This article focuses on how corporate websites and web channels are being affected by various factors such as the ubiquitous presence of smartphones and the influence of social media. It also suggests possible actions CXOs can take to retain their customers and if possible, to also attract new customer segments. Finally, it points out the birth of a new sibling to web channels, namely, the mobile channel.
Corporate Websites: The Current Status
Conventional current corporate websites are basically one-to-many communication media. This is in no way different from radio or television. In a traditional website, corporate may not hear what the customers and other stakeholders say or want to say, and hearing their views or ideas is essential for business success.
- Corporate websites can no longer be a one-to-many communication platform where customers are forced to listen to what the companies say. Websites should have a mechanism to allow corporate to listen to what the customers say, facilitating many-to-one communication.
- Corporate also should listen to what stakeholders say in their social networks about the company's products.
- Ideally corporate should facilitate a hang-out place (community) for those customers to allow them to exchange their views, collaborate and possibly even contribute to the business.
Websites need to incorporate features for many-to-many (among customers) communication and also many-to-one (customers to corporate) communication.
In addition websites, tuned for delivering content to desktops, are not optimized for delivering content to mobile devices. Desktop sites may end up uploading more data than a user would prefer, especially considering the costs related to data plans on smartphones. Existing websites can also cause unwanted clicks in touch devices leading to a cumbersome user experience.
So even though it is technically possible, corporate websites should not simply be pushed to smartphones.
Trends and Influences
Trend 1: Mobile phones uptake is high in various regions especially in ROW + APAC
- Population of mobile phones is exceeding the population of laptops and PCs put together.
- Number of mobile phones sold in the last year exceeds number of PCs sold. [International Telecommunication Union, November 2011 via MobiThinking; IDC, February 2012]
- Everyone will have a smart phone -- if not now, in 18 months. While this is true more for Australia, as per the research report, other parts of the world also follow this trend.
- 25% of mobile phones in use in USA are smartphones; one in every three mobile phones sold are smartphones.
- The mobile phones usage for browsing is high in Japan and not in USA.
- In Africa, people rent mobile phones mostly for browsing. (So the economy does not deprive but still a different model of community investment and pay-to-use helps them to use the phone.)
- In economically constrained countries in regions such as the Indian sub-continent, China or Africa, mobile phones are more affordable than laptops or desktops.
- This further implies mobile devices, being cheap now, will be the most preferred medium to access content from websites. So if the content is not compatible to be downloaded in mobile, these emerging but potential markets will continue to miss the information that corporations want to spread.
- More people in India or China than the USA use mobile phones (rather than PC) both for browsing and voice.
- The pricing policies for data services in North America and also in a good part of Europe will continue to constrain faster growth of smartphones in these regions compared to their penetration rates in India, China or Africa.
- If North American or European products need to reach markets in APAC or Africa, then it's better to deliver the content to mobile phones rather than to hope for their websites to reach this geography.
All put together this indicates the following influences:
- In emerging markets -- Africa or Asia -- both cost and literacy levels will naturally drive people to choose smartphones as a convenient device (rather than PCs) to access information from the internet.
- So, for B2C products, if (emerging or potential new) markets are in Africa, Asia, APAC region, conventional websites will miss out on these potential buyers.
- If your products need to reach potential customers, then your websites / channel may not reach all customers; you may need a mobile site or channel.
- More and more corporate decision-makers are also using mobile devices because of ease of use. Corporate decision makers adapt devices such as iPads or Tablets to access crucial information for buying decisions. So even the existing B2B customers may also miss the content that is not appropriate for these mobile devices.
- The size and ease of use of these mobile devices coupled with constant connectivity make decision makers carry them with them to access information from anywhere, even from places where desktops cannot go.
Trend 2: Mobile phones and devices (are more in use and) influence buying decisions:
Smartphones help all, including Generation Y, to be a constantly connected, communicating, collaborating and content-centric culture. This brings in the culture of checking prices or comparing features even at the point-of-sale. That affects buying decisions.
Simple applications such as barcode reading, accessing ratings of products such as "likes and dislikes," "people who looked at this also looked into" and such provisions help mobile phone users to influence buyers’ behavior or decisions. For example, the price at an online store may be cheaper than an in-store price. Hence a user may change his/her mind to order online rather than buy at the brick and mortar store.
The above is more true and will definitely have a greater impact on B2C.
Even corporate decision makers, who buy B2B products, need critical information before signing on the dotted line or making a decision in a meeting. Mobile devices become handy to access the needed information; if that information or content is made available on the mobile device then it tilts the decision in favor of that vendor rather than losing to one who has not provided such information.
In any case -- be it B2C or B2B -- delivering critical well engineered content / information on mobile devices is essential.
Trend 3: Web content is no longer suitable for mobile devices:
People are utilizing their micro time slices to consume mobile content. Examples of typical micro time slices are waiting for a train or bus travel. So content gets some intense and undivided attention but for a very short duration. Hence content designed for mobile should be totally different from that designed for laptops or desktops.
Unlike desktop users, mobile users want to have control over the total amount of data that they would like to download on their mobile. So it is essential to give mobile users an option to not download heavy content such as images, graphics, animation or photographs. Also the amount of data in text form needs to be crisp both from the short attention time span as well as from the perspective of the data-download cost to user.
The user experience part of mobile is not completely compatible to the one designed for desktops. Hence it needs to be redone. Browsers in mobile devices also cannot satisfactorily render those contents which were originally designed for desktops.
Trend 4: The mobile channel is different from that of web channel
Let us attempt to define web channel: if the website of any organization helps in accomplishing some business function -- such as marketing or sales -- then it can be called a web channel. This assumes information exchange or completion of a business transaction such as buying a product.
One is completely wrong thinking that mobile phones are just another client like a desktop. Mobile device capabilities require a completely new user interface. In addition, completing business transactions require security and facilities that are totally different from the desktop. Most of the time the culture of using mobile devices for buying a product is totally different compared to desktops.
On analyzing e-commerce for mobile, essentially it is same at the core as that of e-commerce, but the nuances for this channel are enormous. It is better to refer to them using a different terminology such as m-commerce or mobile commerce.
All these points completely redefine the channel characteristics and hence it is better to consider mobile as a different and separate channel rather than consider it an extension of the web channel.
Trend 5: Social media influences buying decisions:
Customers actually offer their true feedback more frankly to their friends in informal social environments rather than formal forums such as filling in corporate feedback forms. So one gets unbiased, unrestricted and frank opinions expressed in social media.
People have the habit of asking friends crucially at the last moment, maybe from check-out counters, before buying or deciding.
Most of us have an urge to express an opinion on something we bought recently to someone and we typically express that in social media. Such news also creates a "need" -- “I also need one” -- among friends.
Listen to what customers are happy with. (Not just what they want alone.)
Blogs, Twitter, Facebook integration with corporate websites allow customers to express their views, making them more visible to the organization rather than having to search, filter and analyze in the haystack of social media content.
Corporate should consider creating a social media hang out (community) for customers to ensure that whatever they speak is within their database!!
Trend 6: Collaborations and communications:
The availability of smartphones and social media has enhanced the communication to the next orbit -- collaboration. There are many reasons for collaboration, some of them are outlined below:
People collaborate to buy a product for their beloved ones, for example, on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day or similar such occasions. So providing a collaboration platform will help such buyers.
Customers like to help each other in using products, too. Thus communication and collaboration takes place even among the customer community and this requires a many-to-many communication feature.
Customers also like to specify features they wish to have in products that they buy; product companies could listen to these ideas and incorporate them in next versions. Why allow frustrated customers to go out and try to create new products which become competition to the business? Instead corporate can tap talents that are available outside their walls; engage product users to enthusiastically create new products for no pay.
For tapping the wealth of outside talent, an elevated communication mechanism -- a collaboration platform -- needs to be provided among the contributors.
Similar points can be extended to every class of stakeholder in a corporation. In a B2B for instance, there is a huge amount of collaboration that takes place before triggering a buying decision.
Drivers for Change
The widespread use of smartphones for accessing information is a phenomena that is happening out there right now. Smartphones are going to stay and is how future information access will take place rather than using desktops alone.
Constantly connected, communicating, collaborating and content centric is the cultural adoption in recent times; this, coupled with social media, will have impacts on buying decisions.
Participation of customers -- inclusive marketing -- is another important factor that influences the buying pattern.
- Micro time slice utilization or absorbance by mobile phones is a change in social cultural patterns in Generation Y and it impacts the business arena.
- Emergence of strongly connected mobile and smartphone devices demands crucial information better be delivered to mobile devices. These will be used either at the point of sale or crucial in boardrooms where buying decisions could be made.
- Emergence of strong social media, the comments about products, will have profound influence on buying decisions of potential customers.
- Use of mobile phones and social media changes and questions even the existence of brick and mortar retail stores of multi-brands versus shopping for the cheapest option.
- Customers can suggest new product features; otherwise they could join together and create a product which suits their requirements and cost.
I recommend the following to decision makers:
- Invest and build a separate mobile compatible website which is tuned to deliver content not only technically to mobile devices but also in-tune with the specific user experience of mobile devices.
- It is worth investing in (if not, be ready to lose business to competitors). Revamp and re-architect the current as-is website to make it a multi-way communication and collaboration platform rather than keep it in "broadcasting mode."
This article highlights that information will be accessed more through smartphones than through desktops. Existing corporate sites are not suitable to deliver content to upcoming mobile devices due to various reasons mentioned above.
A website is typically a one-to-many communication media -- its life is over or its purpose becomes very limited. Corporate needs a many-to-many as well many-to-one communication and collaboration platform.
The emergence of social media based cultures, aided by smartphones, alters the way information about a product will be consumed and hence it will have a varying degree of influence on buying.
Hence there is a need to reexamine your websites and web channels. Not taking action could cause you to lose your customer base. List a set of new business functions for the websites and web channels. Seriously look into shaping the mobile channel and re-architect the websites and web channels, taking into consideration various drivers pointed out in this article.
Part two of this article provide many business functionalities that need to be included in the new avatar of websites. In the new avatar there is no point in calling it a website -- I recommend instead calling it a Digital Communication and Collaboration Platform.
Acknowledgements: The author acknowledges the encouragement of Suresh Kumaraswamy, program manager at Mahindra Satyam, to architect a novel solution which forms the basis of this discussion.
Disclaimer: The opinions and point-of-views expressed in this paper are based on references quoted and the inferences the author made out of it; it is essentially this author’s opinion and the company that he works for is no way responsible for those views or comments. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent Mahindra Satyam’s position, strategies or opinions.
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