Tech giants bypass online innovation

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I am looking at the home pages of five giant IT companies. I have reduced them so I can compare them at the same time – and I despair slightly. Not only do they look the same, they are packed with cliché images of people shaking hands, perfect-toothed smiles, the insides of computers. How is it that these most inventive companies have had an innovation bypass when it comes to developing their websites?

With Intel announcing that it is cutting its workforce, I decided to see how the IT majors are using the web to cut costs, to serve their stakeholders, and to differentiate themselves from each other. My conclusion is that they do a good job with the first, a varying one of the second, and fail miserably at the third.

All the companies I looked at make formidable use of their websites to sell to and support customers. They have done this for years, of course, but I have noticed a considerable tidying-up of the service recently. Cisco’s site (www.cisco.com) used to be like a vast warehouse, haphazardly stuffed full of content with a home page acting as a practical but shabby trade counter. Now it is a well ordered site with quick access to information either by industry or size of company, and a mass of case studies. Given that many IT people are not techies, this emphasis on putting technology into its business or organisational context makes good sense. IBM (www.ibm.com) has also cleaned up its site. Its product areas used to be superficially similar, but were confusingly different in detail. Now it all seems neat, with the same global navigation throughout. IBM also makes much use of text chat – an efficient customer support device that is quietly moving to the mainstream.

The way IT companies cut and dice a vast database of information to serve people around the world is also impressive. HP (www.hp.com) has 76 country and language sites, including versions in Estonian and Romanian (though why are Europeans so much better served than Asians?). Templates, content and pictures are widely shared by all companies too.

There are two pitfalls with this highly integrated approach. First, country sites can lose the local touch, and even appear culturally insensitive. Cisco’s sub-Saharan Africa site should, I would have thought, have a few African faces, while HP’s Saudi site is populated by happy westerners. Second, it is easy to make howlers if you are not sufficiently rigorous. Intel (www.intel.com) is particularly bad here – if a Belgian wants to buy laptop components on Intel’s (English language) site, he will find himself directed to UK retailers. South Africans are told about the grants they can get because they are members of the EU. And so on.

IT companies all give emphasis to serving customers, which means corporate information can be a little tricky to find. That does not means it is bad however. Microsoft’s US site (www.microsoft.com) has one of the best careers sections I know, while IBM’s service to private investors is first class. If you are interested in such things, have a look both at its podcasts and investor tools, which include excellent guides for the inexperienced shareholder.

To come back to differentiation, or rather the lack of it. Every company I looked at has a deep promotional banner hogging most of the home page, pushing useful links downward or off the page altogether. Microsoft has a toothy lady promising to ‘protect your PC from spyware’ and a picture of a clock urging us to ‘save time’ – it takes up a good 70 per cent of my screen. Cisco has a montage of people shaking hands, three people at a desk, and a man on his own – I am looking at the Croatian home page, as it happens, but as I have explained you get something similar anywhere. Intel has a picture of a motherboard: motherboards can be things of beauty, but this one is not. Surely Apple (www.apple.com), the great innovator, must be different? Well, the pictures are more attractive, but they are still of computers and are no more than a product billboard.

As the home page is probably the most valuable square foot of real estate a corporation owns, I am baffled that these companies seem determined to waste it. A clock to illustrate the slogan ‘Save time’. I ask you. Given that the main purpose of the site it to serve customers as efficiently as possible, why not put as many links in view as possible, using smaller and more subtle decoration to raise the visual stakes? Shell (www.shell.com) does that. Or if you do want a deep promotional banner, put it right at the top, and make it as airy as possible, as General Electric (www.ge.com) does. But what you should surely really be doing is trying to find a way of to be different – not so much for customers, who will come to you anyway, but for the other stakeholders (jobseekers, investors, journalists) in whose minds you want to carve out a distinct image for yourself. To borrow GE’s slogan, you need a little imagination at work.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com).

dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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