Corporate website trend: From providing information to providing a service

Summary: Moving ‘from providing information to providing a service’ is the seventh corporate website trend we identified. This post is part of a series of blog posts in which we look at trends for corporate websites.

Most corporate websites provide large amounts of information. This used to be enough, but no longer. If you want to be useful and build trust that way you need to offer additional value through other services. Especially on a corporate site people are usually on a mission to accomplish a task. They rarely visit a corporate site to simply browse and enjoy some nice imagery.

Sometimes providing a service as an added value can seem counter-intuitive, as it initially may not support the organization’s objectives. However, one of the maxims in a connected world states: Provide more value than you can capture. The idea is that people will thank you for your services and talk about them / you in favorable ways, which again, in a connected world is critical.

I found a very interesting take on this trend implemented by BP. On their corporate website they provide an Energy Usage and Carbon Emission Calculator.

BP Energy usage and carbon emission calculator

BP Energy usage and carbon emission calculator

It’s a nifty tool that allows you to measure your energy consumption. It also uses some lightweight game mechanics, since you can compare your consumption against the average consumer. BP also offers you to send a reminder in the future to use the calculator again and track and compare your energy consumption. It’s a very easy way to stay in touch and on the minds of consumers. Last but not least, the BP Energy Lab provides tips for greener more sustainable living. Even though it is all tucked away in the Sustainability section of BP’s website, you have to applaud the company on thinking beyond providing information to now also providing a service. I think there are lots of opportunities for companies, even traditional B2B companies, that have not been explored yet.

Whilst not a corporate website per se, one highly interesting example I came across was a mobile app developed by a law firm specialized in car accidents.

My Lawyer Mobile App

My Lawyer Mobile App

Similar to other law firms, the company could have simply created a mobile app providing information and news about the firm. But they must have known that few people will actually download the app, as its use is very limited! Instead the firm thought beyond providing information to providing a service. The app helps people involved in an accident. It provides a checklist of what to do, provides the functionality to record conversations with police and the other party, draw a sketch of how the accident happened, record GPS location and many other things. All through this process, there is no value for the law firm. However, when the person involved in the accident has gathered all the information using the app, he can simply send it to the law firm. That is where the loop closes.

But there are other examples of how companies are moving from providing information to providing a service, which can also go beyond the corporate website. In the end, it’s not the channel that counts, but the wider mindshift that is involved and effects all parts of the business. Below are just two examples of companies that are also riding this trend.

BASF has a number of mobile apps. Below is a screenshot of an app that helps arable farmers and agronomists identifying diseases in cereals.

BASF - Mobile app helps to identify diseases

BASF – Mobile app helps to identify diseases

Unilever created a mobile app targeting students and recent graduates. The Unilever Career Sprinter app obviously provides career information about Unilever but also general job tips that could be useful for their target audience.

Unilever - Helping students and graduates with their career path

Unilever – Helping students and graduates with their career path

The app was last updated in November 2012, so I am not sure how successful it really was in the end. It might well be that it will get pulled from the App Store soon.

These are all first steps in moving towards providing services. In the future we might see new scenarios and functionality. Imagine a journalist looking for different views on a company story. Of course, the journalist can use all the different search engines and channels, but what if he could go to the corporate website and see the corporate communication and the non-corporate communication about the topic? Would it be helpful in that it would save him time and that it would provide the journalist with valuable context? It probably would. The same is true for investors that are looking at a company. Why not aggregate and provide information in an effective way about how the company is faring against the wider market or even competitors? The investor will find that information anyway, so why not help him accomplish his task faster?

Companies may not see an immediate ROI and thus refrain from this kind of strategy. But they should remember that we live in a networked world and things have changed. Business as usual is not an option anymore.


This blog post is part of a series of posts in which we delve into the trends for corporate website that we have identified. The series:

  1. From static to real-time information
  2. From text to active content
  3. From channel to canvas
  4. From desktop to mobile
  5. From single source of truth to the provider of different opinions
  6. From destination to platform
  7. From providing information to providing a service
  8. From company centric design to user centric design
  9. From single launch to continuous improvement

© Picture Credit: Wayne MacPhail

Corporate website trend: From destination to platform

Summary: Moving ‘from destination to platform’ is the sixth corporate website trend we identified. This post is part of a series of blog posts in which we look at trends for corporate websites.

The Web is a platform. Facebook is a platform. Why not the corporate website? At the moment, most corporate websites simply serve as a destination. People looking to accomplish something visit the website, (hopefully) complete their task and leave. In most cases the website is not a place where like-minded people are able to connect with each other.

Much thought and consideration is needed for extending a corporate website to become a platform, especially if the main audience consists of journalists, investors, CSR professionals and career seekers. You will need to come up with well defined use cases and reasons for the audience to engage and connect with each other.

HP provides access to its consumer and enterprise support forums through its corporate website. The forums run on a different platform – Lithium. Lithium is a well-known provider for (external) communities.

HP Support Forum

HP support forums integrated into the HP corporate website

Interestingly, HP have applied the corporate look&feel to the support forums making it a seamless experience for users. HP might think about a deeper integration with content from other parts of the corporate website. For example, users of the forums have at least some degree of HP product knowledge. Many are even experts in their field. If HP want to attract those talented people, why not display job adverts somewhere on the support forums (see similar General Electric that advertises the number of open positions on their homepage) or target those people directly?

Hershey’s has integrated a crowd-sourcing application that lets users share ideas about new products, packaging and technology.

Hershey's - Submitting ideas

Hershey’s – Submitting ideas

I am not sure how successful this process is given the intimidating language and terms. It also fails to involve a wider audience by allowing them to review, like, vote or comment on submitted ideas by others. In the end it feels like a slightly more advanced ‘Suggestion Box’.

Dell with its IdeaStorm has made a better implementation of what I mentioned above. It is a sustainable and successful crowd-sourcing initiative. Whilst it is not integrated into the corporate website, it is a primary example of running such crowd-sourcing projects.

Dell's Idea Storm

Dell’s Idea Storm

 

Another example of moving a corporate website from destination to platform is Eni. The Italian multinational oil and gas company provides access to a restricted area to clients, journalists, employees and others.

eni_access

It is not apparent whether the target audience is offered only additional content or whether Eni offers means to its audience to connect and network with each other.

As I mentioned before, corporate websites moving from simple destination to becoming a platform is tricky. Putting the technical requirements in place is easy. But nurturing and sustaining a community requires a lot of attention, time and potentially budget. But it is an interesting idea to build closer, emotional relationships between people working at your company and your audience.


This blog post is part of a series of posts in which we delve into the trends for corporate website that we have identified. The series:

  1. From static to real-time information
  2. From text to active content
  3. From channel to canvas
  4. From desktop to mobile
  5. From single source of truth to the provider of different opinions
  6. From destination to platform
  7. From providing information to providing a service
  8. From company centric design to user centric design
  9. From single launch to continuous improvement

© Picture Credit: Max Corteggiano

From traditional business to social business

When businesses ask for a social media strategy, what they are often really asking for is: Get me a presence on Facebook, Twitter and the like. The mantra of cultural and organisational change that is required in the social web seems to ring hollow. To be fair, it is not their fault. With a traditional business mindset it is hard to see why a presence on Twitter or Facebook is different from the corporate website. After all, these tools can seem to be just another communication channel.

When I talk to clients about the social web and its impact on businesses, I often use four key concepts. These concepts seem to help to explain the broader implications of social tools and why a mere presence on the social web will have a very limited business impact.

From Transaction to Interaction

Traditional Business - TransactionIn the good old days traditional businesses produced a product or service and the customer bought it. End of transaction. Over the years, they have distanced themselves from their customers. Traditional businesses live in their ivory tower from which they look down on their customers. They introduced call centres to shield themselves from customer complaints. Every so often, they introduce a new product and market it heavily using print and digital channels. Nowadays, they can also be found on Facebook and Twitter talking about their new product. They produce it, the customer buys it. End of transaction.

Social Business - InteractionA social business however, is all about interaction. It sees itself on an equal footing with their customers. Of course, it still wants their money. After all it is a business and not a charity. But a social business listens to what its customers have to say. It is eager to get feedback, both positive and negative. Negative feedback is acknowledged and addressed in an honest and transparent way. It sees it as an opportunity to co-create new products with the help of its customers. A social business operates in public and not from the heights of an ivory tower. A social business does not simply sell products, it sells customer experience.

Example
A customer of Zappos once tweeted that she had ordered shoes for her birthday. A customer representative got in touch with her asking about her order number just to make sure that the shoes would arrive on time for her birthday. You think that is difficult? Not for a social business. It is where its customers are and listens to what they have to say. It is all about interaction and customer experience.

From B2B / B2C to P2P

Traditional Business - B2B:B2CA traditional business has successfully created a wall between its customers and itself. Only particular departments are allowed to interact with the outside world, for example Marketing, HR, Customer Service. The rest of the business is shielded away from any external distraction to ensure employees are productive. Humans work in a traditional business. They have a face, but they can only show the company’s face. Sorry, company policy. Nowadays, traditional businesses have developed their own recruiting platforms. They also have a presence on Facebook, where HR advertise for new vacancies and post recruiting tips. They are really proud of this achievement. The traditional business can connect with potential recruits on Facebook. But actually, when they join they will see that Facebook is blocked. Sorry, company policy.

Social Business - P2PA social business understands that people want to connect with people and not with businesses. If customers are looking for help, they want to talk to a real person, not a company. A social business acknowledges and is proud to employ many smart people not just in HR, Marketing or Customer Service. It employs them, because it trusts them. It wants the world to know about them and enables them to connect to the outside world. That is why social networks are open for everyone and people are still productive. A social business manages by objectives, not by presence.

Example
Mary from the HR department posts new tips on Facebook, and not the HR department. A small but subtle difference. A highly talented engineering graduate asks on Facebook what life is like on an oil rig in the North Sea. Mary has never been on an oil rig, but she knows engineers who have. One engineer answers the question on Facebook, visible for everyone. It is John, not the company. People connect with people, not with companies.

From Gatekeeper to Platform Provider

Traditional Business - GatekeeperA traditional business clenches on to its old powers. It believes it still owns all the connections between customers and partners. If a partner would like to talk to another partner, he needs to go through the company. It manages in order to survive. According to a traditional business, shared knowledge is only worth half as much. Better to control the gates.

Social Business - Platform

A social businessunderstands that today’s technology enables anyone to connect with anyone, whether the business likes it or not. The gates are open. A social business knows if it simply keeps managing connections, it will survive, but if it facilitates connections it will thrive. Hence, it provides a platform for customers and / or partners. It is comfortable letting people discuss the business, its products or completely different matters. It facilitates and does not manage.

Example
Dell, a computer manufacturer runs a Facebook Page about Social Media for Business. Yes, Dell is not in the business of providing social media services. But it uses the group as a platform to stay connected with existing customers and potential customers. Dell provides more value than it can capture (in the beginning). That way, Dell stays in people’s minds. Dell may not always be the best choice, but I bet, the next time a member of the FB page is asked for computer advice by a friend, he will also mention Dell.

From Hierarchy to Network

Traditional Business - HierarchyA traditional business has a rigid top-down communication structure. News from the top is passed down through the ranks of the organisation. The middle management is powerful as it acts as gatekeeper (see above). Open and transparent dialogue between the top and the bottom of the traditional business is difficult if not non-existent. Furthermore, technology provision in traditional businesses have manifested in department silos. Few employees know what other departments or teams are working on. Cross-departmental connections are made in the cafeteria, at the water-cooler or in the smoker’s corner.

Social Business - NetworkContrary to popular belief hierarchy still exists in a social businessbut it is heavily supported by an underlying network. Communication flows are bi-directional and cross-departmental. The middle management has lost its power as gatekeeper and is now functioning as platform provider. It provides a platform for the management and employees to communicate and connect. Employees can see what other teams and departments are working on. Increased visibility leads to better decision-making, improved customer service, superior products and ultimately higher sales. At the same time a social business also acknowledges that people connect with people not just because of work but also interests. Therefore, it encourages employees to form communities of interest or purely social groups. This creates stronger bonds between employees which leads to lower turn-over rates. If an employee does leave, they are more likely to stay in touch with colleagues, not the business. Remember, people connect with people, not with companies. (see P2P concept).

Example
By now, many organisations have or are in the process of implementing a social business platform which enables employees to communicate with the senior management and also across teams and departments. Some of the most advanced and innovative organisations that have adopted this approach can be found in the Social Business Council.

No doubt, more concepts exists. However, I believe many of them are part of the ones I have outlined above, i.e. From Control to Trust (B2B/B2C to P2P; From Transaction to Interaction), From Management to Open Leadership (From B2B/B2C to P2P; From Gatekeeper to Platform), From Employee to Brand Ambassador (From B2B/B2C to P2P; From Transaction to Interaction).

If your social media strategy is all about setting up a social media presence, jump right in. It only takes a couple of minutes to set up accounts. There are gazillions of tips out there telling you how to increase your follower or “Like” counts. However, if your social media strategy is about business impact, you need to go back to basics. Understanding the key concepts and the broad impact of social tools on businesses, will help to deliver value. In the end, that is what business is all about, delivering value!


© Picture Credit: Christoph Schmaltz

social business

Manage, and you may survive! Facilitate, and you may thrive!

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Recently I went to see an organization, and a good while into a very pleasant conversation I was asked: ‘Will we (organization) become obsolete in ten years’? What a daunting question! What had happened?

The organization has about 1000 member companies. It offers a variety of services and stages events frequently. After I had met one of the employees I was invited to one of their events at the rather exclusive University Club here in NYC. The person introduced me to a number of members at the event (after all networking is a key part of such events). Yet, I had the strong feeling that I missed opportunities, simply because I relied on the knowledge of one person and random conversations limiting the ‘ROI’ of my time investment. So I wrote a long email to my contact at the organization with some ideas on how do address this particular issue (among others).

In the email and subsequent conversation I made the case that the value of the offline networking events could be increased considerably by developing an online platform with a business networking component for members at its heart. At the moment the organization publishes an attendee roster prior to every event, which lists only the names and companies of attendees. While key employees of the organization have built up an impressive wealth of knowledge about members, members themselves don’t know the faces, roles, interests, or connections of other members making it very hard for them to effectively network on their own. It’s not too difficult to imagine why the organization considers that knowledge as one of their key assets and where they believe can add even more value to the membership. And yet, I suggested the unthinkable: ‘Open up! Make the knowledge about the network and all its members visible to members (companies). Let them explore the network, connect and interact with each other! Don’t be the guardian or bottle-neck as a matter of fact. Members know best what is good for and relevant to them. You may assume that you know, but let’s face it, you don’t!’

And that’s when the question came up: ‘Will we (organization) become obsolete in ten years’? Apart from being daunting to answer, I also thought that this was a rather courageous question. I believe few businesses (industries) ask(ed) themselves this question, and even fewer face a sometimes cruel reality. Most of them live in total denial. (CLAY SHIRKY).

For a long time people and organizations that had a quasi-monopoly on knowledge or products crippled progress and innovation and still capitalized on it. You can look at enterprise systems, which locked organizations into to the dungeon of one vendor. Media outlets had a monopoly on producing content and charging for it. Key people in organizations had a monopoly on knowledge, making them indispensable. All of them were at the center of their respective environment. Their exposed position allowed them to control the terms and conditions on how their knowledge or products were used.

But with the advent of social tools these monopolies are coming to an end. We are now witnessing an ever increasing connected world where we don’t have one huge nucleus but rather dispersed nodes. Gone are the days of locked-down systems and walled gardens. ‘Control’ might have been a valid notion in the past, but the only way to stay relevant now is to open up and interact with your environment. To a large extent ‘control’ is replaced by ‘facilitation’. That’s the quintessence! You provide a platform and let other people built on top of your applications (e.g. Facebook (partially), Twitter, Confluence), interact with your content (e.g. NYT, Guardian) or connect with each other (e.g. …. ). Other examples of facilitation can be found in the Obama campaign, Twestival and knowledge management. The Obama campaign and Twestival are great examples, where people were given a vision and tools to achieve a goal. How they did it was up to them. The same holds true for knowledge management. The days of central knowledge repositories, gate-keepers and knowledge managers in its true sense are over. Get out of the way! Open up the silos! Give people a platform on which they can connect with each other based on what is relevant and important to them. Facilitate, don’t manage! If you simply continue managing, your organization may loose on business opportunities.

So, wrapping up all these thoughts, my answer was something along these lines. ‘It depends. Fortunately, your core business is not necessarily based on networking. However, it is an important part. If you keep the status quo, chances are that sooner or later members will realize that the current practice is ineffective and they are missing out on business opportunities. They may use LinkedIn at home or know of other organizations in town that offer an online platform to its members as an added value. They may demand something similar or cancel their membership in worst case. Another drawback to keep in mind is that if you left the organization, there would be no one to replace you easily, as you hold all the knowledge about the members and connections. If you don’t move at all, you most certainly will become obsolete in ten years, simply because other organizations will size the opportunity.

If you set up a platform to provide online networking among your members, you will still play a role, not as a manager but as a facilitator. It is an additional value that you give your members. If they realize the value they will spread the word across their network, which could result in new members. Your key asset may not be the knowledge about the members anymore, because it is accessible to all members; it will actually be the members themselves. In that sense you will play an even more important role in ten years than you may do now.’

Obviously, it does not have to be one or the other. A healthy option would be somewhere around the center but tending towards opening the organization’s knowledge. As mentioned before, I would see the networking component at the heart of the system. Around it you could imagine the organization providing more relevant news and content to its members based on the information available and their activities on the platform. Other ideas could be the live-broadcast of member-only events, invitation of a guests (from member companies), better membership management.