Not Your Father's Web Site: Corporate Sites Emerge as New Content Innovators

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Corporate Web sites are not fun. They're about as exciting as an annual report or the fine print of an insurance policy. At best, they may have color pictures of the company's products.

If this is your idea of corporate Web sites, you've got to get out more. Go get camping tips on the LL Bean site. Participate in a discussion of parenting at BabyCenter.com. Do a personalized historical reconstruction at Rejuvenation.com. Get the latest auto racing news at Ford's racing site.

No, these are not your father's corporate Web sites. They are doing a lot more than just presenting company information. They are courting customers, suppliers, and partners in B2B applications, and enticing consumers in B2C venues. They are using several kinds of third-party content—reference information, news, bulletin boards, educational information—to attract these different audiences. In short, they are doing all of the sorts of things that the dot coms are doing—or were doing before the bottom fell out for them.

The stylistic differences between "old economy" and "new economy" companies extends to their Web sites. Old economy Web sites have traditionally been extensions of the company's marketing information, a sort of electronic brochure. They have presented lots of valuable, even essential, information: company background and organization, financial data, history, press releases, executive biographies, and product catalogs and descriptions. After a flashy home page (maybe), there's usually little more than digital versions of various print publications: useful, but not very "sticky," and certainly not much fun.

New economy, dot com Web sites have been unfettered by convention. They have pioneered lots of exciting techniques: rich media, interactivity, personalization, community, and the integration of much third-party content. As a result, they have been very sticky and often lots of fun. The most successful attract millions of repeat viewers, and some even make a little money.

A New Corporate Medium
Over the past few years, this old economy/new economy gap has narrowed. First of all, the dot coms collapsed as a lack of profits caused advertising revenues to shrink and venture capital suppliers to pull back. Many once high-flying Web companies folded completely, or were absorbed by more successful companies, often old, brick and mortar businesses.

At the same time, brick and mortar marketing managers and Web designers are seeing the potential of new economy Web site practices. They're shaking off stuffy conventions and adopting the Web techniques of the innovative dot coms. This means a lot more than just jazzing up a company's Web site; it is actually a major shift in the way a company presents its message. The transition is explained by David Curle, director and lead analyst at Outsell, Inc., a leading content industry research firm, "In the traditional model, a company tries to sell a product by inserting advertisements into content. Now they're putting content into what is basically a large advertisement. They're saying, 'We want to own the forum, and we'll bring content in.'" The content then becomes an essential part of the site. Its role is defined by John Twohey, marketing manager of FluentMedia, a new content aggregator, "At a time when online advertising has been shown to have some limitations, smart marketing managers are beginning to appreciate what they can accomplish on their own sites—if they make the experience more satisfying for visitors. They're recognizing the enormous value of editorial content to drive traffic to their sites, to keep visitors on the site longer, and to encourage return visits."

B2B is Coming—This Time for Real
Not too long ago, B2B Web commerce was hailed as the "Next Big Thing," but its actual progress has stalled. This won't last much longer. According to Anthea Stratigos, president and co-founder of Outsell, "B2B is simmering, there will be a lot more activity emerging than we've seen before, and content will surround these venues." B2B commerce's growth, Stratigos continues, will be powered by new-style corporate Web sites. "Most knowledge workers have, underlying the jobs they need to do, requirements for company information. As the Web has matured, it's recognized that corporate Web sites are authoritative sources and venues, not only for marketing communications and similar static exchanges, but also places to interact with the company, to transact with ecommerce, and to find extranet information about customer or supplier relationships or the company itself."

This model was also pioneered by dot coms, under the buzzword "vortal" (vertical portal.) However, as Outsell's Curle notes, the older players are moving in. "The early arrivers were very entrepreneurial and broke some ground, and planted the seed of the idea, but they're no longer around. It's established players that are either vendors in the space, or publishers in the space, that have come back and are taking over."

An example is GE Plastics. As expected, it has extensive information on GE's plastics products, but there is a host of additional content types, including those from other companies and third-party content producers, including:

Industry-wide product information, including spec sheets from other manufacturers
Plastics industry news and an international conference calendar
Business tools, such as engineering calculators and collaboration software
Product seminar programming delivered as Webcasts

The corporate B2B Web site is also becoming the venue for an otherwise common type of content that is not usually thought of
as "business" information: community discussions. Outsell's Stratigos explains, "We're seeing discussion threads becoming content. In our research of end-users in the corporate world, we find that they are very dependent on expert networks, that they really like to use colleagues and expertise areas. I think this will become commonplace within corporate portals. On the open Web sites, we see discussion emerging as an important form of content."

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