This piece by our Managing Partner Sarah Cantillon first appeared in The Drum.
In the past, a website was the central experience for the digital representation of your brand. All content was hosted there; corporate, legal, promotional, product, brand, digital versions of campaigns. It was the clear destination in an unfractured digital ecosystem.
The advent and astronomic growth of social media changed this. Many brands started to re-shuffle their owned platforms, prioritising social in an effort to stay relevant. Rather than investing money in driving people to websites, businesses decided it was more cost effective to reach their audiences through organic social where they believed they were already spending their time – often neglecting their own websites as a result. For some, this went even further than neglect, with brands scrapping websites completely, or not bothering to create them in the first place – a 2017 survey found that almost half (45%) of small businesses didn’t have a website.
It’s true that certain categories are less likely to digitally convert and in these cases a website may not feel like a necessary investment. But the decision as to whether or not to have a website as part of a brand’s digital ecosystem is down to a number of factors, beyond simply whether they are looking to sell directly on it.
Not always social
Marketers assume in this day and age of prioritising below-the-line, social platforms are the best place to connect with audiences. And for the digital native generations (latter Millennials, Gen Z) this is almost certainly true. But if the core audience for a brand falls outside of that, then a website may still represent the best opportunity to reach that audience, based on their established, habitual digital behaviours. It provides an expected destination for any organic search queries, and search engine use is showing no signs of slowing.
The social media landscape is also fractured; requirements and expectations are different based on each platform. Twitter, for example, serves a different purpose to Instagram from an audience usage point of view and it takes experience, skill and investment to get each right. Social is extremely noisy now, too. In the past, it was a great way to reach your audience with a small budget and a bit of creative thinking, but now all brands are there and the fight for eyeballs is constant. Without a solid media strategy and decent budget, it’s difficult to compete. So much so that JD Wetherspoon, Lush and others have boldly scrapped their social altogether. The unknown lifespan of some social platforms is another issue for those relying on them too heavily as their only digital brand presence in the long-term. Remember MySpace anyone?
Start-ups in particular often hold the perception that social is a viable short-term alternative to a website, while a brand grows and establishes itself. But depending on the brand setup and strategy, not having a site can inhibit growth in itself. It’s very difficult to run a CRM programme properly without a destination site to drive deeper engagement and collect prospects. How can you create a personalised experience for these audiences without knowledge of them? How can you build a relationship with them without the full data picture?
Of course, just because a brand has a website, it doesn’t mean audiences will flock there. For starters, a good website needs to offer some value to reward the visitor. Marketers need to ask – what am I offering them in exchange for their time? Unless your brand is a digital utility, it’s going to be all about the content experience – to get audiences there, content needs to reward them in some way.
Ultimately, your website belongs to you, you control what goes on it, you define how it works, you set the functionality. Social is great for superficial reach and yes, the audience is almost certainly there. But a website offers a deeper engagement layer, a home for the next action or the next chapter in your story.
Planning is key
We advise our clients not to simply choose one platform or channel versus another, but to base channel selection on a clear communications strategy that is right for the objectives and the brand. Do this well and you’ll be able to reach the right audience, with the right message, in the right context. But crucially, once they are there, what do they do next? Where do they go, what do we expect of them?
In the vast majority of cases, it will mean investing in and creating a destination for your brand, something at the heart of your business, that you can truly make your own. That is your website.