The online landscape is changing rapidly, new social networks and apps appear almost daily and like the darwinian law at work, many disappear just as quickly. If anything, the time from inception to boom to bust is faster now than ever. So who even cares about a website anymore? It’s not that websites have become irrelevant, they are more important than ever, but their purpose has changed, here’s why:
  1. Safeguard Your Visibility and Ranking in Google. 

Like it or not, there is a big battle going on between two ways of engaging: the engagement that starts with a question or a need and the engagement that starts by word of mouth or a recommendation. Google helps me find what I’m looking for and Facebook helps me discover what I didn’t know was out there, but likely I will enjoy. Some call it the “Filter bubble”, i.e courtesy of recommendation algorithms we only see more of what we like and agree with and less and less of what is likely to challenge our view. For the former, helping me find what I’m looking for – as a big brand, if you are not coming up at the top when people look for your brand, something is seriously wrong. It suggests weakness of your brand, lack of credibility, lack of relevance, lack of engagement. Why? Because all those are factors that determine whether Google ranks you near the top. Not being there is a bad sign for your brand. Does it matter, since Google puts its Youtube results and paid ads at the top anyway? It does, because the first thing that comes up that is not owned by Google or benefiting Google financially says a lot about what OTHERS deem important, at least to the punter looking for something. If you are not there, you obviously aren’t important.

 

2. Own Your History

Another challenge with social media is how short-lived all content is. Anything shared can indeed be seen by millions of people, and that is an opportunity not to be missed, but the lifespan of anything shared is getting shorter. It is a mere fact of numbers. The more people in a social network, with more friends, sharing more, in more ways, in near real time means that the stream of content is accelerating. Yes, people can re-share and make things percolate and live on, but most things have a lifespan of mere days. Days! If you are a brand, there are stories you want to tell, product details you want to offer, which have a longer lifespan than that. For this you need a base that is yours, that you control, that you then leverage different social sites to create visibility to. Many social sites, Facebook of course leading the way, are now trying to turn themselves into walled gardens and keep as many users on their platform as possible, all the time. It’s like Hotel California – you can check out but you can never leave… even so, by having your ‘base’ covered, a solid source for your content – you can use this to repost and showcase different aspects, make things more timely and relevant to a particular event, but you need a base. And that base should not be owned by third parties.

3. Instant Content Updates Across Platforms

If you want to instantly update content across multiple platforms you need an online source from where to publish. If you have kept up with the revolution in responsive and adaptive websites you will have separated the content from the pages it is published on and gone for essentially a three layered approach: content set up independently from the pages it is published on, a database that stores all your content, and a bunch of end-user facing templates to show the content on which includes all the UX and IX parts. If you are here, you can leverage this setup to make sure that the content you have can be seen anywhere and everywhere on your own platforms (apps, website, in-store etc.) and on third party platforms (social media, Youtube etc.). Crucially – any change you make is instantly available in all the places linked to your content platform. This is not the case if you have native apps that store all the content within the app. They require being downloaded from an app store before users can access the content, or the app needs to be updated from the App Store if new content is available. To avoid this issue, many app developers have – you guessed it – connected their content updates to an online content management system, which you also need for powering a website. You could say you get 2 for the price of one: you set up a content management system to make sure your publishing can be instant across all platforms and with a website on top of it is simply a way to have your own base, a corner of the Internet you can call your own. Whatever you publish (and put on your site) helps elevate your rankings in Google and bringing that content to wherever your users are help drive engagement: 2 for the price of one.

 

4. Independent of Platform Wars

There is a war going on not just between different social media platforms, but also between device manufacturers and crucially, between operating systems. This is an issue, because of the potential price tag that comes from trying to be global. IOS is highly popular amongst the wealthy Westerners but adoption is a blip in the ocean compared to the popularity of Android everywhere else in the world. If this was simply a matter of making sure your apps worked across IOS and Android life would be simple. The devil is actually in the detail of the umbrella term ‘Android’ – Android is not a single operating system but a huge and fragmented picture of different versions of this operating system across all devices that use it. At any given time the users on the latest version of Android are roughly one tenth of all users who are on the Android platform overall. This is partially because of the differing capabilities of the devices, but also because device manufacturers are allowed to customize the Android operating software on their devices, thereby making updates slower and more complex across the Android ecosystem. Granted, Google are thinking about removing this in the future, but we are not there yet. Furthermore you have the app stores, not just one – Apple’s or Google Play, but in the East also multiple others so managing your app portfolio globally is actually highly complex, and expensive – to be in all the app stores, to make sure your app is ranking highly in order to be visible to those likely to download it, and to manage the feature base across the highly complex and diverse device ecosystem. So to make the most of what apps can offer you, make their purpose different from what a website can do. Understand how your customers engage, reserve the research element to the website, where it is easy to create, translate and localise content and make it accessible globally and locally at the same time – and the ongoing, location based engagement to the app and strategically, where your audiences are as opposed to trying to be everywhere. Two different purposes, way more manageable and cost-efficient.

5. Breadth and Depth of Content

One challenge with third-party platforms is that you don’t develop them. You are typically given a framework of how the experience works and told to get on with it. You have to adapt your content to fit the requirements of the platform. On Youtube you can only have videos. On Instagram – photos and super short videos, Facebook –  videos, photos,shortish text and some FB apps. Crucially, if you have a brand with multiple touchpoints, lots of rich, mixed media content, it’s actually hard to show off that breadth and depth of content on these third party sites alone. They show a glimpse of all that is related to your brand, offer the potential to experiment and create new experiences, like filters, but they struggle to offer a holistic view and access to all of it. For that, you still need a website. A challenge with apps is the size of the app you can have and content takes up a lot of space. Although the capacity of mobile devices is increasing, users are vary of apps that consume a huge amount of space on their devices, and here the Darwinian forces are at work too – apps with a large footprint are likely to get deleted first from a user’s device unless they can offer value on a daily basis, so to have a chance to stay on a users device for a bit longer than a fortnight, your app has to be small.. which doesn’t help service a huge breadth or depth of content, unless.. you guessed it, you power it from a website.

6. In the Age of Fake News be a Trusted Source of Your Brand

This is a recent problem, but potentially a dangerous one. “People share without fact-checking, they believe anything!” said Paul Horner, a prominent author of online hoaxes recently. Both Google and Facebook have taken a dent to their credibility and are working hard now on ways to weed out all the fake news stories, many of whom have been shown to be more popular than content from authentic news sources, especially around the time of the US election and Brexit in the UK. If there is a fake news story of about your brand – how do you help people fact check when most media and news sites have lost trust with users? You will need to be your own source. Even if people don’t agree with you, you must have your own voice online for your brand. Without it you have surrendered your brand narrative completely to the algorithms of a 3rd party social network. For those who want to understand what your view is on a particular issue, there is no higher authority than what you say about your brand on your own brand site. People may not agree, but at least you have a voice and can be part of the dialogue. Some would say that your company page on a social network is a way to do this, and it is – it’s just not the only way to do it – simply because any company on a 3rd party social platform is subject to the algorithms that govern the visibility of the content on that platform. So yes, highly important to be present and to have a large following who can defend you when needed by liking and sharing your responses to a fake news story, but because social networks are walled gardens, much of this activity cannot be seen outside the network and by those who are not connected to your brand or to your brands’ followers (back to the “Filter Bubble” I mentioned in point 1). You still need a neutral base too, and a brand site offers that.

7. Own the relationship

This story is not an argument for not using social media to connect with your audiences, to be where they are, or to argue against the value of apps, it is simply an illustration of the fact that on the one hand the tools for engagement are becoming ever more diverse (which is good), fragmented (which can be a challenge) and realtime (which can be both an opportunity and a challenge) and on the other hand, websites, which have been around for ages, still have an important role to play – but crucially, as part of an ecosystem that involves all of the above. What you want is options, the right tool for the job and lots of tools for the many jobs that you have to build your brand and create engagement globally. And, at the end of the day – as a brand – you still want to own the relationship. All the Facebook followers in the world is no substitute to having that relationship directly, being able to tailor how you communicate directly to your customer, and crucially learn from the interaction. CRM is crucial, and its hard to have a meaningful CRM strategy if all you have are relationships fragmented across multiple platforms with 3rd party platforms as the middle men. Yes, many offer great in-depth insights and this is invaluable, but there are also problems (both Google and Facebook have admitted to errors in tracking important engagement metrics), there are concerns about adbots inflating adviews and so on – all this is part and parcel of a rapid changing and evolving landscape. Your engagement strategy ultimately should always aim at deepening the relationship YOU have with YOUR customer, not making the 3rd party platform more relevant with their audience. If you don’t have ways to own the relationship, all you are in effect doing, is helping Facebook be more relevant for their user base,  using your brand.
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