The future of the Corporate Website: irrelevance, evolution or extinction?

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will know that I’ve spent some time contemplating the corporate website: what defines it, and what makes a good one. And, in common with a number of other bloggers and/or web commentators, I’ve also been musing on the question of where the corporate website is going.

To provide some background, a lot of the speculation – for me at least – started with Jeremiah Owyang’s assertion that the corporate website (in its current form at least) was soon to become an outdated, irrelevant dinosaur. Or something like that. He makes a very convincing argument that the corporate website simply cannot remain in its current form in the face of the growth of social media, social networks, consumer rating sites and blogs which give the online community the ability to feedback to itself clearly and honestly and accurately (read the post.)

The post created a LOT of dialogue and a lot of feedback, but one of the most interesting responses was Mark Cahill’s post which expanded on real-world ways to provide relevance to the corporate website. Read the post, it’s the most definitive comment I’ve seen on the development of the corporate website. He gives eight specific ways in which the corporate website can retain its relevance going forward, in the climate of social media and so on.

Keeping the Corporate Website Relevant

  1. 1. Every page as it’s own homepage, designed as a point of entry which makes it easy to identify who you are and what you do.
  2. 2 .Easy to find *brief* product information pages, with the ability to get more indepth information on deeper drill down.
  3. 3. Customer support community, which also offers the ability for non-customers to discourse with existing customers. This would be similar to the way the site has a pre-sales forum where potential users can ask questions not only of the staff, but of the customer base as well.
  4. 4. News that goes beyond press releases – find everything written about your product and make it available on your product pages. Think of it as a reading room, or “In the Press.”
  5. 5. Provide open discourse from your knowledge matter experts – blogging, case studies, etc. The perception still at most companies is that their information is a proprietary resource. By allowing them to speak on issues in your industry, you create customer good will, and become the go to voice in your industry. Think of Robert Scoble at Microsoft – if they can do it, you can.
  6. 6. Consider giving a semi-authoritative voice to authorities within the customer base. Possibly allow customers to blog under the corporate auspices.
  7. 7. Think about the Ombudsman model at newspapers – have someone who’s job it is to represent the customers internally, and make their position highly visible on the site.
  8. 8. No more hand shakes, no more group hugs – watch the stock photos, if you can’t find an image that helps to get your message across, it’s time to look at your message.

It makes perfect sense. It’s a good model for the evolution of the design of the corporate website. The only thing I’d suggest is a ninth:

  1. 9. Multi channeling of the corporate presence – less dependence on the corporate website as a single bastion of the entire corporate message. A company might have a brand website (strong on design, brand building etc), an e-commerce website, a wiki, a couple of microsites, a Second Life presence, a Myspace page, a blog; they might have entries on Wikipedia and Youtube.

So, some of these posts are over a year old. And in all likelyhood, web commentary has been predicting great changes being wrought in the way we do things by the arrival of social media for much longer. But where’s the evidence?

Evolution? Where’s the evidence?

Well, it’s right here: step up, Dell.

Remember Dell Hell? The huge social networking backlash against Dell’s (by all accounts unbelievably lousy) standards of customer service. Back in 2005 Jeff Jarvis wrote a Guardian ‘new media’ article (read:blog post) on the snowballing of blog posts about Dell’s terrible customer service.

The advice offered by Jarvis at the end of the article, however, has not gone unnoticed. He offered three pieces of advice in an open letter to Dell: 1. Read Blogs, 2 Talk with your Consumers and 3. Blog. Show that you are unafraid to engage your public.

Funnily enough, those seem to now be three basic tenets of Dells’ approach to social media. Their current blog post, on 19th August, is preaching just that, entitled “It all starts with listening”. Their site also features a suggestion box, a community bio page with, get this “community ambassadors”, and a support forum. Not only that, but of course they’ve got a shiny new web 2.0 design. And the impressive thing is, these days Dell is quoted as being a shining example of the all-new social-media-encompassing corporate website. If that doesn’t tell an eloquent story about the power of blogging and social comment, I don’t know what does.

Sadly the old Dell Hell type posts still appear quite prominently on google when you search for Dell, and I have no idea what their customer service is like now, but as a case study on the evolution of the corporate website, you can’t find finer: Dell got socially hammered, responded, and altered their whole corporate website strategy accordingly.

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