The Perils of Small Businesses Imitating the Corporate Web

It’s one of the great insights about growing and sustaining your small business that you can adopt and adapt many of the processes found in corporate life. I utilize corporate interaction tools – from calendar invites for meetings to action items to status updates. Corporate standards like specification documents, sign-off on scope of work, followup points, and appropriate deliverables are also part of our processes. This is all well and good. One great thing that corporations have developed is internal processes that yield standardized, repeatable, sustainable results with consistent payoff. We can all learn from that.

It’s one thing to borrow corporate processes, but there are some real perils in borrowing corporate style. Web sites are a prime example. So often, web design for small business revolves around trying to look like a corporate site. Everything bland, everything under one brand, very little connectivity, most of the effort is spent on trying to limit the footprint, control the visitor, and keep everything under one roof. Disaster for small business. A better model is Web 2.0 startups. Startup businesses who are doing on the web what the corporate committees are afraid to, are doing it quite successfully, and are taking a huge chunk out of corporate market share.

Corporate web sites try to brand everything themselves, and omit anything that would require sharing space or credit. They pay extra to put their own name on other people’s services.
Web 2.0 startup web sites collaborate with lots of brands, giving that collaboration prominence. When you see “we integrate with Harvest, Outright, and Shoeboxed” you’re in a Web 2.0 environment.

Corporations focus on the web as a medium for transactions. A virtual cash register or billboard. They are slow to catch on to social media, blogging, and other forms of interactivity. Most sites still provide only a contact page. Or if there’s more, they make it secondary. Their first entrance into social media is usually like their site content – a form of advertising, which most people treat a lot like spam.
Web 2.0 startups make staying in their orbit primary. Social media links are prominent. The focus is on brand loyalty by joyous participation. They cultivate their “tribe” by adding value constantly – blogging free information, insights, and advice – instead of making everything a sales pitch.

Corporate sites make everything clean, pristine, and formal. The better ones have a real-ish mascot person (Progressive’s girl, Subway’s guy). But the interaction that would actually come with real people is pushed to the back.
Web 2.0 sites give you some genuine human scruff. There’s plain talk, photos of real people, and your comments are often part of the front page. They not only say they want feedback, they often feature tough questions from clients.

Corporate web sites take feedback from a contact form. In response, you get a form letter, as the first try.
Web 2.0 web sites make feedback part of the site itself. They include a forum, or invite public blog comments, and usually the response is personal – from either a ranking employee or a captain or guide among dedicated fans invited to help newbies along.

Corporations hire a firm to get research on what you think, want, and will buy.
Web 2.0 startups crowdsource their ideas. They ask you what you right on the site, and in external social mediums like Twitter.

Corporate web sites put their services above everything. The focus is top down. ‘Here is what we offer. Which one do you want?’ The landing page is mostly static. It’s as though social interaction were an afterthought. The equivalent is that person we all know who shakes hands and then asks who is your insurance carrier.
Web 2.0 web sites include generous dynamic content on their landing page, which not only gives them better search engine optimization (SEO), it seems like someone is home. Services don’t take a back seat, but the site is also not just an ad sheet.

Corporations are trying to extend their brand into social media (like Facebook and Twitter), but they really don’t get it. Mostly, contacts revolve around their web site, and their service or product offerings.
Web 2.0 startups start out in social media first, often while the web site is under construction. They often build a community *before* offering products or services. Their brand is not dependent on the web site. The site becomes the central hub of their marketing, but not the sum of it.

Comparisons are plentiful, but the point is this: Anyone can throw up a corporate-style web site. There’s actually a formula – just like there is for most corporate processes. A lot of research has gone into it. Some of it’s right, and some of it used to be right, but hasn’t been in what, for the web, is a long time. You do need the basics – a Contact Us page, an About Us page, a Privacy Statement, some Terms of Service (TOS) for online participation. But merely duplicating the corporate footprint and slapping a blog and some social media icons on top of it, does not make you effective in a web 2.0 world. What does, actually, is rethinking your interactions with prospects so that you can attract new types of clients to build your tribe (again, referencing Seth Godin’s book Tribes) and compensate for client turnover.

In other words, it’s not all about the web site, and it’s not about tossing up the right pages, which can be done in a few hours. It’s about completely re-envisioning how relationships with consumers are built. That’s what web 2.0 means for small business. It means you can’t just copy anymore, because consumers have gotten smarter than that. It means you can’t just build it and expect that they will come. It means, more than anything else, that you’ve got to be involved. Small businesses that won’t hear that won’t be successful in this medium, the new web, the internet market not as it will be, but as it has already become.

So next time you’re looking at web sites to imitate, whether it’s corporate ones or your competitors, stop. Instead, look for people to imitate. That’s the meaning of the new web, also. The web site doesn’t mean half a damn, if you’re not doing what the successful people are doing. Even if you just duplicate some web 2.0 site, it doesn’t mean it will be successful for you. And not because your industry is different, or your clients are special. It’s because copying doesn’t work anymore – not the way it once did. What good is throwing up a blog if you’re not going to do with it what businesses who have been successful with blogging are doing with theirs? What good is having a new logo and a presence on Facebook, if you’re just going to camp there and wait for people to find you – that’s not what successful web 2.0 businesses are doing with their logo and facebook account.

You’re going to need a marketing plan – an approach that goes beyond merely acquiring widgets to add to your web site. It may be an unpleasant truth to businesses that aren’t prepared to change, both how they do marketing, and some internal processes accordingly, which is what consumers influenced by web 2.0, whether they realize they have been or not, will require. If cultural change is not part of your small business culture, then you have something else to learn from corporations. It’s not how to build a web site. Those guys are still back in the 90s on that one. But what corporations often have down, or at least pay good lipservice to, is the need for change management as a routine part of the business. The need to adapt as the public changes. One can easily find a lot of small businesses, especially single-owner shops that, in the face of a changing outside world, just keep their heads down and keep plowing away with all the more vigour at the same old thing. And with varying degrees of success. You often get something for working twice as hard – it’s just that it’s not usually twice as much success.

If you don’t know much about how to approach the new web, the new consumer, and what to do about your internet marketing, that’s when you need an internet marketing consultant. I’m really not trying to tout our services. There are lots of qualified people. We’re here, of course, but our approach is to keep giving away insights, advice, and information, for free, and we figure those people who should become our clients will be. If we take care of everyone, some, by offering tips, tricks, and not shirking on the substance, people will take care of us, too. That’s how we do web 2.0. Now, if you’ve read this far, you’ve got to ask yourself how you are doing it. And if you represent a corporation, you already got this information from those firms you hire to give it to you. Whether you heard it or not, well – that’s really the question.

Telling it like it is. Market Moose.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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