True web success is rare and often fleeting. The dedication, rigor and resources required to build and maintain a successful Internet or intranet site are significant. And while a successful site does not necessarily require a lot of money per se, there are many, many facets – from design to publishing to motivating users – that require attention, successful planning and execution.
I refer to the collective facets or requirements as the Nexus of Web Success. Nexus [‘nEksIs] comes from a Greek word meaning ‘meeting place’ – an appropriate moniker given the website's position in the average organization.
Depicting the Nexus as an illustration, the main components required for a successful site or portal can be presented as a set of three concentric levels:
Level 1, Executive Support
Level 2, The Foundation (Planning, Resources, Value and Users)
Level 3, Motivated Users
While some levels or factors may, on the surface, seem more important than others, optimal success requires execution on all levels – each working in conjunction with one another. Hence, the relevance of the ‘Nexus’.
At the centre of the Nexus or the heart of a site’s potential for success, is the backing of senior management – both moral and financial support. Many organizations have sites that are mid-management or grass-root initiatives, and some enjoy a certain level of success. However, the potential of your site will never be fully realized without proper executive support and a senior management champion.
The number one challenge facing corporate websites today is not technology, nor tight budgets, but rather internal politics, specifically, the politics of competing priorities and management agendas. The second biggest hurdle is a financial one. To win these challenges you need senior management in your corner.
“Without the support, the site is more of an organizational afterthought and your work is almost an underground effort,” says Shel Holtz, ABC and IABC 20-year veteran of organizational communication. “So if you want your site to be taken seriously, you need executive support.”
Before the project (build or re-design) can gain executive support, it must be presented and marketed to demonstrate how it can help the organization achieve its goals and objectives. Your website must demonstrate measurable value insofar as it relates to company profits, earnings and revenue.
“Speak executive’s language, appeal not to technology but results,” says Holtz. “No executive loses sleep because his website doesn’t get enough hits or isn’t cool enough. Executives lose sleep over revenues, earnings and competition. You need to demonstrate how your efforts will help executives sleep better.”
One way of pitching this idea to executives, as Holtz suggests, is to bring the executive team’s attention to articles from business publications that explain how other companies have achieved bottom-line success through the application of online technology.
But before you pitch your proposal to executive management, know what you want your site to achieve. Know the 5Ws for the site:
Without thorough planning, your site could face extinction. Although executive approval and support is vital for the shape and funding of a site, without solid research and clearly stated requirements your site could waste considerable time, money and effort.
An intranet manager at a major communications company recently lamented about the phenomenal amount of wasted time, money and effort exhausted in evolving their enterprise intranet portal that serves tens of thousands of employees. In one year, the intranet was redesigned three times – sucking significant funds and patience from an organization that should be using the intranet to support rather than drain the bottom-line. Of an extended team of more than a dozen people working on the intranet, only one person remains.
“Forget the online “field of dreams” epigram – if you build it, they will come,” advises Holtz. “Find out the who, what and why of the site. Then determine how you can meet your specific, measurable objectives with the audience and its needs.”
Failure to develop an integrated plan that accounts for an organization's structure, stakeholder and user requirements will certainly ensure failure and, with it, a loss of significant time, money and jobs.
"Too many sites and portals fail or don't live up to their potential because they lack direction and often become a political football torn between rival groups and competing priorities within an organization," says Carmine Porco, vice president of Toronto-based Prescient Digital Media, a veteran consultant who has also worked for Cisco and Deloitte Consulting. "First, you have to get your stakeholders to agree to the strategic plan and vision and on how the website should work and evolve. But you also need to understand what your users want and expect; and then marry the two."
Internet and intranet sites can be complex and very expensive. Few successful sites are developed and maintained by a single person using only internal resources. While hardware, software and people are the major resource requirements, specific investments in servers, databases, publishing mechanisms, search engines, self-service applications and editorial and technical staff account for the bulk of expenditures.
The biggest difficulty in conveying the necessity for adequate resources is that there is no rule-of-thumb – every organization is different with differing business requirements, access to infrastructure and internal technical skill sets. There is no standardized budget model for the development and operating costs of a site, many pundits often attempt to frame resource requirements by the annual cost-per-user.
For example, at most medium- to large-size organizations, the annual intranet cost-per-user ranges anywhere from $50 - $1000 with $100 - $300 per user being the most common range.
“There are no rules of thumb and, in any event, it’s rare for an organization these days to be developing a site from scratch. Decisions around staffing and budget all go back to the issue of business goals,” says Jack Goodman, a recognized web guru and former director of IBM’s worldwide intranet, W3.
“If you are building a site primarily as a communications vehicle, the expense here is primarily labor costs for content creation and research analysis. However, even an editorially focused site requires creation, and upkeep of a user interface, development of an appropriate information architecture and taxonomy, etc.”
However, websites and intranets are no longer just online newsletters. Successful sites enable business processes, such as employee and customer self-service (e.g. electronic bill presentment and payment, benefits enrollment, etc.).
“Business applications and tools require either purchasing off-the-shelf applications, outsourcing to third party vendors or developing applications in-house – any of which can be expensive,” adds Goodman.
“So, there is no single measure that defines website success, or for the amount of resource required to support a site. But money always helps….” Hence the importance of senior management involvement.
Most people and organizations inherently know and understand the value of the telephone and don’t require a detailed ROI balance sheet before buying a phone system. Most organizations and executives know full well that the phone is a mission-critical instrument for most, if not all, organizations.
In many ways, websites are like telephone systems – they assist us in accomplishing mission-critical work all the time but their true value – value for the user – is rarely measured.
Toronto-based Prescient Digital Media employs a formal methodology and approach to evaluating and measuring the value of a site. The unique methodology, built on years of best practices and experience, focuses on six criteria:
Planning & Resources – the intangibles behind the user experience
Design & Layout – the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the site (e.g. color, images, fonts, etc.), and the use of page space and real estate and how information is presented and organized on a given page
- Search - the effectiveness of the search engine and the behind-the-scenes processes that enable effective search (e.g. meta tagging, taxonomy, etc.)
Usability & Information Architecture – the ease by which a user can navigate a site and complete tasks
Content – any form of static (e.g. news releases, biographies, etc.) or dynamically generated text
Tools & Innovation – interactive applications and tools that aid the user
To deliver true user value, all of the above criteria needs to be ‘clicking’ and working in tandem. However, designers of corporate sites should remain focused and keep it simple. Resist the impulse to add fancy technical trinkets to your site. According to communications and technology consultant Shel Holtz, "bleeding-edge technologies favour simplicity and speed that meet the real needs to help a company achieve its goals and objectives."
If it isn’t used, then your work is for nothing.
If the site delivers true user value, then users have a reason to come (but they need to be motivated to use the site).
Not surprisingly, users are not looking for gadgets or cool design, they’re after information (content) that meet four key criteria:
Compelling – content must be relevant and compelling
Timeliness – content must be timely and updated regularly
Style – it must be well-written and in an appreciable context
Measurement – the success of your content must be measured
In short, the key determinants for ensuring visitors use the site is value and motivation – your audience needs to know of your existence and they need to have a reason or a motivation for clicking through.
“Building an intranet is one thing. Getting people to use it is another,” espouses Scott Kirsner, author of Intranet Marketing 101. Internet sites are no different.
Firstly, motivating users requires education and marketing to raise awareness of the site’s existence. “If you can get people there, you know they’re there because they want to be there,” stresses Steve Crescenz, a veteran communications writer and consultant, in delivering his Integrating Print and Online workshop.
One way to get people there is to use a PUSH medium, like print or e-mail.
Websites are PULL communication vehicles – users need to be driven towards it. By integrating PUSH and PULL vehicles, you can combine the use of e-mail and print to help promote your intranet or Website.
If you choose to use e-mail to push users, be sure to use it with caution. Avoid sending too many e-mails - they can be intrusive, like junk mail, which winds up in the trash. Crescenzo offers six tips for maximizing your e-mail readability:
“The delete button is easy to get to,” says Crescenzo. “E-mail a little. Link a lot. Make links to different parts of the intranet.”
Once users are aware of the site and are using it, they also need to be motivated in continuing to use it.
If users are not compelled to use the site, then they won’t and it becomes a useless tool.
To reach the rarefied air of Web success, your site must be delivering on all three tiers of the Nexus model. Success is often pre-determined by the understanding and support offered by your organization’s executives (senior management) and is delivered by motivated users who keep returning. The in-between – planning, resources, interface and use – is the foundation or blueprint for success and the ‘devil’ in the details.
Toby Ward, a former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, is the President and Founder of Prescient Digital Media. For more information on Prescient’s CMS Blueprint service, or for a free copy of the white paper “Finding ROI”, please contact us.