Editor's Note - Just Tell Me What I Need to Know

My tenth grade English teacher was my favorite teacher-even if he was teetering on the brink of surrender. He was in a perpetual state of frustration, which he frequently cut with some harmless ridicule at the expense of his students. Though, in the face of 30 preoccupied, dazed, and generally ambivalent adolescents, who wouldn't resort to a little fun poking? One of his favorite barbs was uttered every time a student uncharacteristically volunteered to untangle a particularly problematic passage. Wide-eyed, breathless, and ever faithful to his own humor, he'd proclaim, "I'm shocked and amazed!" And indeed he was. He was well aware that when he opened up a discussion to the class, he'd either have to physically wrestle words out of our mouths or give up and resort to straight lecture.

When I'm scouring a company's Web site for information, I'm often shocked and amazed when I find what I'm looking for-namely, clear, concise corporate and product descriptions, background, principal info, and easy access to downloads, press releases, and any other marketing-related content that helps me understand what that company does and the market it serves. Between PR pitches and my own research, I spend a lot of time clicking around corporate Web sites. Admittedly, the open Web is my first stop-not unlike your average end-user. Sure, there are proprietary sources I can use that have done much of this research for me, but if a company has a Web site for no other reason than to have a "presence," then it should tell me what I need to know-in a functional way. Besides, I find it easier to simply type in www. companyname.com to find what I need. Yet, this rarely happens. Like my English teacher, I'm in a state of perpetual frustration, frequently unable to gather the simplest details from a corporate Web site.

My frustrations were recently acknowledged (I love being acknowledged) by a recent study released by Jakob Nielsen's Nielsen Norman Group, which gave corporate Web sites a D in PR ("Corporate Websites Get a 'D' in PR," Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, 4/1/01). The study decries the informative value of many corporate Web sites after a test group of journalists could find what they were looking for only 60% of the time. This included PR contacts, basic company facts, financial information, and downloads of product and employee images.

Six or seven years ago, organizations in every market sector were stampeding the Web-it was a new frontier, a massive land grab, and to this day many companies still don't get that a fundamental and critical function of a Web site's content is its marketing value. If we're not using the Web to buy stuff, we're using it for its information, and the Web's easy access makes it an obvious first stop.

At last April's Buying and Selling eContent conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I was impressed with a presentation given by Aimee Dean, IBM Global Services' content strategist. IBM figured that the average ebusiness consumer, and potential client, didn't know enough about ebusiness technology and its primary vendor services to properly enter the market as a customer. IBM took care of this by setting up an amazingly (shockingly?) informative marketing/resources site that dually educated and identified potential clients. Researchers loved the comprehensive information and easy access to contacts. IBM loved the highly qualified prospects and two-time lead to customer conversion rate. A lot of time and money was put into creating the site (hey, content creation costs money!), but I'd be willing to bet that the ROI is worth it.

It's not just journalists who like to use a corporate Web site for fact-checking and PR information-they're not the only ones who work under tight deadlines and the information isn't used solely for media coverage. Potential customers rely on this stuff, too. So seek to shock and amaze.