Websites, once the stars of the Internet age, are fading quickly. Consumers now engage and interact with mobile apps, social networks, text messages, email, and dynamically loaded loyalty cards much more than they do with brand websites. Even e-commerce sites are losing ground to smartphones and tablets. With their flagship status fading fast, it’s time to rethink everything we’ve learned about the marketing power of the website.
For many–may even most–brands, consumers visit the site once. They get the information they want, opt-in for email or text alerts, and never return. That’s why savvy marketers are looking carefully and skeptically at added investments in complex websites. Many are even de-emphasizing the role of a website in a brand’s digital ecosystem, preferring instead to use more agile and cheaper channels to maintain ongoing relationships and generate sales.
The rapid adoption of mobile and social media has changed the marketing calculus about the content and the role of branded websites. Once the cornerstone of a brand’s online identity, today the function of a website is just a small part of an overall brand experience. To understand where we go from here, we’ve got to understand how we got here in the first place.
Origin of the Species
In the beginning there were web pages, a way for brands to stake a claim on the newly invented World Wide Web. Consumer expectations were minimal: every brand needed to have an 800 number and a web page.
Next, site builders embraced interactive technologies to dazzle customers. Flash, videos, SFX, and as many bells and whistles as possible were crammed onto pages, all in the name of keeping up with the Joneses. Having a cool website and getting on a Top 10 list mattered.
As consumers grew tired of staring at lengthy load screens and businesses began to understand the true business potential of the web, websites finally became focused achieving business results. ROI was king–or was talked about as if it were. Encyclopedic websites were built. Governance was split between marketing and IT. Brands consolidated assets. Metrics, at last, trumped show biz.
It wasn’t long before individual brands began to feel oppressed within huge corporate sites. These brands broke out by creating mini-sites and syndicating to drive traffic and attract broader audiences. Video, photo carousels, animation, and games were ubiquitous. Social sharing was introduced. Brands began to orchestrate messaging, traffic and content between brand sites and Facebook and place branded content on allied sites or in places frequented by most likely prospects or customers. (This is now called native advertising.) But many marketers never gave customers reasons to return to the site after the first visit or registration.
The Next Evolution
Today, websites are no longer a sole or even principal destination. They are just one element in an evolving brand ecosystem. Their role in that ecosystem is increasingly singular: driving consumers to take specific desired actions. To do this, marketers have to discern what customers want and how they want it, and then decide what kind of experience they want to offer.
Upgrading or building a website today can’t be done in a vacuum. It has to be part of a customer engagement plan that anticipates customer needs for information, validation, incentives and/or repeat purchases over time. Creating a website today requires a relationship context that integrates the attitudes and behaviors of your brand’s best customers.
Are websites obsolete? Not yet–but the old way of thinking about them surely is.