While it’s become something of a truism that the global COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated trends that were already in place, many fundamental aspects of life and business really have changed forever.
We are now living in the digital economy.
What started out as a crisis response has now become the next normal, and it has profound implications for how to think about the website and its central role in B2B business and brand strategy.
The perfect storm created by a combination of the pandemic’s enforced national lockdowns and the availability of digital technologies made it possible for many companies to react, readjust, survive and flourish in a radically altered global environment.
Many swiftly adopted a new hybrid, remote-first buyer engagement model in which digital interactions have become the preferred means of conducting business. And, according to a study by McKinsey, the management consultancy, it’s here to stay. Both B2B buyers and sellers say they prefer the new digital reality, and more than three-quarters say they now prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions.
A relationship center
Today, the website is the primary entry point into a brand and business environment. It has evolved into a relationship center where people experience the brand to learn, interact, and make significant purchases or career decisions.
Yet, while the new primacy of the website is clear, far too many B2B companies still regard the website as an afterthought, something to be addressed at the end of a branding program as a launch item. As a result, it is often severely under budgeted and the outcome is often far from adequate to meet new customer expectations.
In most cases, B2B websites are nothing more than glorified online brochures. From industry to industry, most companies default to a generic, look-alike, templated design using conventional UX thinking with functional messaging themes and a high degree of visual uniformity.
A customer I was interviewing recently for a client said it well: “All businesses I am considering have similar websites and practically identical messages. And when you speak with their salespeople, it’s exactly the same. So, it’s one big noise.”
He is by no means alone in his assessment.
This highly mechanistic view of websites produces cookie-cutter experiences which render businesses essentially undistinguishable from one another in the digital environment. This can be a major problem considering the amount of vetting that is now done by online buyers. Websites are subject to an extreme level of snap judgment that can adversely affect business credibility and consideration.
Unattractive design and content, lack of distinction on the home page, and a few taps and clicks can have a great business impact on sales and reputation.
Think about what we ask the website to help achieve:
1. Position and differentiate the brand in the competitive space and articulate the unique value of the offerings to different segments
2. Build awareness, qualify and drive leads
3. Support sales enablement activities and platforms, and provide thought leadership through compelling content
4. Educate customers and help them make decisions through tools, resources and solutions, and support customer service through portals, Bot, chat, etc.
5. Analyze behavior and purchase intent to enhance messaging and conversion
6. Position and communicate the company to investors
7. Attract talent and show the company culture and commitment to DEI and sustainability
So, I wonder, how can a business accomplish all these goals effectively with a website that makes them be like everybody else?
We have identified four main beliefs that shape today’s mechanistic view of a website.
There is clearly a widely held belief that technology improvements have made websites easy, fast, and inexpensive to build. While it is seductively true to some extent, this view is dangerous for significant B2B players. Off-the-shelf templates are limiting; they rarely enable a company to create a unique user experience capable of differentiating its brand and creating meaningful relationships.
The generally held belief that websites can be built quickly and cheaply. They certainly can be, but this attitude can have negative consequences. Marketing is rarely given the resources necessary — time and money — to build a website that meets the needs of the business and the expectations of the market.
Arguments such as “people don’t spend more than 8-10 seconds on the home page anyways, so why should we invest more money into building the website” become self-fulfilling prophecies. If your website is unattractive, generic and uninformative, then don’t be surprised if people don’t stay long.
A great website engages visitors. My own data point: Website visitors of some of the clients we have spend 3-5 minutes or more per session, they visit often, and regard the website as a helpful resource that provides ongoing value.
3. Best practices
Then, of course, there is the belief in following what are regarded as UX best practices. There is nothing wrong with identifying best practices for guidance of strategy, but the application of those same best practices by everybody inevitably creates uniformity.
4. Good enough
The “good enough” attitude usually comes with a statement like this: “We don’t need a Cadillac. And besides, we don’t have the time and the resources. We just need something good enough to get us going and promote our core offerings.” In other words, let’s settle for adequate. Adequate is rarely adequate for a website.
It’s your business, not just a website
In this digital age, a website is not just an essential part of a business – it is the business. It is a sort of 24/7 avatar for your business that informs and interacts with a multitude of stakeholders, each with different needs and priorities.
As such, it simply cannot be an afterthought, relegated to some sort of Cinderella-like role to be quickly built with suboptimal resources. Cookie-cutter websites shaped by mechanistic views and approaches don’t deliver value: They create noise.
Great websites express the essence of a brand while creating value for users and for the business with delight, inspiration and efficiency. To achieve this, companies need to approach the creation of a website in a much more holistic manner for customers, HR, sales, marketing, IR, and corporate communications and brand building. They also need to fully embrace and invest in the power of design, content and technology to create magic.
It has to be “website first,” not last.