Does your business still need a website? As web designers, we’d like to say an emphatic yes, and for that to be the end of it. But we’re in the business of digital marketing generally, not just web design, and there’s an increasingly vocal debate suggesting that the age of the website is over. Rather than shy away from the question, we thought we’d take a look at the question – examine if it’s really as clear cut as some would have us believe, and address the issues as we see them.
“…the time may be ripe to begin lamenting the end of the website.”
Mashable recently published an article reporting Facebook’s director of product design, John Lax’s prediction of the end of the website. In his (Facebook’s) view, the massive growth of mobile has driven our online interactions outside of what could now be called ‘traditional’ web-based platforms, towards apps on IoS and Android operating systems. The article goes on to discuss the impact of this development on design, as many aspects of how businesses present themselves would become standardised as a result. Interesting as this is, we wanted to look at the bigger picture. Design considerations aside, is the website really dead?
2 sides to the story
Before we go any further, this particular digital marketing agency sees 2 basic starting positions for entering this debate. On the one hand, the tech-savvy look at their websites, see the march towards mobile, the use of smartphones and apps and start to scratch their heads. It seems laughable that technology has progressed so far and so quickly that not 20 years since the real explosion of the internet began, websites are seen as ‘traditional’– and our more tech savvy clients are asking themselves – and us – the question: “Do we need a ‘traditional’ website?”
Secondly, based in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, the smallest city in the UK, in what is undoubtedly a very rural area, we meet many businesses that have never gone down the route of having even a basic website set up. If we had a pound for every conversation we’d had that started “I just hate technology…” or “Well, I have enough business and my customers know where to find me…”, well we’d probably be quite rich. However, the growth of social media usage has led some of these businesses to set up Facebook pages, Etsy shops, Twitter or Instagram, effectively sidestepping the website – the erstwhile ‘first step’ into the online marketplace. Do they need a website if social seems to be working for them?
So we have clients – and prospective clients – approaching the question from different starting points. And while (as you’ll see) our conclusions apply regardless of your starting point, the rationale for the conclusions may differ depending on whether you’re tech savvy or not
What is a website anyway?
Not in terms of the technical coding, but in terms of what purpose does a website serve? Unlike a paper brochure, a website is infinitely adaptable and updateable, capable of being delivered via a number of methods, both inbound and outbound, and through a multitude of devices. A website isn’t limited to dropping through letterboxes or hanging round on a table at networking events, libraries, cafes or doctors’ surgeries in the hope that it might be found. With the right ‘back end’ set up and the right text, a website is ‘findable’ through search engines.
The flexibility of a website and initial set up costs means that it is ultimately a far more cost-effective way of promoting your business than a paper brochure which may quickly become out of date. Tangible brochures – decent ones – cost significant amounts of money – and we’ve all worked in businesses where boxes of promotional material gets thrown out as it becomes out of date. Leaving aside any environmental issues, provided your website offers a no waste, no fuss, responsive and reactive platform from which to market your business as you grow and change.
You also remain in far more control of how your business communicates its message. Websites allow much more individual design, and control over design than the alternatives.
The future – ‘app’ shaped or not at all?
Enough already – if websites are so great, why would we get rid of them? Why are we even asking this question? Well, as the Mashable article we mentioned above indicates, the development of alternative platforms, driven by the rise of smartphones, gives business an opportunity to maintain an online presence which can be updated and adapted (within the confines of the platform concerned) in a similar way as a website, without the need for a professionally developed website. The argument put forward by Facebook’s John Lax suggests that what brands and business will lose in design autonomy, they will gain as people find it easier to navigate across a platform where they don’t have to relearn navigation every time they visit a new page or profile.
So what are the alternatives?
- Social platforms
Social media platforms are often heralded as the natural successor to websites. Free to set up, flexible, easy to update, social media are championed as the places to engage with your clients and customers on a regular and more personal level than a website allows. Insights and statistics to help you refine your activity; you can add events, promote calls to action, and in some cases you can capture data through integration with other apps such as Mailchimp… It’s also such a familiar platform that it’s easy to get to grips with it and to get staff on board.
On the other hand, social doesn’t work for every business, even now. Different platforms work for different industries and sectors, and although it social has an apparently impressive dominance, significant numbers of the population still aren’t using social media actively.
Buzzfeed is an example of a business that’s maintained visitor levels to its website but has seen a huge growth in its social following – but the tactics its used are pretty unattainable to most businesses and organisations. Creating a number of channels and massively exploiting video, creating hundreds (thousands) of clips, their posts regularly ‘go viral’ – but this is a business that makes its money through content sponsorship. They are in the business of being on line, pure and simple, of creating entertaining viral content. For many other businesses, they will need to offer a level of depth and credibility that a few videos simply can’t provide.
Social media platforms are also constantly evolving in a way that’s beyond your control – did you know that Facebook works on 4 hour iterations – so something changes every 4 hours? Can you keep up? Even people, businesses and brands experiencing success on social media will more often than not maintain a website. Elle Luna writer, designer and prolific instagrammer with 142k followers still has a website presence on Tumblr . Interestingly, if you are selling online, while many people use social media to research products and services, they prefer to go to a website for purchasing. The rates of conversion on social media are startlingly low – the highest being Facebook at 1.85%.
- Blog Sites
Medium, Tumblr, WordPress even, these blog sites are all recognised as places where people can express themselves more extensively than on social media. Social media platforms are used to share posts more widely though – identifying a clear link between the two, rather than being a tale of one being better than the other. Whichever social platform you choose, people who have more to say are more likely to choose a blog site to express themselves, disseminating their posts through social media.
Going back to our 2 pronged approach that we mentioned at the start of this post – there is of course, another alternative:
- Abstain from online
If you’re reading this in a buzzing urban centre, you may raise your eyebrows and ask yourself if anyone really thinks this is an option. Well here in the rural communities of West Wales – and, we’re sure, elsewhere in rural communities, this is viewed as a valid approach. Grown out of a distrust of technology or a feeling that ‘everyone already knows where we are and what we do’ – good old word of mouth.
Our answer to that is that this may work to a limited extent but businesses taking this approach are likely to miss out on business from people moving into the area either for lifestyle or retirement reasons, and who are used to using the internet to communicate. We’ve worked with a number of small businesses who were initially reluctant to develop an online presence, and who have become converted. The bookkeeper who had no website and now 1 year on gets 10% of new work from it. The landscape gardener with a Forces background, and definitely someone not used to the internet and its workings, and who didn’t believe in it, and who gets 4 enquiries a week from his site.
So…do you need a website for your business?
We’ll answer our technophobes first. Yes. You do need a website. Even in small areas of low population density where you may have no competition, or feel that ‘everyone knows where you are’. Inevitably, these areas are often sought out by holiday makers, and a web presence can improve awareness and business from people coming into the area on a seasonal basis. It’s also the case that many people come to these less densely populated areas for lifestyle reasons to retire. And although ‘escaping the internet’ may be a motivation, many of the newcomers will be tech savvy and used to using the internet as their first port of call for information. Even those who forgo social media will more than likely use Google over the Yellow Pages (and by the way, have you seen how small the Yellow Pages is these days? No longer the doorstop of pre-internet days – a mere shadow of its former self…)
Social media sites will give you an online presence, get you in front of your customers and potential customers, but to make social work in isolation demands time and energy, a commitment to choosing the right platform or platforms to operate within, to understanding how they work and to keeping on top of developments.
A website adds depth and gravitas to your online presence
And this leads us on to the tech savvy who have so far worked on a website model – is the website still relevant in an age of a vibrant social media, and other platforms? Again we say yes. Unlike Buzzfeed, most businesses benefit from having a website – even a simple (well put together) brochure site – to offer depth, gravitas, to their organisation. The Huffington Post suggest that “Ultimately, the decision to forego a website is based on a false choice. Social engagement can be achieved by optimizing for share rates on your own website or on contextually relevant sites on the open web, where brands also have the benefit of consistency, context and control of data.” This last is crucial to understand.
We firmly believe that not every social platform is suited to every business and encourage our clients to be selective where they aim their social efforts. Inevitably, not all their target customers or clients will be accessible through the social platforms they choose, but then the website sits on the internet, available through search engines. Without a website, businesses either have to spread themselves over more social networks, including those that they are less suited to (know many accountants rocking Instagram?) or you lose the opportunity to reach clients who don’t use social on any meaningful level. The regular changes in social media algorithms make it almost impossible for businesses to rely on them for traffic and sales. The rules change all the time, often with no notice meaning a lot of running to catch up when you could be concentrating on your day job.
Leave the business of conversion to your website
Finally, those stats about conversion on social media. Pretty small, don’t you think? A properly set up website allows visitors to get an in depth feel for the company they are thinking of buying from, their products or services and to move down the sales funnel to become customers. We’re always being told that people don’t like the hard sell on social media – but if you’re reduced to posting videos of bear cubs falling out of hammocks (you know the one) to keep people’s attention, you’re distracting from the sale. That doesn’t mean you should never post such things on social media (this in itself is potentially a whole other blog post). But it’s important to remember that what your social media profile does is to give customers or potential customers a sense of your business personality rather than bring direct sales. Leave the business of conversion to your website.
So we got there in the end – your business really does need a website. It’s interesting to note that the drive towards the death of the website seems to be led by the social platforms themselves. Interesting, but perhaps not surprising. If you think we’re being too cynical, or that you can change our minds, why not leave a comment below or on our social profiles…