The number of sophisticated businesses - law firms, financial advisors, insurance brokers and so on - with ineffective Web sites seems to be increasing at a geometric rate.
And sadly, accounting firms are doing their part to contribute to that growth with amateurish design, clichéd descriptions, trite imagery, broken page links - things that would exasperate these same professionals if they encountered them on any other Web site.
It begs the question - why are there so many bad Web sites?
It's not as though good design help is hard to find. Or all that expensive, relative to some of the other marketing initiatives that companies spring for. But many firms seem willing to entrust their most prominent corporate identity statement to that guy in payroll, because he set up a Web site on AOL over the weekend for his kid's fifth birthday.
I think it may be because so many people really don't think about communicating as something that requires thought. Something that should be artful, and strategic. Something that might require time, focus and struggle - i.e., work.
Many people think that if they talk or write, they are communicating. But that really doesn't consider the person on the receiving side of the equation. And this describes how so many Web sites are constructed: They are all about what the company - the speaker - wants to say. And they are completely oblivious to the needs and interests of the person on the receiving end.
So here are the 10 critical Web site rules - break them at your peril.
1. Having no Web site is not an option. Today, with the exception of people like Paul Volcker, Johnnie Cochran or Warren Buffett, you need a Web site if you want to be considered a player. It's not that your Web site will have your phone ringing with new business inquiries, but it will pave the way for you to be taken seriously. It allows prospects to get familiarized with your offerings, to kick the tires, so to speak. It proves that you are not some fly-by-night organization.
But most crucially, your Web site provides a singular opportunity to make your case - how you are different, how they will benefit, what you are promising.
2. No Web site is better than a bad Web site. Remember how your mother said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression?" Well, a bad Web site speaks volumes about you, your firm and the experience that clients can expect with you.
Poorly written copy and shoddy Web architecture tells them that you don't value their time and attention. Unimaginative design leaves them with an underwhelming impression of you. This is a case where no publicity is better than bad publicity.
3. The time for Web site gimmicks has come and gone. Have you ever tried to read when a fluorescent bulb is on its way to that great fluorescent resting place in the sky? You know that just-barely-visible flicker that makes you want to scream?
Well, consider how many Web sites have little animations dancing across the top of the screen while you are trying to find some information on the page. Maddening, isn't it? And then there are the splash pages - those sight-and-sound extravaganzas that suddenly appropriate the desktop and sound system of the unwary Web surfer, usually just when a senior partner is walking by.
These bells and whistles are usually an attempt to dazzle where substance is lacking. All they prove is that some Web programmer out there somewhere knows his Macromedia Shockwave applications. They rarely lend any credibility or support to a company's unique selling proposition. And to reiterate, they are really irritating.
4. Where's the beef? People rarely want to read what you want to tell them - they want to find the information they want. Unlike passively watching television, people are on the Internet purposefully. If you have something you want people to know about your company, you had better tell them in a way that is artful, and that does not impede their reason for being on your Web site in the first place. Better yet, tell them as part of the information that they are looking for.
You can assume that a visitor to your site is looking for information about all or any of the following: the services you provide, how your firm is different from competitors, and knowledge and opinions in your areas of expertise. All of this should be made as accessible, straightforward and informative as possible. Usually, firms fail abysmally at differentiating themselves. This is where they rely on descriptors like "cutting edge," "relationship-oriented" or "service excellence" - phrases that no longer have meaning to the reader.
5. Where am I? or, You can't get there from here. The Internet is about speed, so don't slow your visitors down. If you haven't thought through the logic of your Web site, visitors are going to waste a lot of time trying to navigate it. Nineteen out of 20 marketing professionals surveyed recommended against annoying the prospect in this way.
Draw a map of your site. Indicate how each page relates to the others. Consider how someone would get back to the home page from three levels down into your estate tax planning section. Think about how people will try to access information, and try to keep it no more than two clicks away.
If you have a site with more than, say, 10 pages, offer a "search" function. Throw in a site map too, while you are at it. Both will let your visitors move around your site in a way that is most comfortable to them (enhancing their experience with your firm, perhaps before you have even met).
6. Do you really think I'm going to read all that? Most people regard reading as work - that's why, after a day of watching PowerPoint presentations, plowing through e-mail, reviewing expense reports and studying memos, they fall asleep while watching TV. So don't give them more of something that feels like work. Keep it short and simple.
Use pictures. Graphics, when used well, can help prospects envision themselves working with you. Used strategically, they can help make your firm memorable. Graphic designers have studied and toiled specifically so that they can help you accomplish these admirable goals. That's why they made graphic designers. So you should use them.
However, if you still insist on using that guy in payroll, let me translate the preceding into practical application. It means: Do not use pictures of businessmen shaking hands. No photos of tall buildings or maps of the globe. No pictures of stock listings in the newspaper. They will not distinguish you from any other accounting firm. In fact, what those images say about you is that you are like every other accounting firm. We marketers refer to that kind of outcome as unsuccessful.
7. Have you considered dusting this year? If you have an area on your Web site entitled, say, "Regulatory Update" and the article you have posted there discusses the potential for new corporate governance law as a result of the Enron debacle, you know that you have a problem.
Make a note in your planner to review the content you have on your site at least once a quarter. If you find yourself unable to keep your tax commentaries or press releases or regulatory bulletins up to date, pull the pages down. Outdated information on your site gives the impression of an out-of-touch organization.
8. Have a "text-only" option. A text-only option makes your site accessible for clients with visual disabilities, and those with extremely slow modems or limited bandwidth. They will think kind thoughts about your firm for considering their needs.
9. Get an address that is simple and intuitive for the user. You want them to be able to find you by guessing, if need be, and then be able to find you again.
10. Hold on to the domain registration of your old site. If you change URL addresses, don't give up registration of the old one - continue using it to automatically redirect visitors to the new site.
Here's how a friend learned this the hard way: A well-known, statewide health care charity changed its Web address, and did not renew the registration of the old one. There are companies out there that quickly scoop up abandoned Web addresses, seeking to get some attention from those still using the old site. Sure enough, the old Web address of this health care charity became a graphic porn site.
To make matters worse, investigation revealed that over 225 other Web sites (mostly directories of services for old, sick and disabled people) continued to use the old address, because the health care charity never notified them of the change.
Suffice to say, it took a lot of time and work to wrest the old site from the offshore Internet porn site operator.
A good Web site is not only a thing of beauty - it is part of the magnetism that a firm exerts on its market. It requires more planning, more strategy, more attention and more work than many firms anticipate, or are willing to commit.
The results usually show it.
Marjorie Wilner is a communications professional based in New York. A former banker with Drexel Burnham Lambert, Chase and First Boston, she now consults on Web site projects for such clients as UBS/PaineWebber and National Financial Partners. Reach her at (718) 230-3860 or mwilner
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