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.