The end of 'storytelling'?

When companies stop pretending that everything they publish online is a ‘story’, they clear the way for genuinely engaging narratives to shine, David Bowen says.

A few years ago, ‘storytelling’ was about as fashionable as it could be in corporate digital communications. It was almost compulsory to say you communicated by ‘stories’, as if they were the key to all effectiveness.

That was nonsense then, and it still is now. Communicating effectively online as a company means using many different editorial formats, only one of which – although an important one – is the ‘story’.

When used properly, stories are indeed a powerful way of putting across corporate messages, but to be fully effective at it, companies need to avoid two mistakes. One is an issue of labelling and the second is a failure to work around the risk-averse tendencies of big organizations.

First, a story is not a story simply because it is labelled as such. A story is a narrative, with a beginning, middle and an end. It is the most powerful form of editorial because it is the most natural structure, and answers our natural curiosity to find out ‘what next?’ There is a reason almost every novel is a narrative: it by far the best way of getting people to the end. That is not to say ‘non-narratives’ cannot be engaging; but it is harder work to make them thus.

PepsiCo used to have a ‘stories’ section that consisted mainly of press releases. Indeed the current has ‘stories’ over its home page – most of them are pretty much news releases. Danaher, the US conglomerate, has ‘feature stories’ in its news section; a similar problem. Coca-Cola took the idea even further by trying to convert its whole corporate site into a magazine. By launching the ‘Coca-Cola Journey’ site, it aimed to become a ‘media company’ taking on – and bypassing – traditional media by going directly to customers it wanted to woo. The site today still has much impressive and engaging editorial, but I doubt if ‘old media’ publications feel too threatened by it.

The second mistake is a failure to recognise that corporate risk aversion is a barrier to good storytelling. As my colleague Jason Sumner pointed out last year ‘large companies rarely want to publicise the elements that make for good drama – such as conflict, complications, or a “hero” trying to accomplish something difficult’.

It is very likely (pretty much certain) that there will indeed have been drama – hurdles, arguments, maybe even violence – in the course of every corporate achievement. But I have yet to see such stories told by companies themselves. Look to independent storytellers – such as Steve Coll with his gripping Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. But do not look to ExxonMobil. Mr Coll’s book is not all dirt by any means; but it is the gritty bits that give credibility to the rest. To resurrect another over-used word from the past, corporations find it very difficult to be ‘authentic’ – and so will struggle to match the credibility of independent sources.

However, the ‘authentic’ problem is not insuperable and corporate storytellers should not give up. Coca-Cola has been monitoring which pieces are most popular on its Journey site, and discovered that the best ones are those about itself. Special bottles for Star Wars, a Coca-Cola cake recipe (honest), a history of Coca-Cola advertising slogans (they should definitely revive ‘The Great National Temperance Beverage’). You get the idea. There may not be any drama or violence, but at least a company is likely to get the facts about itself right, and presumably has better access to insiders than anyone else.

Two more elements help. First, where you can, write about individuals. They might be employees, customers, people in a local community, but humans are generally more interesting than companies, products or trends. Second – and most important – stories can only work if they are well written. Use experienced feature writers or copy editors; they will have a feel for language that it is hard for others to match.

Here are some other examples – not all have all elements, but they cover my points.

I come back to PepsiCo. Among the non-stories on the home page, there is one that really is one. ‘New home, new hope’ leads to a video in which a Colombian woman tells how she brought her children from a violence-wracked region and found a job in a Pepsi-owned plant. It feels real, and probably is.

Siemens’ careers section has ‘Our Stories’ – some are, some aren’t – but ‘Taking on the seven biggest mountains in the world’ has a beginning and a middle, and promises to have an end. It is about an employee who decided to become the first Kuwaiti woman to do the climbs, and tells us what she has done so far.

Pharmaceutical companies often tell patient stories, but Novartis also uses narrative well to bring its scientific investigation to life. ‘Investigating the myopia mystery’ lays out the tale of a scientist couple investigating the spread of short-sightedness.

Novartis also understands the power of a good headline – on a magazine front cover, it makes you turn to the piece; on a website, it makes you click. How about ‘Giraffes have high blood pressure. Why don’t they drop dead?’ Or indeed ‘How I built a mini-gut with next to no biology training’ – how can you not read on? These headlines may seem simple, but a lot of thought has gone into them.

AbbVie, another pharma company, has at least one powerful writer on its books. Here is a story about a doctor helping after the Puerto Rico hurricane. The writing is simple but strong.

None of these, sadly, has any violence or even arguments in them. But given the reality of bosses being bosses, they are doing as good a job as we can hope for. Don’t give up on storytelling; just do it well.

- David Bowen

The Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence 2019 was published last week. Visit our website to see the ranking of the 30 best corporate digital estates in the world and download a free PDF publication.

Podcasts: the past becomes the future

Once ignored as ‘old technology’, podcasts are now essential listening for hipsters as well as the rest of us. David Bowen explains why this bandwagon should keep rolling, and examines a sprinkling of corporate examples

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Audio files were an early stirrer of excitement when the web came along in the Nineties. They did not need high speed internet access, so were happily accessible while videos were still stammering and stuttering. But - perhaps because they were not much of a technical challenge – they were never seen as particularly exciting. The spoken word was always useful, particularly to people who could not see well, but few people would want just sound when they could get pictures as well.

 Or so the thinking went. But those of us who hung on to speech radio as an important link with the outside rather appreciated a world delivered into our ears rather than our eyes. And I’m happy to say  the rest of humanity has now caught up.  Audiobooks are huge, podcasts are even bigger. The BBC, which has always been a big radio provider, is now pushing its podcasts hard, and so are other broadcasters.

But what of corporations? They are in there too. I am always suspicious of bandwagons, but I feel this one will keep on rolling. Audio will never be as quick to absorb as text, but for people whose eyes  and hands are occupied (for example while driving or in the gym), podcasts make a lot of sense. As they do for people who like radio and, of course, the visually impaired. Another advantage over video is that there is not a desperate need to keep them short – if people are driving they want a chunky listen, which is why 20 to 30 minutes is normal. Finally, the nature of podcasts means that you can subscribe to them – while some just play from sites, most are also delivered through an app: people can listen to them without ever going to the ‘mother site’.

Here are five we listened to. They each take a slightly different approach, which is what tends to happen when new things are introduced (or re-introduced). Where should they be kept on a site? Should they play direct or through a player (and if so, which player)? I suspect a standard approach will relatively quickly be adopted; that tends to happen.

Daimler has just launched its Headlights podcast series. It is currently promoting it on the home page of, though it actually lives in Careers, which is a clue to the target audience. A new episode is launched every Monday, alternating between English and German, and is accompanied by links to subscribe on various players.

Headlights has a young and upbeat feel, and kicked off with an interview with the CEO, followed by one with the head of an incubator unit. It should do well with young jobseeking audiences.

Daimler has an interesting site because it is happy to try things out in the cause of innovation, and has been running ‘audio reading’ versions of its blog posts since 2015. Presumably these were included primarily as an accessibility aid, but they are now also available as podcasts. It is encouraging to see an accessibility tool becoming a standard bearer for new technology. 

Verizon has a podcast series called Up to Speed. It is not kept in a particular place on the corporate site, but links to it are found dotted around. For example under News > People, a recent story headed ‘The imaginable reality of 5G’ is an Up to Speed podcast. There are no options to subscribe to Up to Speed on apps but a little control panel lets you jump forward or back, or download the file. You can also download the transcripts, which is good for accessibility. The podcasts take the form of interviews with experts, inside and outside the company,

Shell launched Inside Energy initially as an iPad app, but technological fashions move on and it is now a section of with a shiny new Energy Podcast. This is less ambitious than the others in that it is touted as a five part series – but presumably if it is successful there will be more. It does not play directly from the site – you have to choose whether to hear it through iTunes, Google or Spotify.

The first episode, ‘Battery technology: where could it take us’, is a professionally presented and interesting piece. It sounded like a serious radio programme and set me wondering whether it is tainted by being a corporate production. I decided not – the interviews are all with scientists and engineers, and it would be nice to think that Shell’s specialists know as much about energy as anyone else.

Morgan Stanley uses its Ideas podcasts to present itself as the thinking person’s investment bank. The current programme is part of season four, we are told, and is based on a ‘trip to the future’. The destination here is Dar es Salaam which, we learn, has one of the most advanced rapid transit systems in the world. Choices here are to listen direct, or on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

This is a serious documentary about a general interest subject, and it might make you wonder why an investment bank is bothering to produce it. But maybe that it the strength – it is hard to see how talking about a Tanzanian transport system directly benefits Morgan Stanley. In any event, if someone is sufficiently intrigued to subscribe to the podcast series, they will find they are being fed material by the bank without even trying. Brand-building at its most subtle.

Goldman Sachs has just launched the 120th of its Exchanges podcasts. Even though the interviews are interesting (about market and other developments) it is not as professional as the others. The presenter is the head of corporate comms and he sounds rather rushed and perhaps a teeny bit bored. So these podcasts, which can be played direct or though iPlayer, could give us another lesson. That if you are going to become a broadcaster, you need to do it professionally – and that may well involve using professional broadcasters.

- David Bowen

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:





Explain Yourself and the Zeitgest

A new edition of our Explain Yourself Index, focusing on US companies, has just been published. David Bowen explains why ‘explaining yourself’ makes such so much sense, and who is doing it best

This week we publish our second Explain Yourself Index. It’s a ranking of companies that are best at … well, explaining themselves, on the web and in social media. The last one, at the end of November 2017, was popular, and there is evidence that we are now tapping even further into the Zeitgeist.

Before I go on, I should say that there is one big difference between this Index and the last. The last one was global, and was dominated by European companies. This time we have decided to concentrate on the US, and have included a sprinkling of Europeans (there is science to the selection – they are those identified by Harris Poll as having very high recognition in the States). We are also looking at an element US companies are particularly interested in: political disclosure.

For those who do not already know, the Explain Yourself Index is derived from our main Index of Online Excellence (a new edition of which is out in a few months’ time). It starts with the metrics in this that are designed to ‘explain’ a company – by which we mean company information, anything to do with reputation management and (new for this edition) how well it presents its non-financial (CSR/ESG) data and political contributions. We then apply a more granular set of metrics to come up with the top 20 performers. It’s an interesting list – download it from our website – for a number of reasons. 

Before getting into the detail, why is this so much in the Zeitgeist? In the New Year the Financial Times published a long piece headed ‘Beyond the bottom line: Should business put purpose before profit?’ It was deliberately phrased as a question – there are plenty of people prepared to argue the answer is ‘no’. But as one of the FT editors tweeted at the time, this is definitely a theme for the year.

So, have we moved to a ‘post-Friedman world’? In 1970 the economist Milton Friedman poured scorn on the idea that business should have a social conscience, setting set a nice simple path for bosses to follow for the next several decades. But then Corporate Social Responsibility came along, with its desire to measure those non-financial factors Friedman despised. And in the last few years there has been an epidemic of reputational crises, spreading around the world like wildfire. Add the growing interest in ‘ethical investing’, and we have a trinity of reasons why the Friedman doctrine might be looking somewhat out of date.

CSR and the reputation wildfire have something in common: the internet. CSR reporting grew up with the corporate web, so it is not surprising that the vast bulk of non-financial data is reported only online. And it was social media that fanned the wildfire. In the past you had a decent chance of containing an issue in one country. No longer.

Our research for this Index shows that more and more companies are adapting to this new world.

A big clue is that a remarkable number have transformed their corporate website into a form of online magazine – a place where they can tell their stories, put their points of view across and, crucially, to be seen as a ‘brand’ in their own right – rather than an anonymous background operation.

Look at Johnson & Johnson, which heads the ranking. Its new site is designed above all to explain the company in an easy-to-digest way. Half the navigational links come under an ‘Our stories’ heading, and the core of the site is a giant magazine. It, along with companies such as Coca-Cola, BP and Shell, bring editorial professionalism to a medium that was often, previously, little more than a filing cabinet. I am sad that as far as we know no company has yet appointed an editor with the power to  say ‘no’ to colleagues in the name of quality, but I hope we are creeping in that direction.

We also see greater efforts to present companies as ‘good’. This is both defensive – look at Nestlé’s Ask Nestlé for a thorough attempt to confront the many difficult questions thrown at it – and ‘offensive’. By that I mean telling the world about the good things you and your employees are doing. There is no shortage of this ‘good’ – especially in the US, where helping out in the community is an embedded part of the culture – but not all tell these positive stories as well as they might. Those that do, we note, often use blogs – a nicely informal way to tell nicely informal stories. See for example the FedEx or Walmart blogs.

CSR reporting is bounding along. The CSR industry grew up in Europe, and most of the leaders – like BP and Shell – are based there. But things are moving very fast indeed in the US. Ford’s data reporting in its Sustainability Report is as a good as anyone’s.

The special element we added for this report is on politics. This is measured in two halves. First, how easy is it to find how much companies or their employees (through Political Action Committees) are giving to candidates or lobbyists. There is great variation here, with some such as Pfizer taking the job very seriously indeed, while others provide little. European multinationals have something to learn here. It is no longer good enough to say ‘we don’t give anything so we don’t report anything’. First, they should explain that policy and second, if they do lobbying in the US (which they all do), they should provide information on this.

 It was fun looking at the other half of ‘politics’ – how many are using the web or social media to get their views across to politicians. Verizon is one of a handful of companies using a set of tools – including a blog and Twitter feed – to do that. But occasionally, very occasionally, a company will put its head well above the parapet. Former Goldman boss Lloyd Blankfein used Twitter to make his views on Brexit clear, and the Amazon blog last summer had a moderately fierce rant against Bernie Sanders.

Finally, why do European companies crowd the top even of this primarily US Index? It comes down, somewhat inevitably, to governance. We only give a few points (five maximum, out of 120) to the usability metric – but if you perform badly there, the knock-on effect elsewhere is likely to be substantial. If we can’t find information on something, we have to mark down the service. European companies nearly all have strong central web teams holding their sites and channels together; few US companies do. But that is changing – Johnson & Johnson has a well coordinated corporate website; so does Verizon. As others follow, that will be reflected in our Index.

- David Bowen

The Explain Yourself Index is the world's most rigorous assessment of companies' use of online channels to explain who they are and what they do. To download a copy of the report, which focused on the United States, please visit our website

The global Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence will be published in May 2019.



Time to explain yourself again

Bowen Craggs will be publishing a new Explain Yourself Index in the New Year. David Bowen says it will mirror a shift in high profile companies’ approach to reputation management.

Facebook’s online Newsroom is directly addressing criticism of the company

Facebook’s online Newsroom is directly addressing criticism of the company

Here are alternative approaches to company information on websites. Facebook, which has put up a 10-minute film explaining how it is trying to get to grips with fake news, with employees pondering questions such as ‘what is truth’. Or General Electric, which has recently deleted its About Us and Sustainability sections.

Which one is the future? Well, look at the share prices and read the papers. GE always found it difficult to explain itself, because it is so complicated; now it seems to have given up trying. Facebook is doing more and more to face up to criticism, increasingly using its website and (of course) its social media channels.

Amazon, now a trillion dollar company, is also using the web to explain itself. It didn’t used to at all. There was no ‘About’ section to speak of, and it let its share price do the talking. But, as Ashley Brown, its head of digital comms, told us, ‘these days you need a corporate website to have a social licence to operate: you can’t be a successful company and not talk about the environment and things’. Its ‘About Amazon’ site and ‘Day One’ blogs are busy busy places.

Twenty years ago ExxonMobil defied a growing consensus with vigorous scepticism about climate change, and reportedly did its best to undermine the Kyoto protocol. Now, the corporate home page is headed by a banner saying ‘ExxonMobil joins the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’. The site is packed with features on its initiatives and views, all saying ‘we are now on the side of the angels’.

Moves by some of the world’s most high-profile companies to explain themselves and come across as the good guys are really significant to communications managers, and so to the channels they use. For several reasons:

  •  Companies are increasingly realizing that they cannot simply sit back and say ‘watch our share price’, which is what they tended to do in the past. Their behaviour, and the reputation that follows it, will sooner or later lead through to sales, and so to the share price.

  • It is of course significant that the companies that are under most attack are also those that are getting most firmly to grips with this message. In Europe, where corporate websites are more developed, much-criticised Nestlé has its well-established Ask Nestlé section to tackle issues as they come up. But it is not just hate magnets that think like this. Unilever puts huge emphasis on its sustainability messaging because it is convinced that good reputation feeds through to good sales.

  • In the US, there is a particular need to communicate with politicians. For example Amazon used its blog to accuse Senator Bernie Sanders of making ‘inaccurate and misleading accusations’, though it also responded more substantively by raising its minimum wage. Sanders used his Twitter feed to praise and then query this move. So much of this happened online: a sign of the times.

  • Handling these messages is the job of corporate comms folk, rather than marketing; and when it is online (as it always is), the digital team will be in charge. They are no longer pushing out marginal ‘aren’t we nice’ messages that do nothing for the bottom line; they are pushing out critical ‘this is what we’re doing’ messages that could make a huge difference in the medium or long term. We have previously suggested that corporate communications could be renamed ‘enterprise level marketing’ (or in non-US terminology ‘group level marketing’). Now surely is the time to push that idea, and get it into the heads of the folk on the top floor.

What of poor old General Electric? Well, we have a concept call ‘web phrenology’. Phrenology was a pseudo-science that claimed you could tell people’s characters by examining the shape of their heads. Web phrenology is much more credible – you really can tell a lot about a company by looking at its website. GE’s website is appallingly incoherent and, as we have said, lacking a basic sense of identity. The company, I fear, may be similar.

I have used the word ‘explain’ a lot, because this column is by way of an introduction to our second Explain Yourself Index.

This Explain Yourself Index (to be published in January 2019) will have an expanded methodology, and will focus on the US - though it will also include non-US companies that are well-known in the States. The aim is to find the companies that explain themselves in four ways: first, defending their reputation; second, saying what they do; third, judging how well they report their ESG (or CSR) data; and finally, how well they explain their political contributions and involvement. The last two are new for this year.

Explain Yourself is a sibling of our flagship Index of Online Excellence, which remains global, and will go out in May 2019.

You could say that the current moves by Facebook and the like are kickstarting ‘Reputation 2.0’. Reputation 1.0 was carried out largely offline, with discreet consultants briefing chairmen on how to talk to the press. Reputation 2.0 is out in the open. Companies need to talk directly to customers, potential employees and the general public. ‘Are we explaining ourselves properly?’ should be a question for every boardroom and C-suite. From that, the step to ‘Are we explaining ourselves properly online?’ is a short and natural one.

The next Explain Yourself Index will be published in January 2019. See our site for the previous one. The next global Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence will be out in May 2019.

The rocky road to media section heaven

The arrival of 'media asset databases' in two corporate sites gave David Bowen great hope. Until he tried to use them.


A couple of years ago I wrote a piece headed ‘What to do with the poor old media section?’, pointing out that as press officers rarely know who they are serving any more, it is not surprising press areas are also confused. Are they for ‘journalists’ in the old fashioned sense, for anyone who writes anything on the internet, or perhaps for everyone? But I did say it is important to have a service for media professionals who need to find something quickly: how to spell the CFO’s name, what brands the company owned, a photo of a factory. That sort of thing.

At the time the fashion was for ‘social media dashboards’ – where companies could display all their latest tweets and the like. I couldn’t (and can’t) see the point of these: journalists can set up their own social media monitoring, and the last thing they want is a selection sanitised by the company they are covering.

But one company was doing it right. Siemens has for several years had a press section that is a searchable database of ‘assets’ – press releases, photos, background materials and the like. Here, you can choose the bit(s) of Siemens you are interested in – or select them all – then do a search using a keyword and/or date range. It worked, and works, well. So it was with joy that I discovered that two sites I was reviewing last week have adopted the same idea. Vale, the Brazilian mining giant, and Philip Morris International, now have press sections that are asset databases. Unfortunately my joy diminished as I tested them out: they have the theory, but for the moment they are just annoying.

Vale is the better of the two, and in some ways works well. You can for example click Environment, and see all relevant assets listed on the page. Or you can put the CFO’s name in the search box, press return, see a list of assets, then refine them by theme, type or date.

But if you do not do what the mechanism wants you to do, you are undone. Put the  CFO’s name in and click ‘search’ rather than hit return, and nothing happens. The main filter list (‘Type’) does not include press releases. To see them you have to click something else, such as Photos, then click to get a much bigger set of filters. Still no press release option here, but click ‘All’ and you will finally see some.

These are just a few of the hurdles I hit while trying to use the site. What should be a massively powerful system is instead massively irritating. It needs a thorough assault by usability testers; then it will be indeed massively powerful.

If Vale’s database is over-complex, PMI’s is just baffling. It appears to have a search box at the top, but it is not one – rather it is a category selection menu, but with only one option: ‘All categories’. So you can’t search or filter the database. A set of ‘tags’ at the top appears to offer a filter option, but does not – if you click one of them, the page scrolls quickly down to a panel on the page. Try that with ‘News’ and you get to press releases – but there is no way to search or filter them. In one way this has the opposite problem to Vale: it is not sophisticated enough. But it shares another: it does not work well.

I’m not suggesting that Vale or PMI should drop these mechanisms. They should just make them work better. Then other companies should follow their examples but avoiding the birth pains. Siemens has been getting it right for ages. Why can’t others?

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:



Why sites and social should take up the tango

Richard Branson is showing how Twitter feeds and websites can do each other a lot of good, David Bowen says

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I’ve just been listening to a whale imitating a woman saying ‘hello’. It is quite extraordinary, and can be found here, embedded in article by Sir Richard Branson on the website.

What is interesting – apart from the whale itself – is that I got here by clicking a link on Branson’s Twitter feed. So what, you may say, that’s what Twitter is for? Indeed, I reply, but two years ago we said that Mr Branson’s Twitter feed managed to ‘outbland Mr Cook’, with posts such as ‘Talk less – smile more’. Something has changed.

There is still only a handful of CEOs who tweet, and most follow Tim Cook’s masterclass in blandness. These still read like a string of vaguely liberal clichés. To pick a typical scattering from the last couple of months: ‘Nothing inspires us more than fresh ideas’, ‘Happy #MothersDay to all the moms at Apple and around the world’, ‘We’re committed to supporting powerful innovation that helps protect the planet’, ‘Democracies depend on a free and diverse press’. Why have 11m people bothered to click ‘follow’? Perhaps it’s a vague form of political solidarity: I’m pretty sure it’s not because they are blown away by the messages.

The difference between Branson’s and Cook’s tweets (and indeed between Branson’s tweets now and two years ago) does not however lie in the text of the posts, but in the links that accompany it. Sir Richard’s tweets have their share of blandness: ‘Success never happens overnight, keep repeating your steps and walking in the right direction’. But while Cook’s posts are full of hashtags – which simply lead to other Twitter streams – nearly every Branson one goes to

We know from our analysis that social media is a poor driver of traffic to corporate websites. The percentage of visitors coming from social channels tends to be tiny. But I would be surprised if that were true for Branson has 12.6m followers, and nearly all his tweets point to the site. They must surely be a major source of visitors.

Of course the other key element is to have stuff on the site that is worth visiting. If Branson’s tweets went to nothing but promotion for his many companies, people would swiftly get fed up. With the exception of Virgin Galactic, which is a heaven for those of us who like boys’ toys and loud noises, the companies are pretty dull. Users of Virgin Trains may feel that ‘dull’ isn’t a strong enough word.

But Branson (or whoever writes his tweets) now points mainly to stories that are fun or intriguing, while is doing its bit by hosting as many such stories as it can. Some are written (or not) by Sir Richard, some by his children, but relatively few are corporate or marketing stories. Although was around (and looked similar) two years ago, it had a much more promotional – and duller - feel.

All this confirms our belief that social media and websites are most effective when they work together. Which is why it is encouraging that, as the governance project we are now working on shows, most of the most sophisticated corporate communicators now run them from the same team. We will be watching closely to see if traffic between them picks up as a result.  

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:

Knowing when to say no (and yes)

Digital managers have no shortage of opportunities to adopt the latest piece of clever technology. How to tell which to go for, and which to avoid? By David Bowen

Unilever shows off the first UK commercial

Unilever shows off the first UK commercial

Digital managers in large organizations are very desirable creatures. At least they are to people who want to sell them things - let's call them vendors. Of course Bowen Craggs is one such, and I will give no guidance as to whether you should or should not use our services. But I do have some thoughts about whether you should dig into your pockets for pieces of web functionality that may (or may not) be worthwhile. 

Once you have invested in something, you should be able to get an idea of its effectiveness using traffic analysis, market research, and so on. But you will need to stick with it for a while to get meaningful results, so this can be an expensive business.

May I suggest another approach - to piggyback on the experience of others? If something has come and stayed, it is probably safe to adopt. If it has come as part of a broad fashion, then gone away, it is worth ignoring, at least until that particular wave returns. If it keeps coming and going, be suspicious - it is probably something that vendors try periodically to sell, but the business case is dubious. And if no-one has yet given a piece of functionality enough of a chance, you may have to take the risk. Here are some examples of each type:

Here to stay

  • Video has always been theoretically possible on the web, but in the days of dial-up modems it was more likely to irritate than excite. No longer true with broadband, and we can all think of videos that work better than text or photos. A couple of warnings: if you have a significant audience in parts of the world where broadband is not widespread, you should still ignore it. And it is not a good way of getting information across fast, so if you want to be useful to journalists and analysts, for example, either avoid it or provide transcripts (much faster to read).

  • Responsive design is not going away. We were dubious at first, because too often it was accompanied by a deterioration in the desktop experience (and corporate sites are still primarily views on larger screens). But that, mostly, has been fixed.

  • Ingenious interactivity: watch others to see what works. For example BP keeps on upgrading the charting tool it has long used in its investor and, now, CSR sections. It must have a reason for that. Many companies have stuck with interactive devices to bring their stories to life. A nice new one is Unilever's history, which includes (for 1955) the first UK television commercial (so you get a video too).

Riding the fashion

Innovations in navigation tend to be driven by fashion. The most obvious is the current trend to hide menus - we believe we are now close to 'peak hiding' - but there have been others in the past and there will be more in the future. This is a problem, because to ignore fashion runs the risk that you will be accused of being old-fashioned - but if you do have to follow it, at least do what you can to minimise any drawbacks it brings.

Corporate apps came - and went, as companies realised they brought little a responsive website could not, but were a lot more expensive (though see my exception under virtual reality, below).

Coming and going

Personalisation is making a comeback - as it does every so often. I remember getting frustrated by the BT website in the late Nineties: it was so full of personalising tools that it was desperately slow. Of course personalisation is huge in marketing (the whole Facebook data thing is about it), but it also makes occasional incursions into the corporate world - and then leaves. A few years ago Aviva allowed shareholders to tick boxes to configure a page to suit them; it no longer does. France Telecom allowed visitors to drag widgets around its home page  to the same end; it no longer does. There are some examples that do have a specific use. For example the 'consumer corner' on Philip Morris International's site will show brand information to people in Switzerland, but not to those in most other countries - a regulatory trick that makes sense. But generally decent navigation allows people to see what they want without any need for clever technology - that goes for 'country sniffers' too.

HTML annual reports come and go like the swallows in Spring. We did research a few years ago that suggested that neither financial professionals nor retail shareholders made much use of them. Yet they are on the up again as IR teams see that other IR teams are using them more (encouraged, certainly, by vendors). The growth of mobile does make PDF less useful - and therefore HTML more useful - but think hard before you decide that it is finally here to stay.

Too soon to know

Virtual reality has been around for such a long time - without any real impact in the corporate world - it is tempting to dismiss current experiments as mere fashion. We are not so sure:  there have been real changes in technology that could make virtual reality, and the related world of augmented reality, stick this time. Faster internet, of course, but this is also one area where apps could make sense - especially if they are aimed at jobseekers. Exxon Mobil's virtual reality app is impressive, particularly when viewed on a VR headset.

Chatbots are much talked about. We will return to them, but my initial thought is that they are rather similar to advanced search engines, such as ENI's. Both must be built round a database of prepared answers to be helpful. Whether typing a question to a chatbot is easier than typing it in a search engine is of course a moot point.

Podcasts are on the up. I can see why they could work - a good way to absorb information while you are travelling. But it does raise the question of why they have not taken off before, given their simple technology. Still, keep an eye on Morgan Stanley to see if it continues to promote podcasts on its home page; if you do not want to take the risk, let your friendly investment bank test the market for you instead.

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:

2018: The year of living unfashionably?

Too many companies follow fashion without asking why. Time for that to stop, says David Bowen

At the beginning of December a piece appeared on the New York Times blog. It was by Nick Kristof, who said he had been the first blogger on the paper and that this would be his last post: 'We've decided that the world has moved on from blogs,' he wrote (the link to the post is no longer available).

I wonder if 'we' included Mr Kristof. I suspect not; it certainly does not include us. We think blogs have a special and clearly defined place in the online world: they can be detailed, like a website but unlike other social channels, but they also allow organizations to use a tone of voice that just would not work on a website. The most poignant example I came across was a post several years ago on the British Embassy in Harare's blog: it talked of ZANU-PF's 'torture and murder'. Not something you could possibly see on an official government website; yet here it was. 

Nearer the heart of corporate comms, we regularly come across blogs that are hard to imagine working in other formats. Shell's climate change adviser David Hone has his own expert but personal blog. First person pieces in Daimler's blog are engaging. And pushing the technology all the way to video, GSK's vlogs feature employees on secondment with charities, reporting their experiences. These last could I suppose be on Facebook, but blogs are much more controllable – link to them, and they are there when you want them. Finally, the more Twitter and Facebook grow, the easier it is to direct people to blogs. All round, they are good. The New York Times may have moved on from blogs. The world has not.

The problem is that expressions like 'the world has moved on' are so often excuses for lazy thinking: we are not going to think what is really best, we are just going to do whatever other people are doing – especially if it saves us money. Many years ago an editor on the newspaper I worked on said that a particular cartoon strip was 'past its sell by date'. It migrated to another paper, where it is still flourishing. 'Past its sell by date' ... What does that mean? 

There are other victims of fashion-thinking. The most obvious is our old bugbear, decent visible navigation. I think (hope) we may have reached 'peak nonsense' on this, and we'll soon see sites launched with navigation that works (at which point, with luck, they will become the fashion).

Then there is the obsession with cutting the size of sites. There can be good reasons for doing this – providing the discipline of a limited page publication is the best one. But too often there is either a vague idea that smaller is better, or the realization that the useless navigation cannot cope with so many pages. Usefully deep archives are cut back; areas that thrive on the web  - such as history – are shoved onto inert PDFs; 'about' sections that should burst with rich material become thin and desiccated. One of the huge strengths of the web is that it is brilliant at handling complexity; use it, don't sideline it.

Of course there is a place for fashion. My carefully waxed moustache is as fashionable as the next man's. But the trick, surely, is to know when it is sensible to follow fashion – and when it is just silly.

Explaining 'Explain yourself'

Our newly published 'Explain yourself' Index is designed to highlight the companies that are best at telling their stories online. David Bowen answers some questions on it.

What is the 'Explain yourself' Index?

It's a ranking of the 15 large companies that most successfully use their corporate websites and social media channels as their 'voice'. Every company puts huge effort into selling its products and services, but few put much into 'selling' the company itself. By that we mean explaining what it does, how it is is run, who runs it, its values, its history, and so on. And - for companies that run into trouble (as most do at some point) - how well they use the internet to manage their reputations. 

You already produce the Bowen Craggs Index - how is this different?

This is a both a prologue and a development of the Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence. The next full Index will be published in the New Year, and will cover online communications from many different angles - from usability to job application mechanisms. The 'Explain yourself' Index takes two of the 27 sub-metrics we use - on company information and 'building a reputation for responsibility', and rescores them in a more granular fashion. The methodology is fully explained in the document you can download below.

Why is the internet so important for explaining yourself?

Because it has become the default destination for people wanting to find out ... pretty much anything. If they are wondering about working for a company, or they hear something negative and want to check it out, or they are looking for a good stock to buy, they will go to Google. If the company has done its SEO properly, they should then find their way to a corporate site (which may be central or country-specific). That is why some corporate sites have tens of millions of visits a year. Yet few of the people charged with 'selling' their company - for example in press, IR, HR and CSR teams, and most importantly their bosses - have realized just how important the web is for them. The exceptions, obviously, work in the companies that make up our Index.

Why is Nestlé at the top?

Mainly for its reputation management effort. The 'Ask Nestlé' section is unique, because it combines high-profile 'get in touch' devices with FAQs on topics that range from one-off crises to the decades-old baby milk controversy. Swiss companies are often thought of as secretive - Nestlé is fighting the image, and its main tool is the internet. 

What about the other top scorers?

They vary greatly. Several are strong on reputation management (look at all those oil, pharma and tobacco companies), but Axa gets in by being brilliant visually and telling stories well; Unilever infuses its sites with great 'responsibility' detail; and Luxottica is very good at explaining what it does. 

Why has Bowen Craggs produced this Index?

Partly as a teaser for the full Index, but also because we wanted to produce something that would convince the most senior people in large companies that online corporate comms should be taken as seriously as it deserves. So please download our document and pass it on - and up.

Download the 'Explain yourself' Index




The tribulations of worldwide websites

Most large organizations need to serve local audiences online – but they also need to save money, says David Bowen. How can the two be reconciled?

I have been reading a PhD proposal headed The Phenomenology of Subjection. I don’t understand many of the words, let alone the sentences. But at least the headline warned me that my brain was about to be stretched. Less dangerous perhaps than something that sounds simple, but is far from it. This, for example: ‘What should large organizations do about country websites?’

It is a question bosses find easy to ask, perhaps followed by ‘Do we really need them?’ Corporate websites are bad enough on their own – they do not generate money, and it’s hard to measure what benefits there are. Country websites have the same problem, multiplied many times. Unless of course they are mainly there to serve customers, in which case there is a different question: Why bother putting anything corporate on them – it just gets in the way? There, an extra complication before I have even started.

But the boss is asking a good question – a useful starting point for almost anything is ‘Do we really need it?’, because it forces us to think hard. And there will be some who, having considered all the options, will be able to say, ‘No, we don’t need any country websites. Let’s go to the pub.’ But they will be a minority. For most the options are far more nuanced.

The ‘no needers’ are those that do not operate internationally – most US retailers, for example, as well as many Chinese groups. They may well need to talk to investors around the world, but they can do that in English on their corporate site.

At the other extreme are companies that sell to consumers around the world, so it is not a question of 'if' but 'how'. IBM has sites for Aruba and Burkina Faso; but they are selling sites, so they pay for themselves.

Most are somewhere in between. One group that might be thought likely to go the pub: business-to-business operations dealing with customers happy to work in English. But looking at examples, you will find they have all decided to offer localised material. Rio Tinto offers Japanese and Chinese sites, because English is not widely spoken there; Goldman Sachs used to do that but now even covers countries where English should not be a problem, like Germany; BAE Systems has an Arabic site to serve its biggest customer, Saudi Arabia.

It’s interesting that Goldman has moved from translating only where it is strictly needed to a broader approach. But even a German fund manager who works mostly in English will be a little more comfortable, and so receptive, if a bank does him the favour of speaking to him in his own language.

The pressure against this is of course resources. One multinational declared several years ago that it was going to cut its languages back to six. It still has many more than that, simply because it realized it would have risked losing business and goodwill by cutting out the ‘small’ languages. If you add the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles etc together, you will get a lot of people.

And of course it’s not just about language. To revive a cliché from the past – think global, act local – you are doing yourself no favours by coming across as an arrogant multinational.

Which is why most of the clever thinking now is about how to provide a local feel all round your markets at the lowest possible cost. Here are some of the options:

  • Country sites that share as much as possible. Look at Now look at Unilever Argentina and Unilever Pakistan. They are all built on the same platform, and share words (translated where necessary) and pictures where they can. Unilever serves some smaller countries with a single site (such as central America and the Middle East), but there are still more than 60 different sites. This requires very strong governance, and relentless training, but it works well. It can be tricky to get the balance between localisation and efficiency right. For example Shell's otherwise impressive estate has a China careers page without a single Asian face on it, while Nigeria, where it is a big employer, has only one African on the same page.

  • Building country pages into the main site. Philip Morris International covers many countries in their own languages, using short web pages and downloadable documents (including a universal one on the dangers of smoking). Other languages are often available by clicking the selector at the top of the page: see Slovakia and Senegal for examples. Statoil also has extensive country information, though the great majority is in English only, which seems unwise.

  • Tailoring the approach to the country. Companies with country sites can group them into bands, and expect and support different levels of cover depending on how important they are. This may mean providing only contact details for some countries. BP is subtler, with an interesting hybrid approach. Its global page lists a large number of countries. Some, such as the UK and Trinidad and Tobago, lead to full sites. India looks like a full site, but has relatively few pages of its own. Other country links lead to a summary page with links to local websites, which might well belong to the subsidiary Castrol, to relevant career pages, or even – for Vietnam – to a local Facebook page. These are mostly in English but some, such as the Czech Republic, are bilingual.

Which way works best for your organization will depend on many things – but these points strike me:

  • For Unilever, the key to success appears to be training. If you have people on the ground you can trust, and who understand your CMS, it all becomes so much easier.

  • BP's pragmatic approach will work best where you trust people to say what they cannot as well as what they can do. Why can Trinidad and Tobago run a full site when India cannot? I'd guess it's to do with the commitment of local senior management. So we can add 'education' (of bosses) to 'training' (of the people who will do the work).

  • You will also have to rely on local managers to work out what does and does not need to be translated – though your own budget may have the last word. In general, assume it will be difficult to cut languages; and it may well be a false economy anyway.

  • It's really all about governance. As ever.

- David Bowen

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:

Measuring the hot air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joy of words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten years on - what's gone up, down and sideways?

A couple of weeks ago we looked forward to see whether corporate websites will survive, and concluded they would. Now David Bowen looks back, to the start of the Bowen Craggs Index, to see how they have changed.

On 28 March 2007, the first Bowen Craggs corporate website index was published in the Financial Times. We did it because the FT asked us to, and it seemed rude to say no. The challenge then was to take an incredibly labour intensive benchmarking methodology and adjust it so that we could review and give scores to the sites of 60 of the biggest companies in the world. We wrote up our reports in Word documents, and kept them to ourselves; only the scores were published.


That was then, now is now, but not that much has changed in the way we do the Index. The main changes: we now publish all the supporting reviews in our database, we look at the 200 biggest companies - not 60 - but we only write up the best, plus best practice from across the 200. It was interesting to see just how bad some websites were, but not necessarily that useful. But any efforts to reduce the amount of work we put into reviews has been largely fruitless - they take very many hours to do. 

But what of the websites themselves, how have they changed? 

First, they are not just websites any more. Or rather, the Index doesn't just cover websites - it includes social media and apps too. Social media was just sticking its head above the ground in 2007, though it wasn't called that. 'We see little evidence of Web 2.0 and its interactive functions being used to build communities online,' I wrote. 'These may be because corporate giants are laggardly, or because they are rationally cautious'. Sometimes it feels as though I could say the same now. 

So what has got better worse, and not changed? Pulling together our reviewers thoughts, here is a rundown.


  • Look and feel. The idea that a website could be a glossy magazine with beautiful pictures was an obscure one. Now it's a commonplace.

In 2007 we gave Total high marks for its visual quality

But it can't match the current site, which exploits images for their effect rather than using them as 'furniture'

  • Websites are also less likely to make you sea sick. Video is more common now, and often slickly produced. But there is little animation, and Flash animation has (for technical reasons) pretty much been abolished.

  • There is vastly more consistency across web estates. Linked developments in the last 10 years have been a growing understanding that the centre needs to have greater control (that is, better governance) and the spread of single Content Management Systems across organizations. Most big companies used CMSs then (though not all - GSK didn't, for one), but worldwide systems were rare. Our latest review of Nestlé says 'country sites are all held on a standard template, providing a good level of consistency'. In 2007, we said that 'country sites are localised with no apparent consistency to the look. Even the logo varies.' There are of course still companies that have wildly different looks across the estate - mostly (for reasons we've discussed in the past) from the US, though here too companies are starting to see the benefits of a 'whole web' approach.

  • Websites are more likely to be doing what they should be doing. Ten years ago, they were often dominated by investor material; nowadays you are likely to see much more of a mix as web managers have taken control, rather than bowing to the wishes of the most influential department heads. 'Responsibility' stories are more likely to appear on the home page, as companies discovered (sometimes the hard way, as with BP) that corporate sites are a (no, the) frontline reputation management tool. There will probably be something for jobseekers, as data shows that these typically make up the biggest group. Surprisingly, to many, companies have discovered that even 'pure corporate' sites attract a lot of customers - they need to be served, both with suitable messages and with clear signposts to point the way to the shop.

  • Within the core corporate information areas, improvements to corporate social responsibility publishing are worth noting. In 2007 some companies used the web well to report environmental and other non-financial data; now, many do.


  • The flipside of improved graphic design has been a widespread collapse in usability. We have written about this so much that I won't go into detail, but in essence the three elements are 1) An inability by most companies and agencies not to follow fashion; the fashion in this case being to hide navigation in the name of visual effect 2) a lack of understanding that corporate sites are quite different from (fashion-leading) brand and media sites 3) the arrival of responsive design, which convinced many (wrongly) that the mobile experience was more important than the desktop one. It's annoying, because there is no reason why a good looking site also should not also have good navigation.

  • Although graphic quality overall has leapt, there has been a convergence of look and feel - many corporate sites are 'samey'. Once again responsive design is partly to blame: the need to make sites work in different configurations on different screen sizes reduced designers' options. It's easier to produce blocks that can be moved around as a screen size reduces, so that's what many designers did. This can be countered; but it requires imagination and hard work. Here are three home pages - all in the top 10 of our Index. Spot any similarities?

  • Press sections were often not good 10 years ago, a function of a lack of interest in media departments. Many are even worse now. The problem is that the whole concept of 'the press' has been shaken up by social media, and traditional press officers no longer know who they are supposed to serve. Is it just professional journalists, everybody who publishes an opinion, or something in between? Press sections now reflect that uncertainty; the result is a poor service for all.


  • Most web-based corporate information hit the imagination barrier well before 2007, and hasn't made much progress since. For investor relations, this is not important: the service was often good then, and it still is now. Why fiddle with it? 'About us' sections have pottered along with no major upheavals. Careers has always been an area of innovation, though there has been depressingly little progress in the core 'job application' area. Third party sites are still used by almost everyone, and they have done little to set the world on fire: indeed we still sometimes find that the only non-responsive area on an otherwise responsive site is the application site. Countering this, there has been a lot more activity in social media: LinkedIn, of course, and now Glassdoor.

  • Internal search engines were rubbish in 2007. They still are. This despite promised advances in artificial intelligence and a fashion (beware that word) to put a big 'What do you want to do today?' search box on the home page. Unless the underlying technology makes the engine work better, that seems unwise.

  • Interactivity has made relatively little progress, I think because the sort of simple activity that works well on the web was as doable 10 years ago as it is now. BP had a carbon footprint calculator 10 years ago; it still has one. The difference is that then it was on the main site; now it is only on a microsite. Faster internet speeds have encouraged more use of video, but large companies wanting to be loved in the narrowband as well as the broadband world have been careful not to become reliant on them.

  • The recent fashion for storytelling is really nothing new. But of course that goes back well before 2007 - way way before the internet.

And if you want to see a company that has moved sideways - or, depending on your point of view, backwards, have a look at the Royal Bank of Canada site. Here it is in 2007, and now. Can you tell which is which?

- David Bowen

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:

The masters of the internet get confused

Cisco used to have the best service for journalists we knew. It doesn't any more. David Bowen wonders what has happened

When the first Bowen Craggs Index came out 10 years ago, one of the stars we identified was Cisco, and specifically the sophisticated way its served the media. I wrote this in the Financial Times: ‘The Cisco Newsroom goes well beyond information provision: podcasts, videos and blogs are used to engage the company’s media audience. It would not be right for all companies, but if your audience is high tech, serve it in a high tech way.’

As Cisco and the internet have fed each other like symbiotic lovers, it is not surprising that it knew how to use it so well. It also knew its journalistic audience – unlike other trade journalists, those in in IT are often as expert as the companies they cover. So it was that in our 2014 review of the site we gave it 11 out of 12 for its press release service, calling it ‘an exceptional and powerful resource’.

We’ve been looking at it again, to update our database. And oh dear, what has happened? Cisco’s online newsroom has, in brief, lost it. It still has mass of useful and well-written material,but if it had taken a decision to make it as hard to use as possible, it could hardly have done a better job. It's strange because, well Cisco is Cisco and should know better.

Like most US sites – and all the US IT sites we know of – is not one site: it's a collection of many sites with light (to put it mildly) central control. For which you could read ‘governance hard to detect, even with a microscope’.

But it has always been like that and, as long as you don’t mind scrolling to the bottom of the home page, you will find your way to the Newsroom site, which is called ‘the network’.

The best way of seeing why we used to like the Newsroom so much is to go to a bit of it that hasn’t changed. Mouse over ‘regions’ in the main menu and select one of the choices – networks from the three regions (it uses acronyms, but essentially these are America, Europe Middle East, and Asia Pacific).  Take the EMEAR one (Europe, Middle East and Russia). This includes 1,900 ‘recent announcements’, with a menu across the top allowing filter by media type (press releases, featured stories, blogs, videos etc), and a left menu that allows filtering by topic (corporate news, social media, internet of everything etc), industry, and solutions (cloud, security etc).

There are weaknesses – most particularly a lack of date filters – but it makes it very easy to find what you want - for example press releases on digitization, or features on healthcare.

Now, come back to the main network by clicking ‘Corporate network’. Instead of all those  options, there are now seven links across the top, including digitization, innovation, press releases, and corporate.  Most have sub-links, with digitization having nine topics. This causes a problem by mixing apples and pears. You can find press releases or digitization, but not press releases on digitization. After some experimentaion I discovered it’s possible to select media types – videos and blogs etc – by clicking labels on the home page, but again you can’t use them to filter. So no videos on ‘video’ (a sub-section of digitization), which would be pleasing. Nor can you can filter by industry or solution, as you can on the regional sites.

But this is just the start of the strangeness. Journalists do not want to see only new news. They want to see old news too, because that is how they get background. Yet if you click press releases, you see only the last 25; click any of the topics under ‘digitization’, and you see the last 10. What do you do if you want to see anything older? Well, I found two possibilities – one is to go to a regional site, the other is to do a search, which does have an archive and also allows you to choose by media type; but it doesn’t cover regional items, and is not great for browsing topics. 

Coming back to the (lack of) governance thing, the different experiences you get as you click around make the site a box of surprises. That could be fun, but if you're a journalist in a hurry, it might not be. For example:

  • While most links under ‘digitization’ lead to a simple list of stories, ‘country digitization’ leads to a rather flashy microsite. Lovely, but confusing.

  • Click ‘corporate’, scroll to click Investor relations, and you are in a quite different site, rather old-fashioned. Now click Corporate governance, Executive officers, then John T Chambers - and you will find yourself back on the Newsroom site. Just confusing.

More worrying, some excellent material is not where it should be. By chance we found a really interesting piece on ‘How Internet of Things and technology are shaping homes of the future’. It was written less than a month ago, on 26 January, but it isn’t in the list under Internet of Things (part of 'digitization'). 

I have no idea why Cisco has decided to make its news service so much worse – perhaps it's all to do with the rush to minimalism, as so much is. What it needs is for someone to look at the newsroom, and indeed the whole of, and to ask themselves 'Now, what do we need to do to make this work properly?’ But I doubt that someone exists – and it's hard to do governance without a governor. 

- David Bowen






Best of the best

The depths of the Bowen Craggs Database hide some marvels that can help us all. David Bowen goes digging.

I have been doing some ‘data mining’ of the Bowen Craggs database to find things that are well done, but that may – unless you too go digging in the Database – never come into your view. I call these nuggets the best of the best, but I don’t want to get into arguments about them. They may or may not be the very best, but they are all jolly good.

The choice is fairly random. They are all specific, but have lessons that go beyond their immediate purpose. They are, in other words, designed to provide a little stimulation as you wonder what to do with your lovely corporate website. I could easily go into the Database and find another selection. And these are all from websites; social media could (and probably will) provide another crop.

 Best history timeline

The Walmart Museum website features an attractive timeline exploring the company’s history. It includes embedded videos, links to beautifully designed 'exhibition' pages that draw on artefacts that are preserved in the physical museum in Arkansas, and 360-degree images, including one of founder Sam Walton's office. An excellent example of the internet helping to bring a story to life.

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Best whistleblowing site

Maersk's whistleblowing website is unusually (and helpfully) signposted on the main site. It is not run by Maersk, to provide independence, but has a simple and effective design with instructions on how to blow the whistle on the company online or by phone. A lesson in how to be open, and be seen to be open.

Best sustainability contacts

As part of the company’s CSR service, Henkel has a page with 10 named contacts. Each individual is identified with a headshot, job title, location, direct phone number (also available via Skype), direct email and downloadable business card. This may seem obscure, but it is a neat way of showing how much emphasis the company gives to CSR.

Best location information for jobseekers

Google's Our locations feature includes a comprehensive map-based directory of all Google locations globally. It includes spotlight pages for key office locations such as New York, London and the global HQ in Mountain View. A simple photo carousel is the centrepiece of the spotlight features - inexpensive and highly effective in terms of letting jobseekers see behind the scenes. A rather obvious way to attract employees, but still rare.

Best investor webcasts

Video webcasts are often sophisticated, but few cover the bases as well as Axa does. The first plus point is that you do not need to register to watch a webcast. The video itself gives a batch of useful options, most particularly the ability to browse by slide (fairly common) or ‘chapter’ (rare). So it is easy to jump to bits of the presentation you are interested in, or to the Q&A session. A master class in usability.

Best shareholders FAQs

Commonwealth Bank of Australia has a very clear set of Frequently Asked Questions, mostly aimed at private shareholders. Nothing fancy, just well classified, with a list of questions at the top jumping to the answer down the page. Simple is often best.

Best US careers videos

 The Home Depot’s careers videos range from jolly tours of offices with musical soundtracks to employees talking about themselves. The Vimeo productions are classified by job areas (supply chain, technology, etc) and appear in overlays. The videos use contemporary editing techniques to make working at the company seem exciting and inspiring.

 Best European careers videos

The LVMH 'Talents' section for jobseekers invites users to 'take a glimpse at the daily lives of our employees'. These short fly-on-the-wall films follow a range of activities across the company's brands, ranging from a press team meeting at Paris department store Le Bon Marché to a morning briefing at cosmetics brand Sephora in New York. Unscripted, with no soundtrack other than the sounds of the workplace, these give an unusually immersive glimpse into life within the organization. More sophisticated than Home Depot’s videos, but both are appropriate to their audiences.

Best display of an ice cream stick insertion machine

OK, perhaps I should have called this best product selector mechanism, but I like ice cream.  TetraPak’s ProductXplorer site  has a very clear tabbed system letting you find your way to what you want by 'technology area', 'category' or ‘ice cream specific’ (how could I resist?). Each product page is long but has an index at the top letting you jump to different bits, including features, options, and a neat 360 viewing device. The stick insertion machine looks super. Top use of easy journeys and simple web technology.

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 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, 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

What to do with the poor old media section

The exploding complexity of the media world has left the Cinderella of website sections behind, says David Bowen.

Who do corporate websites serve the best? One way to tell is to look at the Bowen Craggs Index, which is based on a ‘user-centred’ approach. Our reviewers put themselves into the heads of different groups, and see how well they are served: the scores come out of that process.

I’ve extracted averages for each of ‘serving’ metrics in the Database from our top 30 list – that is, the best online communicators among large companies - and have found intriguing differences. The best served group belongs to what we call ‘society’ – a combination of CSR professionals and broader groups interested in the company's behaviour (reputation management would be another way of putting it). They score 24.4 out of 32 on average. Then come investors and jobseekers on 23.1 each, and customers on 22.4.

Bringing up the rear is ‘serving the media’, on a distinctly unimpressive 20.6. If this were a school exam, the media section gets 64 per cent while 'society' gets 76. I’ve done similar sums over the years, and the results are always similar. The media section is too often the Cinderella, and it shows: press releases poorly organized, background information thin, image libraries weak. But journalists are a key to that other thing companies are so good at, reputation management. What’s going on?

It’s surely because the nature of news has been transformed by the internet, but few companies have got their heads round what this really means for them. That, as with so many things, is reflected in their websites: press offices don’t really know what they should be doing, so their web outlets suffer from a lack of clear purpose. 

Traditionally, press officers have concentrated on cultivating a small number of influential journalists with well tried techniques (such as lunch). Many still prefer to do this and it probably still returns maximum results for a set amount of effort. They may have expanded their group of influencers to bloggers or tweeters, but either way the website is not terribly relevant. They do not spend much time helping to get the basics of the media section working smoothly, and it shows.

But I would be libelling them terribly if I claimed they were not very aware of the changes the internet has wrought on their profession. Two changes in particular: the blurring of what a ‘journalist’ is, and the multiple earthquakes caused by social media.

What is a journalist? Is it still a person paid by a publisher to produce words? Does it now include influential bloggers and tweeters? Is it anyone who blogs and tweets? Is it anyone who reads blogs and tweets, and passes them on? Is it everyone (‘there are seven billion journalists’ was once a fashionable line)?  Bringing this back to the press officers - who is it their job to influence?

Every organization has tried to understand social media, and there are signs that some corporations are cracking it: grasping that it is not one thing but many is a key to this, as is getting its huge role of reputation management. But who is in charge of it? Marketing and customer service people jumped on it first; press people leapt at it too, but too often grabbed what they could without asking the simple journalistic questions: why and how? 'Social media dashboards’ appeared, embedded Twitter feeds are still appearing; but I wonder who is using these, and how. Were I still a journalist I would have my own dashboard like Hootsuite, and I’d set it up to follow the people and subjects I needed. I don't think I'd spend too much time looking at social media on corporate sites.

So maybe the targets are broader groups: if not the seven billion, then a congregation of journalists, bloggers, tweeters, ‘concerned consumers’, jobseekers, NGO people, politicians, regulators and so on. This would explain two linked trends. First there is a fashion for giving the old press section a name that is more inclusive: ‘News and features’, News and Insights’ for example. Second, some sites do not provide just the raw material from a which a journalist can start crafting a piece (which is what a press release is), but provide full-formed pieces. ‘The press release is dead’, the head of Coca-Cola’s site declared a few years ago – what he meant was, you don’t need to read a story repackaged by journalists when you can get it beautifully written straight from us. A useful way of thinking of this is wholesale versus retail: with wholesale you give journalists the basic product and let them do it up and sell it in their own shop; with retail you provide perfectly packaged products direct to the consumer. 

Given all these different things, it is hardly surprising that so many media sections are a bit of muddle. The answer, I think, is to untangle them: to straighten out the intertwined strands of spaghetti and lay them neatly next to each other. This can be done, but it requires a change of thinking within the company – as ever it’s about management, not technology.

Here are my suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that ‘traditional’ journalists (perhaps boosted by a few influential bloggers) are not only the most important single group to target, but that they need to be served in a specific way. Keep a traditional press section but make it really useful for these people. Let them check names and dates easily in fully-searchable archive of press releases; give them background material or link to useful pages around your web estate. Maybe management speeches should be here. Include a decent image library. Most important, give them good contacts so that can get in touch at any time of day or night.
  • Acknowledge too that a much broader audience wants to know about your company – our online surveys show surprising numbers of non-journalists saying they are looking for ‘news’. Give it to them in the form of features, soft news articles, interviews – in text, video, audio, graphics, whatever. This is of course what many companies are already doing with online magazines, and they’re doing it well (some, like Coca Cola Journey and the late-departed SAB Miller site, pretty much are magazines with a few bits added).
  • But - and this is the key - separate the two clearly. Getting labels right is crucial. Use a word that says ‘this is for professional journalists’ on the press section – call it press or media. Be even more explicit by calling it ‘For journalists’ (I like this). Don’t include the word ‘news’. The more general material will need a home, and that can be tailored according to need. GSK’s Behind the science is what it says it is; so is Goldman Sachs Our thinking. If it’s a magazine, call it that, as Bayer does.
  • Corporate social media needs to be treated carefully – divided into its different channels, and managed primarily by the same people who run the corporate website. Press officers may be involved, of course, and may even run channels – but only if they understand exactly why they are doing it, and who their audiences are.

What management changes will this need? Well, the press office will run the ‘professional’ bit (along with the digital team of course). Should it also run the softer channels? If not, who will? Who will manage social media? Are press offices as they exist now 'fit for purpose'? Should they be rebranded as reputation management departments?  Do you need a press office at all … the questions have a habit of snowballing. But they need to be answered, or the none of the audiences will be as well served as they should be and corporate websites will continue to underperform badly in our ‘serving the media’ metric.

David Bowen

Fashion and good navigation can work together. Maybe.

Anyone who follows our thoughts will know that we’re not big fans of the current trend towards minimalist navigation on corporate websites. We can see the attraction of clearing left menus out of the way, and for simple sites it’s quite fine – but for more complex ones usability always suffers. Or at least it has everywhere we have looked. Apologies if you’re bored with the whole subject, but there may be a way out.

The trend is overwhelming. A few sites have relaunched in the last couple of years with left nav – BP, Total, NovoNordisk come to mind – but they are many times outnumbered by those that have taken the minimalist route. While we would be quite happy if everyone headed back to menu-land, that isn’t going to happen. So let’s keep looking for a compromise.

We have an expression – the navigation challenge – that is all about finding that compromise. Can anyone create a complex site that mixes top usability with ‘no left nav’ on a full size screen (the sort used by most visitors to corporate sites)? We run tests with realistic journeys. For example a jobseeker in the careers section checking out a company’s environmental credentials and history. Or a financial journalist looking first at quarterly results, then the annual report, then the latest press releases. These require horizontal movement, perhaps deep within the site. And that’s tricky when you have got rid of a nicely visible set of links alongside the page.

A few companies do not acknowledge the problem. ExxonMobil makes you click and scroll like anything, especially in an area like Investors that does not have a dropdown menu. But most make at least some effort to tackle it. Big dropdown panels are the most common technique – the best, as used by Barclays, allow you to drill down into the site; and so by extension move across it when you are already deep in it. But you always have to click again to see the panel, and unless there is a breadcrumb trail as well, you cannot see easily where you are. Shell does have a trail, but the panel only goes down one level, so it is hard to avoid scrolling and scanning to move around. A fashionable spin on this is to have a mobile-style ‘hamburger’ menu to display a panel – though I don’t really understand this as it removes the option of having a different panel for each main link.

Other ideas have surfaced. Daimler uses the hamburger thing, but also changes the top menu as you move from the first to the second level: it could be clever, but I find it more confusing than anything. Qualcomm and ABB both use narrow strips down the left – click on different elements and panels pop out with more options. These look elegant, but have the same disadvantage as dropdown panels – you have to click them each time you want to do something.

Then last week we wrote up a particularly promising one in a BC Tip: Verizon’s ‘triple deck’ approach. Double deck menu bars used to be fairly widespread in the old days, though always in combination with a left menu – they were one way of keeping that menu shorter on a deep site. But the triple decker approach is designed to replace a left menu, and it works pretty well – the top two menus are in view when you are at the second or third level, so you can get around a fair bit without having to open up a new menu. But the third level menu does not stay in place when you are looking at a page down there – see for example the quarterly results page. That’s a drawback.

So can there be an answer to the navigation challenge? I think the Verizon approach could come close, with a bit of modification: keep all decks of the menu in view at lower levels, squeeze them together to free up viewable space. Maybe add a fourth deck. ‘Stick’ the menu to the top of the screen. If the links being used are highlighted, you will have a de facto breadcrumb trail. Then see how easy it is to move around. Of course minimalist purists will scoff because lots of links will be in view. Let them I say: it’s the users I care about.

Not all fashion is bad

We may not like what’s going on in navigation, but a trend we do rather like is for ‘looping videos’, particularly on home pages. They bring gentle life to what can otherwise be rather dull pictures – JK Rowling thought them up for her Daily Prophet newspaper, but here they are flourishing on Muggle websites. We wrote about some of them last year and were not enthusiastic, saying that ‘they can be headache-inducing’. But we were talking then about the very short, and thus inevitably dull, Vine videos – seeing the same thing again every six seconds is likely to have you reaching for an aspirin.

But the new generation videos are longer and subtler, with ‘joins’ that are hard to spot. There are several, stacked, on the home page of Verizon’s corporate site: the drone at the top is fun, though I think the low profile videos of kids in a classroom, or even a lady whose head moves a little, work particularly well. If you want more examples, try TNO, Siemens’ current home page, and Tetrapak’s innovation section. There will surely be more; no aspirin needed. 

David Bowen