Does virtual reality have a role in corporate communications?

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

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

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

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

ExxonMobil

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

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

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

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

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

But there three drawbacks to ExxonMobil’s VR effort:

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

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

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

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

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

Dong Energy

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

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

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

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

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

Dong's VR tour of a wind turbine on YouTube

Dong's VR tour of a wind turbine on YouTube

Commonwealth Bank of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Scott Payton

 

 

 

Exxon in Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, the detailed problems I came across were:

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

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

- David Bowen

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

Does 'what you do' drive your visitors to Wikipedia?

Here is a challenge: read the following description of a mystery company (identified below), which is taken from the About Us section of its corporate website, and then try to guess any facts about it - name, industry or what it does to make money:

‘Information revolution – happiness for everyone. Becoming the corporate group needed by most people around the world.’

Does that clear it up? The section continues:

‘We're looking to the next thirty years and beyond with a vision for innovation and growth. Since its establishment, (company x) has consistently operated under the vision of becoming a company contributing to people's happiness and joy, and to the future of the world, not only pursuing the profit of the company. This vision is a driving force for (company x) as we continue to pursue growth.

Still stumped?

It’s SoftBank, a company that may indeed provide happiness and joy, but the main thing it does is run mobile and broadband networks. I learned this not from their website but from Wikipedia: ‘SoftBank Group Corp. is a Japanese multinational telecommunications and Internet corporation… It has operations in broadband, fixed-line telecommunications, e-ecommerce, internet, technology services, finance, media and marketing, semiconductor design, and other businesses.’

I often find myself on Wikipedia, frustrated at how bad some corporate websites are at answering the simple question, ‘Who are you and what do you do?’ The case of SoftBank is doubly awful because the clearer Wikipedia description actually cites the SoftBank website as one of its sources. Wikipedia manages to cobble together a useful description from facts scattered around the site, something the company was unable to do for itself.

If I’m frustrated, how many more audiences – actually important ones such as journalists, jobseekers, investors – are getting a bad first impression and grumbling as they leave the site to get a meaningful overview elsewhere?

Few company descriptions match SoftBank for sheer impenetrability. Most bad ones fail less spectacularly – being merely vague or using too much marketing speak.

For example, AbbVie: ‘At AbbVie, we have the expertise of a proven pharmaceutical leader and the focus and passion of an entrepreneur and innovator. The result is something rare in health care today – a global biopharmaceutical company that has the ability to discover and advance innovative therapies and meet the health needs of people and societies around the globe.’

OK, but if I were a journalist I would probably head to Wikipedia to fill in a few details.

The word ‘leading’ crops up a lot. Meaningless without context, it almost always begs the question, leading what? And according to what criteria? For example, on Schlumberger’s site, ‘leading’ mars an otherwise clear description – ‘Schlumberger is the world's leading provider of technology for reservoir characterization, drilling, production, and processing to the oil and gas industry.’

Or AB InBev, ‘We are the leading global brewer and one of the world's top 5 consumer product companies.’

Better to just state exactly what the company is ‘leading’ (if it actually is leading anything) – biggest market share, highest market cap, most revenues, etc. Such as ExxonMobil: ‘ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, uses technology and innovation to help meet the world’s growing energy needs.’ Specific and clear.

Some companies make the mistake of letting an internal change - a reorganization, strategy reset or the dreaded brand refresh – dictate how the company describes itself to the outside world. These can result in descriptions steeped in mystery, and not in a good way.

The GE corporate website, for example, on its home page, says it is ‘The world’s premier digital industrial company: Transforming industry by connecting the physical and digital.

Sensing, predicting, and responding to make the world work better.’

Clicking around, I could not find a simple overview of the business – sector, lines of business, revenues, market position, number of employees, number of countries of operation, a sense of the competitive landscape, etc.

Meanwhile, on Wikipedia: ‘General Electric (GE) is an American multinational conglomerate corporation incorporated in New York, and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. As of 2016, the company operates through the following segments: Power & Water, Oil and Gas, Aviation, Healthcare, Transportation and Capital which cater to the needs of Financial services, Medical devices, Life Sciences, Pharmaceutical, Automotive, Software Development and Engineering industries.’

There is a ‘Who we are’ section hidden away under the ‘Digital’ section of the GE website, but this turns out to be a description of GE Digital, which is a parody of corporate waffle, starting with a quote from the CEO: ‘If you went to bed last night as an industrial company, you’re going to wake up this morning as a software and analytics company’ and gets worse as you scroll down the page.

Maybe GE thought it was too complex to describe succinctly and factually?

Except that Siemens and BASF, two companies of similar complexity, manage it.

Here is Siemens: ‘Siemens is a global powerhouse focusing on the areas of electrification, automation and digitalization. One of the world’s largest producers of energy-efficient, resource-saving technologies, Siemens is a leading supplier of systems for power generation and transmission as well as medical diagnosis. In infrastructure and industry solutions the company plays a pioneering role. As of September 30, 2015, we had around 348,000 employees in more than 200 countries. In fiscal 2015, they generated revenues of €75.6 billion.

No need to elsewhere after that.

BASF starts unpromisingly with a slogan but then moves quickly into useful facts and detail, and succeeds in staying on the right side of the line between useful facts and sloganeering.

‘We create chemistry for a sustainable future: In line with our corporate purpose, around 112,000 employees contribute to the success of our customers in nearly all sectors and almost every country in the world. Our broad portfolio ranges from chemicals, plastics, performance products and crop protection products to oil and gas. In 2015, BASF posted sales of €70 billion and income from operations before special items of approximately €6.7 billion…’

One of the rules of political campaigning is ‘don’t let your opponent define you’. A similar principle applies to corporate online messaging – describing who you are and what you do should be a fundamental task. The most effective descriptions will be immediately clear to someone who does not work at the company and may have only just heard of it. Forcing visitors to go elsewhere needlessly surrenders control of the message and diminishes a company’s credibility.

Jason Sumner

If you pay your taxes, why not shout about it?

I can't see how the tax spat between Apple and the European Commission is going to leave either side looking especially pretty, but it does show that tax payments are now a big issue. One perhaps that companies that pay up like good boys could exploit? 

The Financial Times carried a story yesterday headed  'Only one in five large large companies in the UK say tax avoidance is acceptable'. Why? Well, some top managers must actually think their employers should pay their taxes; and many more think the risks of avoidance outweigh the benefits. Either way, it's a matter both of reputation management and of its virtuous cousin, social responsibility. Two things for the corporate site, surely.

I started looking around to see what big companies were doing. I began with Apple, and yes, its European home pages link to a compelling letter from Tim Cook explaining why it is Right and the Commission is Wrong. Good reputation management, but there's nothing else I could find on Apple sites about tax. It is not being, to use one my least favourite words, proactive.

I wondered what other companeis were doing, and found a fair bit - but none of it is presented as effectively as it could have been. For example:

  • ExxonMobil, according to Forbes the biggest US payer of tax, has a 'US tax and payments' page under Current Issues. Easy to find from the dropdown menu, but it is very out of date - the headline talks about 2012 payments. Almost embarrassing.
  • Barclays produces an excellent PDF 'Country snapshot', giving a clear breakdown of where and how tax has been paid. You can reach it from this page. But the title gives no clue that it is about tax, and it is well and truly buried in the Reports and Publications bit of the Citizenship section on Barclays.com. It's almost as though the bank doesn't want people to find it; odd. 
  • Shell has a page in its Sustainability report called Tax and transparency. Clearly written, but actually rather light on facts (certainly compared to Barclays), and again well buried - it's in the Working together section. Who'd have guessed to look there?

If all this had been put somewhere more obvious - and in the case of ExxonMobil brought up to date - it would be powerful stuff. 'We are decent' is, we are always being told, one of the most important message to get across to potential employees, shareholders, even customers. So if you are, why not shout about it?

David Bowen


The wisdom of fools

'Make navigation joyfully surprising' is the first tip from Nielsen Norman's Kara Pernice's latest post. She works for Jakob Nielsen, so she knows what she's talking about. 'A challenging and unexpected navigation will exercise users' detective skills and thus train their working memory'. So that's it, I realised, that is why so many sites make visitors play hide and seek ...  sites like ExxonMobil and Visa USA giving the little grey cells, and indeed fingers, so much practice scrolling and down and guessing where to click.

Plenty more ideas from Kara here: Use walls of text to encourage users to read more, make users go deeper into the site. Yes, yes, yes, all brilliant - it's a shame she loses the plot in the posts she writes when it isn't April 1st.

David Bowen