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Consumer-facing companies have a particular problem on the web. They usually have one memorable domain name (www.group.com), yet they want the site to do at least two jobs: to market (or sell) and to provide corporate information. Can one site do both?

In theory the answer is yes. Websites are like complex board games, where all visitors start on the same square but can wander off on different paths. No problem at all to send customers to the product area, shareholders to the investor area, people looking for jobs to the careers bit, and so on.

In practice it is not that easy. For one thing, there is only one starting square – the home page – so there can be mighty battles over which function gets the best deal. For another, sites are likely to have either a distinct marketing or corporate slant, depending on who owns them. If the marketing team has the upper hand, that will show; if the corporate side does, that will. And when I see a battle raging on the screen, I know I have found spark-filled internal politics. The only sites where neither slant nor cracks are visible are those where there is firm central control.

I reckon about half of all big companies have the potential for marketing-versus-corporate conflict. They include computer makers, retailers, retail banks and insurers, car manufacturers, consumer brand groups and telecom companies. The numbers will rise as companies with a more B2B bent, for example the oil majors, increasingly decide that their websites should be used to sell or market directly to customers.

Corporate sites from these companies currently come in two flavours: those that have been moulded by history and internal politics, and those where the centre has attempted to impose a shape. The first group tends to be marketing-led, because that is how the companies think, while the latter shows more signs of balance.

The extreme marketing-led part of the spectrum is occupied by the giant dotcoms. Ebay (www.ebay.com) has an ‘About eBay’ link right at the bottom of a long home page, while Amazon (442nd) has Investor Relations, Press and Careers links tucked away at the bottom of an even longer page. The quality of corporate information reflects the triumph of the sales people. Amazon’s results announcements and reports are produced in the most basic style, downloadable as pdf. The careers section is better, but is completely cut off from the other corporate areas. eBay’s press releases are pdfs, though there is an intriguing tutorial telling analysts how to work out revenues by tracking listings. Overall, though, not great.

Computer companies also put customers first. Many have strong corporate information, but they do their best to hide it. Microsoft’s careers area is about the most comprehensive there is, but to find it from the home page you have to scroll right down to a tiny link. Similarly Dell’s About us link is tucked away next to ‘Conditions of Sale and Site Terms’ at the bottom of the page.

These are organisations where the corporate functions are squeezed out by their marketing colleagues. Another set of companies has tried to stop this happening by creating separate sites for the two sides. It sounds like a good idea, but rarely works well.

The problem is that a company rarely has more than one intuitive (that is, guessable) web address, and in most cases it has been grabbed by the marketing department. Thus you buy from www.tesco.com, but you find out the share price from www.tescocorporate.com. The same with www.walmart.com and www.walmartstores.com, www.sainsburys.com, and www.jsainsbury.com, and www.fiat.com and www.fiatgroup.com. Bizarrely, Sainsbury’s puts recruiting information on the consumer site, investor and media content on the corporate site, with social responsibility spread between the two. Odd internal politics going on here.

Most sites do have some cross-links, though Fiat does not and Sainsbury’s is minute. If you do want separate sales and corporate sites, make sure the links are clear. Better, possibly, give the corporate site the easy-to-guess address: www.pepsico.com is the group site, while the Pepsi brand site is www.pepsiworld.com. While this would hardly work for Tesco or Wal-mart, where direct sales are so important, it must be the better option for Fiat.

But are separate sites really the answer? Do you want to give the impression that your corporate and marketing functions operate on different planets? Better surely, to ensure that one web address serves all audiences in the most efficient way. Here, the fast-moving consumer goods sector is leading the way.

FMCG companies started out with a vague idea of what they could do on the web, with the result that corporate functions tended to fill the vacuum. A few still do. Danone (www.danone.com) is dominated by media and investor information, with brand sites very much the add-on. But other companies have come to conclusion that, actually, a website is a good way of talking directly to the customer, and have revamped their sites accordingly. Procter and Gamble (www.pg.com) discarded a corporate look in favour of a consumer-facing one in 2001, while Unilever (www.unilever.com) did the same not much more than a year ago. It is rolling out a cheerfully consumer-oriented set of sites around the world.

The quality of corporate information on sites such as Unilever, P&G and Nestlé (www.nestle.com) remains strong, however. I think this is for two reasons. First, because the corporate divisions have had plenty of practice running the site. Second, because a rational decision has been made to manage the site from the centre. Internal politics cannot be abolished, but with dictatorial control they can be made invisible – at least on the website.

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

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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