A strong narrative is the key to successfully communicating with customers on the corporate website.

 

 

People are being bombarded with brand messages. From social media to advertising, the copious ways that brands are trying to spread their messages has left a sour taste in many people’s mouths, creating a sense of information overload anger and frustration; resulting in people ‘switching off’.

The reality is, people today want to choose when and where they receive information; and corporate websites are proving to be one of the most effective ways in achieving this.

In 2011, the Global Players study highlighted that globally-active companies were beginning to realise and respond to people’s frustrations and desire to choose when and what information they received. The findings were revelatory and demonstrated that websites of the future would not, and could not, be just another source for brand messages. Instead, communication had to be more sophisticated and encompass:

  1. Leading with ideas and innovation: Companies such as IBM, AXA, and Panasonic had begun to use their websites to show how, through ideas and innovation, they were addressing global challenges such as ageing societies and climate change.
  2. Creating social value: Enterprises such as Nestle, Unilever and GE began to talk about sustainability as a business opportunity; incorporating corporate responsibility into their business strategies, rather than seeing it as a reputational insurance policy or PR exercise.
  3. Opening up to dialogue: Companies cannot control what is said about them on the web so should they turn a blind eye or get involved? For Shell, Nestle, Siemens and alike they chose to do the latter – turning their websites into engaging, multi-media platforms that created two way communication. Their view being: it is better to tell your side of the story than to let others tell it for you.

Fast forward a year and what does 2012 and beyond hold for corporate websites? Whilst the world of online communication hasn’t changed radically in a year, there have still been significant developments in this area.

Top companies are continuing to pursue concepts around ‘leading with ideas and innovation’, ‘creating social value’ and ‘opening up to dialogue’, but they are also pursuing a new notion – one that relates to building corporate narratives.

 

How the internet fragments narratives

One little-noticed aspect of the internet’s impact on our lives is that it fragments knowledge and narrative structures. By giving us access to limitless quantities of information for free, the internet allows and requires us to do the work that was previously done by expert authors and editors. Their task was to gather, select and structure information for us, presenting narratives told from a consistent point of view in the form of paid-for books, magazines and newspapers.

Now we have become our own authors and editors, roaming the internet in search of nuggets of information that we can re-write or stitch together, to create our own blogs, management reports and post-graduate theses. The upside has been a profound democratisation of information. The downside is fragmentation, the erosion of authority, and for corporations, the loss of control over their own story.

Companies must take control over their own story

When information becomes a commodity, it is harder to make a business case for expensive original story-creation, which takes time and money, and involves buying in skills that corporations do not possess. There’s also a view that the task of corporate communicators is to provide information, as opposed to the art of crafting narratives. In the online environment, the outcome of this line of thinking has been navigation-heavy corporate websites that mostly feature boiler plate text, bullet point lists, third party data and PDFs.

Companies can’t afford to sit back and let us make up our own minds about who they are and what they stand for. But many seem prepared to do just that: they’re happy to supply us with the elements of the story, but they leave it to us to extract some overall meaning from these fragments. It’s easier for them, but there’s a price: some of us will build a picture that misses what’s most important about the business, or distorts the truth; others will come away with no picture at all because we’re too busy, or can’t be bothered, or are not inspired by the company’s presentation of its own affairs.

The power of story-telling: a lesson learned by politicians

Today, no politician would make that mistake. Since Bill Clinton’s landmark 1992 ‘The Man from Hope’ commercial 1, political campaigns have been driven by the search for inspiring narratives. They exploit the psychological finding that humans are hard-wired to create and consume stories about their world: we are all story junkies (and born conspiracy theorists). Politicians aim to supply that need by providing us with ready-made narratives, told in carefully crafted words and pictures, and with themselves as protagonists.

If businesses can learn to do the same, corporate websites could become the focal point for these core narratives (and thereby drivers of the corporate brand and reputation). It’s about functionality as well as content: corporate website owners should be careful to make life as easy as possible for browsers, giving them additional reasons to return. Online businesses that have to compete against free (illegal) content show how it’s done: iTunes, Kindle and Steam add value to their basic offerings by making it easy for users to find, organize, use and talk about their products.

 

How corporations use narrative online

For this year’s Global Players 2012 report, we reviewed the websites of the top 200 Fortune Global 500 companies, looking for the most effective use of narrative techniques aimed at:

  1. Building the corporate brand and reputation.
  2. Helping us understand the business and its values, strategy and policies.
  3. Providing insight into working life and the corporate culture.
  4. Keeping us up to date with operations and new developments.

The report features 20 examples of how narratives are being employed in novel and interesting ways, including:

The growing use of video to tell stories.
The effectiveness of video as a story-telling medium stands out. Companies are more willing to invest in professionally-shot video footage because video works, and because web users (especially younger ones) are more video-centric. The bar is being raised all the time when it comes to video, with the best advice being: if you are unwilling or unable to do it professionally, then don’t bother.

Let employees and stakeholders do the talking.
Another trend is the use of employees, customers and other stakeholders to offer a personal (therefore more authentic and engaging) take on the corporate story – whether it’s employees discussing working life and career prospects (Microsoft, Deutsche Post, DHL, Lockheed Martin), or ordinary people from around the world talking about their lives and concerns as citizens (Siemens).

Responsibility, thought leadership and business-focused narratives.
Corporate responsibility and corporate citizenship activities are a favourite for story-telling, ranging from the concerns of Norwegian fishermen that exploration by big oil companies may destroy their livelihoods (Statoil) to support for children with HIV in Africa (Dow).

Thought leadership strategies are used extensively online to build high-level narratives around global issues with which companies want to be identified, such as environmental sustainability (Allianz), health and well-being (AXA, IBM), or development in emerging economies (HSBC, Deutsche Bank).

Narrative techniques help companies to explain their philosophies, policies and approach on business-focused topics such as innovation (Bosch), manufacturing efficiency (GE), design and functionality (Nokia) or the contribution of science in everyday life (BASF, Pfizer).

The four key features of narrative-centred websites

Our examination of these websites suggests that in the future, the most effective corporate websites will:

  1. embody a clear conception of the corporate brand, showing us what the business is about, what it contributes and what it believes in;
  2. centre on narratives about the company, its values and beliefs, and the products or services it provides, providing helpful context and bringing the brand to life;
  3. group key narratives together with associated video, images, blogs, information and contacts, expanding the frame of reference and making life easier for users; and
  4. utilise simple, clear, uncluttered designs, focusing our attention and helping us see what matters most.

The future: the evolution of corporate websites

Today, the bar for online communication has been raised, resulting in a need for companies to invest more time, imagination and resources into their websites. Creating a shift away from the old website model of being a ‘virtual filing cabinet’, and transforming it into something far more interesting and valuable: a medium more like television, which actively reaches out to stakeholders to give a defined and clear narrative.

Want to know more?

To receive a full copy of BergHind Joseph’s 2012 Global Players study and analysis of the top 20 companies in the world, contact hello@berghindjoseph.com

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Ian Brownhill is the Knowledge Director and Managing Director of BergHind Joseph. He has over 20 years' experience of working in research, project management and strategic leadership roles for a range of organisations including Which?, London Transport ... (Read More)

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