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Why corporate websites fail

Published: 19 March 2009

Author: Andrew Hart

Websites succeed or fail for a variety of reasons. The definition of a success or failure also varies depending on the type of website and its goals. Whist these differences exist there are also common goals and equally common reasons for failure. This is especially true of corporate websites.

Whilst smaller websites struggle for visitors, content, and resources the exact opposite is true for corporate websites:

  • A wide visitor base can lead to a lack of focus in design and purpose
  • Content, rather than being sparse, becomes overly plentiful
  • The number of people with a vested interest in the website grows and brings its own problems.

So, whilst smaller websites issues are mainly resource-based, corporate websites issues are mainly focus-based. These common problems lead to common and often misled solutions. Let's explore the most common mistakes:

1. Mistakes in the design process

Before you can manage a great site you have to build one first. This first hurdle is also the one that most companies fall at. The reasons for this are inherently linked to how the site is managed but for now lets see what the problems are before we consider how to tackle them.

1.1 Building websites around organisational structure

This is the easiest mistake to make and as a result the most prevalent. When deciding on the content, structure and navigation of a website you need a starting point. For many this point is met by mirroring the organisation, how it is structured and the language it uses. This is not always a bad thing, but more often than not it is.

Consider the example of an energy provider with specific departments for electricity, gas, accounts etc. The website structure could be built around these departments and most visitors could deal with that.

Let's introduce a visitor interested in energy efficiency, independent of fuel-type. Each department could have its own initiatives and mirroring this results in links from each department. Our visitor is then forced to navigate around the site to collate the information they want. Initiatives which may not fall under either department might be stored elsewhere, or worse omitted entirely.

The answer is to combine knowledge across the company into a single resource for the user. This may include combining initiatives such as energy efficiency or services such as billing. You can see different approaches to solving the same problem by two major energy providers in the Republic of Ireland and the UK:

Bord Gais   British Gas

Other than using their organisational structure many corporate websites also make the mistake of using internal jargon or abbreviations that mean little or nothing to their users.

Always design for your visitors, how they carry out tasks, and use their language, not yours.

1.2 Designing by committee

Committees are needed in the development of a website and input is required by all the stakeholders throughout an organisation. Just never allow a committee to take charge of a design.

The larger the organisation, the greater the number of people who have an opinion on what a website should look like. The more opinions you have the harder it is to please everyone. One redesign I undertook went took ages to even get off the ground. Why? One of the senior managers came from a print background and wanted a stark black and white very traditional and regimentally laid out site. His boss, with a predominantly PR background, wanted something I can only describe as Las Vegas gone bad.

Design is highly subjective and often a highly emotive matter. Colour choice, font, layout: getting a majority consensus on these minor elements is hard enough, let alone a unanimous agreement on an complete design.

  • Takes a long time
  • Achieves little other than delivering a watered-down uninspiring end result
  • Has little to do with professional design or your target market

This does not rule out anyone in the company having some input but simply put: design should be left to designers.

Note: If your designers are not a direct part of the web-team they must have a strong understanding of designing specifically for the web and work closely with those that will be implementing the design.

1.3 Appealing to every man (and his dog)

No website can be all things to all visitors. Attempting to build such a website will always fail.

For a website to succeed it needs to have focus and for focus it needs to know its target market. Demographics, user-type, the more information you have the better.

Unfortunately, the bigger the organisation, the harder they find it to define their target market. The problem is not usually who the site is aimed at but more one of narrowing the list down to the core groups. Without tackling this the design process can be as unfocused as designing by committee.

The process of defining and prioritising your target audiences is essential. Trying to please everyone will result in pleasing no-one, usually at great expense. Thankfully any good marketing department should be able to supply this information with ease.

1.4 Redesigning, not evolving

If saving cash whilst maintaining an excellent corporate website are not important to you then please read no further.

Many corporate websites are designed once then slowly drift out of date. Content isn't kept fresh, the technology lags behind, and eventually the website receives enough bad press internally (please note your visitors will be complaining long before this, you simply won't hear it!) that management are forced to take action. More often than not that action comes in the form of a redesign.

Redesigns are expensive and all investment in previous design activity is lost. Add to this the unpredictable demand on the budget from year to year and we begin to form an idea that redesigns are best avoided. Any manager with an ounce of economic sense will try to avoid writing off previous investments and cyclical spikes in budgets yet this is seen again and again with corporate redesigns.

A simple plan of continual investment is the best method to avoid a slowly deteriorating website and huge spikes in your budget. A win-win scenario that management really must wake up to.

The root cause of this is most often the management of the website. This task is commonly allocated to the wrong department and greatly under funded. We will explore why this is in the following sections.

2. Mistakes in managing corporate websites

Most small organisations struggle to get enough manpower and budget to run their websites as they would like.

Think larger organisations don't have the same problem? Surprisingly many of them do. However, it's not the availability of resources that is the issue but how they are ring-fenced, prioritised, and funded internally.

2.1 Not having a separate, dedicated web-team

Having a dedicated web-team can seem like a major over-head to many organisations. The question is, who to turn to to run this service?

Who runs the website?

Most organisations turn to their IT or Marketing departments but neither is well equipped for such a cross-discipline task, especially one that goes beyond their combined remit.

IT are great at handling the technical side: hosting, development, database management are all well within their capabilities. However, design, branding, and communication with the end-users are lacking here.

Marketing can certainly handle brand identity and corporate messages, but semantic mark-up, CSS, usability, accessibility and optimising download times are all usually outside their understanding.

Give the website to either department and they will need to pull on the sources of the other which can lead to friction and the website ends up a victim of internal politics.

The answer is a separate, cross-discipline team of individuals: the web-team! Such a team needs to be able to co-ordinate input from multiple sources, have a broad range of skills that include many aspects of IT, marketing, typography and graphic design. Most importantly they must be strong communicators capable of talking the language of the internal departments they deal with and the websites users.

A website is about communication and that is the core skill needed by any member of a web-team.

Dedication's what you need

Where a company is using cross-discipline individuals to run their website they are normally hopelessly under-resourced. Rather than having the sole task of managing the corporate website, those responsible are often running it alongside their 'day job'. Either that or they are used for other spill-off jobs from other department.

As such, a non-dedicated team is usually short of both time and a manpower. The little resources available are eaten up by day-to-day maintenance rather than focusing on long-term development and strategic planning. Some companies even view their web-teams as little more than custodians of their corporate website rather than giving them the power and responsibility for its future.

This combination of lack of resources, seniority, and responsibility all lead to a web-team with little or no control over the development of what is for many companies, one of their most important communication channels.

Any organisation that wants to take their corporate website seriously needs to begin by appointing full-time, senior web managers and giving them the responsibility and resources they need to do the job right. Understanding the value of your corporate website is central to this and without an acceptance of the value of this communication channel many organisations' websites will continue to suffer.

Trust your web-team

Once you have hired experts from the fields of IT, Marketing, Design, and Information Architecture to run the website, put them in charge and let them do their job.

Sounds very simple, but you would be amazed how often senior management from outside the web-team will insist on trying to micro-manage aspects of the website despite already having people far more qualified to make the decision. As we said before, leave design to designers, but in addition leave layout to typographers, navigation to information architects. All these skills should be available within any good web-team.

Input from sources throughout the company is entirely expected but end decisions should be made by those qualified (and paid) to make them.

2.2 Over publishing

Corporate websites tend to be a minefield of information. Material is published simply "because it is available" and many sites suffer a total lack of any house-keeping. The end result is a lot of content that sits around gathering dust, hiding the important stuff that really matters.

Navigation gets expanded to the point of insanity, search engine results (both internal and external) deteriorates and users get lost in the plethora of pages. Not only will they leave your website without the information they came for, but they will have formed a bad impression of your organisation.

One thing I keep all my clients aware of - your website is an ambassador for your business. Let me explain:

  • You would not ask your sales representatives turn blast potential clients with brochures for every last product you have ever made
  • You would not allow call centre staff to take forever to deal with any enquiry
  • You would not turn up to an exhibition with last years product

Ask yourself why your corporate website should be any different?

A good web-team will:

  • liaise with content providers to ensure only useful material makes it on the "to publish" list
  • edit all material before it is published to the live website: spelling; grammar; and making sure it is "Written for the Web"1
  • optimise the content for internal and external search engines, usually including a publish date
  • track all material published to a website with details of who it originated from and when to review/remove it.

2.3 Treating Content Management Systems (CMSs) as a holy grail

I have worked with small Web CMS (WCMS)/Blog software such as WordPress right through to fully-fledged enterprise level CMSs. The one thing they all suffer is a misperception of their capabilities. Clients without a CMS want one, and those with one wonder what happened to their silver bullet, not to mention their budget.

Case history

A few years back I was contracted to a Government agency in the UK and attended a presentation by members of their parent organisation's web-team. The presentation covered their attempt at implementing a CMS. At this time we were mid-way in redeveloping my clients website on a relatively small budget and our jaws hit the flaw when we heard just how much they had gone over budget by. Our jaws hit the floor a second time when they said the end results were such a disaster that had to be shelved. This was not the fault of the CMS. The vendor was guilty of mis-selling the CMSs capabilities, the client was at fault for having a woefully incomplete requirement specification. The combination of the two led to unrealistic expectations by both parties and eventually ended in termination of the contract. An expensive and embarrassing mistake, but one that could have been avoided.

I'm painting a black picture of CMS experiences but before you label me as anti-CMS let me just say that they do have a lot to offer. They can:

  • reduce (not remove) the technical barriers of adding content
  • allow more people to edit, add, and contribute to content
  • facilitate easier and (allegedly) faster updates

Properly thought through and implemented, a CMS can be a fantastic boon to a business.

One problem is choosing the right CMS in the first place which usually involves getting advice from external (and usually set-to-gain-financially) experts. If they start by telling you what a specific CMS can do, walk away. If they ask what your business goals are you are hopefully on the right route.

The biggest and most shocking problem with the majority of CMS is their lack of ability to output code that is: valid XHTML; lean; Fully semantic. The first point alone should horrify any standards compliant web-designer. Why buy into a system that can not even provide you with valid code? Try validating your CMS driven website, and that of any CMS provider. If you are not happy with the results - avoid that CMS!. The semantic errors are often down to user error or lack of training. Many people even hold the misconception that they will need no training to use a CMS properly.

Finally, a CMS may help any Tom, Dick or Harriet in your organisation to publish material. The question is, should you? Any publisher normally has multiple checks prior to sending any material to print, and similarly, any decent web-team will edit and optimise any content written in-house by other departments prior to sending it live to your website. Having a CMS that allows you to bypass these experts is questionable at best.

3. Conclusions

Large organisations make many of the same mistakes as smaller ones. In addition they commonly put the website in the wrong hands, under-fund it, and get it damaged by internal politics. They also have the ability to burn far larger budgets on unnecessary redesigns, poorly chosen technology-based solutions, and inefficient maintenance routines.

The solutions are simple:

  1. Recognise the importance of the corporate website as a communication channel
  2. Invest in a full-time web-team
  3. Identify your users and design for them
  4. Plan your web strategy, don't simply redesign

The initial investment will be more than offset by the gains made in competitive advantage and will allow your web strategy to flourish. Done properly it can even lead to cost reductions!

Out-sourcing is also an option in certain circumstances. There are advantages and pitfalls here too, but maintaining good communication and having a clear agreement on roles and responsibilities can help greatly. This approach may be a temporary solution whilst your business grows, or you gain and train in-house staff, or it can form the basis of an on-going partnership.

Whichever route you take, ensuring that you have the right staff with the right resources will go a long way to ensuring the success of your corporate website.

Guidance

At Simius Web we understand that the most important element of your website success is the team managing it. We can assist in various aspects of recruiting, training and work-flow to build your web team and get the most from them. We can even advise on building a business case if you need to apply for budget to get your plans off the ground.

Whatever your needs contact us today to see how we can help.

  1. Writing with: a summary; pyramid-style structure; strong headings and semantic layout etc. See "Writing for the Web" by Jakob Nielsen for more detail. back to 1