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Brand Thinking Blog
Posted on October 5, 2010 at 8:52 am
Websites have become much more technologically sophisticated, even before 2.0, but that does not mean firms are taking full advantage of the technology pains. Nor, sadly, does it mean that sites have really advanced beyond the undifferentiated online brochure.
Most suffer from: (1) A paralyzing sameness in both style and function; and (2) Almost complete abdication of core communication goals. When we reviewed, site by site, the Am Law 200 law firm websites, and the largest 50 accounting firm and consulting firm websites, we saw the communication failure in stark relief. In fact, we were able to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European from a few word fragments.
To be sure, it’s a website, but not much more. There’s “us” on the marquee; “us” on the left of three typical columns—news about “us” in the middle; and more about “us” on the right.
And there is the first reason professional services firm sites fail to provide a satisfying interactive experience…
Sites fail to focus on buyers
Most sites focus on what their owners have to sell—hours, widgets, a mission, a cause—but this is neither what buyers want nor what they need. There is a succinct way to understand the difference between selling and marketing: Selling focuses on the seller’s needs, marketing focuses on the buyer’s needs. Think of it another way. Ask yourself, whom do you find attractive in a social setting? Is it people who drone on about themselves? Nope. “Not interested in me? Well, I’m not interested in you either.” The same is true of websites focused on “me.” Focus on the buyer.
Sites fail to differentiate one from the other
Tradition, fear and the lack of a clear purpose are three reasons sites fail to distinguish themselves from competitors—tradition because the professions are inherently conservative, following precedent or standard accounting rules. Also associated with tradition is the myth that trust can be gained only in the blue suit and tie. Fear challenges all marketers—being first is risky; standing out is risky; having a personality is risky. But remember, your firm is not the only firm in your buyer’s short list. Once the list is made, all firms have become, for the moment, roughly equal. Being selected from the list occurs only after you prove your difference. You may never get the chance if your site is the same as every other.
Home pages are out of control, without focus
The rule in our agency is “Quick, you’ve got three seconds. What’s your takeaway”? Actually, three seconds is much too generous. According to a study done last year in Ottawa and then again in London, people make decisions about the quality and likeability of your website in 1/20th of a second and carry that impression with them throughout their entire visit to your site.
Because your website is likely to be the first tangible impression of your firm, your homepage carries a heavy responsibility. But the homepage is poorly appreciated. For example, homepages are cluttered with news about yourself that’s of interest only to you. Firms often allow interlopers, time-wasters and meddlers on that valuable space. Your homepage is both your storefront and your lobby. Would you allow anyone in your organization to put her favorite Elvis lamp or his beloved Redskins chair in your reception area? If not, then keep them off your home page, too.
Beyond the homepage, the site falls apart
In the typical professional services firm website, moving off the home to other pages is like driving off a cliff. Thelma and Louise would be proud, but you shouldn’t be. Most practice and industry pages are dead-end descriptions of the offering, with no connection to brand other than a templated look and feel. Take the cure: Treat every service area as a business unit. A business unit like litigation in many firms can contain upward to hundreds of professionals and support staff—a substantial business, worth millions. What’s it worth to support the unit? No corporation would treat a multi-million dollar business unit so carelessly.
Few tell stories or illustrate them
In more than 5,000 interviews with executive buyers of professional services, we always hear the same refrain about the things that get you on the short list: “Tell us who you’ve worked for, what you did and how it turned out.” In other words, you need to share your client experiences, but do so with more feeling than the representative client list. Marketing is all about telling stories. Your stories put your accomplishments in context. They reveal the organization’s personality, how it does business and how it understands its mission. They preview what it’s like to work with you.
Sites are illustrated with meaningless images
Valuable space is wasted with images of office buildings, lobbies, empty conference rooms, skylines and bridges and other meaningless visuals. We know your firm works in a building. We suspect you have conference rooms and lobbies. This type of imagery is a deflection from the message, a weak attempt at visual interest that simply contributes to the lack of differentiation of one site from the other. The belief that this constitutes communication is misplaced. And it leads us to…
Sites rely on words to deliver information, creating ”information slaughterhouses” (Seth Godin)
Our education has done us wrong. By the time our school days are over, we have come to believe that reading, writing and ‘rithmetic are the optimal forms of communication. But, in fact, we have no readers, only scanners. If you wish to get your message across today, then transform substantive data from text to visuals. Think of content as a salad bar. Instead of a heavy helping of text, deliver nutrients (substantive information) via lists, charts, tables, maps and diagrams. On the web, people read 25 percent slower. Words are processed by the brain relatively slowly, which is why a picture is worth a thousand words.
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