Websites have become the most-seen faces of many businesses, but are New Zealand organisations putting their best face forward?
Not according to a new study of some of the most used sites.
Intergen web strategist Giles Brown based his study on similar work by EpiServer, a Swedish firm which makes tools for web content management (WCM), online social communities and e-commerce.
"We were curious about the level of engagement in the New Zealand market, and EpiServer's template is an attempt to measure and quantify that engagement," Brown says.
He rated the performance of New Zealand's most popular websites as average, with limited scope for user contribution and interaction.
"Engagement is one aspect of what makes a good site. A lot of that is around the tools people have to share and distribute content," he says.
Many entertainment, automotive, news and media sites are performing well but Brown says a lot of government sites, as well as sectors such as food and beverage, still haven't got past the model of passive "shop window" sites.
Intergen used Experian Hitwise to identify the top five sites in 10 industry sectors. It looked at whether they had online communities and whether the company participated in those communities, the sites' readability and multimedia content, whether sites could be personalised, whether there was "sticky" content that would keep visitors on the site, whether blogging or social media was part of the strategy and how easy it was to find contact details on the site.
It found 73 per cent of the 50 organisations feature a community on their website but they were created through Facebook and Twitter rather than being a built-in forum or chat room.
About 83 per cent of websites with online communities initiated conversation with visitors by uploading new content regularly, but many online forums and chat rooms had no specific "company" member, making it difficult to tell whether they were not engaging with members.
The report says if organisations don't invest effort into participating in online exchanges, they run the risk of their customers answering their questions for them.
"A community needs support and attention - too many community initiatives feel empty and unattended.
"A lot of people open the fire hose without thinking how they will manage that channel. The 'launch and leave' mentality is still there."
Brown recommends setting up an editorial team which has responsibility for refreshing content and driving engagement.
Customers need to be given reasons to use the site, and fostering conversations between employees and users will help with brand awareness and loyalty. Firms also need to keep an eye on how their online community can lead to more sales.
Intergen found all 50 sites had some rich multimedia content, including videos, animations, audio and interactive content.
While it found 81 per cent of sites easy to read, the balance were cluttered with too much dense text. It says online viewers are looking for concise messages that are easy to digest, so snappy copy is the aim, with video or pictures used to explain long or confusing concepts.
But don't go overboard - too many multimedia elements turn people off.
While Web 2.0 is said to be about interaction, the next wave is likely to be about greater personalisation, so visitors are identified and presented with new content which matches their stated interests or browsing history.
About 86 per cent of the sites had started the process by giving visitors the opportunity to sign up, and some shopping and classified sites such as Trade Me contain a range of personalised features.
Sticky content refers to distractions that draw people into using a website, such as news feeds or updates on company information.
Brown recommends talking to users and analysing website metrics to find out what works, and dropping or reshaping pages that don't work.
Having the right content-management system is important, so refreshing content isn't a major task.
About half the sites used blogs, with the majority updated on a regular basis. Blogs have their own culture - they need to be informal and personal and it doesn't pay to use them as a blatant sales tool.
Intergen says many organisations are investing a lot of time in nurturing communities on social networks, but then neglect to advertise these to visitors on the site. Of the 61 per cent of surveyed websites which had a Facebook presence, 40 per cent failed to mention it on their home page.
It's in the design area that most New Zealand sites fall over.
Brown says many sites present an inconsistent brand image through their design or copy.
Many are simply tired, poorly executed, inconsistent or text heavy.
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