10 Harsh Truths About Corporate Websites

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We all make mistakes running our websites. However, the nature of those mistakes varies depending on the size of your company. As your organization grows, the mistakes change. This post addresses common mistakes among large organizations.

Most of the clients I work with are large organizations: universities, large charities, public sector institutions and large companies. Over the last 7 years, I have noticed certain recurring misconceptions among these organizations. This post aims to dispel these illusions and encourage people to face the harsh reality.

The problem is that if you are reading this post, you are probably already aware of these things. But hopefully this article will be helpful to you as you convince others within your organization. In any case, here are our 10 harsh truths about websites of large organizations.

1. You Need A Separate Web Division

In many organizations, the website is managed by either the marketing or IT department. However, this inevitably leads to a turf war, with the website becoming the victim of internal politics.

In reality, pursuing a Web strategy is not particularly suited to either group. IT may be excellent at rolling out complex systems, but it is not suited to developing a friendly user experience or establishing an online brand.

Screenshot of Zeldman's website
Zeldman1 urges organisations to create a separate web division.

Marketing, on the other hand, is little better. As Jeffrey Zeldman puts it in his article Let there be Web divisions2:

The Web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue… And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.

Instead, the website should be managed by a single unified team. Again, Zeldman sums it up when he writes:

Put them in a division that recognizes that your website is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be Web divisions.

2. Managing Your Website Is A Full-Time Job

Not only is the website often split between marketing and IT, it is also usually under-resourced. Instead of there being a dedicated Web team, those responsible for the website are often expected to run it alongside their “day job.” When a Web team is in place, it is often over-stretched. The vast majority of its time is spent on day-to-day maintenance rather than longer-term strategic thinking.

This situation is further aggravated by the fact that the people hired to “maintain” the website are junior members of the staff. They do not have the experience or authority to push the website forward. It is time for organizations to seriously invest in their websites by hiring full-time senior Web managers to move their Web strategies forward.

3. Periodic Redesign Is Not Enough

Because corporate websites are under-resourced, they are often neglected for long periods of time. They slowly become out of date with their content, design and technology.

Eventually, the website becomes such an embarrassment that management steps in and demands that it be sorted. This inevitably leads to a complete redesign at considerable expense. As I point out in the Website Owners Manual3, this a flawed approach. It is a waste of money because when the old website is replaced, the investment put into it is lost, too. It is also tough on finances, with a large expenditure having to be made every few years.

Screenshot of Cameron Molls Article
Cameron Moll encourages4 web designers to realign their website rather than redesign.

A better way is continual investment in your website, allowing it to evolve over time. Not only is this less wasteful, it is also better for users, as pointed out by Cameron Moll in his post Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign5.

4. Your Website Cannot Appeal To Everyone

One of the first questions I ask a client is, “Who is your target audience?” I am regularly shocked at the length of the reply. Too often, it includes a long and detailed list of diverse people. Inevitably, my next question is, “Which of those many demographic groups are most important?” Depressingly, the answer is usually that they are all equally important.

The harsh truth is that if you build a website for everyone, it will appeal to no one. It is important to be extremely focused about your audience and cater your design and content to it. Does this mean you should ignore your other users? Not at all. Your website should be accessible by all and not offend or exclude anybody. However, the website does need to be primarily aimed at a clearly defined audience.

5. You Are Wasting Money On Social Networking

I find it encouraging that website managers increasingly recognize that a Web strategy is more than running a website. They are beginning to use tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to increase their reach and engage with new audiences. However, although they are using these tools, too often they do so ineffectively. Tweeting on a corporate account or posting sales demonstrations on YouTube misses the essence of social networking.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Channel 9 website
Microsoft dramatically improved its image amoung the development community by allowing Microsoft staff to speak out via the Channel 9 website.

Social networking is about people engaging with people. Individuals do not want to build relationships with brands and corporations. They want to talk to other people. Too many organizations throw millions into Facebook apps and viral videos when they could spend that money on engaging with people in a transparent and open away.

Instead of creating a corporate Twitter account or indeed even a corporate blog, encourage your employees to start Tweeting and blogging themselves. Provide guidelines on acceptable behavior and what tools they need to start engaging directly with the community connected to your products and services. This demonstrates not only your commitment to the community but also the human side of your business.

6. Your Website Is Not All About You

Where some website managers want their website to appeal to everybody, others want it to appeal to themselves and their colleagues. A surprising number of organizations ignore their users entirely and base their websites entirely on an organizational perspective. This typically manifests itself in inappropriate design that caters to the managing director’s personal preferences and contains content full of jargon.

A website should not pander to the preferences of staff but should rather meet the needs of its users. Too many designs are rejected because the boss “doesn’t like green.” Likewise, too much website copy contains acronyms and terms used only within the organization.

7. You’re Not Getting Value From Your Web Team

Whether they have an in-house Web team or use an external agency, many organizations fail to get the most from their Web designers. Web designers are much more than pixel pushers. They have a wealth of knowledge about the Web and how users interact with it. They also understand design techniques, including grid systems, white space, color theory and much more.

Post from Twitter complaining about being a pixel pusher
Treating designers as pixel pushers wastes their design experience: post from Twitter complaining about being a pixel pusher

It is therefore wasteful to micro-manage by asking them to “make the logo bigger” or to “move that 3 pixels to the left.” By doing so, you are reducing their role to that of a software operator and wasting the wealth of experience they bring.

If you want to get the maximum return on your Web team, present it with problems, not solutions. For example, if you’re targeting your website at teenage girls, and the designer goes for corporate blue, suggest that your audience might not respond well to that color. Do not tell him or her to change it to pink. This way, the designer has the freedom to find a solution that may even be better than your choice. You allow your designer to solve the problem you have presented.

8. Design By Committee Brings Death

The ultimate symbol of a large organization’s approach to website management is the committee. A committee is often formed to tackle the website because internal politics demand that everybody has a say and all considerations be taken into account. To say that all committees are a bad idea is naive, and to suggest that a large corporate website could be developed without consultation is fanciful. However, when it comes to design, committees are often the kiss of death.

Illustration showing why design by committee fails
Design by committee leads to design on the fly.

Design is subjective. The way we respond to a design can be influenced by culture, gender, age, childhood experience and even physical conditions (such as color blindness). What one person considers great design could be hated by another. This is why it is so important that design decisions be informed by user testing rather than personal experience. Unfortunately, this approach is rarely taken when a committee is involved in design decisions.

Instead, designing by committee becomes about compromise. Because committee members have different opinions about the design, they look for ways to find common ground. One person hates the blue color scheme, while another loves it. This leads to designing on the fly, with the committee instructing the designer to “try a different blue” in the hopes of finding middle ground. Unfortunately, this leads only to bland design that neither appeals to nor excites anyone.

9. A CMS Is Not A Silver Bullet

Many of the clients I work with have amazingly unrealistic expectations of CMS (content management systems). Those without one think it will solve all of their content woes, while those who have one moan about it because it hasn’t!

It is certainly true that a CMS can bring a lot of benefits. These include:

  • reducing the technical barriers of adding content,
  • allowing more people to add and edit content,
  • facilitating faster updates,
  • and allowing greater control.

However, many CMS are less flexible than their owners would like. They fail to meet the changing demands of the websites they manage. Website managers also complain that their CMS is hard to use. However, in many cases, this is because those using it have not been adequately trained or are not using it regularly enough.

Finally, a CMS may allow content to be easily updated, but it does not ensure that content will be updated or even that the quality of content will be acceptable. Many CMS-based websites still have out-of-date content or poorly written copy. This is because internal processes have not been put in place to support the content contributors.

If you look to a CMS to solve your website maintenance issues, you will be disappointed.

10. You Have Too Much Content

Part of the problem with content maintenance on large corporate websites is that there is too much content in the first place. Most of these websites have “evolved” over years, with more and more content having been added. At no stage has anybody reviewed the content and asked what could be taken away.

Many website managers fill their website with copy that nobody will read. This happens because of:

  • A fear of missing something: by putting everything online, they believe users will be able to find whatever they want. Unfortunately, with so much information available, it is hard to find anything.
  • A fear users will not understand: whether from a lack of confidence in their website or in their audience, they feel the need to provide endless instruction to users. Unfortunately, users never read this copy.
  • A desperate desire to convince: they are desperate to sell their product or communicate their message, and so they bloat the text with sales copy that actually conveys little valuable information.

Steve Krug, in his book Don’t Make Me Think, encourages website managers to “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” This will reduce the noise level on each page and make the useful content more prominent.

Conclusions

Large organizations do a lot right in running their websites. However, they also face some unique challenges that can lead to painful mistakes. Resolving these problems means accepting that mistakes have been made, overcoming internal politics and changing the way you control your brand. Doing so will give you a significant competitive advantage and allow your Web strategy to become more effective over the long term.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.zeldman.com
  2. 2 http://www.zeldman.com/2007/07/02/let-there-be-web-divisions/
  3. 3 http://boagworld.com/websiteownersmanual
  4. 4 http://www.alistapart.com/articles/redesignrealign
  5. 5 http://www.alistapart.com/articles/redesignrealign

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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  1. 1

    omg, I wish my boss can read this article.

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  2. 102

    Great article, this could not be more helpful than right now as we are in the process of redesign! Thanks

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  3. 203

    Some nice tips there Paul

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  4. 304

    Amen! There IS such a thing as too much content.

    The first company I ever worked for broke all 10 rules alone. As a copywriter my favorite comments back to them were always “do you have such little faith in your sales/customer support team that you don’t want them to EVER be called to answer questions or for more information? Do you want to leave your potential customers searching through your vast website alone?” I left and they called in a high-priced consultant who told them the same thing. :-)

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  5. 405

    THANK YOU for finally addressing this issue! I can say flat-out that it’s like you were a fly on the wall at every single meeting I’ve been in for the past three months regarding my company’s (disastrous) Web site plans. Thumbs up for the article and, even more, for allowing my coworkers and I laugh about how incredibly appropriate this post is, because we really needed that chuckle.

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  6. 506

    This is the most incredible article I’ve ever read!
    I’ll try to use it when I get into these situations.

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  7. 607

    nice article and bang on to the point.

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  8. 708

    AWESOME article! There is not an ounce of lies in this entire thing. I work in the Communications department for a regulatory college and we are re-hauling our website…YOU HAVE TOO MUCH CONTENT!

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  9. 809

    So glad to see Paul Boag writing some articles for Smashing! So far, they have been excellent!

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  10. 910

    Good article and points all around… now the work begins and trying to get C-level suits to see, listen and agree to all these! :)

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  11. 1011

    Dead on. Keep up the great work.

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  12. 1112

    Good article. You’ve opened up a can of worms with this one. I’d give the readers here a look at our corportate site to see how bad things can actually get, but don’t really need confirmation that it sucks.

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  13. 1213

    This is fantastic, I’m a freelance designer and often find that we need more information like this pointed at clients, a lot of my clients are willing to learn and understand that they make dumb requests only because they are not aware of the limitations.
    As the newer generations come up into management, they are more open to technology and all the “I dont want to know just do it” dinosaurs are becoming extinct. This type of article from a reliable source helps get the point across when they look at us with that “what do you know, you’re too young” face.

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  14. 1314

    Wow guys, thank you all so much for the huge encouragement! Glad you found it useful. :)

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  15. 1415

    Nice article!

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  16. 1516

    Number 10 hurts. My company has been around a while and we have 900+ pages of information covering about 80 products. While I think it’s good to ruthlessly edit content I think it’s equally important to think about data presentation and effective search tools thus making the information as accessible as possible – sometimes a lot of info is actually needed.

    This was a very good article. Thanks!

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  17. 1617

    Right on Paul!

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  18. 1718

    Great article! Has a corporate design freelancer, I couldn’t agree more. I understand the whole redesign vs. realign, but in many cases some companies REALLY do need a complete redesign. Now, redesigning for the sake of having fancy graphics is a no-no. A design should of course align itself with all the objectives and goals to doing a “redesign” in the first place.

    Cheers!

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  19. 1819

    Great article, keep it on guys :o)

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  20. 1920

    Also, one BIG truth I think you missed, and one thing many very few companies do well, is many corporate sites (especially those in technology and other serviced-based businesses) don’t properly define their value proposition! Most of time you can’t really figure out what they do or why their different, only that “XYZ Company offers best-of-breed solutions for global operations to increase performance and sustainability across several sectors and agencies”

    Umm, what?!

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  21. 2021

    Oh wow, you really are someone who has been there, done that! I sit here going yep, yep, yep.

    Don’t forget the HIPPO (Highest Paid Persons Opinion) which many of us suffer from. You do sometimes sit down and try to work out why your years of knowledge is ignored. Then later you have to duck for cover when conversions go down and the blame is heading your way even though you knew it was going to happen and tried to stop it.

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  22. 2122

    Welcome to my life!

    Just about every single one of those applies to where I’ve been working for the last few years. Good article. I’ve emailed it around…

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  23. 2223

    We are not alone! That’s so reassuring :)

    But – what is it about corp culture that makes this such a common experience ?

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  24. 2324

    Nice. More from Paul :)

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  25. 2425

    Awesome article, I’ve been spouting off a lot of the same sentiment. Now I have a place I can point people too to just read it instead of listening to me rant :)

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  26. 2526

    Totally just forwarded this link to my boss…

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  27. 2627

    absolutely great!

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  28. 2728

    sososososo awesome, relevant, necessary. thank you.

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  29. 2829

    Somebody has to spoil the party, sorry.

    10 Harsh Truths About This Article

    10. Good points, but obvious to anyone who has been in the business more than 3 months.

    9. Only valuable to designers that probably don’t have the vision to do anything but push pixels.

    8. Contains dangerous generalities like designing by committee is deadly. A bad process is deadly, but design by single person who thinks they are a genius is just as bad, or worse.

    7. Just because some companies are guilty of these well-know pitfalls, doesn’t mean it’s a wide-spread problem, unless, of course it’s your source of income to fix bad websites.

    6. These harsh truths don’t have much relevance if you design in the e-commerce field, not because they don’t apply, but because you’re out-of-business if you didn’t already know these “truths.”

    5. The article’s tone, voice and illustration all come across as disturbingly derivative of Steve Krug’s work. It is one thing to champion a cause, but this is a little too close to the line of unoriginality claim evangelical status. Take your copies of this article off the wall and buy your boss a copy of “Don’t Make Me Think.”

    4. It is scary to think that so many unqualified designers need the comfort of these “truths.”

    3. This article promotes divisional thinking to an audience of mediocre designers working in small minded companies.

    2. Announcing that a good idea, executed poorly is wrong, isn’t exactly ground breaking.

    1. The author counted the wrong direction. Casey Kasem and David Letterman taught us that to make an effective presentation, a reversed reveal increases audience engagement.

    -1
  30. 2930

    Great article. But you’re right. The people who need to learn this information aren’t the people who’ll be reading it.

    I work on very large sports league websites for a Fortune 100 company. And I can tell you that the biggest challenge we face is dealing with 20 different divisions all wanting above-the-fold, homepage presence. And they all want their piece to be bold, red, larger, blinking, and higher up the page. (And then, of course, there are 728 x 90 and 300 x 250 ads that have to appear above the fold.) So everyone’s crowding into a 1000 x 660px space and no one’s willing to acknowledge that, y’know, only 1% of the users care about their section of the site. So maybe we should let the homepage attractively deliver the content that 95% of the users are coming for.

    No one’s known for everything. Be known for something rather than nothing.

    Thanks for letting me vent. :)

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  31. 3031

    You’re the man, Paul!

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  32. 3132

    Have you been watching my life? I think I am going to show this to my CEO.

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  33. 3233

    begins crying

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  34. 3334

    Mr. Boag steps from behind the microphone, great article!
    -t

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  35. 3435

    its so true about clients criticising for the sake of it and not trusting your design decisions.

    I wouldn’t ever tell them how to do their job if i was a client. I wouldn’t tell a dentist how to fix my teeth so why should they tell me how big a logo should be.

    everyone thinks they are qualified to design.

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  36. 3536

    “Somebody has to spoil the party, sorry.”
    Really, no, they don’t. Don’t like it? Think everyone else here is a loser? Then go somewhere else and stop wasting your time.

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  37. 3637

    Great article, Im in a large company that has every single one of those issues above!!

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  38. 3738

    true, true.. 100% true.. !

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  39. 3839

    great great great article.

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  40. 3940

    Wow, how familiar I am with most of those. Brilliant article! Now – how to get the administration at our university to read it?

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  41. 4041

    @125 Sounds like you just know it all. Problem is, no one’s ever heard of you. Your opinion, while hilariously entertaining, doesn’t stack up to the advice from an established web strategist like Paul.

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  42. 4142

    REALLY??? Am I the only reader that wasn’t blown away by the article (besides #125)? If the content of this article is news to you people, I feel sorry for you. I’ve been building and marketing Web sites since 1996, and the top ten are old hat to those of us that have made a living helping companies create a meaningful online presence. A few comments I didn’t notice in a glance at the 135 other comments:

    1. Wasting Time on Social Networking is not entirely accurate. Bad marketing is bad marketing, social media notwithstanding. Good social media marketing creates awareness and engagement, period. Just because a company has corporate profiles doesn’t mean people don’t want to hear from them or that it can’t offer value. It’s a communication platform, so why not communicate. There are a variety of reasons to use social media beyond outbound communication: search engine visibility and online reputation management are two reasons our clients use social media.
    http://www.anvilmediainc.com/social-media-marketing-optimization-article.html
    http://www.anvilmediainc.com/online-reputation-management-article.htm
    2. In regards to Too Much Content…we’ll, I agree that bad content is bad content, but in terms of gaining visibility and connecting with your audience, content is king. If it is timely (or timeless), offers value of some kind and is well optimized for search engine visibility (SEO) then there are very good reasons to create content. On a related note, having an SEO-friendly CMS is also important, which is why we love WordPress…it’s great for blogging, and good at managing corporate content, but is bombproof for search engine optimization.
    http://www.anvil-media.com/archives/030105/contentisking.htm

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  43. 4243

    We are a web team in the marketing department but everyone refers to us as the web department. It’s a great place to be because everyone wants to own us but no one except ourselves know how to manage web.

    On the other hand how do we make a business case for #1, that web needs to be a department with a budget and a director and its own staff? THAT is what we need.

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  44. 4344

    A lot of these points sound sadly familiar to any of us who have worked on a corporate site. The comments bear that out. Of course, none of us are likely to completely redefine how our corporate teams develop their sites. We can, though, start chiseling away at one or two of these points, in the hope of creating some quick changes. If things then start to improve, who knows… maybe it will be the extra credibility needed to initiate further changes.

    Great post, and hopefully it won’t be as true if we all read it again in a year or two from now!

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  45. 4445

    most orgs could benefit by focusing on the web as a stream instead of a pond. Always moving, folks need to focus on the creative communications in an ongoing endless stream.

    Wouldn’t want your web presence to dry up.

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  46. 4546

    This article should be required reading for all Marketing AND Product managers at companies. I guess what seems painfully obvious to us web designers is just to clear and direct for most of them… unfortunately.

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  47. 4647

    this is extremely helpful.
    Thank you

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  48. 4748

    Great article and true. But you need staff to do this well AND you need to have solid proof that you are selling more products as a result. No analystics, no staff. Without a staff, it is physically impossible for either IT or mar/com or a separate department to create and evolve a good site given all of their other responsibilities. The result of all the technorati chatter about interactive websites (plus other web 2.0 tactics) is senior management requiring them without adding either staff or money or understanding whether they will reach their audiences effectively with these tactics. It’s like saying you need a great marble statue to sell your product and assigning the quarry man to carve it. I think we need to back off on some of this and figure out how we will really reach people in their decision making processes.

    And what planet are you living on where a company will create a new department????

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  49. 4849

    coolwebdeveloper.com

    February 11, 2009 9:26 am

    Great article. I just forwarded to everyone on our team.

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  50. 4950

    Great article!

    As a developer working at BrandLogic whose client base is Fortune 500 companies we run into every single one of the truths mentioned above.

    I wanted to comment on a couple of truths.

    1. Separate web division – this has to be weighed on a case by case basis. Is the division capable of updating and maintaining their site. Do they have sound needs for a separate site or are they just looking for control of something they won’t control?

    If it is determined that a division needs a separate site then they need to work with whoever the overall company web owners are to ensure that there is a company Brand look and feel and that they are communicating in the same Brand message. If the division is to much out on their own how are customers going to tie them to the parent company?

    5. Social networking – this is an excellent way to spread your brand you message to a lot of people. The important aspect of social networking is that management needs to communicate guidelines to their employees on how to act what they can and can not talk about. These guidelines should be easily accessible and can be updated easily. At BrandLogic we offer our clients BrandEnsemble which is an internal tool for corporations to communicate how employees should present their companies brand to the world. From how to use logos to tone of voice in written communications to guidelines in the social networking space.

    9. CMS not a silver bullet – It is not a silver bullet no. We’ve done both CMS sites as well as HTML sites for our clients. In each case the training the maintainability and the initial coding are all easier with an established CMS. Our BrandEnsemble product is a CMS that was build to be flexible in setting up templates and design to meet the challenges of the content and the brand that are brought to the forefront in the initial phases of Discovery and strategy in our process with our clients. With effective planning our CMS tool is a efficient tool for our clients to use in maintaining their own site with ease.

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