Cracking contact

Rich contact information can please website visitors and boost a company’s reputation for transparency. Scott Payton visits eight corporate sites that make it exceptionally easy to get in touch. 

Almost every company wants to convey the impression that it’s open to questions from the outside world. But when it comes to the contact provisions on their corporate websites, many firms are inadvertently saying to visitors: ‘please go away’. 

Here are eight examples of companies that send a powerful message of openness by making it particularly simple for customers, investors, journalists and other audiences to make contact:

Vinci and Total – slick social contacts

Many journalists are heavy users of Twitter. So it makes sense to put press officers’ Twitter handles on the press contacts page, alongside the usual phone numbers and email addresses. French construction group Vinci has done this on its rich and easy to find ‘Media contacts’ page. Vinci also includes links to the LinkedIn profiles of each of its four press officers – as well as its two investor relations officers. The inclusion of IR contacts on the Media contacts page is in itself thoughtful touch. 

Vinci’s Media contacts page includes links to press officers’ Twitter and LinkedIn profiles

Vinci’s Media contacts page includes links to press officers’ Twitter and LinkedIn profiles

Another French corporate giant, energy group Total, also provides unusual social signposts on its global site: a social media directory in the Media section contains a prominent link to the chief executive’s ‘influencer profile’ on LinkedIn. While not a ‘contact’ channel as such, it’s still an effective way of conveying the impression that the CEO is keen to ‘connect’ with external audiences. 

A social media directory on Total’s global site includes a link to the CEO’s LinkedIn ‘influencer profile’

A social media directory on Total’s global site includes a link to the CEO’s LinkedIn ‘influencer profile’

TNO and KPMG – excellent expert directories

Dutch research organization TNO has a search tool on its global website that allows users to find the contact details of all of its researchers as well as other employees. A set of filters in the left column allows users to search for people by theme – such as ‘Traffic & Transport’ and ‘Information & Communication Technology’ – and by function, including press and human resources. 

Details for each employee include a photo – which itself sends a message of openness – as well as phone number, email and sometimes LinkedIn profile. 

In the Careers section of TNO’s site, there are big panels containing further contact details for relevant HR contacts for jobseekers. Here’s an example.

The impression all this creates is of an extremely open and accessible organization that is confident about engaging with the outside world.

TNO’s on-site employee directory houses a wealth of contact information

TNO’s on-site employee directory houses a wealth of contact information

Another ‘knowledge’-focused organization, Dutch professional services firm KPMG, also makes it usually easy for website visitors to find the contact details of a relevant in-house expert. On the ‘Contact’ page of KPMG’s global site, a simple set of dropdown menus invites users to drill down by country, then service (audit, advisory, etc), and industry.  The names and titles of relevant contacts then appear, with links to an email form for each, plus signposts to deeper contact pages for each expert, housing biography, phone number and other useful information. 

Overall, it’s a powerful tool for pulling in potential customers – and also shows off the depth and breadth of KPMG’s expertise to all audiences.

KPMG’s global site has a Contact page with a powerful tool for finding contact details for a relevant expert (bottom-right panel in screenshot above)

KPMG’s global site has a Contact page with a powerful tool for finding contact details for a relevant expert (bottom-right panel in screenshot above)

Henkel, Swiss Re and Hannover Re – superb CSR contacts

It’s pretty conventional for companies to provide detailed press and IR contacts on their corporate sites. Less so for CSR contacts: a generic email address at the back of the CSR report is too often the only relevant contact point provided.

In contrast, German chemical and consumer goods company Henkel provides a prominently signposted ‘Sustainability Contacts’ page with full contact details for no less than 10 CSR contacts, plus three further contacts at Henkel’s foundations. 

Henkel’s CSR contact details are exceptionally comprehensive

Henkel’s CSR contact details are exceptionally comprehensive

As we pointed out in a recent BC Tip, Zurich-based reinsurance firm Swiss Re also peppers its global site’s Corporate responsibility section with CSR contact information.

Meanwhile, Swiss Re’s German peer Hannover Re has a dedicated CSR contacts page, with phone, fax and web form contact details for four relevant people in the firm (in corporate communications and investor relations).

Again, such prominent and detailed contact information isn’t just useful to visitors; it also conveys a message of openness.

GSK – comprehensive contact hub

A common weakness on corporate sites’ main contact pages is a failure to cater for all key audiences. Jobseekers – often the largest visitor group on such sites – are often forgotten, for example. So are groups such as partners and suppliers. 

UK pharmaceuticals company GSK’s easy to find ‘Contact us’ page stands out for its thoroughness.

The page has clear routes to global and local contact information for a wealth of audience groups – including partners and suppliers as well as jobseekers, patients, potential whistle-blowers, and others. Links to GSK’s presence on Facebook and Twitter are also included on the page – which makes sense, because these are contact points, too. 

Finally, GSK’s main contact page also includes signposts to other parts of the company’s web estate in which visitors will find answers to common queries – such as how and where to apply for a job. Helping visitors to help themselves in this way pays dividends on a corporate site’s contacts page – because it can free up time and resources for answering trickier questions manually.  


GSK’s global site has an unusually comprehensive main contact page

GSK’s global site has an unusually comprehensive main contact page

-      By Scott Payton

Look out for the new Explain Yourself Index 2019 - US Edition, to be published on February 13th.
The Explain Yourself Index is the world’s most rigorous assessment of companies’ use of online channels to explain who they are, what they do – and why they are a force for good in the world. For more information and to be sent a copy of the research when it is published, contact Dan Drury ddrury@bowencraggs.com.

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

Is personalisation tailored to a corporate website’s needs?

Personalisation on corporate sites is not new. But it is currently very fashionable, with software vendors pushing their tailoring technology hard. Should web managers believe the hype? Scott Payton offers five points to consider


Remember: you’re not Netflix

It’s no coincidence that the most costly and complex personalisation techniques have been developed by the giants of online selling, entertainment and social media. This is because personalisation holds much greater potential in these areas – ‘Products recommended for you’, ‘TV shows we think you’ll like’, ‘People you may know’ and so on – than on a ‘standard’ corporate website. 

I’m not saying that personalisation has no role on a corporate site. But – despite the software sales patter – it’s likely to have a relatively limited one.

It’s also important to remember that Amazon and Netflix spend millions of dollars developing bespoke personalisation techniques tailored to their business models. For now, off-the-shelf personalisation tools are in practice far cruder in comparison.  

Another big difference with corporate sites is lack of data to work with. The likes of Amazon, Netflix and Facebook can harvest a steady stream of data from their (frequent, account-holding) users. In contrast, as Bowen Craggs’ Web Analytics Benchmark data shows, the majority of a typical corporate website’s users only visit once or twice a year. 

So the first step in sizing up if and how to personalise your site is to find out which audiences (if any) visit regularly, and focus your efforts on those groups. 

Jobseekers are an exception to this ‘data desert’ problem. By inviting these people to log in to your Careers section via their LinkedIn account, it is possible to tailor vacancy and other information – because LinkedIn gives you access to a ready-made pot of personal data. See this BC Tip on BlackRock’s careers site for an example.

Meanwhile, some web managers are working hard to encourage other audiences to visit their site more regularly. KPMG, for example, now entices visitors to create a user account in return for access to a personalised ‘dashboard’ of articles and other material matching their interests. It’s an unusually sophisticated experiment in corporate site personalisation that will be worth watching during the coming months. 

KPMG is experimenting with personalisation that is unusually sophisticated for a corporate website

KPMG is experimenting with personalisation that is unusually sophisticated for a corporate website

Be transparent

There is an expanding, murky world of ‘hidden’ online marketing personalisation. Indeed, a growing number of companies are personalising marketing banners on their corporate websites – based on the visitor’s cookies or IP address, for example – in ways that are invisible to the user. 

But if you’re going to personalise things like product and article recommendations on your site, it’s best to make it clear to visitors both how you’re personalising information, and the value of this to them. 

This is one aspect of personalisation in which Amazon and co offer relevant lessons for corporate web mangers:

‘Recommended products’ is not nearly as useful a heading as ‘Customers who purchased this item also bought this product’. 

If you tell visitors how and why you’ve personalised information, it gives them the context they need to make the best use of it – as well as conveying an impression of openness and transparency about how and why their personal data is being used. This last point is increasingly important from a reputation management perspective.  


Personalisation is no substitute for good navigation

Logical, comprehensive and intuitive navigation menus can be complemented by personalised links – they can’t be replaced by them. Why? 

First, one-off visitors, and those with private browsing mode switched on, simply won’t get your personalised material. 

Second, Bowen Craggs’ website visitor research shows that people come to websites for a myriad of reasons – and often want to visit multiple sections. On a corporate site (rather than, perhaps, a selling site), it’s vital to give these users the opportunity to go on their esoteric, serendipitous journeys as they see fit, rather than to force them down pre-set routes based on what you think they will want.

One more reason not to make your website too reliant on personalisation functionality: doing so could pose a big problem in future if regulators, web browser makers or others change their approaches to use of personal data.


Beware of filter bubbles

Related to the above point, overzealous personalisation can be downright counter-productive. Just as personalisation in the world of online news can push people into cultural and political echo chambers, personalisation on a corporate site risks making potentially useful messages and information less visible – or even invisible - to some visitors.

At Bowen Craggs, we’re big fans of related links. But that is partly because they’re a mechanism for ‘cross-selling’ to visitors things or information that they not only didn’t know about, but also didn’t think they wanted to know about. That’s very different from the principle of personalised links, which is to try to second-guess what a visitor might also want.

Vigorous personalisation can also make users feel robbed of their sense of free will. I have a colleague who is infuriated with a new BBC app because it insists on showing him only radio programmes that it thinks he would like, rather than allowing him to browse the full range of output on offer. 


Make sure it’s useful – and not broken

The last two decades are littered with failed attempts to personalise corporate websites. 

In some cases, this was because the personalisation simply didn’t work properly. One corporate site’s Careers section once offered me ‘tailored vacancy information’ that focused on US military veteran postings. I am neither an American nor a military veteran. 

Another site once invited investor relations section visitors to ‘tailor your experience to your needs’. Few visitors wanted to make a ‘tailored experience’: they just wanted to get results data as quickly as possible. 

Yet another site recently experimented with tailoring a product-related primary navigation menu link based on the visitor’s browsing history. It was soon abandoned: it was not made clear to visitors when and why the primary menu changed, increasing confusion rather than convenience. 

Indeed, perhaps the biggest lesson in the history of corporate site personalisation is that bad personalisation is far worse than no personalisation at all. 

 - Scott Payton

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Thin and anti-social: the state of world leaders' websites

Disappearing social channels, shrinking background information, crumbling navigation and an unhealthy focus on press releases... Scott Payton finds evidence of decline on five G7 leaders' websites.
 

Back in March 2015 we toured the official websites of each of the G7 leaders in search of ideas for corporate digital managers. We found much variety and some useful lessons

There’s been a change at the political top in five G7 countries since then. Has this brought fresh approaches to their online communications? We revisited to find out – and spotted four trends:

  • A marked drop in social media activity on most country leaders’ official websites. Use of social channels by political leaders might have become more prevalent – and has certainly become more contentious – in the last few years. But this has become much less visible on their web presences.

  • A deterioration in navigation: it’s generally harder to find key information and easier to get lost on all five of the sites we revisited.

  • A paring back of ‘About us’ information: students and others researching the roles of political leaders and their offices are more poorly served by these sites today than three years ago. The White House site has the richest policy and process material of the five sites we looked at – with the UK prime minister’s office providing the thinnest. [European readers are invited to insert their own Brexit joke here.]

  • A tightened focus on news: all five of the G7 leaders’ sites we revisited are more fixated than ever on bypassing the traditional media to convey the latest speeches and press releases to the general public. Expanding this role of the site has, however, come at a cost to others.

For corporate web managers, the sites discussed below are worth visiting to gather ideas on conveying news to generalist audiences. But in many respects, the best corporate websites now dramatically outclass these public sector counterparts. 

The White House

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 14.23.30.png

During the Obama administration, the White House website was awash with tools and materials designed to get citizens ‘involved’ – from signing petitions to sharing videos and infographics carefully designed to ‘go viral’. We wrote approvingly about all this in January 2013.

Revisiting in September 2018, it’s a very different site. Attempts to encourage citizens to engage have been substantially scaled back. There is no longer a ‘Social Hub’, ‘Engage’ page or ‘Participate’ main menu link.

There is a link labelled ‘Get Involved’, hidden behind a hamburger menu (poor practice in desktop mode of a site), and in the footer. This leads to a page offering just three options to engage – sign up to email updates, write to the President or apply for an internship or fellowship.

Social media integration is limited to a panel showing a recent @whitehouse tweet on the home page, links to the President’s and other officials’ Twitter feeds on biography pages, plus standard footer icons linking to the official White House Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram account. 

The primary navigation menu consists of five policy topics – Economy, National Security, Budget, Immigration and The Opioid Crisis. On click, each leads to brief introductory material on the topic, followed by a list of links to related statements, fact sheets and other information. It is a simple approach – but clear, intuitive and far more informative (if uncompromisingly partisan) than equivalent material on the four other sites we revisited. 

Information about the White House itself has been stripped back, too: an elaborate multimedia tour has been removed, for example. 

Site layout is clean and clear, and users who take the time to dig into the site will find some useful information on various executive offices and the people who run them.

Navigation and orientation provisions are very poor, however: it is hard to work out what each section contains, and to keep track of where you are within them. 

Office of the Canadian prime minister

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Justin Trudeau may share little common political ground with Donald Trump, but his official website is also less ‘social’ than his predecessor’s. 

There is no longer any signs of ‘24 Seven’, an ‘online magazine that publishes shareable content’, which used to be a key part of the Canadian prime minister’s site. 

Like the Trump-era White House site, the official Trudeau web presence has been simplified and decluttered – though an embedded @CanadianPM Twitter feed features prominently in all key sections.

While policy topics dominate the White House site’s primary navigation menu, there are few signs of them at all on Justin Trudeau’s site. The focus, instead, is on news and photos. Visitors looking for information about the role of the Canadian prime minister and his offices will be disappointed, too: there is good biography information but little else. 

The Élysée Palace

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 14.24.15.png

The online home of the French Presidency is far more ‘social’ than its US and Canadian counterparts. Indeed, before users can reach the site’s home page they are urged to ‘Like’ the official Facebook page. 

The home page itself is dominated by a grid of videos, images and other materials designed to be shared on Twitter and Facebook. ‘Social Networks’ is a primary menu link. ‘Share’ icons are festooned across the News landing page and elsewhere. 

Policy topics get far less prominence than on the White House site. And although the home page was full of fresh material during our September 2018 visits, there were signs elsewhere of serious neglect: the ‘Social Networks’ landing page contained just four tweets – all from May last year.  

And like the White House site, navigation is weak. For example, a substantial but poorly presented section providing information on the role of the French Presidency appears to sit entirely outside the primary section structure of the site. 

Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street

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As in our previous visits three and a half years ago, the UK Prime Minister’s office does not have its own website. Instead, it occupies a tertiary-level section of Gov.uk, the UK government’s comprehensively consolidated website. 

This remains a serious drawback. Gov.uk is designed to make it easy to find and fill out government forms, pay bills and complete other linear tasks. It does this very well. But the site is not designed to house editorially or visually rich information, or to make it easy for users to jump between different categories of material deeper in the site. Moreover, some parts of the Prime Minister’s office section are astonishingly thin: the ‘About us’ area consists of just one paragraph, for example.

Office of the President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic

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The online presence of the Italian presidency has improved since early 2015 – though problems remain. An extremely dated site has been replaced with a modern offering that takes its visual cues from online magazines. 

Like the other sites discussed above, it suffers, however, from confusing navigation: key links are buried behind a hamburger menu even in desktop mode, and the news-focused home page is full of baffling icons that are anything but self-explanatory.

And like most of the other G7 leaders’ sites, social media integration is minimal. The priority, once again, seems to be to broadcast news directly to citizens, without journalists or social media users getting in the way. 

- Scott Payton

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

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

 

 

 

Who's top for what in the 2018 Bowen Craggs Index?

Scott Payton looks beyond the overall top-scorers to reveal the world's best companies in specific areas of online corporate communications.
 

Last week we published our latest ranking of the globe's top 30 large companies for online communications – the 2018 Bowen Craggs Index. (See also a Forbes magazine story on the Index results).

To produce this list, we spent thousands of hours analysing the online estates of more than 200 of the biggest multinational companies – and wrote up best practice every time we found it. 

Subscribers to our database can learn from everything we've discovered across eight metrics and 26 sub-metrics. 

But here are the companies that came top in each of the eight key areas that we examine. Interestingly, the very best firms in some aspects of online communications are outside the overall top 30. 

Best for 'construction' (covering navigation; user orientation; web and social media integration; internal search; and web visibility)

Top-scoring company: BP

BP's global website is most notable for its excellent usability, which comes largely from a refusal to drop left menus. This makes BP’s site much easier to use than most other corporate sites, with no real loss in visual appeal.

BP's global website is most notable for its excellent usability, which comes largely from a refusal to drop left menus. This makes BP’s site much easier to use than most other corporate sites, with no real loss in visual appeal.

Best for 'message' (covering strength of the home page; visual impact; internationalism and company information)

Top-scoring company: Maersk

Maersk's global site continues to set standards in design. It is also editorially rich, with good use of 'stories' to convey key corporate messages.

Maersk's global site continues to set standards in design. It is also editorially rich, with good use of 'stories' to convey key corporate messages.

Best for contact provisions

Top-scoring companies: Eni, GSK, Nestlé

Eni has made an already strong Contacts page stronger through design enhancements and new options for key stakeholder groups. The company's ambitious Ask Now search facility appears to perform well as a substitute for conventional FAQs, though there are caveats.

Eni has made an already strong Contacts page stronger through design enhancements and new options for key stakeholder groups. The company's ambitious Ask Now search facility appears to perform well as a substitute for conventional FAQs, though there are caveats.

GSK - the top company overall in the 2018 Bowen Craggs Index - has a model global 'Contact us' page. It features clear language and comprehensive signposts, including simple but significant links to Facebook and Twitter.

GSK - the top company overall in the 2018 Bowen Craggs Index - has a model global 'Contact us' page. It features clear language and comprehensive signposts, including simple but significant links to Facebook and Twitter.

Nestlé continues to sharpen its approach to handling stakeholder contact, both on its main website and on social media. Contact options are unusually prominent thanks to boldly colourful signposts throughout the site, signalling openness to dialogue (and perhaps helping to change people's perceptions of a company many people once considered to be secretive).

Nestlé continues to sharpen its approach to handling stakeholder contact, both on its main website and on social media. Contact options are unusually prominent thanks to boldly colourful signposts throughout the site, signalling openness to dialogue (and perhaps helping to change people's perceptions of a company many people once considered to be secretive).

Best for 'serving society' (covering corporate governance; service for CSR professionals; and building a reputation for responsibility)

Top-scoring company: Nestlé

As well as providing invitingly presented, comprehensive governance information and extensive CSR reporting data, Nestlé openly and energetically addresses controversies and criticisms on its global website, most notably via the Ask Nestlé primary section.

As well as providing invitingly presented, comprehensive governance information and extensive CSR reporting data, Nestlé openly and energetically addresses controversies and criticisms on its global website, most notably via the Ask Nestlé primary section.

Best for serving investors 

Top-scoring company: Shell

Shell's recently redesigned Investors section houses exceptionally rich materials covering not just financial results, but all aspects of the business in which investors and analysts are likely to be interested, from major projects to company strategy.

Shell's recently redesigned Investors section houses exceptionally rich materials covering not just financial results, but all aspects of the business in which investors and analysts are likely to be interested, from major projects to company strategy.

Best for serving the media 

Top-scoring company: Starbucks

Weaknesses elsewhere on Starbucks' online estate pull it significantly short of our overall top 30. But its online provisions for journalists shine. Powerful press release search tools; comprehensive, regularly updated fact sheets; and an exceptionally deep image library are among the stand-out features.

Weaknesses elsewhere on Starbucks' online estate pull it significantly short of our overall top 30. But its online provisions for journalists shine. Powerful press release search tools; comprehensive, regularly updated fact sheets; and an exceptionally deep image library are among the stand-out features.

Best for serving jobseekers 

Top-scoring companies: BNP Paribas, Google, GSK, Verizon

Like Starbucks, BNP Paribas is not in our overall top 30. But it is among the top performers for serving jobseekers. An impressively smooth global job search tool; stylish material that effectively sells the company as workplace; and imaginative use of multimedia are among the highlights.

Like Starbucks, BNP Paribas is not in our overall top 30. But it is among the top performers for serving jobseekers. An impressively smooth global job search tool; stylish material that effectively sells the company as workplace; and imaginative use of multimedia are among the highlights.

Another firm from outside our overall top 30, Google has designed its own job search tool. As one might expect, it's powerful, easy to use and full of clever features.

Another firm from outside our overall top 30, Google has designed its own job search tool. As one might expect, it's powerful, easy to use and full of clever features.

GSK makes excellent use of employee profiles and stories to show jobseekers what working at the company is like. The company's innovative and welcoming new job finder tool attempts to redefine what the corporate job search can look like - mostly successfully.

GSK makes excellent use of employee profiles and stories to show jobseekers what working at the company is like. The company's innovative and welcoming new job finder tool attempts to redefine what the corporate job search can look like - mostly successfully.

Verizon's simple but effective job search tool has a useful and unusual browse feature, which offers candidates a variety of ways to find suitable vacancies. Military recruitment material remains another strength, as does a Locations directory.

Verizon's simple but effective job search tool has a useful and unusual browse feature, which offers candidates a variety of ways to find suitable vacancies. Military recruitment material remains another strength, as does a Locations directory.

Best for serving customers

Top-scoring company: Microsoft

Just outside of our overall top 30, Microsoft is the best of them all for serving customers. Indeed, the company's main website site is all about consumer journeys and the home page offers multiple paths to relevant content. Journeys are smooth and integrated, in marked contrast to corporate journeys. Decision-making materials for customers are also strong, from FAQs to videos, case studies and integrated forums.

Just outside of our overall top 30, Microsoft is the best of them all for serving customers. Indeed, the company's main website site is all about consumer journeys and the home page offers multiple paths to relevant content. Journeys are smooth and integrated, in marked contrast to corporate journeys. Decision-making materials for customers are also strong, from FAQs to videos, case studies and integrated forums.

- Scott Payton

Please visit our website for full results of the Index of Online Excellence 2018, including commentary, lessons from the leaders, best practice and methodology.

Sites that turn heads

Too many corporate websites look eerily similar, says Scott Payton. But there are notable exceptions. 

I spotted a teenager in London on Saturday with this slogan on their T-shirt: ‘The Same is Lame’.

This got me thinking, mildly tragic though it may sound, about corporate websites.

I’m talking about how many of the latest sites look here, rather than things like menu structures. As we’ve often said, when it comes to site navigation, ‘the same’ is not at all ‘lame’: a conventional set of primary and in-section menus is a huge asset in helping visitors to quickly find things without getting lost.

But the opposite is true for visual design. Having a corporate site that looks much like many others undermines attempts to convey a distinctive impression of a business and entice visitors in.

Yet so many major corporates sites launched in the last few years look spookily similar.

Why? A few likely factors:

First, the grid-like structure of sites that employ responsive design – especially the earlier ones – has encouraged a visual sameyness between them.  

Second, it’s probably cheaper and easier for web design agencies to build sites that look homogenous – drawing on their existing repositories of templates and other design elements – than to ensure that each client’s website is visually unique.

Third, it’s perhaps easier for corporate web teams to win bosses’ and other department heads’ sign-off for a site that looks modern, but in a rather ‘vanilla’ way, than for something more aesthetically radical.

Whatever the reasons, there are exceptions that highlight the benefits of a visually distinctive corporate site. Here are five:

Maersk – unfussy fonts and useful graphics

Clean, eye-catching diagrams, an appropriately no-nonsense font (Zetta) and a maritime colour scheme combine to give this Danish transport group’s site a fresh look that effectively conveys an impression of a modern and unique global business.

The diagrams are not just window-dressing; they do an important jobs of explaining the various things that Maersk does. See this Company Structure page for an example.

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AXA – reportage-style photography

Finding interesting imagery to illustrate corporate governance may sound difficult – perhaps impossible. Yet this French insurance group has done it.

On the Stakeholder Advisory Panel page, the company not only talks about the panel – including minutes from its first meeting and a rundown of its members – but also shows the panel in action, through high quality, journalistic photography. This humanises the topic in a way that no amount of description could do.

Meanwhile, the corporate ‘stories’ on AXA's website have the feel of a contemporary online cultural journal, thanks in no small part to the use of photography. There are enough high-quality pictures on most AXA stories to count as a pictorial diary – but they are spread out throughout the piece instead of bunched together in a single carousel. This not only adds visual interest, it also gives visitors an incentive to scroll all the way down the page.

Even visitors who scan the page without really reading it may take away a strong impression of the company (as an employer, especially); concise and intriguing captions help to ensure this.

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Disney – ensuring that absolutely everything is visually ‘on-brand’

This US entertainment giant is renowned for its attention to visual detail. On its corporate site, this includes the look of its share price chart – which employs fonts and colours that are distinctly Disney. The rest of the site is similarly soaked in the company’s iconic imagery – though, as David Bowen explains here, the slick visuals are not matched by slick usability.

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Facebook – making its corporate site look like its core service

While Disney festoons its site with its brand colours and characters, Facebook has ensured that key parts of its corporate web presence – such as its Careers pages and news archive – echo the appearance of its millions of customers’ Facebook pages. The result is a site that looks unique, in a way that powerfully reinforces the company's brand. 

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AstraZeneca – abstract imagery that makes a tangible impression

The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals group makes assured use of original illustrations and semi-abstract photography to make its corporate site stand out while also communicating something very on-message about the highly-specialized nature of the company's work. The artwork references the strange beauty of things the company might see under the microscope in its labs – complemented by bright, distinctive photography.

It's another useful reminder that when it comes to design and visual impact, looking just to the side of conventions and norms can yield memorable – and certainly not lame – results.

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- Scott Payton

 

 

The power of persuasion: Six lessons from the 2017 Web Effectiveness Conference

There was a rich mix of presentations at our annual conference in Barcelona two weeks ago, covering a diverse range of issues facing corporate digital managers. Here, Jason Sumner and Scott Payton share six quick takeaways from the event.
 

In the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing more posts about the event – including insights from usability clinics that delegates participated in and a guest blog from one of our speakers, Tim Clark of SAP.

1. Make sure your boss trusts you (and does not know much about the internet)

Simon Saville, head of Shell’s digital communications from 2000 to 2016, had 11 bosses during his tenure running Shell’s online presence. They were senior, powerful people in the organization who could influence the executive management. Crucially, they knew little about the internet, but trusted Simon. ‘That was a huge benefit to me,’ Simon said. ‘If you could be trusted in your field by your boss, then you could get things done.’

2. Choose your words carefully

A number of this year’s speakers emphasised the power of sharp headlines and punchy prose in online communications. SAP’s ‘brand journalism’ is an example of the trend, helped along by former journalists writing stories for companies. ‘Content is front and centre again,’ said Tim Clark of SAP, who sources articles from the technology company’s nearly 90,000 employees.

‘The sheer power of words is really important,’ said David Bowen, in his review of what has got better on websites in the last year. ‘The quality of editorial is being given a lot more emphasis.’ The best headlines, for example, aim for the unexpected – see tobacco giant PMI’s home page headline, ‘Designing a smoke-free future: How long will the world’s leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business.’

3. Persuading writers takes fewer sticks and more carrots

If ‘content’ is front and centre again, then digital managers will need to recruit writers. A few employees are keen to help, but some of the most interesting stories are in the heads of employees that are a) not professional writers; and b) are too busy with their day jobs to worry about what goes on the website.

Tim from SAP explained how he finds and nurtures gifted writers inside his organization for the production of articles on the company’s presence on Forbes.com, as well as on its own online channels. Tim also urged delegates to focus on publishing articles that are genuinely interesting – even if their relevance to company activities are tangential - rather than falling back on marketing puff pieces, which never fail to fail on Forbes.com.

Scott Roane of Aegon takes an informal, personal approach, contacting potential authors directly, offering encouragement and constructive feedback. With a streamlined approval process, he can sometimes get stories on the web in a matter of hours, which helps motivate contributors.

4. Connect with hearts and minds

Persuasion is an art, according to Lee Warren, a magician and motivational speaker, who closed out the first day. His formula for persuading people, ‘HAM PIE’ (‘Hearts and Minds; Picture. Interest. Enthusiasm’, prioritises emotional connections over cold facts. ‘Data on its own is rarely persuasive.’

5. Use pictures to bring data to life

Proving Lee’s point, Miles Tomlinson from GSK revealed how his team is using data visualisation techniques – charts, diagrams and infographics - to make statistics about the performance of his firm’s online communications easier to digest and more relevant to the goals of people across the business.

6. Keep an eye on the ‘internet of things’

The ‘internet of things’ (IoT), promises to connect everyday objects and machines, such as cars, dishwashers and jet engines, to the internet, allowing them to talk to each other, predict behaviour and collect useful data. While this emerging area is yet to be realised fully at the business-to-consumer level, Michael Schmidtke of Bosch believes it will create ‘new touch points and bring digital communications to the physical world’. As the industry develops, it is worth thinking about how these new ‘smart things’, such as connected cars, could change corporate digital communications. Or, as Michael asked, ‘When things become smart, will our websites stay dumb?’

Investor relations dos and don'ts

Scott Payton answers IR managers' questions about their online communications.

My colleague Dan Drury went to Florida last month to give a presentation at the National Investor Relations Institute’s annual conference. The topic was best practice in online investor communications.

Delegates – IR managers from across the Americas and beyond – asked Dan a lot of good questions, so we thought it would be useful to repeat some here, along with our answers:

‘When it comes to building an IR section, is it wise to hire a vendor offering fancy website services, or are you better off doing it in house?’

Whether you decide to build your IR section in house or via an agency, what’s most important is to keep the management of it tightly under your control. This includes making all the big decisions on how the section is structured; how it looks; and what information and tools it should contain.

Moreover, many investors and analysts are likely to want to venture beyond the IR section to other parts of your corporate site – the About Us and News sections, for example. So it’s important that your IR section is built and managed as a coherent and integral part of your entire online corporate presence – not on its own.

Though it may be hard to avoid if your budget is small, outsourcing your entire online IR presence to a third party without tightly tailoring it to be consistent with the rest of your corporate web estate risks causing problems and frustrations for your IR team, and for the investors and analysts who use it.

‘I’m told that HTML annual reports are very popular among private investors. Is this true?’

Our surveys and interviews strongly suggest that most private investors prefer PDF annual reports to HTML versions. Many private investors tend to read these PDFs on screen rather than printing them out, so adding hyperlinks in the contents page and elsewhere can make PDF reports quicker and easier to use.

HTML reports can make sense if they provide information and tools above and beyond what’s possible to provide in a PDF. This could include video interviews with the CEO, or interactive charting tools. But many companies have concluded that the costs involved in producing this kind of whizzy HTML annual report outweigh the benefits. Indeed, interactive charting tools and video interviews are likely to have a longer shelf life, and reach a wider audience, if they’re put in the IR section itself rather than in an online annual report.

‘Is it a good idea to include financial results call transcripts on the website?’

Yes. Analysts have told us that they appreciate it when companies’ results archives include transcripts of results presentations or calls – because they can quickly scan through them to find what they need without the bother of listening to or watching the webcast.

‘What do you think about offering interactive historical financial data on the website? Is it necessary when this information can be obtained elsewhere?’

Providing interactive data tables and tools in your corporate website’s IR section is indeed likely to be appreciated by sophisticated private investors, who have the expertise to interrogate and interpret such information but lack the access to professional data sources (such as Bloomberg) used by professional investment analysts. Most private investors are unlikely to have the know-how to benefit from such tools, however. So they’re a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’ feature.

 ‘We’re planning to redesign our IR website. The main company site will not change – but it looks dated. How critical is consistency of look and feel between our new IR site and the existing company site if content is consistent?’

First, having a separate IR website rather than an integrated IR section in the main corporate site is not a good idea. It makes journeys between IR material and other types of corporate information in which investors and analysts may be interested intrinsically more fragmented than they could be. Indeed, Bowen Craggs’ extensive website visitor survey data shows that 26% of investors and analysts visiting a corporate site do so to find out about the company, rather than to get financial information (see more on these survey findings in the report mentioned at the end of this article). In light of this, consistency of look, feel and, crucially, navigation as well as content between IR pages and the rest of the corporate web presence is indeed very important.

That said, some companies have built separate IR sites for internal political reasons that are not easily overcome. In these cases, it is particularly important to maintain prominent cross links between the IR site and investor-relevant information on the main site (such as executive biographies and non-financial performance data), so investors and analysts can find and reach everything they need as easily as possible.

‘What is the benefit of embedding investor presentations in SlideShare format compared to merely uploading the slides to the website?’

SlideShare does for slide decks what YouTube does for video. Embedding SlideShare versions of your presentations in your IR section allows investors and analysts to flick through the slide deck directly on the web page, rather than having to download a PDF first. Convenient.

‘Is it worth creating a mobile and tablet investor relations app?’

No. Many companies that have tried this soon discovered that the cost and time involved in maintaining the app far outweighed the benefits the app brings to investors and analysts – especially in cases where the IR section of the website is mobile-friendly anyway.

‘How long do you expect an IR section to last before it needs to be rebuilt?’

The fundamental ingredients of an effective IR section have changed little over the past decade – an aggregated table of results materials; well-signposted IR contact information; jargon-free information for private investors; rich background material for researching analysts; and so on.

But companies have felt the need to rebuild their sites for other, legitimate reasons. For example, the desire to make IR pages, and the rest of a corporate site, mobile friendly has been a big driver for site rebuilds in recent years (much to the delight of web design agencies). Wanting to make a site look visually contemporary, and able to handle embedded video and other multimedia material, has been another motivator.

With all this in mind, an IR section will last for as long as it continues to do a good job of meeting the needs of the fund managers, analysts and private investors you want to communicate with, on the devices they want to use – and continues to allow you transmit the messages about your company that you want to convey to these audiences.

Perhaps the most important thing of all is not how often you rebuild your IR section, but how carefully you maintain what you’ve already got.

Click here to visit the download page for our freshly revised and updated report, ‘Best practice in online investor relations: Lessons from the top companies in the world’.

 - Scott Payton

 

 

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

 

 

 

Voice recognition: is it time for web managers to listen?

Technology that deciphers human speech is fast gaining traction, with Apple, Amazon and Microsoft leading the charge, Scott Payton says. What should web managers be doing now to prepare?
 

It feels like the future has been arriving particularly quickly this year.

The world's first self-driving taxi trial began in Singapore in August.

Sales of 'wearable' and 'smart home' devices like internet-enabled watches, lights and thermostats shot up.

And a slough of (relatively) affordable virtual reality headsets arrived in shops.

But another technology fast gaining traction is more likely to shape the future of corporate websites and, perhaps, transform the way people use them: voice recognition.

Speech-to-text software has been around for years. New Jersey-based Bell Laboratories created the first system, named Audrey, in 1952. Google created its first voice search tool in 2002, and started putting it in apps in 2009. 

The difference today is that such technology is starting to work really well.

I bought an Amazon Echo last weekend – a tube-shaped speech-controlled speaker. It's extraordinary. I reckon that it understands 95% of what I ask – from turning on the dining room light, via changing the radio station, to what £1,000 is in euros (not much).

Like other ‘smart’ devices, the Echo is no longer a just nerdy niche: Amazon is estimated to have sold more than 5 million of them in the US alone.

Alexa, the voice recognition software that powers Amazon’s Echo (as well as a range of the firm’s other devices), is getting cleverer all the time. Amazon has more than 1,000 people working on the technology – which also improves itself by learning from users’ past speech requests.

Siri, Apple's voice assistant, is getting smarter and more ubiquitous too. Importantly for corporate web managers, Siri was installed this year on millions of Apple laptop and desktop computers.

The same is happening for PC users: Microsoft's voice assistant 'Cortana' arrived on desktops via Windows 10 last year.

Voice search is also built into Google's Chrome web browser, as well as various Google apps.

And Microsoft announced in October 2016 that it has developed speech recognition software that has reached 'human parity'.

Why is all this important for corporate websites?

A notable trend this year has been for companies to put big natural language search boxes onto their home pages. Visit GE.com, Eni.com or TNO.com for examples.

General Electric's home page is among a growing number that encourage visitors to use natural language search

General Electric's home page is among a growing number that encourage visitors to use natural language search

Such companies are going out of their way to urge visitors to use their sites by asking questions or making requests – 'How do I apply for an internship?' 'Do you test on animals?' 'Show me the latest financial results'. And so on.  

This interrogative approach to information retrieval is basically the same as that encouraged by the new wave of voice assistants.

The problem at the moment is that, like early voice recognition software, corporate sites’ natural language search engines often don't work very well. In fact, most types of corporate site search engine don't work very well (though you can read about some noble exceptions here).

This is one reason why 'traditional' navigation menus are still so vitally important on corporate sites.

But as more people get used to using the internet by talking instead of clicking, they may increasingly expect to be able to do the same on corporate sites.

Navigation buttons will almost certainly not die as a result: even when people stop feeling silly talking to a computer, it will not always be appropriate for them to do so – in a quiet office, for example.

But more people may well want to browse by mouth rather than mouse at least some of the time.

What should web managers be doing now to prepare? Improving their corporate site’s (text-based) search tools is one good starting point. If the search engine is rubbish using text, it’ll still be rubbish using speech.

Ensuring that site section labelling – and use of language in general – is crystal clear is another. If a heading is ambiguous for a human, it's also going to be ambiguous for voice-recognition software (as well as any other kind of search technology for that matter).

And, of course, it will still be important to make sure that your website actually contains the information that people are looking for. Lack of material that provides answers to visitors’ questions is one of the big areas in which many corporate sites’ existing natural language search tools fall down.

Finally, the rise of voice recognition is another reason to ensure that your site meets high accessibility standards: if the site works well for sight-impaired visitors using text-to-speech screen readers, for example, then it is more likely to work well for all users of voice recognition technology. 

Indeed, like other recent technological shifts, the rise of voice recognition doesn’t rip up the existing rules of good corporate web management – it simply makes many of them more important than ever.

- Scott Payton

Does your IR section sell your firm short?

Corporate giants can learn a thing or two from smaller firms when it comes to presenting an investment case online, argues Scott Payton.

 

I recently spent a week judging more than 50 candidates for two online investors relations awards – best digital reporting and best overall digital communications. 

Quoted companies of all sizes entered, from global giants to small-caps. I learned a lot from the exercise, and found plenty of interesting examples of good practice. 

But one thing stood out above all else: when it comes to using the web to make a compelling investment case, smaller firms have much to teach their multinational counterparts. 

FTSE 250 firm William Hill is an example. The UK-based bookmaker’s corporate site has a clear, detailed and engagingly presented Investment case sub-section of ‘Investors’. 

Intuitive click-to-expand panels contain cogent details of the firm’s strategy, market and performance. Informative graphics illustrate the firm’s business model and market share. Clear charts show key indicators covering the past year. A neat table summarises performance over the past five years. Simple, effective traffic-light graphics are used to show the likelihood and potential impact of various business risks. 

UDG Healthcare, another FTSE 250 company, takes a simpler and less detailed approach – but its Reasons to invest sub-section of ‘Investors’ still does a good job of clearly conveying overview information about the company’s financial and non-financial performance, as well as the market in which it operates.  

Compare this to the investor relations sections of the world's biggest companies’ websites – which often don't have an ‘investment case’ sub-section at all, or any kind of equivalent. 

There are some noble exceptions. BASF’s Investor Relations section includes a detailed BASF at a glance sub-section, for instance. It doesn’t explicitly try to ‘sell’ the chemicals company as an investment proposition, but it explains the company’s activities and strategy well. Similarly, Shell’s Investor Highlights sub-section is a treasure trove for financial professionals researching the company. 

But why is such material not more common in the IR sections of the world’s biggest companies? Perhaps many big-name large-caps think they simply don’t need to explain to investors who they are, what they do, what their strategy is, or why all this makes them a particularly sound long-term investment. 

Maybe their IR teams think such material is better off elsewhere on the website (in the About section)  – or tucked away in the annual report. 

If they do think this, I'd urge them to look at what the likes of William Hill are doing and think again about whether similar investment case sub-sections would work on their sites. I think that they would – very well. 

Tearful toast to storytelling success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- By Scott Payton

 

 

Found: search tools that really work

Corporate websites with huge search boxes are trendy.

US conglomerate General Electric's new home page has one. So does the new global site from Italian energy group Eni. Web teams at numerous other companies have told us that they’re thinking of following suit.

Such moves are brave, because corporate websites’ internal search engines are, traditionally, rubbish.

Indeed, for many companies' sites, visitors are better off using Google to find material than the internal search engine. Ironically, this also applies to Google’s own corporate web presence.

But there are some noble exceptions to the substandard-search rule. Here are some:

KPMG

Given the bountiful material available on this Big Four auditor's web estate, users need a powerful search tool – and that is exactly what the firm has delivered on its new global corporate website.

Predictive search terms appear intuitively in an overlay panel for many searches. And the tool remembers the last three searches carried out - these too are presented in the overlay panel, for ease of reference.

Search results are clear and meaningful. Dates are included on timely content, such as reports and corporate announcements, which helps users to quickly gauge relevance.

An excellent array of filtering options is provided to help users home in on relevant results, including tabs for selecting the type of content (Insights, Events, People), sorting options (by date, relevance or popularity) and an extensive set of left-hand topic filters designed to allow people to reach deep into the company's troves of articles and reports to find items that are specifically useful.

The 'People' filter is a good innovation. Search for 'Advisory' and 406 people are found. It appears that KPMG has essentially opened up its internal employee directory - at least where its public-facing employees are concerned - adding a valuable new dimension to the search function and making it easier for customers, journalists and industry professionals to find and contact relevant people inside the company.

Most importantly, the search function appears to have good accuracy: it returned good or excellent results in almost all of our latest tests.

Microsoft

This technology giant continues to have a spectacularly fragmented web estate. But its powerful, cleanly presented search engine helps users to find material scattered across the firm's crazy patchwork of microsites.

Results pages are logically laid out. Anchor links in the left column allow visitors to jump quickly to specific types of results, which are neatly grouped under clear headings.

What's more, corporate material search is seamlessly integrated into Microsoft’s consumer search: the main search engine is as comfortable finding careers and media information as it is music, apps and games (elegant, though I'm not sure how useful a combined search for music tracks and corporate content really is in practice).

Inspiration elsewhere

Other companies’ search tools shine in some areas.

Danish shipping group Maersk's internal search function is well designed and potentially very powerful - a good source of inspiration for any web manager researching ideas for improving their own search tool (look, for example, at the filter panel presentation and the tags to the right of search results in the the screenshot below).

 

The search results pages on both Eni.com and GE.com also provide web managers with plenty of new ideas for designing filters and grouping results in visually clear and elegant ways (see the screenshots below).

US media conglomerate Comcast’s search filters, and its tabbed separation of ‘web’ and ‘image’ search results, are neat.

 

Semiconductor maker Texas Instruments’ product, technical documents and support search and filter tools are very useful - though visitors searching for corporate materials will find no filters catering for them.

Perhaps this is because Texas Instruments puts all its time and money into getting its product-related search tools right, as that's where they think the money is. And perhaps that line of thinking is partly why so many purely corporate website search tools are so poor compared to their e-commerce counterparts. 

- Scott Payton


 

Brexit: the online communications challenge

The web is awash with comment, analysis and downright hysteria about UK voters' decision to leave the European Union. But how, I wondered, are companies at the potentially sharp end of Brexit using their corporate websites to explain the implications and calm customers' and investors' nerves? I had a trawl to find out...

Barclays:

This UK-based bank takes an unflashy but clear and effective approach - devoting the top half of its global home page to Brexit (see the screenshot below). The headline is clear, while a crisp standfirst includes a quote from Jes Stanley, the group CEO, designed to assure clients that Barclays is unruffled.

A clear call to action button - ‘Read more from Jes Stanley’ – leads to a cleanly laid out extended statement from Stanley, plus a short FAQ covering Barclays’ Brexit planning and its potential impact. Good - though the images on both this page and the home page are rather pedestrian.

Goldman Sachs:

Like Barclays, this investment banking giant also puts Brexit centre stage on its home page. But rather than promoting an article about it, Goldman Sachs invites visitors to listen to the latest edition of its regular podcasts, in which the firm’s chief European economist is interviewed in depth about the implications of the UK referendum.

While Barclays’ communications priority is reassuring customers and investors about Brexit, Goldman Sachs’ goal is to show off its knowledge and expertise on the implications for the global socioeconomic environment. The audio interview format works well here.

HSBC: 

Thanks to an embedded Twitter feed, visitors to this banking behemoth's global home page (and News and Insight section landing page) are presented with quotes from chairman Douglas Flint on HSBC’s willingness and ability to steer itself and its customers through the post-Brexit world. But during our visits on June 29th, there was little other prominently signposted material on the topic.

RBS:

Visitors to this UK-based bank’s home page looking for reassurance about Brexit will be disappointed: there is nothing at all about the issue. Users must visit the site’s News and Opinion section to find relevant material. But even here all they’ll initially find – buried below the scroll line on a standard desktop monitor – is a comment piece on the impact on the economy at large: nothing on RBS’s response, or the implications for customers. Scrolling down even further is a two-sentence June 24th press release assuring customers that daily banking won’t be affected. But as of June 29th, no more detail than that. Poor.

Lloyds Banking Group

This bank takes silence on the EU referendum a step further than RBS – there is nothing at all on the home page, or in the Media & Resource Centre.

As it has among politicians, it appears that last week's referendum result caught some online communications teams unawares. 

- Scott Payton


IR in France: who's top?

We held an event in Paris this week, at which we revealed the best among France’s biggest companies for online investor relations (our global ranking was covered by IR Magazine earlier this month).

The top French performers provide some useful lessons for IR and web teams around the world.

Joint-top: Sanofi and Total

Both of these companies excel in serving two IR audience groups: analysts researching the company (as opposed to those who already follow the firm); and individual shareholders.

Look, for example, at the clear, plentiful overview information about the business and its performance on Sanofi.com; and at the powerful data analysis tools in the accompanying 'Financial Reporting Center’.

Look, too, at the warm welcome that Sanofi extends to private investors, and the wealth of information in the dedicated Individual Shareholders section.

Over at Total, highlights include clearly presented historical data tables for institutional investors, and a crisply laid out individual investors’ Publications page, stocked with useful material for visitors looking for both quick overviews and deep detail.

Indeed, our French IR ranking highlights the fact that France leads the world when it comes to serving individual shareholders online. If you’re interested in how this can be done well, the dedicated retail investor sections from Air Liquide and L’Oreal are well worth looking at too.

Third: AXA

This insurance giant shines at serving a third audience group: analysts who know the company (and therefore want historical performance data, quarterly results materials, webcasts and the like).

Highpoints of this site include a polished quarterly results index with a wide range of resources, including Excel financials, transcripts and podcasts; plus an exceptionally elegant and well-executed webcast service.

Joint-fourth: Air Liquide and L’Oréal

Standout features here include...

·      An engaging ‘Why Invest in Air Liquide?’ section – a particularly sensible provision for firms that do business in areas that might not be self-explanatory (like ‘liquid air’).

·      Intelligent and effective use of video on L’Oréal’s Shareholders Corner landing page, in which private investors say ‘what they like about their relationship with L’Oréal’.

Conducting the research for this ranking uncovered some other interesting trends among French firms’ online estates.

For example, unconventional navigation systems are unusually common on French corporate websites. In some cases even the primary menus break with convention. Four of France’s biggest 20 companies have no visible primary menu at all, opting instead for a mobile-style hamburger menu even in the site's desktop ‘mode’. This undermines usability by ‘hiding’ a crucial navigation tool.

Tablet/mobile investor apps also remain more prevalent on French corporate sites. Four of the top five French companies in our IR ranking continue to offer an investor app for phones and tablets (L’Oréal, Air Liquide, Sanofi and Total), bucking the global trend away from corporate app development due to disappointing uptake among investors and others.

HTML annual reports also remain more common in French IR sections than elsewhere. Five of our Top 10 companies offer an HTML version of the annual report (Orange, Vivendi, Air Liquide, L’Oréal and BNP Paribas), even as many companies have been moving to abandon such services, to save money.

This may be a yet further sign of a very French devotion to relationship building with private shareholders. Though Bowen Craggs’ research – and that of the Financial Reporting Lab at the UK’s Financial Reporting Council – indicates that private investors actually prefer a simple, hyperlinked PDF to a whizzy HTML report. So when you’re trawling through French IR sections looking to cherry-pick ideas, it’s probably worth thinking twice before adopting all the fancy features you’ll find there.

Sue Harding, director of the Financial Reporting Lab at the Financial Reporting Council, kindly joined us in Paris for a panel discussion about what investors and analysts really want from companies’ online IR communications. Her team’s report on current use of digital media in corporate reporting is interesting and useful. Download it for free here.

Here’s our French online IR ranking in full:

Scott Payton


 

 

 

'Vote Leave' or 'Vote Remain' – who has the best campaign website?

A few months ago, I had a trawl through the campaign websites for Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to see what lessons corporate web managers could learn from them. As a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union fast approaches, I decided to do the same for the ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaigns.

First up, the campaign for leaving the EU:

The official site is easy to find – it was the top hit in a depersonalized UK Google search for ‘Vote Leave’.

The first thing visitors see on arrival is an embedded YouTube video that automatically starts playing. Potentially fine – but the site’s designers assume that visitors have their audio switched on. If they haven’t (because they’re sitting in an office, for example), the video doesn’t make any sense.

Below the video is a more successful feature: a twelve-digit figure showing ‘UK contributions to the EU’, which shoots up at an appropriately alarming rate as the visitor stares at it.

Further down the long-scrolling home page, things fizzle out.

A horizontal panel of graphical links to articles and videos is difficult to scan due to unwise use of white font on light images.

Text-only ‘facts about the EU’ are too wordy to digest quickly.

A heading ‘Tell us why you are Vote Leave’ is grammatically inelegant.

Yet deeper in the site, there are some nice touches.

A ‘Briefing Room’ section makes clever use of icons to label links to specific topics, such as ‘Security’ and ‘Immigration’.

A ‘Get Involved’ area houses a pleasingly straightforward application form for those who want to help with fundraising and campaigning.

And the entire (fully responsive) site is looks good and works well on a mobile phone. Indeed, it displays better on a small screen than a big one.

The 'Vote Leave' home page

The 'Vote Leave' home page

 

On now to the less snappily-titled ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign:

This name is a drawback on search engines. Our Google searches for ‘Vote Remain’ failed to bring up the campaign site on the first results page; users must type in the full campaign title to find it.

There are plenty lessons for corporate web managers on the home page – but mainly on things to avoid.

The main headline is in a white font, overlaid across rotating images that often make it hard to read. (Like Vote Leave, this campaign seems to be struggling with making a red, white and blue colour scheme work well on a screen.)

A mobile-style hamburger icon hides the primary navigation menu, even on a desktop screen.

Multitudes of block-capital headlines clutter the page, compete for the visitor’s attention and drown each other out.

A still image in an embedded video panel is blurred.

Britain may well be stronger in Europe, but it’s the Brexit campaign that is strongest online.

The 'Britain Stronger in Europe' home page

The 'Britain Stronger in Europe' home page

By Scott Payton


 

 

Tales of the too expected

Once upon a time there was business trend called "storytelling".

Corporate web managers quickly made friends with it, using journalistic and film-making techniques to try to make their case studies and other online material more engaging.

Some were successful. Look at SABMiller’s punchily written and elegantly illustrated beer “stories” for one example. Or visit the new Shell global site’s absorbing Our Major Projects section for another.

But soon too many people jumped on the "storytelling" bandwagon, and it began to creak.

Some corporate web editors labelled things "stories" when they were in fact merely press releases.

And corporate "storytelling" became a not altogether wholesome industry in its own right, with "experts" of various kinds trying to crowbar the concept into areas where it does not really fit. This recent article, for instance, rejoices in the headline "Stop Conflict At Work Now With The Power of Story".

Not everyone will live happily ever after.

The end.

- Scott Payton

Rise of the 'digital transformation' guru

Though I left the world of journalism some years ago, I still get emailed lots of press releases.

One arrived this morning, about a new handbag company that claims to be a business ‘disruptor’.  

‘How?’, you might ask. ‘We are a luxury handbag brand disrupting the market with timeless designs that, unlike those of our competitors, do not feature excessively ostentatious branding,’ reads the first paragraph.

Every company seems to want to position itself as a ‘disruptor’ at the moment – even those doing things as decidedly non-disruptive as making handbags with subtler-than-average logos.

This got me thinking about a related buzz-phrase – ‘digital transformation’.

Numerous people who were running around the conference speaker circuit a few years ago claiming to be ‘social media’ gurus have now reinvented themselves as ‘digital transformation’ experts.

Cynics might suspect that they’ve done this not because they’ve suddenly learned a new discipline, but because they’re following the money.

Just as these people once proclaimed that if companies don’t ‘get’ social media they will perish, they’re now declaring that businesses must ‘digitally transform’ themselves or die.

It’s not just superannuated social media gurus getting in on this act – the big global management consultancies are focusing on it too, as subscribers to McKinsey’s email newsletters will well know.

Yet there’s nothing new about either the concepts wrapped in new ‘digital transformation’ packaging, or the idea that ‘traditional’ businesses will collapse if they don’t embrace them. Indeed, such ideas were discussed endlessly during the dotcom boom almost two decades ago. eBay will bring an end to auction houses. Amazon will spell the death of the bookstore. And so on.

So why is all this making a comeback now?

For one thing, a new wave of genuinely ‘disruptive’ businesses – from taxi firm Uber to lodging rental company Airbnb – has given digital transformation ‘experts’ a fresh batch of case studies with which to fill their PowerPoint presentations.

For another, there is a certain breed of conference-hopping guru who needs a Big New Thing to peddle. Social media is simply not that new any more – and ‘digital transformation’ sounds impressive.

Is ‘digital transformation’ a load of old nonsense?

No, for two reasons:

  • First, it’s undoubtedly true that the likes of Uber and Airbnb, like Amazon and eBay before them, pose a real threat to their direct and longer-established competitors. And there are some useful lessons that firms in other sectors can learn from such startups’ ability to devise business models that incumbents failed to invent themselves.
  • Second, the ambiguous phrase ‘digital transformation’ has become an umbrella for a raft of activities that includes genuinely worthwhile efforts to get digital channels taken more seriously, and integrated more deeply, at all levels of – and across all areas of – an organisation. Indeed, Bowen Craggs has been championing these particular sorts of activities for years.

But the term ‘digital transformation’ is so broad that it can mean very different things to different people – and, like online technologies themselves, has very different implications for different companies.

So if you choose to hire a ‘digital transformation’ expert, make sure that their specific experience and expertise fit the needs of your organisation. And be very suspicious of anyone with ‘digital transformation consultant’ printed on their business card in the space that said ‘social media consultant’ a few years ago.

- Scott Payton

Zombie home pages

Is the corporate website site dead? Is content marketing ailing? Is Twitter dying? The world of technology journalism likes to pose such questions, usually in click-baity headlines, every now and then. Invariably, the answer is "no".

A few years back, it was the turn of the home page. "Is the home page dead?" asked the Columbia Journalism Review in January 2013. "The home page is dead", Quartz helpfully answered in a May 2014 headline.

As we pointed out at the time, while it was true that news websites such as the New York Times were seeing a relative drop in the proportion of home page visits, because more people were arriving deeper in the site (via links to articles from Twitter and Facebook, for example), this was not the case for corporate websites.

And it's not the case now, either.

As this chart from Bowen Craggs' latest Google Analytics benchmarking survey (which covers some of the world's biggest companies) shows, the proportion of corporate website visitors arriving via the home page remained sky-high and rock-solid - indeed if anything it went up a bit - between 2014 and 2015. 

Bowen Craggs Google Analytics Benchmarking Survey 2016

So what about news sites' home pages? Are they still dead? I can happily report that they are now back to being alive. I know this because I read it just yesterday in the technology press. See for yourself here

- Scott Payton

57,000 corporate channels (and nothin' on)

Some online channels seem tailor made for corporate communications. SlideShare is ideal for sharing investor relations presentations. Twitter can be great for spreading company news. LinkedIn is, of course, a powerful recruitment tool. But other channels don't always prove to be such a natural fit.

For example, we at Bowen Craggs spend a lot of time looking at corporate YouTube channels – and most are either awfully uninspiring, or awfully awful.

We know that we’re not alone in this assessment: you can tell this by looking at the low number of views on most companies’ YouTube pages. Almost no one is watching.

Why is this? And what should companies do about it?

To answer the first question: most companies are simply not geared up to producing the kind of material most likely to gain traction on YouTube – videos that are not only informative, but also entertaining.

Historically, companies’ efforts in this area have been focused on producing television commercials. Indeed, when they put these onto YouTube – if they are good enough - they often get large numbers of views: look at this P&G ad, as well as this one from Google, for examples.

The Google video is particularly interesting, because it was part of a campaign designed to work on both television and YouTube (a channel that Google owns).

Most companies’ YouTube channels are unfocused mishmashes of videos drawn from elsewhere – employee profiles from the Careers section of the website; executive interviews from the investor relations section; case studies from the sustainability section. Pulled out of its original context on the corporate site and assembled on a YouTube channel, such material is doomed to failure: users must work hard to find footage on the channel relevant to their interests – and when they find it, it is often too dull to hold their attention.

So what should companies do about this?

One option is to focus efforts on promoting embedded – and therefore appropriately contextualized – video content on the corporate site (YouTube is undeniably a good format for this) – rather than promoting the corporate YouTube channel itself. If your company’s YouTube channel is not yet an attractive destination in its own right, don’t bother encouraging visitors to visit it. 

Another option is to focus more effort on producing video output that is genuinely attractive – in terms of viewability and shareability. For some companies, this will be time and money well spent – especially if it spent as part of a campaign designed to work over television and other channels, as Google’s was. But for other companies, producing videos that go viral on YouTube is likely to be a lower priority than using video in more modest – but no less effective – ways on the corporate website.

- Scott Payton

From ‘Bernie’s story’ to ‘Cruz gear’ – rating the presidential contenders online

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign broke new ground in online communications.

From an office in Chicago, the Illinois senator’s young team of digital experts and enthusiasts conjured up a raft of powerful new tools and techniques.

Obama billboards were added to video games. On-message quotes and Messianic photos were spread across Facebook and other channels. A location-based app was created that gave campaign volunteers the addresses of target voters – and a script to read to them when they opened their doors.

Do any of the contenders for the Oval Office in 2016 have online campaigns similarly fizzing with ideas? I’ve picked four high-profile candidates – two Democrat and two Republican – to find out.

Let’s start with Hillary Clinton (don’t worry – I’ll get to Donald Trump in a minute).

The former US secretary of state’s official campaign site gets right down to business: an overlay panel urges visitors on arrival to join the campaign by entering their email address and ZIP code – or to ‘just go ahead and donate’.

Smaller text gives visitors the option to bypass these options and reach the home page. Yet here, too, the site doesn’t give up on its two main goals: ‘Join us’ and ‘Donate!’ are the dominant calls to action at both the top and bottom of the page.

This bold, single-minded focus on urging visitors to give up their contact details and cash continues deeper into the site. The ‘Volunteer’ primary menu link leads to a simple form titled, in huge font, ‘Sign up to Volunteer’. Click ‘Events’ and you’re greeted with the big heading ‘Host your own event’, with an accompanying ‘Get Started’ button.

Click on ‘Feed’ and the site takes a different tack – one borrowed heavily from online news site BuzzFeed. A listing of intriguing headlines and eye-catching images mixes serious topics (‘Meet a 9/11 responder whose health benefits are being threatened by Republicans’) with the not-so-serious (‘12 things you can learn from Hillary Clinton's throwback photos’). It’s interesting, fun and draws you in.

Overall, Clinton’s campaign site is bold, focused, unapologetically assertive and clever. Worth a visit for corporate web managers looking to make their site’s online forms clearer – or the news section more appealing to consumers and jobseekers.

Now to one of Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. The left-wing Vermont senator follows Clinton’s approach of greeting visitors to his official campaign site with a loud demand for their contact details and money. The language is sneakier, though. A headline ‘Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty’ is followed by email and ZIP code form fields, and a button ‘I agree’ – which only changes to the more honest ‘Join us’ if you try to click on it without entering your contact details. Similarly, ‘Contribute’ is used rather than the more direct ‘Donate’.

The home page itself is of the long-scrolling variety. Like Clinton’s, it is dominated by further shouty requests to donate money, sign up to the campaign, organize events and so on.

There are a couple of nice extra features, though: ‘Bernie’s story’ is an elegantly executed interactive timeline of Sanders’ life, with some well-chosen archive images and succinct captions. ‘Democracy Daily’ is a lively grid of articles covering Sanders and his big campaign topics on external news sites.

The imagery isn’t as slick as on Clinton’s site – but this may be deliberate. Not being slick is one of Sanders’ political selling points, after all.

Onwards to Ted Cruz for President. No arm-twisting to relinquish ZIP codes or dollars before entering the site here – visitors are taken straight to the home page. Perhaps appropriately, the site is more explicitly capitalist than those of Cruz’s Democrat rivals: ‘Get Cruz Gear’ is a prominent heading on the home page – with links to a well-stocked online shop offering everything from ‘Courageous Conservative in Training’ baby clothes to Cruz-branded iPhone cases and colouring books.

Elsewhere on the site, a short survey asking visitors to rate issues in order of importance is neatly designed – but compared to Sanders’ and Clinton’s sites, pages feel cluttered, colours clash and ‘call to action’ buttons lack clarity and prominence.

If Cruz does cruise to the White House, it won’t be thanks to this website.

Last but not least, let’s visit Donald Trump. Straight to the home page again – no ‘sign up and donate’ overlay panel. Compared to the three sites discussed above, this is, perhaps surprisingly, a rather understated online presence. The inclusion of recent tweets from Trump on the home page is appropriate given the man’s prolific use of the medium. It appears to be a live feed of all of his tweets – even the rantier ones ­– which will keep the lawyers on their toes. 

The ‘In the News’ section, however, is edited with a heavy hand. It’s heavily dull, too – merely a text-only listing of articles narrowly focused on how well Trump is doing in the opinion polls.

Overall, there’s a rather crude, artificial air about the Trump site. Some would say that this was appropriate, too – though I couldn’t possibly comment.

- Scott Payton