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FT REPORT – DIGITAL BUSINESS: A message to the world

By David Bowen, Financial Times
Published: Mar 28, 2007

A large company’s web presence is an expensive thing – companies brave enough to tot up the cost may find it runs into tens of millions of dollars a year. Yet return on investment is impossible to calculate.

But with the web now becoming a mass medium in the developed world, and growing at a giddy rate elsewhere, it is an essential part of the communications mix.

What is needed is a way of judging whether a web package is as good as it can be – that is, doing all the things it could be doing, as well as it can do them. And – at least as important – to see who is doing better so that best practice can be observed and adopted or adapted. These are the jobs the FT Bowen Craggs Index is attempting to do.

The Index, featured on Page 5, is a ranking – in fact it is many rankings. The aim is not to stimulate praise, blame or panic, but to show what should be done (and what should not be done) to make a website as effective as possible under several headings.

This Index is valuable partly because it takes an overall view, looking at the different (and often complex) jobs a site is asked to do, and seeing how well it does them. The advantage with corporate sites is that although there are considerable differences in emphasis, these tasks are pretty much the same for all. It is also valuable because it is based on judgments, rather than a “checklist” approach (see Methodology, Page 5, for details).

The Index looks at 60 of the world’s largest companies, taken from the 2006 FT Global 500, which ranks companies by market capitalisation. The top 20 from each of the US, Europe, and the rest of the world have been analysed.

So what makes a top-class corporate web presence? First, you can move around easily without losing your bearings. This is a sign both of good construction and good governance – that is, the web presence is run according to well-observed rules and processes.

Second, the best sites do all the jobs they could be doing. They offer a high-quality service to all stakeholders: people looking for jobs, customers, journalists, investors and the important social responsibility lobby. They even take care to offer good contact points – an element we include separately because it is often the most important role a site plays.

Third, they make good use of web technology. With broadband spreading, video, podcasts and other features make increasing sense, although imaginative use of less bandwidth-hungry tools can be at least as valuable. We see little evidence yet of Web 2.0 and its interactive functions to build communities online. This may be because these corporate giants are laggardly, or because they are rationally cautious. Whichever, we can expect to see more experimentation over the next year.

But the companies at the very top do more. Siemens stands out not only because it has a huge and highly coherent web presence, but also because of the attention to detail. Try looking for a product: the drilldown is ultra-rational. Look at the contact page or its press release archive: ditto.

It is clear that Siemens has not just said: “Let’s do the same as others, only better”; it has taken each problem and tried to solve it from first principles.

Shell does everything well, too. Until recently, its site was classy but conservative. That has changed with its new home page: here is a “tag cloud”, words in different sizes that reflect their popularity as search terms. It is not only clever, but carries a touch of Web 2.0 about it.

BP is slightly different: it stands out less for overall coherence than for flashes of brilliance, particularly in the use of web technology. Click the “Statistical Review of World Energy” on the home page, then the “Energy Charting Tool”. Useful and fun.

These are companies that are taking their websites very seriously indeed. Is it a coincidence that all three at the top have run into reputation problems recently? Almost certainly, yes. But it is no coincidence that they have used the web to manage the damage to their reputations (see the “Serving society” column in the table, Page 5).

What of the overall trends the Index has identified?

There is nothing notable by sector, but the regional differences are striking. Eight of the top 10 sites are European. This may come as a surprise to Americans, who took to the web so early, but that is part of the problem. Many US corporate websites have a distinctly frayed feel – they do little to polish the brand, and make rather too obvious their owners’ divisions (nothing like a website to uncover internal politics).

They also often have a strong marketing and selling focus, with brand and other communications tasks left to languish. This is confirmed by how US and Canadian sites fare better in the “serving customers” category – where six of the top 10 are North American – than they do in the ranking by “construction” (overall coherence) – where North America provides only two of the top 10.

Europeans came from behind, and some have been playing leapfrog. The best example is ENI, which comes out best in the construction list: a few years ago, the then-unwired Italians would have languished near the bottom of any table like this.

The US attitude, on the other hand, is exemplified by Bank of America. Its site is an architectural and branding nightmare – except for customers, who are directed step by easy step to where they can place their business. ENI comes nowhere in the marketing ranking, however. The two sides of the Atlantic can learn from each other.

What does this mean for the companies at the bottom of the list – nearly all from the developing world? Will they play leapfrog, too? It is probable that only some will. Russian sites are poor because they are being built on budgets that are far too mean. They will surely improve fast. The Saudi sites are very thin on content: they too will improve as they bulk out.

But what of companies that have spent on their sites but to no great effect? They have most to do. Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, the Brazilian mining giant, has an expensive site that just does not work well.

It is also surprising to see many Japanese sites in a mess. Our Japanese analyst checked to see if the domestic versions of Japan’s websites were better: there was much more marketing material from the banks, and also good information for graduates, but overall the answer was “no”.

For example, it has not helped that Honda’s US subsidiary has taken its standard “dot-com” address but the most charitable thing that can said about its global site (www.world.honda.com) is that it is charming in its eccentricity.

Not that eccentricity is the preserve of the Japanese. EDF (www.edf.com) has a musical home page that also acts as a hub for navigating the web. Every time you pass through it you get the music. Sound is a neglected aspect of the web – but you can have too much of a good thing.

* David Bowen ([email protected]) is an ft.com columnist and senior consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co.

Related article: ShellNews.net: Financial Times guest columnist (and Royal Dutch Shell consultant) David Bowen replies to our criticism

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