The signs in the digital customer experience industry have been clear for years now: marketers and those charged with creating digital experiences recognize that customers and prospects navigate brands digitally outside of websites. No argument here. And the analysts have been clear too: No more “web” content management labels for software that builds and manages websites. Are brands themselves abandoning websites? From the looks of things, not even close.

Case in point: The CMO Survey found most companies made investments in the performance of their digital marketing over the past year in optimizing their company website: 73.8%. That was ahead of digital media and search (65%), direct digital marketing (57.3%), data analytics (56.5%) and marketing technology systems or platforms (53.8%).

“I guess it’s not too surprising in the year that we’ve just had that many CMOs invested heavily in their websites,” said Tom Capper, senior search scientist at Moz. “There’s never been a better time for it.”

Why Websites Took Precedence

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on and on, digital marketing activities like online experimentation and/or A/B testing (45.4%), managing privacy issues (28.5%) and machine learning and automation (20.4%) were at the bottom of the priority list. And the website took precedence. Why?

“The website, even though it seems a little bit more tactical, is really the entrance way into the firm experience,” said Christine Moorman, T. Austin Finch, senior professor of business administration at The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University  and The CMO Survey’s founder and director. “And so if you screw up there, it's not like you're going to have a chance to go much further. My interpretation is (CMOs) put dollars down there to make sure that they got that right, but some of them may not have been optimized. Consumers were coming at them from all different kinds of directions, but with COVID, the website was the portal in for most of us.”

Related Article: Why Your Website Is Key to Accelerating Digital Transportation

Personalization and Commerce Lead

The CMO Survey did not break down what marketers wanted to optimize about their website. Lead generation? Infrastructure? Scalability? Website cleanup? We’re guessing every brand could stand to improve in all of these departments, especially infrastructure and scalability, which proved challenging for even brands with the backing of some of the bigger web content management software providers.

For the record, we do know this from The CMO Survey, the industries with the most representation for optimizing websites during the pandemic was consumer services and transportation, tied at 88.9%. It was followed by tech/software/platform companies at 62.7% and consumer packaged goods at 56.0%.

In what ways should marketers be thinking about optimizing their brand's websites? Generally speaking, there are two areas that need the most attention: personalization and ecommerce, according to Shift7 CEO Andrew Walker.

“First, when users come to your website the things they interact with should be personalized to them via any number of segments including geography, industry, product recommendations and so on,” Walker said. “Of course, to do this, you need to have as much data on your customers, and those who come to your site, as possible, so that's always going to be the foundation of personalization."

Further, Walker added, if you don't have the ability to transact with customers in some way, whether that's directly taking payment, collecting leads or directing them to a specific retailer, that's a big strike. "Brands must optimize their ecommerce presence to compete," he said. 

Accessibility Is Important

Accessibility needs to go beyond serving people with disabilities and catering to different languages, according to James Bourner VP, media and partnerships of Jellyfish. Ensuring the experience and functionality are at parity across users' screens and devices is critical.

“Furthermore,” Bourner added, “brands with apps need to ensure the app and web experience is one," he said. "With an eye to the future, we expect the avenues for consumers to access content to expand. For example, the effectiveness of Shops on Instagram is an indicator of this.”

Learning Opportunities

Functionality and Usability

For ecommerce, the website needs to be optimized for a frictionless shopping experience. In other use cases, access to specific information or documentation needs to be easy, Bourner added.

“Customer research and UX may demonstrate different customer priorities on mobile vs. desktop, or app vs. site,” Bourner said. “Still, the content must be optimized for both, and user journeys tweaked to reflect any differences in the reason people are visiting the different environments. Consistency through a sales cycle is an important consideration, and robust CMS and CRM systems that allow users to pick up where they left off, regardless of screen, improves the overall customer experience.”

Related Article: 6 Ways B2B Websites Fail to Engage

Let Data Tell the Story

Can a website still be the backbone of a brand's digital experience? It's difficult, but right now, the website probably can be the center of a brand’s DX, according to Bourner. However, he called that alone “poor advice for most” and not a “solid long-term vision, or something that will always be possible.”

Rather, brands can prioritize their website for defining that experience if they need to but really these moves should be dictated by data. “Make the place that most of your customer interactions or transactions happen be the backbone of your experience,” Bourner said. “Ultimately, marketers ignore all other channels at their peril.”

Whatever you have to do, be sure to plan for a holistic future. Think about how the user experience and content delivery will happen across all channels and screens. Expect them to increase.

“Realize the data and insight you can create from having a unified view of customers is immense,” Bourner said, “and expect customers to want the right experience regardless of where they are and how they consume content, media and digital services.”

The Backbone of DX?

Walker feels the website should be the backbone of a brand’s digital experience. While it should never be the only touchpoint of a brand's digital experience, a brand's website can be one experience it fully controls: a center of a unified experience architecture that might integrate with many systems “under the hood” but feel seamless to the customer.

It should also act as a hub for many other touchpoints including external ecommerce channels, digital advertising, social media, SEO and the like. “Ultimately though,” Walker added, “the brand's website is its digital face and is well worth investing in ensuring it delivers the experience its customers are looking for. We see tremendous potential for returns on investment when brands invest in this backbone.”