Close-Up: Does a brand still require a website?

A brand shouldn't dump its website just yet. But, Matt Williams says, it needs to rethink its purpose.

A couple of years ago, if you wanted to get closer to a brand, the chances are you'd head directly to its official website. But thanks to the rise of social media and the increased power of the blogger, the prominence of a brand's web page has suddenly fallen way down the list.

Indeed, it's worth noting that whereas many TV ads used to end by directing viewers to the brand's website, most now feature the address of a Facebook page or Twitter account instead.

And companies such as French Connection are showing that even initiatives like online shopping are no longer restricted to its own webpage. Towards the end of last year, the fashion retailer launched YouTique, an interactive video shop that allows users to purchase products by clicking on the items on a YouTube video, and it is also preparing to launch a Facebook store at the end of this month.

"We need to be ready for Generation Z," Will Woodhams, the French Connection marketing director, says. "These people were born with a BlackBerry in their hands - even e-mail is old-fashioned to them. So we need to be in their spaces if we are to hold conversations with them."

For some brands, these developments are leaving them asking whether they need a website at all. "Five years ago, every marketing director wanted a cool website," Iain Hunter, the creative director of CMW London, says. "Now all they want is a vibrant Facebook page and, consequently, they've neglected their website, and we're left with a bunch of digital graveyards that are no use to anyone."

But while the ability to ignite conversations and interact more closely with consumers is enticing, Wayne Brown, the managing director of Glue Isobar, warns that brands must recognise the limitations of social networking sites.

"We always caution our clients about becoming too reliant on any social platform that they don't control," he says. "And I'm pretty sure most consumers would certainly be lost without branded websites that they use all the time."

Allowing a client to stay in control of their marketing messages is a major benefit that a brand site holds over a Facebook fan-page, Tim Fowler, the digital manager at Innocent, agrees.

And he adds that a brand needs a well-established home away from social networking sites if it ever wants consumers to see inside its company in a transparent fashion.

"Without the resource of a main website, you become extremely restricted by what you can do and have to work twice as hard to make yourself heard," Fowler says.

Brown believes that this becomes particularly apparent in certain categories such as the automotive sector, where consumers want to spend more than a quick five minutes interacting with a brand.

He points out that visits to traditional Toyota showrooms have halved in the past ten years as the website has become so critical to the buying process.

Perhaps where a brand's website can be most effective, then, is when it acts as a "hub" that houses all of its content, integrating its social media activity with specially created content. "A common architecture is to engage audiences in social spaces and drive them to your brand website for deeper interactions," Ian Crocombe, AKQA's planning director, says.

So maybe brand websites aren't dead yet. It's just their purpose that's changing.

CREATIVE - Iain Hunter, creative director, CMW London

"I think it all depends what experience you want a customer to have. If you're a shampoo brand, for instance, I think it's fine to not have a brand website.

"There's nothing worse for a consumer than visiting a dense website and trawling through a load of stuff that no-one wants just to find something simple.

"And you can host all the things like terms and conditions and hygiene information easily on a Facebook page.

"But some brands want to do more. Look at Nike - you can't house everything it does on social media sites. If you want more than five minutes of someone's time, then you have to have a base where you can host all that."

PLANNER - Ian Crocombe, planning director, AKQA

"Social media is a great place to tell brand stories, build mass appeal and nurture relationships.

"This means that brands need to reassess the role for their main website and the structure of their digital architecture.

"But it's all based on objectives and proposition. For example, if you are selling complex products with long consideration periods, websites let you have meaningful interactions and transactions.

"Smart companies are building modular web platforms that can be ported into social networks and on to various devices. It's not enough just to build a technical platform. It's also about building the human capability for brands to participate with their customers in real time."

CLIENT - Will Woodhams, marketing director, French Connection

"There's so much innovation you can do now away from your own website, and that's very attractive to a brand like ours.

"And I think that as long as you keep the feel of the brand consistent and have the same message running through everything, then you can have a presence pretty much anywhere.

"But we still want to keep our own website - somewhere we can call home. We produce a lot of content and our website is the perfect place to go for that.

"But we're still trying to keep it very tight - we're very conscious to not fill it with hundreds of pages of blogs and dull bits of information, which can have a detrimental effect."

CREATIVE - Jon Williams, chief digital officer, Grey EMEA

"Amazing, isn't it? First, we had: 'Is TV dead?' Now, it's: 'Is the website dead?' Yes, most big brands need websites. Certainly, anything financial or transactional or with a complex product offering.

"Social media and apps are hugely important new stars in the customer relationship firmament. Very du jour. But they cannot convey or hold as much information as a traditional website. And sometimes customers need that.

"Also, the nature of the web and particularly social media means that users expect an 'always on' immediate personal response.

"Most brands aren't set up to do that, so they can't be prepared to dump their website just yet."

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