The role of websites in the modern world should not be underestimated. Whether people do shopping or discuss some cultural issues on a blog, websites play a truly significant role in the lives of average citizens. Along with the entertainment and informational functions, websites have also become a huge part of companies’ business strategies. Therefore, currently a big part of corporate business is done on-line. Corporate websites provide information for customers, potential partners and investors, as well as a number of other groups (Tarafdar & Zhang 2005-2006). This research focuses on the informational function of the corporate websites, as well as on a number of other features, such as design, social network integration, additional structure elements and new functions that are created on the corporate websites along with the development of innovative online technologies.
Nowadays, Internet technologies have reached such a high level of development that even those advertisements that people see online are targeting their specific interests (Mitchell 2012). Currently, there are 200 million websites on the Internet, and the number of registered domain names keeps growing each year (Pierce 2011). Therefore, taking into consideration the significant role of the Internet and online communication, companies just have to establish their own on-line representations in order to attract customers. With the implementation of a corporate website, any company can define its niche. It also gets identified not only offline, but also in the online world (Thilmany 2003). Only by joining the online community are companies of different sizes able to keep their work and operation modes up-to-date.
This study has a special focus on four websites that are recognized as structures with best design and features. Three of them are major multinational corporations: Adidas (http://www.adidas.com/com/), Dell (http://www.dell.com/), and McDonald’s (http://www.mcdonalds.com). The fourth one is a smaller company Foehn (http://www.foehn.co.uk/). The author has purposefully chosen four companies from different spheres and with different target audiences. This variety of specialization will help to identify different features that company websites develop in response to their target groups.
First corporate websites were established back in the 1990s (Lowe 2007, p. 2). Companies established their on-line representations in order to target more potential consumers, as well as investors, and partners, etc. Globalization has also made its contribution to the development of the corporate websites, as with the development of global markets companies needed to have their images and products presented to various target audiences from all over the world (Tarafdar & Zhang 2005-2006). And the creation of the corporate websites was the cheapest and at the same time the most effective way of achieving this goal.
Despite the differences in appearance among the corporate websites, they all serve one main goal – to advertise the company online. Making various audiences aware of the company’s brand and distinguishing it among the variety of different options in the market became important (Lowe 2007, p. 2). Therefore, informational function was defined to be the main element of any corporate website.
The goal of any corporate website is to address its target audience, which includes current users of the product and potential customers (Wilson 2011). While the current users should be encouraged to stay loyal to the company, the potential clients have to see through the website that the product might be interesting for them. Therefore, these website designs as well as information should be carefully selected in order to attract the specific parts of the audience.
Most corporate websites combine multiple functions, thus covering a number of various areas. The situations when a website serves only one function are extremely rare. Hwang, McMillan and Lee (2003) define three main messages of the corporate websites: information about the company, brand, and sales. According to the authors, the most common combination is the use of these three functions (more than 63% of the reviewed websites).
Among the four reviewed websites all cover each of the foregoing spheres to different extent. While the Dell and Foehn websites have on-line stores integrated in the website, McDonald’s and Adidas do not offer the possibility to shop directly online. At the same time, they make the shopping process easier by offering the on-line list of products and a possibility to locate the closest store. The advertisement of a company plays a more significant role for all four websites than the advertisement of its brands, although all four present a very close connection between the companies and their brands.
Despite the variety of functions that can be implemented on websites, Lowe (2007) defines a set of basic structural elements that any corporate website should include in order to present the required information and at the same time remain user-friendly: “About” information, contacts, news, products and services, press-releases, and events or activities (p. 2). At the same time, it is essential for the homepage of a website to have some short information on the company (Site configuration challenge: Corporate brochure 2005). Although some additional features can be added to this basic list, these are the elements that ensure the effectiveness of a website, while preserving its’ simplicity.
The website design to a large extent depends of its target audience. Therefore, the design of each website should be optimized in accordance with the needs of its customers (MicroStrategy n.d., p. 76). For example, the Dell website is better-ordered, neat, and professional because it targets people working in the sphere of business and communication – managers and professionals from different spheres. With its slogan “The power to do more” the website sends a message of business professionalism, simplicity and usability. At the same time the Adidas website is brighter and more interactive, with the emphasis on sport, style, and active lifestyle. This site creates an overall spirit of movement and physical activities which incorporate the main message of Adidas as a company working in the field of sports fashion.
Visuals are important elements of any website design (Lowe 2007, p. 5). They are prominent almost on every page of the analyzed websites, except Foehn . They easily attract attention, especially if animatics are used as website elements. Moreover, visuals are used to attract younger audiences. Although in terms of colors websites usually rely on the corporate style (Lowe 2007, p. 6), some common patterns can be defined while looking at the target audiences of each of the companies. While Adidas and McDonald’s are usually working with younger generations, they use brighter colors. Dell is implementing a calmer color scheme in order to attract adult business customers.
Corporate websites address different audiences within one umbrella structure. It would have been inefficient to create different websites for customers, investors, employees, etc. therefore, in order to increase the website effectiveness companies try to address the whole range of stakeholders within one structure. Hwang, McMillan and Lee (2003) define the following audiences, which the corporate websites are trying to address: consumers, business partners, employees, investors, communities, and the government. This list does not mean that each corporate website targets all six groups. The number of approached audiences depends on the size of the company. The larger a business entity, the bigger group it tries to target.
The four reviewed websites pay different levels of attention to each of the target groups. For example, the Adidas website mainly focuses on the customers, with the lists of products, ads, and fashion news. This website pays less attention to other interested groups, although it also has the employment section, as well as information on the company’s corporate structure and advertisement of its’ partners. At the same time the websites of Dell and Foehn give more attention to company’s partners and supporters. In contrast, Foehn has no employment information on its corporate website, which means that the company chooses different methods of finding employees. The simple McDonald’s website also provides information for a wide variety of interested groups, making equal emphasis on potential employees and company’s clients. The differences in the targeted audiences may to some extent be explained by the specifications of the reviewed companies. For example, the employees of McDonald’s are usually younger people with lower specialization, thus their applications can be reviewed through the website system. At the same time Foehn requires higher level of education and specialization, thus this company prefers a different way of finding employees.
Hwang, McMillan and Lee (2003) define the search of information as one of the main reasons why people visit corporate websites. Contrary to how they use the advertisements on TV or radio, which are perceived as providers of unintentional information, the majority of people intentionally visit corporate websites in search of deeper knowledge on the company and its’ products (Nielsen & Loranger 2006). Therefore, the main function of all the websites is informational. Depending on the targeted groups, the corporate websites also provide various types of knowledge about their history, structure, products, and CSR programs etc. Studies show that the corporate websites are currently scoring very high in keeping their information up-to-date (Owyang 2010). It means that when customers visit corporate websites they have a chance not only to explore the company’s history, but also see the most recent news. Among the four researched websites, Foehn is the only one that has a special “News” section, while Adidas and Dell present main news on the first page. McDonald’s is the least news-efficient website among the four.
As it was already mentioned, employment is one of the spheres targeted on the corporate websites. Although some of the companies, like Foehn, are looking for high-qualified personnel and are thus avoiding the employment sections on their websites, the majority of other big companies add a special feature targeting employees. The websites provide a number of different features in the career section: the benefits of working in the company, description of the different career types available, as well as the ability to apply for a position online. Some of the websites, such as Adidas, also provide the first-hand experience from the current company employees. At the same time Dell website provides a very detailed information on the application process, which includes company information, types of employments and internships, employment procedures etc. thus, by simply visiting a corporate website a person gets an overall information on the employment process. This attention to potential employees reflects the tendencies of the modern world: computerization, fast-pace decision-making, and reliance on digital information, etc.
In the “features” section of this research it was already mentioned that some websites have on-line stores, which increases the usability of the sites, as well as allows customers to utilize all their needs online. While two of these websites (Dell and Foehn) do have any on-site shops, the other two (Adidas and McDonald’s) only provide the possibility to view the product and locate the nearby store. It appears that the possibility to visit an on-line selling facility increases the usability and efficiency of a website, since it allows a wider variety of customers to use its’ products and services.
Communication with current and potential customers is another task of the corporate websites. The dialogue between the two sides is achieved easier through on-line forms than by the use of off-line methods, like questionnaires. Therefore, in order to understand the further tendencies of development and their own mistakes, the companies need to establish connections with their customers. In 2011, the large corporations have stated that the establishment of a sufficient dialogue with consumers is one of the significant goals set for the corporate websites in the future (Owyang 2010). Current research shows that although companies tend to update their content at a fast pace, they do lack the dialogue with customers and engagement of clients in discussion and feedbacking.
Social Media and Corporate Websites
The use of social media for promotion is a relatively new concept. It provides companies with a possibility to connect with the audience on a more personal and less official level (Ernst & Woods 2006). Moreover, the use of the social media stimulates generation of feedback from customers and encourages opinion sharing. Twitter, Facebook and other similar websites provide information faster, while also sharing with the range of population even wider than TV. Therefore, social networks present an amazing field for finding new customers and increasing influence on the current ones. Taking into consideration the growing importance of social networks for the Internet users, the majority of corporate websites have added the integration of the social media to the corporate website structures (Owyang 2010).
The use of social networks as a new marketing tactic has become the main tendency in the on-line representation of companies. This change has happened only recently but can already be seen through a large number of social network ads, as well as corporate pages on various social media resources. Moreover, the majority of advertisements direct people to the Facebook or Twitter pages of the companies (Pierce 2011). At the same time, the corporate websites also promote their own pages on social networks realizing that it will be much easier and faster to share information through Facebook than through the website itself. Three of the reviewed websites on the very first page provide the possibility to include their pages into a customer’s own network by “following” on Twitter, “linking” on LinkedIn or “liking” on Facebook. Only the Dell website does not provide the immediate access to its social network pages, although the very first page offers to visit the company’s blog.
Blogging is an essential element of any corporate website. As it was already mentioned, blogs give customers a chance to receive less official information about the company. Therefore, it is a new form of communication between customers and the company. The use of blogs has proven to be extremely successful. For example, Ernst and Woods (2006) state that one of the companies increased the number of customers by 25% after establishing an online blog. Moreover, Lowe (2007) states that blogs not only attract customers, but are also a good way to reach potential investors (p. 3).
Mistakes and Complications
Over the time, websites have become more user-friendly and clear. At the beginning, the industry faced significant problems. At the end of the twentieth century, many websites were not able to provide clear and comprehensive information. In the research conducted by Nielsen (1998), 42 percent of users could not locate appropriate information on the websites and 62 percent of shoppers even gave up looking for the items they wanted to buy online. As a result, those websites were not bringing the expected positive changes to the companies. On the contrary, the dissatisfaction with the on-line services decreased the customer’s interests in off-line company offices (Nielsen 1998). Of course, the website usability has significantly improved over the past decade. But still, even the modern stylish corporate websites face a number of problems.
One of the less successful elements of the website design are “splash screens” that are usually build with Flash and are shown on the website in order to “create a mood” (Cappel & Huang 2007, p. 118). While these screens usually have a special “skip” button, they are commonly considered useless. Flanders and Peters (2002) state that the splash screens take much time to download data, and thus slow down the customer’s access to the actual information. Thus, splash screens are commonly perceived as a waste of customer’s time.
Another mistake made by the website designers is the implementation of horizontal scrolling. Due to the fact that some websites are made too wide, horizontal scroll is required for the full information access. Studies show that although website users tolerate vertical scrolling in general, the need to scroll right in order to find required information leads to major negative responses (Johnson 2003). Therefore, in order to increase the website usability and customers’ satisfaction with the website companies one should take into account users’ preferences in terms of the web design.
The social media, which at some point became an additional element of the website structure and just another way of getting information and providing feedback has now become a hazard for the corporate websites. Price (2011) states that the popularity of the social media services slowly leads to the destruction of the phenomenon of the corporate websites. Even the Facebook has officially recognized the fact that social media are slowly but steadily replacing the corporate websites, so that the companies’ pages on social networks are visited more frequently than their websites (Price 2011). At the same time, despite growth of social networks, people address corporate websites for the more reliable information and prefer to visit them, while “following” the accounts or profiles of the companies.
Another problem connected with the use of the social media is the increased need for feedback and dialogue between the customer and the company. While the majority of websites mainly provided up-to-date information on their products and activities, the creation of pages on social networks has shifted the focus from the informational function to the interactional one. But while companies are able to provide up-to-date information, they still lack the ability to provide timely and efficient responses to customer’s questions and requirements (Hwang, McMillan & Lee 2003). Therefore, the initial goal of integration in social networks has not been achieved.
Websites became an integral part of human life some fifteen or even twenty years ago. Taking into consideration the growing importance of the Internet and online communication, business entities began to establish their own on-line representations in the 1990ties. The main function of all corporate websites has been the provision of potential and current customers, partners, investors, and other target groups with essential information on the company and its’ brands. Although first corporate websites had significant usability problems, with time the design has improved, as can be seen from the four analyzed corporate websites. The four studied websites have none of the mentioned design failures and at the same time target a wide variety of audiences, as well as have various functions along with the main one. The four reviewed websites have been: Adidas, McDonald’s, Dell, and Foehn. Despite some variations in design and structure, all four have presented a number of common features that lead to the success of a corporate website: attractive and user-friendly design, information for different types of target audiences, and easy access to a wide variety of knowledge. Moreover, while taking into consideration the basic requirements for a corporate website, these four informational resources have also managed to adapt to their specific target audiences.