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Do you ever have that situation where you spend so long looking at a word or phrase that suddenly your brain doesn’t recognise it any more? At Freshleaf Media we specialise in ‘corporate website design’; and I spent a lot of today working on optimising our new site for exactly that phrase (as we have a newish domain name, it’s a bit of a battle to
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get ourselves noticed at the moment, but more on that in another post..) By the end of the day, though, I was starting to wonder: exactly what is corporate website design?
The anatomy of a corporate website
The history of the corporate website – around ten years – is short compared to other forms of business marketing and communication. Brochure publication, for example, has the whole history of publishing behind it, whereas the web is a comparatively new medium, and is still defining and redefining itself. But what defines a corporate website? What information should be on a corporate website, and how should that information be presented?
- Conveys the company ethos. A company’s website is the public face of the company online. The design of the site is the first thing that meets the eye before the content is even considered, so a corporate website design requires a coherent look and feel which helps to communicate the organisation’s message through branding, logos, graphics, structure, and use of colour and text. A clean, professional, industry-relevant design creates the right first impression
- Adheres to strict brand guidelines and house styles. In order to maintain a coherent and ordered company image, brand and style guidelines are laid down.
- Has a well defined marketing message. A corporate website is a crucial marketing channel. Its primary purpose is dissemination of the marketing message. A well created corporate website backs up the company ethos with a very strong, well targeted, effective marketing message, one single idea that the company is conveying to its audience. Professional copywriting is usually employed to ensure that this is achieved, and to maintain the correct tone across all of the copy.
- Has a very specific audience. A corporate website is directing the message at a known target audience, usually – but not exclusively – clients, potential clients, business partners, investors, relevant sections of the press.
- Features specific areas of interest. As a corporate website is usually addressing discrete groups within its target audience, and the convention is to group information of each type together. This usually includes Investor Relations, Media, Strategic Partners or Affiliates.
- Has standard information architecture. Having a target audience in mind, with recognised subgroups within that audience, the corporate website needs to conform to the expectations of each group. This avoids critical information being overlooked by a decision maker, journalist or investor.
- Conveys an entirely professional image. All aspects of the corporate website support the company image, from the design through to copywriting, and use of graphics and images.
- Should be kept accurate and up to date. Allowing any aspect of the company to be misrepresented on the website can have an extremely detrimental effect on a business.
- Has good cross browser performance. A corporate website – more than most- shouldn’t just be addressing users of IE6 in 800 x 600 resolution. Bad performance in one of the major browsers would convey entirely the wrong impression to a large section of users; and with corporate sites in particular those users are web-savvy and recognise when corners have been cut. Not only that but business professionals have an increasing range of web access available to them with the rise of the Blackberry and similar palmtop & Smartphone devices; design and layout for these devices also needs to be considered.
- Should be overhauled every couple of years. Trends change, marketing messages change, and a design that looks perfect now will date pretty heavily in two to three years.
Recommendations for a good corporate website:
- 1. Ensure that your company ethos/image is clearly defined before work starts on a website.
- 2. Lay down brand & style guidelines, either in advance of website design, or if the site design is to lead the way then immediately once designs are signed off.
- 3. Thoroughly define the message before work starts on the website – employ a consultant or copywriter who knows the industry to help shape the message; so that you can give your corporate website design agency a very clear, accurate brief.
- 4. Use a corporate website design agency that knows your industry/sector, and has proven experience in creating effective, well structured and appealing sites.
- 5. Retain the services of the copywriter to create all content, or if a copywriter is not required due to in-house capabilities, limit the number of contributors and try to use a single editor for coherent control of content.
- 6. Similarly, ensure images used are not creating the wrong impression: employ a professional photographer or use well chosen stock photography.
- 7. Be obsessive about keeping the site up to date. Where possible each department should be required to have ownership of the relevant pages to ensure that they are kept up to date, ideally with one person maintaining overall responsibility.
- 8. Ensure that the site is professionally maintained. Most corporate website design agencies offer ongoing maintenance packages which will ensure that there are no broken links, missing images, and that all updates are done in keeping with the existing style/brand guidelines.
- 9. Opinions vary on the shelf life of a corporate website, but a refresh is often just as effective as a total redesign – a site should be reviewed annually, and refreshed or redesigned as appropriate.
So what will the corporate website of the future look like? Corporate websites largely began life as an online version of the company brochure, but things are changing fast. Developments in web technology, browsers, content management systems and computers themselves ensure that the web is a very forward moving medium. And while corporate sites shouldn’t be as subject to the latest trends of the web as certain other kinds of sites, corporate website designers and site owners would be ill advised to ignore the latest developments.
There are those web strategists who warn that corporate websites are in danger of becoming ‘irrelevant’ in the face of social networks, consumer rating sites, chat rooms and blogs as potentially more unbiased channels of communication. And it’s true – decisions are no longer made solely on the basis of what a given company tells you on their website: these days users look for verification from other channels. Current thinking suggests that corporate websites designers and owners should be looking to incorporate some of this into their sites – creating a corporate blog, for example, or allowing unfiltered feedback of a product or service. Corporate websites will evolve, that much is for certain. We can only wait and see what will happen next.
[See also : Voices from the Community: Corporate Websites ARE Irrelevant for the debate on the evolution of the corporate website.]