Reflecting on SAS’s recent knowledge sharing breakfast on digital strategy, Dean discusses the increasingly important role that the corporate website plays in helping companies build reputation.
In carrying out research for a recent talk I gave about digital strategy at one of SAS's knowledge-sharing breakfast events, it became clear that corporate websites have an increasingly important role to play in helping companies build reputation through more integrated communications.
As Robert Edelman says in a recent blog article*, organisations can now only earn trust by clearly talking about what their approach is; why they believe it's important to their business, investors and society at large; and how they are going about implementing it. And of course all this needs to be done consistently across multiple channels and conversations (the where).
However, you can't just rely on carefully crafted messages pushed out across multiple channels to gain your 'badge of authenticity'. Equally important, if not more so, is how these messages are linked to other bits of content in a way that helps people validate the way a company says it thinks and behaves. Only by doing this, I would argue, can a company present itself as being truly 'harmonious' in the way its beliefs and commitments are fully embedded within the organisation.
For example, put yourself in the position of a supermarket shopper. You care about where your food comes from and the impact this has on its suppliers. You do your shopping online and spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook to keep up-to-date with the latest news and views from your friends and the companies you use on a regular basis. You follow your favourite supermarket on Twitter and Facebook - mainly to learn about the latest offers but also to hear about local campaigns and initiatives. You find out about a new initiative to introduce more sustainable fish supplies. You follow a link to the supermarket's corporate website to read a press release. There is no more information linked to the press release so you go to the online shopping channel where you find the product in question. Again, there is no more information about sustainable fishing linked to this product.
What would have been more useful is to have been able to quickly and easily find out more about the issue and related products from lots of different angles, without having to go searching for it - the background to the issue; the supermarket's point of view and those of others; how the supermarket's approach fits in with the overall company philosophy/values; the difference this approach will make to fish supplies and the fisheries that supply the supermarket; case studies showing the work that's been done to date and the impact this is having on supplies and suppliers; plans for the future; links to related products; and ongoing dialogue and commentary from industry experts (both internal and external) and the wider public.
So, what gets in the way of this happening currently? To be honest, there are many reasons - from a lack of understanding at the top of a company, to inadequate or poorly thought out site structures and content management systems, a lack of co-ordination within a business, a lack of coherent plans or policies, a lack of resources and short-term thinking - to name but a few. But as we can see from the likes of Dell**, all these obstacles can be overcome, although admittedly some will be easier to tackle than others.
As we all know, digital technologies now give us the opportunity to engage and connect with people, through multiple channels and voices, in a way that has not been possible before. The beauty of a corporate website is that it is the one place where you can seamlessly link together corporate and consumer, product and service, financial and non-financial stories in a meaningful way.
Although there's understandably a tendency these days to think of corporate websites as poor relations of their consumer cousins, where 'real' ROI can be seen, it is foolish to ignore the influence online corporate communications channels have on the bottom line. Yes, this is more difficult to measure (the subject of a future blog article) but this doesn't mean it's not important, and increasingly so.
After all, most FTSE 100 corporate websites welcome millions of visitors a year and many of these people are progressively having greater influence on the reputation of an organisation. Also, these sites can be the first contact people have with a business and for retailers many of these people are also customers. Any discrepancies between what companies say 'publicly' through traditional marketing channels and what they say (or sometimes even more importantly what they don't say!) across other channels will quickly be picked up by sceptical audiences.
Corporate websites therefore provide a massive opportunity for developing open and honest dialogue with their audiences. As we've said, trust has to be earned and this can only be done by thinking more holistically and linking together stories, dialogue, debate and data in a way that clearly illustrates the commitment, action, transparency and engagement of a business in relation to the issues that matter most to people. We can't expect people to make these connections themselves, especially against the background of increased scepticism, confusion and expectation that is so prevalent today.
That is why I believe companies should stop thinking about their corporate websites in isolation and start using them as the focal point for more effective 'joined-up' online experiences.
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