There's an old joke about advertising: Nothing's as certain to undermine your confidence in a product as knowing that the commercial selling it has been approved by the company that makes it.
Today, a corollary statement could be made about interactive agencies and their websites. And at the risk of talking to ourselves instead of focusing on our clients' problems, today we're going to look at interactive agency websites and figure out how to make them better.
A dirty job (especially if you've got to do it)
Now, before we go any further, let's agree upfront that doing your own agency's website is a thankless task, like putting a roof on the builder's house or performing a transplant on a surgeon. Everyone's an expert. Everyone at the agency feels free to play creative director and starts spouting out ideas, relishing their artistic freedom. Even the UPS delivery guy has thoughts on color palette.
If you're the agency person in charge of doing your agency's website, take my advice and invest in a case of Tums. Pronto.
Perhaps it's the magnitude of the task that causes so many agencies to forget everything they allegedly know about the internet when they do their own websites and social media initiatives.
Really, other than sudden-onset amnesia, how else can we explain the gratuitous use of Flash and the allergy to search-friendly HTML text? Why are so many sites treated as though they were gorgeous (in someone's opinion) baubles -- pretty to look at, but without a whole lot of substance for the various user segments likely to be visiting the site? And why do so many follow the same old structure of: Who we are | What we do | Our portfolio | Etc.? Did Congress pass a law?
Let's just say it out loud: Agencies are often the most egregious violators of the sensible rules and best practices they would follow when working with a client. Yes, given complete license and, one would think, a business imperative to put up a site that will convince prospective clients to say, "These guys get it! I'm going to give them a call," many agencies somehow fall short. Let's be charitable and say that interactive agency websites are like the proverbial shoemaker's kids: The agencies are so focused on their clients' business that their own websites go barefoot. Collectively, we're a walking, talking case of "Do as we say, not as we do."
Is anyone getting it right?
Now, not every agency is guilty of putting up irrelevant, self-indulgent, barely coherent drivel. Rather than focusing on the bad -- and spending the rest of my career finding new ways to apologize to colleagues at industry events -- let's first talk about which agencies are doing some things well. Or at least making things interesting.
A great website: R/GA
A great blog: Organic's ThreeMinds
So what's an interactive agency to do?
Okay, so right about now you're evaluating your agency's entire web presence and wondering if it's generating leads, snickers, or a bit of both. And you're thinking about how to make the web work harder for you.
Ready for the big idea? How about doing for yourself what you do for your clients? After all, your site is basically a B2B site, with a secondary audience of prospective employees and a tertiary audience of current employees. If it's good enough for them, it ought to be good enough for you, right?
You know the questions to ask. Who's my audience: prospective/current clients, press, prospective/current employees, and investors? What do they need and what are their concerns? What do they want/expect from me? Who are my competitors? How is what I offer different from and better than what those other guys have to offer? Can we demonstrate or prove we're as good as we say? Be honest: Would I go to this website?
As it happens, Red Door is currently in the midst of redoing its own website. In the process -- and make no mistake, it is a process, parts of which are fun, others not -- we developed some rules. Well, commandments, actually. Follow these and you'll be fine, or at least no worse off than us.
Creating your internet presence: The 17 commandments
1. Thou shall go where thy audience goes. The internet's a big place. Your website is one little pinpoint in that vast digital universe. Don't think in terms of website. Think about all the obvious places -- blogosphere, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and so on -- where it could benefit your agency (and your audience) for you to have a presence. Your website is just one component in a content ecosystem with your audience, not you, at the center.
2. Thou shall not bore. Unless being boring is your value proposition, and hey, I guess there's a market for everything. But by the same token, don't put something self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, and indicative of your total lack of self-awareness. Unless, of course, that too is part of your brand value prop.
3. Thou shall tweet responsibly. Twitter is a like a new puppy. We may be having fun with it now. But one day it's going to be old and flea-bitten and in need of a bath. And then we'll see how much we really love it.
4. Thou shall walk a mile in the shoes of thy audience. Can you honestly say you would voluntarily go to your own website, Facebook page, or anyplace else in your content universe? If not, well, you need to do something about that.
5. Thou shall be honest, despite the fact that thou works in advertising. Be truthful about your company and what you do. It may be true that on the internet nobody knows you're a dog, but everyone will quickly figure out if you're claiming capabilities and successes you don't really have.
6. Thou shall be unafraid to fail. Having said that, once an idea is unequivocally proven to suck, thou shall pull it the hell down. Immediately.
7. Thou shall avoid the Flash intro. And by avoid, I don't mean include a "skip intro" button.
8. Thou shall maintain thy finger on the pulse. It's not just about keeping your content "fresh," whatever that means. It's about making sure that what you put up is relevant, that it reflects what people are talking about and concerned about today. In fact...
9. Thou shall demonstrate thought leadership. Unless your value proposition is, you know, "we have no original ideas." Make sure certain key executives understand that part of their job is to contribute thoughts to your myriad internet outlets. Develop a point of view and be prepared to argue it vigorously.
10. Thou shall analyze traffic and user behavior. Just as you would for a client, find out: Who is going to your site? Where do they come from? What do they do on your site? How long do they stay? Who is visiting you on Facebook? Who is subscribed to your Twitter feed? Don't these people have better things to do?
11. Thou shall not be deliberately obtuse. Make sure a prospective client comes away able to describe to his boss what your company is and why he should be interested.
12. Thou shall make PDFs available. Hard as it may be to believe, there are still plenty of folks out there -- often older folks with budget authority -- who still print things to read later. Whether or not you agree with this from an environmental standpoint, the fact is that you need to consider it.
13. Thou shall remember that skimming is the new reading. Lots of words are generally a bad thing.
14. Thou shall use case studies to illustrate what it's like to work with your agency. Case studies that drop big names are nice, but the real value of a case study is to nudge the reader's imagination. How do you engage with a client? What kind of problems are you qualified to solve?
15. Thou shall not forget about careers. Even if you're not hiring. The careers section of the website serves multiple purposes. Yes, of course, it is an inexpensive way to recruit. But even if your agency isn't recruiting, you can give the impression that you're thriving, which ought to provide some comfort to clients. More important, it's a place where you can talk about your company in another manner, purportedly for recruits but also for prospects who might take a look in there to hear about what you're really like. (By the way, Red Door is hiring).
16. Thou shall not be antisocial. Unless, again, that's part of your charm. Otherwise, at least set up a page on Facebook.
17. Thou shall help thy audience understand the underlying beauty of what you do. Yes, they can simply look at a portfolio. And at a certain level they can decide whether or not they "like" your work. But unless you help them appreciate it, you're assuming an awful lot of sophistication on their part. It's like offering a guided tour of the Louvre instead of assuming your audience just innately understands the nature and importance of the works being showcased.
Are there contradictions inherent in the above commandments? Probably. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, whatever that means.
But this much is certain: As interactive agencies increasingly come to the forefront and take a lead role as the client's marketing partner, the agency web presence becomes more important -- there's more at stake. Go back and evaluate your agency's entire web presence from site through search to social media and see where you can improve the story you're telling and your audience's ability to engage with you.
And for the agency types who are reading this, do you agree or disagree with these commandments? Clients with experience hiring agencies, what do you think? Did we leave anything out? What would you like to see, or not see? Tell it to us straight, and don't worry -- I've already bulk-ordered my antacids.