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Why a Website Might Be the Last Thing You Need

This may sound a little funny coming from an agency that makes such beautiful websites. But it’s true. And once you’ve read this article, I think you’ll understand why we make good websites, and that our skill is not just design. It’s helping you understand your customers, the digital ecosystem that they live in and ways to build a website that you and your customers really do need.

As a caveat, this article applies mostly to tangible product brands products that you can touch and hold. Software/experience or service brands (think Salesforce or FedEx) have needs that can vary greatly from these.

One of our teams came up with this headline (“A website is the LAST thing that they need!”) during some recent work for a trendy beverage company. They wanted a website for their rapidly growing brand, and to serve as a driver to trial for their core segment ages of 21 to 34. Yes, they knew that social and mobile were needed, but they really, really wanted to make sure that the website would be a “home” for the brand and its customers.

Brands often expect their websites to handle virtually every aspect of the customer life cycle: attract, inform, convert, transact, support and engender. Or said another way, they need to:

  • Raise awareness
  • Provide information
  • Convert those likely to purchase into those who do purchase
  • Conduct the purchase transaction
  • Support the transaction and the buyer’s use of the product
  • Provide a platform for advocacy

That’s a lot of work for a site, and this is only a partial list! So here’s the punch line: in many cases, great websites actually do a lot less than this and by doing so, they’re more successful, easier to maintain and cost less.

Websites still do matter, but, increasingly, other channels matter more. Especially the one channel that matters the most. …

We’re Talking About the Customer.

Our Chief Creative Officer Ken Martin often points out a key principle here: Fish Where the Fish Are. In traditional advertising, we don’t erect billboards in the middle of a forest where nobody can see it unless we’re going after the hiking segment. Likewise, the idea that your brand is being served by investing in a website that many of your target customers don’t or won’t visit is just as crazy!

And that’s a key point — very few people on the internet will actually visit your site. The traffic that you do get can be at a great expense due to money paid out for SEO/SEM, promotions, your staff time, IT resources, agencies, etc. Most of the traffic regarding your brand goes to other sites, all of them a gazillion times more trafficked than yours. These websites almost completely fulfill the functions that we listed above for millions of products and brands, including yours if you so choose. When people want to know about your product, they trust sites other than yours and more than yours for much of that information, especially when it’s opinions or reviews (e.g. consumerreports.org).

All those people who spend time on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even (still) MySpace, aren’t visiting your site to find out who likes your product or to form a new community. Many have tried the “Field of Dreams style to make that happen, yet it rarely does.

Even if through some miraculous combination of SEO, SEM or other serendipity, individuals who do go to your website, will probably never return.

Because people more often look for information about your product elsewhere, you may want to be there too. It’s those elsewheres that might matter more than your website, so let’s put our billboards up on freeways or in neighborhood coffee shops. Not in forests.

Likewise, if you want customers to be able to find other people who use or like your product, then be where they are — be where the fish are.

A Million Facebook Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

When Activision asked BLITZ to build the Guitar Hero 5 (GH5) destination, we used Facebook Connect to join the GH5 community with the site and users’ data. Not collecting email addresses, and instead connecting the game to the community was a huge shift in the video game business. But we didn’t stop there. We also removed some traditional information functions by “outsourcing” them to the rest of the web. As a result, GH5 was the first console title to reach 1 million fans on Facebook.

The GH5 franchise had tons of videos to show off and even more news to buzz about. The old school approach to sharing this information would have been to host all of it on GuitarHero.com. The new “fish” school says to put it on YouTube. Several things happen when you do this: your videos are connected to other people’s videos, they’re findable, and you just saved a ton of money and hassle that coincides with hosting digital clips. Oh, and Google pays for the bandwidth, which as a result, increases the search rankings on your media and (rapidly shrinking) website. Nice.

Video was just one example. The folks at Activision also had article content that they wanted on the site. Our solution was to upload the stories or reviews to Digg and then replace the GuitarHero.com content summary feed with a Digg feed that they would curate. All of their articles showed up and they were now able to publish other content that users might have otherwise missed for free. Once again, this outsourcing method improved GH’s search rankings. As customers read the stories or watched the videos, they were often directed away from the site — to where the other fish were.

If you’ve been around the internet for a while, think how it’s evolved from the “What’s your website strategy?” world of the past 15 years. With the “fish” school of thinking, we’re seeing the interactive/digital marketing industry come of age.

Do you want your brand in front of consumers or in the news, your content read, your customers forming a community? If so, then go where the fish are.

Your Website is Part of The Conversation.

The best part of hanging with fish is that they’re better than ever at telling others all about your brand and products. Assuming that you have a decent brand and are doing the products right, then just showing up will go a long way.

Back to the beverage brand we’ve been working with. Their goal is to drive trial of their beverage — get people to grab a glassful and give it a taste. Conversion numbers within their core segment are great, but first people need to step up to trials. The company was doing all of the usual things to show up in retail and on premise, and they wanted their digital presence to serve that goal as well.

We stopped to ask, “When was the last time anyone went to a brand’s website to read about the beverage (or what consumers posted on its “community” pages) and then got into their car, drove to the store and bought the product?” We laughed. Okay, maybe one person did that.

When you look into the real process that consumers use to make purchase decisions, a website begins to seem much less useful.

Our User Experience Team did some cultural modeling, followed up with research and came back with some interesting stats. It turned out that these consumers, more than any other segment, often try things that their friends have tried. They’re also more likely to try things that they know can be found where they are. So if you want to drive trial, then you need to be part of the conversation. No, not the conversation between the brand site and consumer, but the conversation between the consumer and consumer. Go hang out with the fish.

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In the diagram above, you can see the tools that are strongest in supporting the trial of the beverage. You can also see that the website is the least influential of them all. If you agree, then you get the point. A website should drive people everywhere else BUT to itself. Drive the customer into the store that sells your product, drive your customer to the restaurant that serves it and connect your customer to people they know who have tried it, written about it and love it. Drive the fish back into the big pond.

Once you start doing this, all of your objectives will change. You no longer want the goal of your online destination to be “time on-site” because you don’t want consumers on your website. A better measure is the site’s ability to drive visitors into relevant conversations and information that’s everywhere else on the internet and in the real world. Your website should complement the greater fish-pond ecosystem.

But What About My Brand Experience?

Whatever you do on the web, it should reflect your brand and the brand experience. Your website is no exception. The old idea is that your site should be an “immersive brand experience” that is “sticky” and “conveys the brand essence in every interaction” (You may have seen these phrases before since I took them from old proposals). That’s not true anymore.

What you need is for your customer to experience your brand as part of their life, their friends’ lives, the communities that they know, places they go and things they love. That’s not easy to do, but if you’re a brand-marketing professional, it’s your raison d’être to solve this problem. And a website will not get you there.

What, No Websites?

No, of course not. You still need a website, but let’s redefine its primary role: To be the place where you can have a private and direct conversation with your customers as needed. There are many examples of this, including definitive product information, customer support, legal issues, contact points and more.

When it’s not a one-on-one conversation, then you need to direct customers back to the other fish — point the way and help them add to the conversation. Check out airbornehealth.com for an example of “website light.” This company doesn’t do much there and it doesn’t need to, because all of the conversation is elsewhere. Take a peek at the chat activity on their Facebook page.

So why might a website be the last thing that you need? Before you build a new online destination, you need to build strategy around what your customer really needs and where else they’ll be hanging out. You know … where the fish are.

And if you would like some help in building the best possible connection with your customer, give us a call. It’s what we do at BLITZ.

BLITZ is an Integrated Digital Agency in Santa Monica, California, serving clients in a wide range of industries including consumer products, technology, video gaming, entertainment and hospitality. Jack Skeels leads BLITZ’s business and client development activities, and prior to BLITZ led Sapient’s Los Angeles office and served as senior internet analyst with RAND.

{ 2 comments }

Emily Binder January 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Once explained, as you have, this is a very intuitive but seldom safe-feeling sentiment for many brands. For a product you hold in your hands, like a beverage, it makes total sense that the website is not the most important piece of beverage’s digital presence. Yet it almost seems a sin to stray from the .com as end all be all, but that is a lingering sentiment from the last decade which I think will change. It still exists only because the other channels you mention, such as setting up a Digg feed and hosting a video on YouTube aren’t accepted by everyone (namely the old school) as equally valuable and comparable. I bet the numbers will show, however, that the lower cost per acquisition for each customer converted from these non-website channels will speak for itself.

Dave Baldwin January 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm

I tend to agree….and I might even take this further. Not every business needs to be on the internet at all. Some businesses are still doing very well with cold calling and the Yellow Pages. There is still a large segment of the population that rarely or never uses the internet at all. And these people are spending a lot of money.

Like the post said – fish where the fish are. Good viewpoint.