Websites didn't change that much in 2009; the recession kept redesigns and experimentation to a minimum, and updates were made only as needed. Today, however, marketing spending is slowly edging up, and companies are embracing social networking, mobile connectivity and true integrated campaigns that mesh the Web with email, search and even offline components.
“People postponed [website updates] as long as they could. It's only now that some companies are doing redesigns to get rid of outdated looks,” said Bill Rice, president of the Web Marketing Association. “But most b2b marketers aren't throwing out their old sites and starting from scratch. They're looking at their sites and thinking about what they can improve upon. Sometimes that's content; sometimes that means tweaking design.
For a large number of companies, that means adding social elements to websites and building out a Facebook or YouTube presence that echoes the branding, look and feel of their other marketing elements. Indeed, although not long ago social networking was synonymous with goofing off—people checked in with friends on Facebook and followed their favorite topics on Twitter—social has now gone business casual.
Today, major b2b brands have a Facebook presence, and Twitter is a way for busy executives to keep abreast of their customers, competition and industries while communicating with partners, customers and employees. Meanwhile, LinkedIn has become a mecca for networking, customer prospecting and employee recruitment. To give website visitors what they're looking for—and create an army of active promoters—companies are building in “share” links and “follow” badges so people can keep up with a brand through their favorite social networking tools, said Kara Pernice, managing director at Web usability firm Nielsen Norman Group.
“Social networking ... [is now] a work tool,” Pernice said. “Even the average person is using "share' and "forward to a friend' links on websites. Whether b2b or b-to-c, it's pretty much expected and should be a design staple.”
Blogs and online communities have also made it onto the to-do list for marketers and website designers. Many b2b companies have their own blogs or have their employees or executives commenting on industry blogs with a track-back link to their own sites. Meanwhile, the use of private community sites is also on the upswing, said Vidya L. Drego, senior analyst, customer experience at Forrester Research. “Customers and prospects can go there to share stories and tips, interact with the company directly and find new ways to use products to make their lives easier,” she said.
Marketers should also make it easy for customers to write reviews and leave comments on product and services pages, Pernice said, because customers are more likely to purchase something based on current-user commentary. “It's always good to let people comment on your site because at least you're privy to what they are saying,” she said. “If not, they are going to post it elsewhere anyway.”
Just as people want access to social networking tools from mobile phones, they also want to be able to view any website from their phone or PDA—not surprising given that, at the end of the first quarter of this year, more than 234 million Americans age 13 and older were mobile subscribers, according to digital marketing measurement firm comScore Inc. Apple's iPad only adds another wrinkle, Pernice said. Marketers would have to be “crazy” not to enable customers and prospects to reach their websites when on the go, she said.
“People aren't going right to their PCs in the morning; they're walking around their offices with either an iPad, iPhone or BlackBerry,” she said. “If you come up with a separate app for the iPhone or the iPad, that's going to help boost loyalty; but, at the very least, you need a separate mobile version or a design that can work well on a mobile device.”
When creating a mobile app, a marketer's best bet, she said, is to keep it simple. Put the most important and frequently used functions at the top, and perform usability testing and examine Web analytics to make sure the right elements are on the mobile page. Don't feel like you have to duplicate your entire site on the mobile offering, she said.
“It's a leap for designers because they are so used to having many features available, but it's better to say "I am going to choose the things we really need' than try to do it all and please nobody,” Pernice said.
From a traditional website design perspective, usability is even more important today than it was a year ago. Visitors are used to widgets and mobile apps that make it very easy to do exactly what they are looking to do. Another trend: Making the most of a user's time on the site, rather than focusing on increasing the amount of time spent on the site, said Sandy Marsico, principal of Sandstorm Design, a Web design and usability firm. “You want to help them find what they want quickly and get on with their day. Businesspeople don't have any time to waste anymore.”
This might mean keeping fancy design elements to a minimum and carefully considering any use of rich media. Flash, especially, can be problematic because those with Apple iPads or iPhones won't be able to see those design elements. Menus and navigation should be easy to use no matter how large or small a screen might be.
“You want clear areas of content,” Marsico said. “There should be more conversation and less selling.”
Just make sure that conversation is sharable in the social arena.
Vidya L. Drego, senior analyst, customer experience, Forrester Research, a research firm
Erik Loehfelm, executive director of user experience, Universal Mind, a rich Internet application development and usability firm
Sandy Marsico, principal, Sandstorm Design, a Web design and usability firm
Kara Pernice, managing director at Nielsen Norman Group, a Web usability firm
Bill Rice, president, Web Marketing Association, an organization for marketing, advertising, PR and Web design professionals
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