First place: like all this year's best sites, Shell was marked out by a determination not to be boring

The world’s largest companies own “magic devices” that allow them to talk to half of humanity at a trivial cost – and few of them know what to do with them. This year’s Financial Times-Bowen Craggs Index of corporate online effectiveness shows that, far from coming to a consensus about how they should be using their websites and social media channels, there is more variety than ever among the world’s biggest companies.

The FT BC Index has been running since 2007. The underlying database is updated constantly, but we publish a fresh set of numbers once a year to show the current trends. It judges corporate websites and other channels, but this is about much more than corporate communications – it is about the way huge companies speak to the world.

They may be speaking to customers, jobseekers, journalists, critics, neighbours, governments – but for each of them, the internet has become an increasingly vital channel. Call it “group level marketing” – marketing/promotion/messaging for the group as a whole – and it suddenly seems more important.

One conundrum is that, even though the speed of change seems phenomenal, few senior managers understand the internet’s importance except as a pure selling tool. The companies from which the list below is drawn are the 80 biggest in the world – only a handful come close to using it as they might.

Furthermore, the gap between those who “get it” and those who do not is widening. Some companies renowned for their tight management seem to lose all sense when it comes to online communications. ExxonMobil has just launched a corporate site that falls into the biggest current bear trap – mimicking sites such as Tumblr or Huffington Post, without thinking that its needs are quite different. The current trend for endless scrolling – with minimal navigation to guide visitors – just does not work for a complex, multi-audience website.

At the same time, other companies are getting increasingly slick. These are marked out by:

A refusal to go along with trends – they do things because they are appropriate. BP and Total have relaunched their sites with profoundly unfashionable left menu navigation. But they work. Nestlé, GSK and (again) Total have created mobile-friendly sites, but they have not put mobile usability first, as some others have. This is sensible, as fewer than 10 per cent of their visitors look at their sites on small screens.

A belief that – if they want to get their messages across – they must not be boring. General Electric has some terrific magazine-style material, exploiting broadband-powered multimedia with verve. Siemens’ commissioned short films still shine. Shell’s videos of beasties under the sea are gripping, while Apple’s multimedia essays are rather beautiful (especially on tablets). This is, however in danger of being undermined by another fashion, for “stories” that are simply rather boring words labelled as stories. High-quality editorial control is still too rare.

An understanding that the internet is the most flexible medium invented, and that to use a corporate site for only one purpose is to abuse it. Apple.com is fantastic at serving consumers; pretty useless for other groups.

Notwithstanding the above, a realisation that online channels should also support specific needs of a company. Much-abused Nestlé crackles with clues that it wants to be seen as open. BP is still trying to repair its reputation post Gulf of Mexico. Goldman Sachs needs to continue attracting the brightest recruits.

To be right at the top of the index, you need to do all these and more. Apple, GE and Goldman score highly in some ways, but their usability is way off. Pfizer works well, but is dull. Use the table (more on our website) to pick out those that shine and fade in different areas.

Another common factor for the high performers is that they have all been polishing away at established sites. It is difficult for a good site to be relaunched and increase its score – glitches always get in the way. But let them settle and they will rise: BP, GSK and Qualcomm are relaunched sites to watch.

Top performers also see that “social media” are really a set of individual channels that do different things.

LinkedIn is often best for communicating the company’s attractions for jobseekers, Facebook for corporate social responsibility messaging for customers, jobseekers and the general public. Slideshare is useful for posting content for investors and analysts.

YouTube and Flickr are often used as extensions of the corporate website – essentially integrated channels for publishing further information about the company, rather than truly “social” media, inviting interaction. Real social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter – need careful, active management.

The most interesting development has been the use of Facebook as a reputation management tool. After struggling to understand it for years, a small number of companies are now using it well to respond to their critics. As with everything about the web, proper management (we call it governance) is what marks the good from the bad.

FT BC Index of corporate online effectiveness 2014: Top 20
PositionCompanyScore
1Royal Dutch Shell218
2=Eni216
2=Nestle216
4Unilever213
5Siemens212
6Roche209
7British American Tobacco208
8BP207
9SAP203
10=Novartis201
10=SABMiller201
12=BASF200
12=GSK200
14Novo Nordisk199
15Bayer198
16Daimler197
17Barclays194
18Sanofi193
19L’Oreal192
20=Google191
20=Rio Tinto191

The writer is senior consultant at Bowen Craggs & Co. For the full ranking by different metrics, visit www.bowencraggs.com/FT-Bowen-Craggs-Index

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