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,

Tearful toast to storytelling success

On Monday, something sad will happen in the world that Bowen Craggs spends its time closely watching.

One of the very best corporate websites,, will be switched off. 

Why? Because the takeover of SABMiller by fellow brewing giant AB InBev will be completed. SABMiller’s 120-year history as an independent company will end. 

But the web team at SABMiller is dropping the final curtain in style. They've used their global site’s most distinctive feature – editorially and visually rich "stories" – to publish a poignant final piece reflecting on “the legacy SABMiller leaves the beer industry”. 

The headline and wistful image for the article dominated the home page for the final week of the site’s existence...

SABMiller's home page during its last week as an independent company

SABMiller's home page during its last week as an independent company

The approach, far more powerful than a bog-standard press release, has garnered positive coverage in the business press – and been warmly received by employees too, judging by the tweets from some of them. 

It also offers an important parting lesson to web managers at other companies on how the heavily hyped but often badly executed idea of corporate "storytelling" can be used to bring an organization’s past achievements and future plans to life. 

SABMiller is currently ranked third in the Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence ‘Message’ metric, and 14th overall among the world’s 200 largest companies.

When it relaunches online on Monday evening as a newly-merged entity, AB InBev's website has a tough act to follow. 

SABMiller published more than 160 'stories' on its global website. This is its last. 

SABMiller published more than 160 'stories' on its global website. This is its last. 

- By Scott Payton



BC tip: IBM - A bad place for good stories

The tech giant wastes high-quality editorial by burying it in the online annual report.

The Site

IBM’s 2015 online annual report features ‘150 stories of IBM today’ in six categories – cognitive solutions, cloud platforms, ecosystems, clients, research and people.

The primary navigation makes reference to the nuts and bolts of annual reporting – financial highlights, stockholder information, etc – but the stories take centre stage.

Visitors can scroll to ‘explore all’ stories or browse by category. The stories we looked at are visually and editorially impressive, employing the latest online publishing techniques and multimedia to engage readers; and they look good on mobile or desktop screens.

The Takeaway

IBM’s stories are impressive, but it is a waste to publish them in the online annual report.

People only usually look at annual reports once, whereas this material should be given the widest possible audience, and the big traffic is likely to be on the main website. There tends to a be a viewing surge for annual reports when they come out, then a steep drop in interest, largely because they are usually promoted for a few weeks then forgotten about.

Annual reports are also ‘frozen’ (by law for the audited material, but that means everything else is frozen too) - so the opportunity to constantly provide new stories and build an audience is lost.

It is a symptom of the ‘annual report first’ mentality that still dogs companies. Our view is that you should put material that is compulsory in the annual report - mainly statutory audited material (this is exactly what IBM does in the PDF version of the report). Everything else should go on the main site, boosted where possible by social media.

How to make your words sing

Nielsen Norman wrote up an interesting test this week to show that ‘tone of voice’ on websites made a difference to how companies were perceived. Not surprising, but it’s nice to get proof that what should be true is true. It started me thinking about tone of voice on corporate sites – something we monitor constantly in our work, but rarely attempt to analyse.

When it comes to navigation, we always insist that corporate sites are different – if you apply the same rules to them as you would to a brand, or a news, or a social media site, you will run into trouble (evidence in plenty from so many modern sites).

With tone of voice, the opposite is true. That is not say that it should be the same across all types of sites, but the same basic rules apply. I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as ‘web writing’ – or at least no more than there is ‘book writing’, ‘news writing’ or ‘legal document writing’. Each needs a form of expression that is appropriate to the medium, but anyone who knows how to produce good written English (or any other language) will be able produce words that work in their context.

Words please, or perhaps copy, or editorial – but not ‘content’, that killer label that drains the magic out of an art. ‘That Shakespeare, he did great content’. Yeah, right.

That said, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind when you are writing for a corporate site (or editing words produced by others).

  • You need a basic understanding of how to please search engines. Not difficult to learn, but it can take skill to ensure that what you are writing are both ‘good SEO words’ and ‘good words’.
  • Many of your readers will not be native speakers. The chances are your main site is in English (perhaps in parallel with your local language), but you can be sure that a good proportion of your readers will not be anglophone.

But even this last point is not really a differentiator from other forms of writing – it’s just a matter of being aware of your audience, as any good writer will be. Journalists know to keep language simpler when they are writing for popular papers than when they are writing for more serious publications. Same if they are writing for people who do not share their native language. Only a very few novelists have the luxury of using the words that they want without thinking about their readers.

So any good writer of English should be able to produce words that are engaging, clear, suitable for the medium and the audience, and transmit the messages you want in the correct tone of voice.

Easy, so why do so many websites fail to do all or any of those things? Because there is an acute shortage of ‘good writers of English’ employed to do the job.

Using someone simply because their first language is English is not good enough. Most English speakers do not write well. I was talking to the manager of a continental multinational and pointed out that some of the English on his site, while not grammatically wrong, was inelegant and sounded unnatural to my (anglophone) ears. ‘But our agency uses a British guy to do that,’ he said. He clearly was not a British guy with a good feel for his language – you need an experienced journalist, editor or copywriter. And even then be careful: I used to edit features on a London daily and some of the words handed in by professional journalists were poor indeed.

The good news of course is that there is ample supply of good writers who are short of work – put out of work by the internet. Hire them now – they’re lovely and cheap.

David Bowen





BC tip: Johnson & Johnson - Too simple timelines

Using interactive timelines on employee profiles is an interesting idea, but badly executed.

J-J timeline.png

The Site

Employee profiles on Johnson & Johnson’s careers microsite have interactive timelines displaying career histories at the US pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant.

For example, the timeline for ‘Eddie’, who is director of university relations, has three clickable red blocks, each representing a different job at the company from 2005 to 2013. The blocks are colour-coded according to department – consumer, pharmaceuticals, ‘cross-segment businesses’, etc. Clicking on the blocks reveals basic information about the job – year, job title, department, company and location.

The Takeaway

The timelines have a lot of weaknesses. Usability is confusing – visitors are instructed to ‘Click over the timeline to reveal career milestones’ – but it is unclear at first where exactly to click to reveal a new milestone. The ‘milestones’ themselves are uninspiring, just a list of basic facts. The colour-coding key to different business segments seems odd when the employee has only worked in one department.

On the plus side, the company is trying to demonstrate the opportunities for career progression, and that does come through in some of the profiles. For example ‘Jeanne’, talent acquisition vice president, has been at the company since 1978 in a variety of roles.

The timelines are more a missed opportunity than a flawed concept. A better, modern design, with multi-media elements and more interesting editorial (descriptions of achievements, why they went to a different role, the challenges they faced, etc), in a timeline format, could engage potential jobseekers rather that leave them wanting more.

BC tip: Bloomberg - signposting live video

A media company’s ‘Live TV’ button could be adapted for corporate websites.

The Site

Bloomberg has a small box in the lower left hand corner of its website that encourages visitors to click on a live feed from its television and radio channels.

On landing on the home page for the first time, visitors see a miniature feed from the TV channel; on subsequent visits, there is a black screen with a ‘play icon’. Clicking on ‘Live TV’ leads to a new screen with the television channel; clicking on ‘Audio’ leads to the radio channel.

On desktop view, the button stays visible as visitors scroll down the page; the feature does not appear on smartphone screens.

The Takeaway

A ‘live’ feature could work on corporate sites to promote its own real-time events – investor webcasts, AGM feeds, press conferences, etc. It could be a useful way of signposting these events to journalists, investors and others, who visit with the intention of viewing a webcast live.

Bloomberg is distinctive in having television and radio channels, and corporate websites would not usually have live events to promote. However, a similar feature could be adapted to send people to other interesting or useful content. One important aspect is the box’s ‘stickiness’ – it is always in view as viewers move up and down pages in the increasingly ‘scrolly’ corporate web.

Noises off – the making of corporate content

‘Mitt’ is a documentary on Netflix that takes viewers behind the scenes of Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful attempts to win the US presidency in 2008 and 2012. Romney, whose stiff and patrician demeanour was one of the reasons voters never warmed to him, is filmed doing things you never normally get to see during the years-long slog of an American presidential campaign: in prayer with his family (he always tried to publicly downplay his Mormon roots); swaggering backstage about a good debate performance; and flagellating himself after a bad one. We even witness the moment on election night when he knows he’s lost and has to put on a brave face for his family and staff.

It’s compelling, as well told ‘fly on the wall’ style stories always are. It turns out Mitt is not so stiff after all – surprise, he is a human being. His reputation rose after the documentary was released.

Going ‘behind the scenes’ can be just as compelling in a corporate context, as more (brave?) digital managers appear to recognize. The slick veneer of corporate-speak is ripe for puncturing, and readers (eg, jobseekers) will thank you for it; but share too much reality or the wrong kind and your company’s reputation (and your career) might never recover. There is a reason Romney was happy to let the cameras roll, but (likely) only agreed to release the film long after he thought his political career was over.

The best corporate ‘behind the scenes’ features we’ve seen subvert the low expectations of corporate content – that it will be dull, ‘on-message’, false – and provide a more true-to-life view, while stopping short of letting Michael Moore follow the CEO around with a film camera.

French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, for example, has a number of ‘in situ’ videos on its corporate website, inviting visitors to ‘take a glimpse at the daily lives of our employees’ - grape harvesting, a press team meeting, a morning briefing in a department store cosmetics department.   

Highly professional and unique (the absence of narration is one striking feature) they give candidates a good feel for the exciting parts of the job (filming a promotion) and the mundane (addressing envelopes for posting).

Blackstone, the US private equity and investment banking firm, has a link to ‘Mondays at Blackstone’, on its home page. The video is more conventional than the in situ features at LVMH. There is narration in text form and an abundance of talking heads, but the concept is based on a behind the scenes look at the company’s Monday morning meetings, where bankers come together to set the agenda and challenge each other about deals and investments.

The meeting could be seen as inspiring (or frightening) depending on your point of view, but as a candidate, you can watch and decide whether you can see yourself sitting around the giant boardroom table in New York on a Monday.

It is effective, but the idea could have been pushed further – jobseekers might have benefitted from letting more of the meeting footage play out. This is the interesting bit, the bankers talking to camera less so.

Maersk, the Danish logistics giant, gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of a disaster-preparedness training seminar for employees. Like at Blackstone, talking heads dominate, but the film – using documentary editing techniques – shows some tense moments and the kind of arguments that happen under crisis pressure (and employees when they are less guarded).

Not all ‘behind the scenes’ content is video. My colleague Mali Perdeaux recently wrote here about a blog on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, which gives a backstage perspective on life running a museum.

‘Making of’ features are a variation on the theme. Private investors get the VIP treatment from Air Liquide on its website, with a highlights video from a photo shoot for ‘Portraits of shareholders’.

Total, the French oil company, set up a microsite to describe how its global advertising campaign was conceived, designed and launched.

So far I have not seen many of these done badly. Maybe that is because they are unique enough to have fairly big budgets (meaning the best people will work on them), and close scrutiny – no matter how ‘real’ a film seems, there has been meticulous editing to make it seem that way. As they become more widespread, perhaps standards will slip (and that is when the reputational risk will rise).

Most companies are a lot more interesting than their corporate websites let on. The less time people have to spend reading between the lines, the more they might warm to you. Just ask Mitt.

- Jason Sumner

The joys of Apple's crunchy prose

Not going to dive into the rights or wrongs of the Apple versus Government argument about encryption, but the company has done two things that are undoubtedly right.

First, Tim Cook (or someone on his behalf) has written a 'message to our customers' in crisp, unambiguous English. In a world where most bosses flee clarity as vampires flee garlic, his sharp arguments and short sentences are mercifully easy to absorb. Apple may be all modern, but it understands the importance of that old-fashioned skill, literacy.

Second, the company's home page is promoting the message as one of its main panels - in view without scrolling on most screens. Apple may be rubbish at communicating with non-customers (like journalists), but it knows how to get to customers and is one of its big channels. So putting a signpost here makes perfect sense.


There's something else here for other companies (and indeed for Apple at other times). This message has obvious relevance to customers, but so do lots of others things on a corporate site that do not get the same high profile treatment. That the company keep a close eye on its suppliers' labour conditions, that it is amazingly inventive, that its products are made in ways that destroy only a few of the earth's resources, that it is really quite nice to its employees; and so on.

We know that 'serving customers' is at the front of many web people's minds at the moment. It's important to remember that this does not just mean selling them stuff. It means anything, anything, that might make them think more favourably about a company. A lot of that is already on corporate websites. It just needs to be blasted more clearly across home pages.   

David Bowen





Don’t mention the brand?

It is brave to do ‘content marketing’ without ever mentioning the brand. Brave, because ‘content’ without any ‘marketing’ is usually for the chop when budgets are decided. GE appears to have pulled it off with its popular sponsored serial podcasts –fictional stories no less – and it is worth asking whether corporate digital comms could learn anything from the GE’s success. Could they (or should they) try to do something similar?

GE’s special circumstances are probably not widely shared – namely, an obviously big budget and senior managers with open minds. Still, corporate websites should be an ideal platform for compelling, brand-free stories. The context around the story is everything – if there are cues, links and contact details to satisfy the marketing folk, the story itself can stay pure. 

Maybe fiction is taking it too far, but if the content is interesting, and reasonably on topic (eg, a fictional story about battling cancer on a pharmaceutical website), and it attracts eyeballs (or ears in the case of podcasts), why not? 

Some might view this kind of corporate sponsorship of creative works as vaguely sinister – I view it a little like medieval patronage, the prince might be evil but the sculpture (can be) beautiful…

- Jason Sumner

A new channel for corporate stories

I’ve spent some time this week playing with the new Apple News mobile and tablet app, which arrived in the UK (via an operating system update) at the end of October.

It’s a news aggregation service like Google News and Flipboard – allowing users to create a personalised feed of articles from a wide range of newspapers, magazines and blogs.

Like Google News, it can be a bit overwhelming at first. But it’s certainly prettier than Google’s offering, as well as good old RSS feeds, and is easy to personalise.

Importantly, publishers and readers alike will also be pleased with the fact that each publication’s fonts and layouts are preserved via the Apple News app, rather than merely poured into a crude ‘feed’ template.

I mention this app because it got me thinking about the fashion for corporate ‘stories’ –using journalistic and other ‘traditional’ narrative techniques to convey an organisation’s messages in more engaging ways.

If traditional publishers are increasingly using third-party services to widen the reach of their output, shouldn’t corporate web managers be thinking more about this route too?

Some companies have already been experimenting with this. The former head of Coca-Cola’s corporate site worked hard to get his team’s material syndicated by the likes of The Huffington Post.

Unilever has a media partnership with UK newspaper The Guardian to spread the word about its sustainability agenda.

Professional services firm EY has a “content marketing” tie-up with Forbes’ site.

But many companies’ efforts to produce more engaging online editorial material remains confined to their own channels.

For sure, there is a good reason for using your corporate website as the hub of your company’s editorial output: it’s the one channel over which your company has complete control.

But third-party news outlets may have a powerful future role to play – alongside a company's own Twitter feed and other channels – in ensuring that more people find your company's stories in the first place. Something to muse over, perhaps, if and when you get the chance to play with Apple’s latest app.

- Jason Sumner