Years and years ago somebody thought it would be a great idea if the corporate communications function in the company I worked for reported in to the CFO. I was the corporate communications function and that meant some very, very interesting conversations, that mostly ended with “just don’t let it cost anything”. At about the same time, I figured out how to make Word automatically substitute “Winged Angel of Death” any time I typed the CFO’s name. Not long after, I learned about the need to proofread the annual report more carefully.
The reason I mention this is because it was to this Winged Angel that I first presented the notion of a corporate website. A notion, it should be noted, I only barely understood myself since websites were a brand new thing and I’d only seen them at the agency’s office since we didn’t have stuff like the Internet in the financial services industry. After an hour of talking and pictures and “imagine-the-possibilities”, he just looked at me and said, “so what could one of these things possibly do?” I left soon after.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I think the question is once again a valid one. All those websites we created all those years ago, are actually still out there. Sure, you’ve bounced around to a few new platforms, templates, unworkable content management systems and ugly database conversations with the Productivity Prevention Department, but just like a PBS house project, underneath it all, is This Old Website.
This Old Website was conceived in a time when people actually read stuff longer than 140 characters. It was designed like a shopping mall with the pretty stuff up front and level upon level upon level of subordinate information, which pulled the visitor further in until they either found what they were looking for, or ended up in the copyright pages wondering why it smelled like a food court. This Old Website was predicated on the idea that people wanted to know more about our companies, products and services, and that they were willing to wait for pages to load and images to render just to do that.
We dreamt of being the “destination site” for our industries. Surely, if we just had enough chat rooms, our customers would come together to discuss the merits of our latest whitepaper and how delighted they were with our clever holiday card.
Somewhere along the line, we figured out that we could probably get them to cough up their contact information and, possibly, a credit card number. For a regrettable time, we felt it necessary to make them sit through Flash videos just to get into the site, and we congratulated ourselves on being clever enough to make a “Skip Video” button that only a fruit bat could find. And all the time we were gathering data, setting cookies and pretending to understand the reports our hosting company sent over.
Today we spend our time gaming the search engines, creating tour guide avatars, crawling the latest tweets and share prices across the bottom and asking our visitors if they want to fill in a helpful survey. And just like an old house, this is the vinyl siding that sits atop the board and batten, that covered up the painted brick that seemed like a good solution for a do-it-yourself stucco job.
It’s time, Lords and Ladies of the Spin Cycle, to face some Unfortunate Realities about our creaky websites.
Unfortunate Reality #1: There’s no such thing as a home page. In the age of Google, all our pages are landing pages. Even the ones you forgot about. Anyone, anytime can land on any page on your website. I’m fairly certain we should get on that.
Unfortunate Reality #2: You will never be a destination site unless you manage to pollute a major body of water or burn down a town. Sorry.
Unfortunate Reality #3: Site visit times should be going down, not up. Our job is not to waste our customers’ time by offering a frustrating bunch of navigation choices and irrelevant content. Our job is to let them get in, get out, and move on.
Unfortunate Reality #4: Your website should enable two things: conversations and purchases. And by conversations, that does not mean a string of toll-free phone numbers and office locations on a Contact Us page. If they wanted to phone you, they would have. And by purchases, that does not mean a faxable credit check form and a promise that a sales representative will contact them within five business days.
Unfortunate Reality #5: We don’t wait anymore. Forty percent of visitors will abandon a page if it takes more than three seconds to load. That’s a lot of out-of-work avatars, folks. (source: econsultancy)
Unfortunate Reality #6: That mobile thing isn’t going away. Figure out how to make your stuff work on little bitty screens over questionable connections. I know that sounds hard.
Unfortunate Reality #7: It’s slow. I know, I know, it used to be fast. But just as the post office is inexplicably worse at delivering mail in the age of internal combustion engines, websites now are about the slowest way to communicate anything timely. By the time you write it, argue with the Hand-Wringers, revise it, translate it (at least in Canada), look at it on the staging server and push the thing live, well, you could have just mailed it. Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn are how we tell people about new products, events, breaking news and product recalls.