Photo credit: ilse
Last week, Stephen Hale wrote a great piece on how to say no to new websites in the nicest possible way. I quite agree with him, and his analysis that most of the time, people say ‘I want a new website’ when they really mean that they want their issue or campaign to be communicated effectively online.
So when yesterday, Social Media Today directed us to Build Channel, or why Microsites are a Bad Idea, I started wondering: what makes people ask for microsites in the first place?
There are a bunch of reasons, good and bad:
- Identity: people want their thing to have its own name online, with a nice URL to use in marketing, and its own distinctive look and feel – which may or may not be justified
- Measurability: they want to be able to tell how well their site works and get regular, good stats on traffic, referrers and search keywords for their project specifically
- Flexibility: they want more latitude than the normal corporate site allows, maybe using more space for video or displaying an RSS feed – and the corporate templates or CMS can’t handle it
- Distance: their thing is a partnership or an independent organisation and they want to show it’s at arms length from the mother ship
- Timing: it’s a short-term or urgent project, so it’s more cost-effective to set it up separately and take it down again afterwards than to make changes to the functionality and templates of a big platform
- SEO: (a rare one) people believe that a separate microsite will rank higher in search engines for the desired keywords or brand name
- Ego: (a rather more common one): people want to say ‘that’s mine’ and enter it for awards
- Hassle: getting it onto a corporate site can involve headaches, bureaucracy and compromise in many organisations; it’s easier to go it alone and build from scratch direct with an agency
I’ll put my hand up to setting up microsites for these reasons and others – and yet I also agree with the ‘build channel, not microsites’ logic. It’s self-evident that a big channel can send more traffic, be more cost-effective, and be a better long-term bet in terms of SEO and brand, if it’s an effective one.
So what makes an effective channel, and by implication, what does it need to offer to head off the calls for microsites?
- It’s not about strong corporate branding: or at least, it’s not about a rigid corporate visual identity across the site. Cbeebies, BBC Weather and BBC News manage to have some pretty radically different templates, but work within the umbrella channel brand. A good channel has a common purpose and personality, where the organisation’s style and proposition shows through the design and language of its various sites.
- It’s not about a monster CMS: I just don’t think a single CMS can ever quite stretch to cover all the needs a big organisation has – no, not even WordPress. So it’s better to choose the right tool for each job, using small (interoperable) parts, loosely joined with embedded code, APIs, RSS feeds or whatever it takes to link your content pages to your blogs, your email newsletter to your video hosting provider. More generally, a strong channel is integrated: with other corporate channels, with social media channels, with related and interesting content, and with other sources of evaluation. Flexible but specialised tools, well-integrated with each other is crucial to demonstrating why a new microsite is a second-best option: if you find yourself saying ‘it’s not possible to do that on our CMS’, then you’re fighting a battle you will (and probably deserve to) lose.
- It’s about stickiness: microsites build an audience from scratch, and generally try and keep them engaged for the length of the marketing campaign. That’s an expensive and inefficient way to do it. A good channel has segmented email lists and alerts, RSS feeds, good use of Twitter, good SEO, and strong partnerships within and beyond the organisation. It helps promote the new launch initially, and builds awareness and engagement with the organisation’s customers in related areas, and can sustain it for months or years, not just a few weeks.
- It’s about ownership: it’s human nature to want some control over the shop window, and to feel frustrated when your special project is forced into a standard template or told it can’t have the kind of functionality you see on blogs all over the web because the corporate site can’t do it. A strong channel gives internal clients a sense that they own their piece of the channel, and that within some sensible boundaries, it’s theirs to take in whatever direction they like.
- It’s about the package: it’s not enough to say ‘You have to’. There are good reasons why – with the limitations of big CMSes and the needs of individual projects – people want special functionality, custom templates or personalised analytics. The challenge for people like me then is to put together such a helpful, flexible, compelling package of design, functionality, promotion, integration and analytics that nobody in their right mind would want to go it alone and build a microsite. Because why would they?