs are applied in an ad hoc way because, ‘Stakeholders don’t understand how to translate business goals into KPIs and the digital team isn’t pushing them.’

  • Another organization said their ‘standard’ KPIs are not good enough. ‘They need to be more channel specific.’

  • Fear of linking metrics to goals is a factor for one organization, despite the fact that communications leadership is already convinced of the value of measurement. ‘They are scared of setting KPIs and failing. Failure needs to be seen as an opportunity to learn.’

2. Lack of a content strategy for different channels and screen sizes

The proliferation of digital channels and devices over the last few years has also kept ‘content strategy’ (which we define as having a defined process to produce and publish content across differing channels, devices and geographies) at the top of the priority list. Our interviews found digital managers planning to do a lot of work on the device and channel side over the next 12 months – particularly in developing multi-purpose content. Said one, ‘The leading channel is the website. Content published there is repurposed for social media use, and some content is created first for social media. We don’t plan ahead.’ Said another, ‘We have an editorial group managing content across platforms, but can sometimes think offline first. There is room for improvement to help educate employees and agencies to change this mindset.’

Rounding out the top five: Roles and responsibilities, agency relationships and usability testing

There was a three-way tie rounding out the top five performance gaps:

  • Who owns the channel? Given the above work on content strategy, it is not surprising that digital teams are still working out the right relationship with internal stakeholders and local teams over who publishes what, and when. ‘A grey area exists in the mind of the content owner about who owns the page. Internal stakeholders think the digital team. A roadshow is planned to educate and keep reinforcing.’ Another interviewee said, ‘We are trying to create combined and shared content plans rather than work in silos.’

  • Getting the most out of agencies: The difficulties mentioned included a lack of corporate and industry expertise, and an assumption that corporates don’t want to be seen as creative. Another organization does not use agencies currently but wants to bring in fresh thinking from outside.

  • Finally, usability testing was seen as a priority by many of our interviewees, but it is not widely used at the moment. Several companies are taking first steps and sounding out experts. ‘We are testing new designs, a team member is doing a master’s degree in user experience and we plan to focus on it in the next 12 months.’

- Jason Sumner and Lisa Hayward

The Bowen Craggs Club is an exclusive network for the most engaged online corporate communications professionals, aimed at individuals and companies who believe in the need for world-leading corporate web estates. Although most group members work in Fortune 500 corporations, we welcome senior managers from public sector and non-governmental organizations with responsibility for large web presences.

For more information, visit our website or contact Lisa Hayward, lhayward@bowencraggs.com

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 09.54.19.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 08.59.07.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 15.05.12.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 15.21.19.png

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

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.

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?’

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

Does virtual reality have a role in corporate communications?

Scott Payton straps on a pair of goggles to review three multinationals’ ventures into VR.

There was a lot of noise about virtual reality last year. A raft of new VR headsets went on the market, including Sony’s PlayStationVR, which sold out in many places before Christmas. Visit Amazon.com today, and you’ll find scores of different VR goggles for sale – many for less than $10.

A few companies are putting the technology to use in their corporate communications efforts. Does it make sense for others to follow?

Let’s start by looking what companies have done so far.

ExxonMobil

The US energy giant offers a ‘virtual reality app’ on the Apple and Google Play app stores.

This is promoted in the ‘Multimedia’ sub-section within the ‘Company’ area of ExxonMobil’s corporate site – though users must then go off and download the app before viewing anything in virtual reality.

If they do bother to do this, they’ll find a choice of short computer-generated 360-degree videos showing interesting environments in which the firm operates, from ‘one and a half miles beneath the surface of the sea’, via deep jungles, to icy tundra. Users can put their smart phone into a VR headset for the full experience, or simply watch directly on their mobile, moving the device around to look up, down and sideways.

Either way, a narrator describes the environment and the impressive things ExxonMobil does in it.

The videos are much more effective if you do strap on a pair of VR goggles – you get a decent sense of the scale of the company’s endeavours in various far-flung locations.

But there three drawbacks to ExxonMobil’s VR effort:

First, the fact that you must download an app before viewing the videos is likely to be a hassle too far for many people. It is technically possible to provide VR videos embedded within a (mobile optimised) website – and this approach is likely to be better here. Best of all would be embedding the VR videos in parts of the site where visitors are most likely to find such material useful – such as Careers and About Us – with users given the choice of viewing the video in normal or VR mode.

Second, the fact that ExxonMobil’s VR videos are computer-generated rather than real diminishes both their impact and sense of authenticity. US broadcaster Discovery and the New York Times have both created apps offering VR videos of real people and places, which is a more engaging and effective approach.

Finally, as with other VR offerings, streaming ExxonMobil VR videos via anything other than a very fast internet connection can be a frustratingly juddering experience. My 9Mbps home connection struggled, for example.

Touring a facility in a computer-generated jungle in ExxonMobil's VR app

Touring a facility in a computer-generated jungle in ExxonMobil's VR app

Dong Energy

Unlike ExxonMobil, Danish firm Dong Energy doesn’t force people to download an app to view its VR video. Instead, a promotion page on the firm’s corporate website directs people to a page on YouTube, where they can watch a video tour of an offshore wind turbine in VR ‘mode’. Another version of the YouTube video is provided for users without a set of goggles. Here, users can move their cursor instead of their head to look around.

Interestingly, German conglomerate Siemens published a rather similar 360-degree, multimedia tour of a wind turbine on its website three years ago – though true virtual reality technology was not involved in that.  

Another difference between Dong and ExxonMobil’s offerings: Dong’s video is of a real rather than computer-generated wind turbine. More interesting and credible.

A further improvement over ExxonMobil: the narration of Dong’s video is far more detailed and informative. Prospective employees and others can genuinely learn things from this video beyond bland corporate spiel.

But, again, the separation of Dong’s video from related company information on the corporate website is a weakness. Jobseekers and other visitors to Dong’s website may not find the VR video in the first place while they browse. Indeed, the VR version of the video currently on YouTube has been viewed just 1,225 times since January. The version for users without a VR headset has been viewed just over 8,000 times since it was published in September last year.

Dong's VR tour of a wind turbine on YouTube

Dong's VR tour of a wind turbine on YouTube

Commonwealth Bank of Australia

When it comes to finding subject-matter for VR videos, ExxonMobil and Dong have the advantage of building interesting things in exciting places. What about companies that don’t?

The Careers landing page of Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s corporate site has a large banner promoting ‘Our Virtual Workplace’, an Apple and Android VR app. There is a standard YouTube video on the site extolling the virtues of the app – though users must visit the Apple or Google Play app stores to access the VR material.

The app’s designers have assumed that people will be using a pair of Google Cardboard VR goggles, even though many VR users own a different kind of headset. A weakness.

The app itself is very different from ExxonMobil and Dong’s linear video tours. It’s a computer-generated management simulation. Users get to meet a denim-clad virtual team in a computer-generated office, with the job of creating a new app for the bank’s customers (see the screenshot below). At different points in the simulation, users must make a series of business decisions - whether to delay the launch of the app due to security concerns, for example – by looking at one of a set of text options.

As a training tool, it’s very basic, though the technology itself is quite impressive.

'I didn’t expect a bank to be at the forefront of innovation. But they actually are, and it’s really cool,' said a jobseeker after trying out the app at one of the bank’s careers events. The bank’s communications team were obviously proud of this comment: they put it in a YouTube video on their corporate website.  

Indeed, I suspect that this is the true motivation behind all corporate communications teams’ early VR efforts – because, for now at least, they do a better job of conveying the message ‘Look! We’re innovative!’ than they do at providing a genuinely useful service in their own right.

Meeting your virtual team in Commonwealth Bank of Australia's VR app

Meeting your virtual team in Commonwealth Bank of Australia's VR app

- Scott Payton

 

 

 

Do we need corporate websites anymore?

The corporate website has so far avoided a widely predicted extinction at the hands of social media. Yet its supposed imminent demise because of newer technologies like virtual reality and chatbots is never far from the digital conversation. In a Q&A with David Bowen, the veteran commentator explains why declaring the death of corporate websites is (still) premature.
 

Q. The world is changing so fast. Isn’t it a big mistake for digital communicators to concentrate on old-fashioned technologies like websites?

David Bowen: It is a mistake for them to concentrate on them without looking at the things that are changing, certainly. But of all the digital communications tools that will still be around in 20 or 30 years, I would put my money on good old-fashioned websites as the safest bet.

Q. Why?

DB: Three main reasons:

·      First, websites were born out of the technology of the late Eighties and early Nineties – particularly the limited internet bandwidth. Unless you had your own fibre cable network, it was all very narrow band. When I first started looking at how things were going, about 1992, lots of people were talking about virtual reality – and assumed that in a few years we would be doing our shopping sitting in an armchair with headsets on. But meanwhile the things that worked had to be technically simple, which is why the rather basic idea of the website was invented. I can’t program but I have managed to build a simple website. And simple things tend to survive; think of the bicycle, or even the wheel.

·      Second, although websites are technically simple, they are extraordinarily powerful. Their ability to hold vast amounts of information makes them like the biggest books in the world, full of words, pictures and now videos. Clickable links mean they are much easier to get around than a book – we take hyperlinking for granted but it is a brilliant idea. Websites can incorporate a mass of clever interactivity, which will turn them into shops, helplines, travel agents, whatever. You have to remember that they were invented by Tim Berners-Lee as a way to make sense of a vast amount of information held by CERN; they’re still unbeatable at handling complexity.

·      Third, they are owned by their owners. That may sound silly, but what I mean is that companies do not rely in any sense on other companies for their existence. That’s really important, especially in a crisis when they need to keep absolute control of their messaging. Websites give companies an almost universally accessible platform where they can say what they want, in the detail they want and with minimal fear of being shouted down.

So that’s why websites have kept going, despite predictions that they will be swept out of the way by new, more exciting technologies.

Q. Such as?

DB: Social media is the obvious one so far. When it first came along it was called ‘Web 2.0’ – with the obvious implication that it was going to replace the old ‘Web 1.0’. There was a period a few years ago when there were plenty of ‘corporate website is dead’ stories based on the presumed dominance of social media. Its huge promise was that it would turn an essentially one-way communication tool – the website – into something based on conversations. And every marketer knew that a conversation was the best way to sell.

Facebook (and some other channels) have indeed become a massive conversation factory, and in some ways have pushed websites out of the way. But not when it comes to corporate communications. The sad truth is that people want to have conversations with each other; they don’t want to have them with large corporations. It has taken years for companies to really understand that, and some of them are now using social media successfully for corporate communications – but it is always an addition to the website.

Facebook pages can’t hold loads of information, they tend to be quite inflexible, and most important they are not owned by the company. When Nestlé got into trouble over palm oil some years ago, it was driven from its own Facebook page by Greenpeace activists; pirates over-ran the ship and the crew had to jump overboard.

We are now seeing worrying levels of hacking of websites, but they are not by their nature open to attack as, say, a Facebook page is. That is why it is useful to think of corporate websites as being the sun, with social media channels the planets that circle it. The same sort of thing happened with apps – they turned out to be brilliant at what they are brilliant at, but attempts to create corporate apps that replaced websites have pretty much all failed.

Q. So does that mean we should forget about any new technologies that come along, and simply concentrate on our websites?

DB: No, that would be very risky. Although websites are likely to maintain their importance, other technologies and devices will continue to burst forth. We will undoubtedly see some innovations that we can’t even imagine (could you have imagined Snapchat 10 years ago?).

Before I start future-gazing, I’d like to go back rather on what I was saying a moment ago. Yes, in general social media has not proved much of a boon to corporate communicators, and yes in general apps have had even less effect. But there are parts of the world where that is not true. In Latin America, Facebook has in places become a more important communications and marketing tool than company websites, and companies operating there who don’t know that will get into trouble.

In Asia, apps are huge because mobile phones are so much more important than computers (see next question). There are even big differences between the US and Europe in the way websites themselves are used. The Europeans are way ahead when it comes to using corporate websites to get their company messages across but the Americans are still better at ‘selling stuff’ online. If you want to be a ‘global-local’ operator, you have to understand such things.

Q. WeChat in China seems to be huge. Do we all need to know about that?

DB: Yes, of all the new technologies corporate communicators need to be studying, messaging apps should be at the front of the queue. I have been increasingly using WhatsApp, Facebook messaging, Skype messaging, even the chat bit of my game of internet Scrabble. Always for messaging , maybe with pictures added. My daughter uses Snapchat – I still don’t quite get that, but it is pushing the format.

WeChat in China is moving to a different level, right into website territory. There are several reasons why apps have taken off so strongly in China, but the result is that companies working there have learned to use them as substitutes for email, websites and social media channels – all rolled into one. One big European B2B company says WeChat is more important than the web. It can be used to display product details (though the functionality is much cruder), to provide customer service, to communicate internally; all sorts of things.

This multi-function ability should in itself make WeChat interesting, but the real reason companies everywhere should be interested is that it is designed for mobile users. We do not believe that in most countries corporate sites will ever be viewed mainly on small screens – simply because they are complex and so fiddly to use. But mobile use is growing fast, and it may well be that messaging apps will be more useful for many mobile users than, say, small screen versions of responsive websites. They won’t replace them, but they may well complement them especially if, as we believe they will, the borders between corporate communications and marketing become increasingly blurred.

Q. Is there anything else on the immediate horizon?

DB: Artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots will become increasingly important for people who want answers to specific questions. So they will have an effect on one aspect of websites, and will probably be increasingly incorporated in them. The obvious place is in the search engine, which is notoriously the weak spot of corporate sites. I have to say that there is little sign yet of great leaps in the effectiveness of website search, and AI has been a promising technology for so long we probably shouldn’t hold our breath

Q. Cars have the internet and we can talk to our fridges from our smartphones. Could this affect corporate comms?

The ‘Internet of Things’ is worth digital communicators applying their imaginations to. We have a presentation at our conference in June by the head of digital communications at Bosch. I won’t try to guess what he’s going to say, but it is all about the fact that the internet now gets everywhere, and there will be things that could well affect your jobs. He says the Internet of Things will transform our jobs as comms directors for corporates – how we do ‘content and communication’. 

Q. You started by talking about virtual reality. There was lots of publicity about it last year. Should communications people be studying it?

DB: I think so. When Second Life was hyped, then dropped out of sight a few years ago, there was lots of experimentation, some of it coming within the communications orbit. People experimented with press conferences – an advantage of the VR format is that you (or your avatar) could chat to the person ‘sitting’ next to you, while also listening to the main speaker; just as you could in real life. Human resources people got excited by the possibilities – virtual careers fairs seemed to make a lot of sense. It failed because of technology limits, but maybe they have now been overcome. I would be talking to your HR people in particular – they often have good antennae for new things coming along.

Q. Those are all positive things. Anything bad?

DB: Hacking, cybercrime – maybe one day someone will manage to bring down the internet. It was designed to withstand a nuclear war, but will that be good enough? On the other hand, it is hardly worth basing any sort of strategy on speculation like that. Just make sure you still know how to write with a pen. 

For more commentaries, tips and downloads for online corporate communications professionals, visit our website.

If you have a query or for more information about Bowen Craggs, please contact Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com

Persuasion: A novel theme for 2017

Getting other people to do what you want is a critical part of any digital manager’s job. David Bowen suggests who to persuade, and how.
 

In the overworked world of three-letter titles, I would like to suggest another: Chief Persuasion Officer. I would also like to propose that anyone now called digital comms manager, or something similar, should automatically be appointed CPO. That this would put them straight into Star Wars is no bad thing – they need to be noticed more.

Much of a digital manager’s job comes under the broad theme of persuasion. We are using it as a theme for our conference this year, not because it is new, but because it is just so important. As many people as ever need to be persuaded of this or that. It is, after all, a much better way of getting things done than insisting, demanding or ordering.

Here are the targets, the problems and some suggested solutions.

CPOs needs to persuade:

·      Their bosses. Problem: An alarming number of senior managers don’t see the internet as anything more than a selling tool. Or, in corporate headquarters, as inferior to print (a glossy annual report is still what it’s all about for some people). Solution: We have seen some good success with ‘upward education’: if you can persuade your boss – maybe the head of corporate comms – of what needs to be done, he will then persuade his boss; maybe the CEO. And once a CEO is happy, things tend to start happening.

·      Bosses around the company. By which I mean country heads, divisional heads, and such like. Problem: Not a general lack of interest, but great variation. At one end there are people who think digital comms is either baffling or a waste of time, and won’t let their staff spend the time or resources they need. At the other are bosses who think they know best, and prefer to use local agencies and their own ideas. It is difficult for anyone at the centre to persuade either of these groups, unless through an edict from the CEO. Difficult but not impossible. Solution: Gentle education, constant communication and – if they are in the second category – getting local digital managers to do the upward education.

·      Digital managers around the company. Problem: If they have a lack of interest, they are in the wrong job. But the other problem – allergy to central control – is widespread. Most country or business sites have a dual marketing and corporate role, and marketing people just can’t see the point of relying on the centre for anything. Solution: Good governance combined with a central team that really can do things better than local agencies – if you are reducing their workload and giving local managers what they want fast, why wouldn’t they want to work with you? Of course ‘good governance’ raises a whole new set of questions, and there is no one structure that suits all organizations. I will just point you to a piece with, I hope, some helpful pointers.

·      Your marketing colleagues. Problem and solution: This is more a matter of getting a concept across, rather than getting specific things agreed to. We have been peddling the idea that corporate communications would be better called group or enterprise level marketing. More sexy and, more importantly, true: increasingly people are buying not just the product but the company (they like its image, ethics etc); while jobseekers, investors, journalists etc are customers in a different sense. Few corporate websites are marketing products or services direct, but they are very much marketing the overall brand. This in turn has a halo effect on all the things your marketing people are trying to shift (the halo may be more about protecting an uncertain reputation, but it is still a halo). If they understand that, they will see why corporate comms is a powerful partner, not an irrelevance. A matter of education as well as persuasion: this piece we wrote on the role of the corporate site in serving customers may give you some ideas. 

·      All your other colleagues. Problem: You want them to contribute to your lovely website or social media channels, and they can think of better things to do with their time. Solution: One CPO we know said her main tool here was ‘charm’, and you can’t do much better than that. Flattery works well too.

If you are really skilful you will get these different groups persuading each other, and you can go off for a well-earned rest in the Bahamas.

- David Bowen

If you’d like to pick up a host of persuasive ideas at our conference in June, do come along

Exxon in Wonderland

ExxonMobil's corporate site is really good in some ways - but its navigation is as insane as ever

I have been diving again into the wonderful world of Exxonmobil.com. This is a site I have been baffled by in the past, and my latest look – to update the review in our database – has failed to unbaffle me.

But when I say wonderful, I’m not being ironic. In three areas the site shines. First, it is good looking. Energy should be a great source of dramatic images, and here it is. Look for example at the waterfall on the Water landing page under Current issues. Not big, but nice.

Second, it is exceptionally well written. The  language is crystal clear – even where the subjects are potentially dull, clarity should keep you reading. The way pages are laid out help. With text well spaced, short paragraphs and plenty of bullet points, this is textbook ‘web writing’.

Third, there is lots here - great detail in places, and also notably assertive commentary. 

Linked to that last point, there has been a surge in the company's efforts to get its viewpoint across on controversial subjects. It's well known that ExxonMobil is not first among its peers when it comes to flying the climate change flag. It did not sign up to the recent agreement by other oil majors. But it is trying to use its site (the obvious place to get complex points of view across) to explain what is believes and what it is doing. The home page now has seven panels in view without scrolling (hurrah!): one with its ‘perspectives on climate change’, two on carbon capture, and others on the environment. Only one, on Liquefied Natural Gas, does not have a ‘we are responsible’ message behind it.

The problem is that it is failing to get these views across – or indeed serving any of its audiences well – because the way the site works is little short of insane. I have been trying to work it out, and below I’ll try to explain what may be happening. But for unfortunate visitors trying to find their way around, ExxonMobil.com is Alice in Wonderland rewritten by an out of control machine. If they built refineries like this … well, I hope they don’t.

To illustrate, I tried to investigate ExxonMobil’s thoughts on climate. I could have clicked the ‘perspectives on climate change’ link on the home page, but for a more general view I went for Climate, a link under Current Issues in the dropdown panel (the main navigation device).

This took me not to the main climate page but to the ‘perspectives on climate change’ bit of it (first confusion). To get to the main page I clicked ‘Climate’ on the breadcrumb trail (hurrah, I thought, there is one). This took me to a nice picture of a field, a single sentence and six menu items, each with a number in brackets (parentheses) after it. The number by each link was one, except for ‘ExxonMobil's perspectives on climate change’ which had 44. What's that about?

Anyway, I went to the perspectives page and found a panel at the top with a clear intro sentence followed by four links, the top one being Our position on climate change. I clicked this and came to a concise explanation of the company’s position. Climate change is real, ExxonMobil is doing its best internally and by trying to help its customers, but balancing all the interests is very tricky. 

But that was all. Below was a panel headed ‘You may also be interested in’  listing two other pages: ‘Encouraging greenhouse gas emissions reductions through responsible use of our products’, and ‘Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions within our own operations’. I clicked them. 

Both pages were long but clear, explaining in some detail what ExxonMobil is doing. A neat (if slightly confusing) device is a 'menu' to the right that both shows which section you are in on the page, and lets you jump to the others.

So I had finally got to two hard bits of editorial. I guessed there must be more; perhaps it was on the '44' page? Unfortunately the breadcrumb trail was no use (it simply had 'Climate', and the name of the current page) so I hit the back button until I found my way to the perspectives on climate change page.

And here, once I had started scrolling, I did indeed find so much more. Somewhere between 40 and 50 links; 44 maybe? Though it was hard to count them accurately because some were duplicated. ‘Our position on climate change' appeared three times, for example.

The similarity between links titles - and their lack of accuracy - made life even more interesting. 'Lowering emissions' would seem to be a good sub-section heading that would encompass several of the other pages listed in the 44 links, but instead went to a specific page within The Outlook for energy: A view to 2040. But the near-identical 'Reducing emissions' - a link in the dropdown menu under Current issues - led to the page explaining the company's efforts to cut its own greenhouse gases.

The Outlook for energy section illustrated illustrated the hopelessness of the affair. Its landing page had a battery of parenthetical numbers. I copped out and clicked the one that let me download the report. This 80 page PDF was, I discovered, much easier to to use than its web counterpart.

So, the detailed problems I came across were:

  • The numbers in brackets are unfamiliar, unexplained and as far as I can see, unnecessary.
  • There is little prioritisation on the page, and an apparent assumption that visitors will scroll down long pages to find what they want (Jakob Nielsen has demonstrated this is not so).
  • Labelling is often ambiguous and vague.  I may not have clicked on ‘Our position on climate change’ if it had been more precise: for example ‘Statement on climate change’. ‘Lowering emissions’ and ‘Reducing emissions’ are both too similar and neither describes its target page well.
  • Some links are wrongly directed (like the Climate link).
  • The breadcrumb trail is neither consistent nor comprehensive.

Behind these lies a larger problem. The site appears at first to be built using hierarchies, and the URLs suggest they exist (as do the breadcrumb trails), but it comes across as being close to unstructured. I suspect this is because the mechanism (CMS) is ruling the operators - why else would there be numbers in brackets? - and that they are unwilling or unable to counter its inflexibility. We know there are clever humans there - they are doing all those lovely words and pictures. Now they need to get to grips with the mad machine. 

- David Bowen