Are Brand Websites Dead?

Are brand websites dead? This would seem like an odd question to ask at a time when we interact more and more with brands in the online space and when digital channels play an increasingly important role in our consumptions habits. However many factors should lead branding and marketing professionals to reconsider the place and role of the brand website in their strategy.

Digital channels indeed play an increasingly important role in our consumptions habits. In China the web is consistently cited as the most trusted source of brand information and is a key part of the purchasing process in almost every product category. But come to think of it, most of the channels that influence our purchasing behavior are not brand owned and the bulk of our interactions with brands online happen outside the brand website. One can discover a brand on a forum, get information on its Weibo page, check out its video on Youku, go over its product line on a mobile catalogue and buy its products on Taobao. Money will have flown right into the brand’s coffers without me giving the brand website a single click. New online journeys are increasingly modeled on such examples and brands must recognize this new reality.

Pepsi Global Website - Pepsi Pulse
Pepsi Global Website - Pepsi Pulse

From a brand point of view: making the website the central element of the web experience used to make sense: the brand could promote deeper, more sophisticated content and was not at the mercy of a 3rd party platform. While these concerns may have been valid they are becoming less and less so as Facebook and Weibo look here to stay, have developed sensible policies towards brands (especially the former) and give brands the possibility to create customized pages far richer and more engaging than anything before.

The question of the brand website’s role is even more acute in China where technical constraints (internet speed, browser fragmentation etc..) make it difficult to develop and maintain quality websites and where social media is extremely heavily embedded into customer habits. For 23% of Chinese netizens, social media is THE FIRST place they would look for brand information.

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From a strategy perspective, a brand in China can attract via social networks, engage via video sites and convert via a T-Mall space. The brand website only needs to enter the equation when in-depth information or interaction is needed (which is admittedly still the case in many sectors). The key is to create engaging online journeys that are relevant to customer habits and consistent with brand objectives.

Pepsi China Website with Tmall
Pepsi China Website with Tmall

Shifting towards this vision centered on customer habits implies a change in the way brands measure the success of their online operations. Digital marketing 101 states that one of the supreme goals of a digital presence is to drive people to the website. Such a mindset was relevant back then the opportunities for digital interaction were few outside of the brand website. Now, brand interactions online no longer equates branded website and metrics should reflect the new rules of the game.

So what does this all mean? Certainly not that brands should throw their websites out the window. Instead, they should take time to think about:

  • What kind of content/information does my customer seek online?
  • What platform is most suited to promoting such content/providing such information?
  • How to I measure success in this new reality where website clicks matter less than they did? For some brands, this might even imply beefing up their website to adapt to the fact that visitors represent the highest potential prospects (the rest interacting with the brand through other platforms).

All in all, while brand websites are not dead, their traditional perception as the undisputed central component of brands’ web presence is. The change may be hard but the result will be better, more fluid digital journeys and, yes, better, more relevant brand websites that focus on what matters.

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