posted 21 Jun 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 9
Spinning the web
Lynda Rathbone discusses the essentials of an effective, wideranging online strategy, encompassing organisational websites, intranets and other digital elements
Is your company’s website merely an after-thought? Is it always playing catch-up or is out of sync with the rest of the organisation? Despite it being the first port of call for most audiences, does it still receive a meagre budget compared to other areas?
These are all typical scenarios for many websites and quite a few organisations still position their website and the associated budget for it too far down the list of priorities. While it is recognised that the intranet or internet sites now play an important role in communications, customer and employee servicing and moving work online, somehow they often don’t match up with the other areas of the business. This is likely due to the lack of an online strategy.
The website has too many dependencies associated with it and the use of online components in the organisation should be looked at holistically, instead of being done piecemeal, as is often the case. The definition of online includes websites, but is not limited to them.
Going beyond the website
An online strategy should include everything digital. This should be all websites, e-mail communication to users, online video and audio, online applications and functionality with web interfaces (customer systems, software). Also, how the competition is using online, hand-held and device content, micro-sites and online marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO).
The goal of the strategy is to look at all the online efforts across the organisation and ensure that they align with the business strategy. Yes, the website is generally where everything finds a home, but it should not be a patchwork of disparate sites or applications, all simply housed under one roof.
Part of the strategy should be to plan, in the immediate, short and longer term, how the company makes best use of online technologies going forward. It is best to start with a ‘green fields’ approach and plan the desired strategy, then go back and see what you have to work with. Then prioritise how you can fill the gaps or change business processes to support the strategy. While it is much easier said than done, it can be achieved.
Obtaining organisational buyin
Often, web projects are funded and approved by senior management in chunks. The budget to redesign a website represents the biggest cost and then smaller projects are added on – such as money for SEO, database work, third-party content, customer applications and so on. But because different parts of the business control the budget, those parts of the business control the project and it’s often difficult to get everyone singing from the same songbook.
And this is precisely why the strategy should be looked at as an online strategy and not as a website strategy. It has a much better chance of obtaining buy-in across the company if it’s viewed as a strategy for the use of online technology instead of a strategy purely for the website. Many business stakeholders won’t support such a strategy as they view the website as a mere platform or repository for their content or applications. While it is true that most of the web team are not actually content experts and must rely on the business to publish and update all the information, it is short-sighted that this is often not given the respect it deserves as a mission-critical business tool.
The users and customers don’t care who controls what but often, because the organisation is structured in a certain way, it suffers the consequences. Using Cable & Wireless (C&W) as an example, one of the top requirements for the customer extranet sites was the ability for customers to view their bills online. Many years ago now, the first step C&W took was to send these bills on CD to their customers. This worked until customers started using web applications internally and demanded that C&W do the same. And these were customers with phone bills which were thousands of pages long. Everyone in the company organisation agreed this was a great idea, but when it came to the reality of the task, it was not possible. C&W used over ten or more billing systems to create a single bill for larger customers, and putting this online would not only complicate the process, but cost a fortune. It would also expose the ugly back-end of C&W to its customers, who were not aware this was the case.
What was the solution? This, along with a whole variety of other online initiatives, was put into an overall online business strategy that was then aligned with the C&W customer strategy. This ultimately combined to make one customer strategy, which featured online goals and objectives. All business stakeholders that had the customer accounts were included in the process, as was the IT department and senior management overseeing customer servicing. It was the first time that the business had looked up from their silos and across at all the projects and initiatives going on in the business that were asking for funding online projects. It made each department realise that efficiencies of scale could be achieved if they pooled some resources and prioritised other projects based on IT roadmaps and systems upgrades.
All of these projects would ultimately form parts of the website – be it public, customer or intranet – and the bigger picture could be understood and appreciated by the business. The creation of an online strategy in this way was also beneficial in helping the marketing and customer service teams. They were included as stakeholders and their input was critical in ensuring the online content, applications and interfaces mapped to the issues and problems they were experiencing in the offline world of phone calls and meetings. With one of the main goals of the online strategy being cost savings and improved customer service, this would never have been achieved if the website worked separately with the customer teams and the IT teams worked separately with the technologies.
Finally, perhaps the most important part of organisational buy-in and creating an online strategy which feeds into the overall business goals and objectives, is to have senior management on board. And the more senior, the better. All successful, strategically placed and supported websites I have worked on have always had a champion at the top to help work out the inevitable squabbles that will occur because of human nature and organisational hierarchies. This champion is also the best person to ensure everyone knows about the successes and the need for the strategy’s continued support by the organisation horizontally, not vertically within departmental silos.
Governance and stakeholder management
The creation of an online strategy running across the organisation highlights key governance issues.
Often, putting things online forces different parts of the business to work together, which can be beneficial, but is also a big challenge. Perhaps the data is owned by one group, the technologies supporting it by another and the website content and design by yet another. They all have to work together but who owns that customer journey and experience online? Part of the online strategy should clearly define who is ultimately responsible for the user or customer’s online journey and experience. The strategy should also lay out how the various parts of the organisation should come together to create and define new opportunities for the organisation that can only take place using online technologies.
An example of new web opportunities is the creation of online communities. These don’t exist in the real world as they can online. Making the tools and technologies available via the website to foster these communities is the easy part, but they require both a strategy and dedicated resource support by the business to ensure their success. They are also not usually a natural fit into any one part of the organisation, making it difficult to ensure there is direction and governance for the discussions and the content. Add to that the fact that most of the content comes from the users themselves and it’s a challenge to make sure they are integrated into the site and the organisation. This is where ensuring you plan for online communities and community support during the requirements gathering phase as well as assigning ownership, if it’s an accepted part of the online strategy, is vital to success.
Website aftercare (resourcing and business impact)
Another key part of the strategy should be to work out how the online part of the business is resourced, once the website, e-newsletter, customer servicing application or other online initiative launches. While some online technologies have an obvious aftercare plan, a website is not one of them. There exists the obvious content authoring and updating, but launching a site can really change how the organisation does business, and if this is not planned for, it can cause confusion and even speculation that certain jobs will no longer be necessary.
Taking the time to assess the strategy’s impact over six to 12 months can help alleviate concerns and ensure the organisation is set up to handle the increased online activity. One example of this comes from a client a few years ago, whose business it is to provide licences to public audiences for a whole variety of things. It had more than 50 licence types that could be grouped into about eight categories. During the requirements stage of the project, we spoke to certain parts of the business which dealt with these licences and the call centre. Since the old site only offered information about the licence and a limited number of the licence applications were available in a PDF to download and post to the organisation, the call centre was not used to handling any enquiries about the licences on the website.
This was all about to change, though. On the new website, it wanted to have all the forms available for users to fill in and send electronically. This meant changing a few business processes and updating the call centre. The queries would no longer come into the business by post, but now by e-mail and phone. Departments that were not used to working together (IT and licensing) had to join forces and the call centre was tasked with keeping reports and metrics on queries, so that the site and the online customer experience could be improved. There was also the issue of giving members of the public log-ins, so that they could pay for the licences online and come back to their accounts to both obtain additional licences, services and easily renew them annually. This had an impact on the licensing teams in the business as they now had an opportunity to communicate electronically to these users whereas before, it was a much more perfunctory process with little personal contact or proactive communication with customers.
While the organisation realised that it had to make this change, the strategy had to include creating a series of new business processes internally and a new customer communication strategy externally. Strategically, it all made sense, but practically, there were some challenges. In this particular case, the technology and the new website were the easier part.
Phasing and planning of the online and website strategy
As with any project, the strategy must have defined phases. The advantage of using online technologies is that they can change quickly and there is never a fait accompli. The website is supposed to change and evolve and this can make the phased approach somewhat difficult as the planning takes place on a moving target. But there are some tips that you can use to ensure your strategy is a success, and they are discussed further.
The low-hanging fruit may taste bad
Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean you should start with it. Sometimes, it’s best to wait until you have the most strategic tool ready to go until you launch. The website project may take up to a year or more to complete, and the anticipation by users and your stakeholders will be high. What you don’t want to do is launch a new site with the quick and easy tools if it’s of no value. This will only disappoint everyone and give the impression that the project was not a good return on investment. Make sure you have, at least, one big win in there.
A quick fix is rarely that
You are operating in a multi-dimensional world when working with websites or content. Fixing one thing often has an impact on several others – be it links, content, design, vocabulary or user experience. Ensure that you take a moment to plan the fixes and look at them in the context of your strategy and overall project.
Create a roadmap that is approved and supported by all online strategy stakeholders
Create a master roadmap that shows all the projects which have dependencies on online and web projects. This will usually rely heavily on input from the IT and marketing departments. Regular meetings should take place to ensure everyone can make changes and actually talk to other stakeholders about the impact these changes may have.
Pilots are great
The creation of an online strategy is great, but often difficult to manage as it becomes a large beast if done right. The use of pilots to prove concepts and receive additional funding should be planned into the strategy as an immediate or short-term initiative, followed by the full project building on the success of the pilot for short to longer-term solutions.
Change is good (organisational culture)
The strategy should be a living, breathing document that gets updated as the organisation changes tact. It’s a great idea to keep versions of the strategy on an intranet or other central repository, so that a legacy can be developed over time and knowledge is retained from the past changes and projects that were formed as a result of the strategy. Often in organisations, staff changes result in valuable information being lost. With websites, change is much harder to track as the output is constantly moving and evolving, but every attempt should be made to not only update the strategy, but document the progress.
Benchmark, measure and adjust
As stated previously, it is critical to ensure you have clearly outlined how the strategy and all related projects will be measured. Big, strategic goals such as ‘improve employee satisfaction’ or ‘streamline the customer billing process’ are great, but require detail to actually measure how and if they are working. Each strategic goal should be broken down into measurable initiatives and each of these should be assigned ownership in the business, to ensure they are being monitored.
And this is only possible if benchmarks are taken from the old site. Don’t take the lazy way out and say ‘it’s not working’, work out why, document it and make it part of the strategy. If it’s thought the search engine is antiquated, try to quantify why. For example, benchmarks for this could include:
Format of search results;
Time to search content;
Content volume; and
Type of search engine (for example,only free text, can/cannot do collections, ranked results capabilities and so on).
If improving findability on your site is a goal, it should also be benchmarked. Take a look at your current site and work out how ‘findable’ key functions, content or people are. How many pages do you go through? What is the search process like? What is the user experience and customer journey? How long does it take? Then take that and create your benchmarks that will dovetail into the overall strategy.
KISS (keep it simple, stupid)
Creating an online strategy need not be complicated. Focus on the key components of audience, business and technology – in that order. Make sure the online strategy becomes part of the overall business strategy and the intranet or the internet site is seen as essential business tools and not afterthoughts when planning larger business initiatives. Involve and engage as many stakeholders as possible and ask them to contribute to the vision and the execution of the strategy. Keep them informed of progress and evidence this through case studies or visits to other organisations whose best practices you aspire to.
And finally, keep the spirit of the internet alive in the strategy. The internet’s very core is based around community and collaboration and that often clashes with a business full of politics and hierarchies, which is why so many web projects fail. The site shouldn’t be ‘owned’, it should be managed and supported. The choice of language used in the online strategy and the approach taken to bring people on board should follow the collective nature of the web. A website is an amazing resource that only truly works well if it is a representation of the organisation to the target audiences, accessible by those audiences in the way they think of the organisation.
Lynda Rathbone is managing director at FourSquare Media. She can be contacted at
This article is adapted from an excerpt of her report Transforming your Website, published by