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How to Make Websites Social

This blog post is inspired by a combination of interesting ideas that I came across recently. It all got started with Pete Blackshaw’s article “Do We Still Need Websites?” at the AdAge.

It was widely discussed both online and offline, as people started to debate on whether or not we are entering a website-less era. In his article, Pete argues that the websites are far from being dead, but if they want  to be effective assests for the company they must serve a new purpose:

A smart website feeds and refreshes the brand stands. It anchors the brand database, arguably the most coveted asset, and sets the tone and standard for the brand’s ethos and attitude about feedback, expression and service. Put another way, it establishes that first critical (often unforgettable) impression. A great website also smartly syndicates, re-circulates and curates social content from the brand stands.

Just a few days ago, I heard Pete speak at the Cincinnati Digital nonConference on this topic. Throughout the discussion, people shared their opinions on why the websites are still quite important to the brands, and discussed some strategies for making them WORK.

The next day, I heard Mark W. Schaefer of the Schaefer Marketing Solutions speak on “Your Website is Not Enough. Creating Your Organization’s Information Ecosystem.” Mark’s and Pete’s points of view are very much aligned, and here you can read Mark’s blog post “Is it time to bury your website?” While writing down my thoughts, I decided to write a post.  I do not want to focus on whether the websites matter, but rather what is the new strategic way of building them?

Now, you know the origins of this blog post. I am not going to argue whether social sites like Facebook and Twitter are beating company websites to the punch.  Instead, I want to focus on how to make the websites work in these challenging times when all of us are struggling for attention.

1. Your website is too important to be left to the IT department.

Seth Godin has coined the phrase:  “Why marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department,” so I think I am going to coin the phrase above. When the website is being built/rebuilt/updated/modernized, how often do different departments come together to share their insights on what has to be featured on their respective website sections?

For example, are the representatives from the customer service department being asked how the customer service section of the website should look?  They are the people that know what customers want when they have a problem, therefore they should be the ones to help guide your web development team. The same goes for other sections of the website.  If you have a product catalog, bring product managers, account executives, and your sales team to the table. They are the ones that will know what consumers need when examining new products.

2. Why innovate when you can replicate?

Naturally, I am not advocating copying and mimicking what other sites are doing, but why spend hours and hours trying to come-up with how the product section of the website should look? Most companies begin with the brainstorming section, then they might delve into market research to figure out what the competition is doing.

Let’s consider a slightly different approach. When we think of the website that delivers the best experience when browsing and looking at products, we immediately think of Amazon and Patagonia.

Once exploring those sites closely, we we will clearly see some patterns:  the ability to like and share products, interesting product discussions and reviews, related products, product discussions on forums and blogs, and most importantly each product is just a few clicks away from the home page. Now, try doing something similar for other main website sections like careers, customer service, about us.

3. Think, plan and be agile.

One of the main reasons large companies have better presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, is because it is much easier to make changes and updates there, as opposed to making them on the company website. Even with all the great content management systems in place, we still constantly hear complaints from the marketing departments about how difficult it is to make website changes.

In my most recent business meeting with a very  large non-profit association, we started talking about making their website social.  In the middle of the conversation I came to the realization that they can’t even add a Facebook social plugin to their page because of how the system is set-up. There is no wonder why each of their departments – volunteering, community outreach and fundraising have set-up their own Facebook pages. It is much easier to be in control of the company’s social page, than to edit the company’s website.  How screwed up is that?

Today, with the mass amount of plug-ins and widgets, you can equip your site to be more social, but this obviously requires some changes at the ground level.

4. Think content, think curation, think syndication and definitely think attention.

Today, most company sites are lagging way behind social networks in reporting timely news about the company, industry and consumers.  If there is relevant information that circulates on Twitter, it should be addressed on both the main website and the company Twitter page. Otherwise, you are putting your own website out of business.

Content is crucial, but for some reason when we think content we think blogs, not websites. If instead of merely feature the content, the website curates and directs visitors to the most relevant content, it becomes attention grabbing again. Getting attention is crucial, and one of the ways to do it is having timely content.

Your website should not simply be an archive of information, but should curate and circulate relevant and timely content. Consider the website alltop.com, now imagine having relevant and recent articles, industry news, videos, and blog posts featured on each product or service page.

Almost immediately, the content of your website stops being static, and serves as a platform for discussion. Next, you allow people to comment, and rate other comments.  Now the website is ready to become social.

5. Observe users and refine the experience.

A lot of companies, both small and large, update their sites when they get tired of how they look. I wish I could get a nickel for every time I hear:  ”We just want to update our site.” The website should not be updated once a year, but rather should continously be adjusted based on the analytics that you get from analyzing user experience.

This is not new, Web Trends has been in business for years helping people do exactly that, and Google Analytics made it simple enough for each site to have analytics in place, but there is a vast difference between having analytics and acting on the data you get.

More importantly, we have to consider not just the traditional metrics like time spent on each page, bounce rates, and most/least visited pages, but how engaging the site is, and what makes it social. Therefore, if people are asking similar questions about the products on our customer service section of the site, we need to incorporate that information on our products pages.

If people are discussing something on Twitter, and are talking about our products and services on Facebook, we need to mine that information and use it on our website. The list of examples can go on and on, but the important thing to remember is that in order for the website to become social it has to adjust and reflect the constantly evolving needs of users.

Writing this blog post, it seems like this topic of making websites social deserves a blog of its own. In this new age where most of the companies are building their social presence, websites are being forgotten and often are left anti-social, even if beautifully designed. In my next blog posts, I will try to examine how to make websites more social one page, one user at a time.

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