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Corporate websites must be an efficient, intuitive, integral part of the company to capitalise on business and branding opportunities, says Clare Dowdy

Integration, integration, integration. That, say designers, is what separates the men from the boys when it comes to the creation of business-to-business websites.

Unless a website is fully integrated into a corporation, users are going to struggle. And a struggling user is at risk of coming away with a bad impression of the brand. Remember those ‘contact us’ buttons that allowed messages to vanish into the ether, never to be responded to?

The on-line experience is increasingly playing an important, even pivotal role in expressing a brand. Visitors to business-to-business sites often have very specific, commercial reasons for visiting. If they can’t carry out those functions quickly and easily, they will take themselves and their business elsewhere. Users are becoming more varied too, and websites increasingly need to speak to a huge cross section of people quickly and effectively.

This was not a concern in the old days of the Internet. Initially, a business-to-business site comprised a corporate brochure adapted for the screen. By presenting company details and perhaps a bit of news, this quick fix served its purpose by at least giving a business a Web presence.

But things are changing. Technology, customer expectations and importantly, financial pressures on companies, have put the role of the business-to-business website in a new light.

Companies are hunting for ways to cut costs, and reducing the number of staff administering a service is an effective way of doing this. Thus, on-line services are assuming greater importance and standards are rising.

‘There’s growing financial pressure on business to move more services on-line,’ says Rufus Leonard chief executive Neil Svensen. ‘The real benefit for designers, of course, is that operational and customer services can benefit from a good website.’

Take Rufus Leonard’s sites for Parcelforce and Shell Chemicals. In a bid to reduce administration costs, Parcelforce decided to transfer much of its business on-line. On the other hand, Shell Chemicals’ trading site had to allow users to trade excess chemical production on-line.

These sites only worked, believes Svensen, because the infrastructure that drives websites is integrated into the whole business. This integration is both a boon and a bane for designers. On the plus side, it means that the website is perceived internally as a valued part of the brand communications.

‘With the first point of contact moving away from the corporate brochure and towards the corporate website, the designer has many more opportunities to reinforce the corporate brand than ever before,’ says Quentin Ellis, head of new media at The Design Group.

However, if companies want customers to actually transfer their transactions on-line, integration also necessitates hooking the website up with all the appropriate parts of the business. The upshot of that, in design terms, is ‘the designer has to take more technical stuff into consideration’, says Nick Boyce, partner at Natural Associates.

On the actual site, that means navigation has to be tip-top for these demanding customers by putting them, rather than the company, first.

‘The specific challenge for a corporate website is to position the user, rather than the company or its message, at the centre of the design process,’ says Gary Lockton, director of Seriously, which advises clients on their digital communication strategy.

‘User-centric design relies on a clear understanding of the audiences and their individual “user journeys”,’ he adds. ‘Audiences may include customers, prospects, recruits, press and investors as well as internal audiences. User journeys illuminate how site content should be structured to allow a quick, intuitive and rewarding path towards the desired objective for each distinct type of visitor.’

Boyce also makes an argument for accessibility. ‘You need to be able to get to the right page quickly if you use it every day,’ he says.

Different customers demand different customer journeys. Ofgem, the regulatory body for Britain’s gas and electricity industries, has a multitude of user groups. ‘The key issue for the design of the site was that the information architecture at the heart of it allowed the target audience of industry representatives, academics, journalists and analysts to be able to reach information quickly and easily,’ says a spokeswoman from The Design Group.

This was achieved by making available multiple avenues of access to the same pieces of information, so users with different demands could easily reach their desired page.

All this can be hopefully achieved while the website, and with any luck the corporate user, lives the brand. ‘This is not about pinning your values statement up there, but showing it through the service [you provide],’ says Katherine Atkin, a partner at Circus.

In some cases, this means giving a brand a personality for the first time. ‘By carefully using the available technologies accessible to the target audience, it is possible to show different facets of a brand,’ adds Ellis.

The Phonetics site – www.phonetics.co.uk – by The Design Group is an example of this, claims Ellis. ‘The company’s key values and positioning were communicated clearly and consistently. It does not just reinforce the brand, but it became a cornerstone and catalyst of it.’

These brand messages must work for many different audiences. For Battersea Power Station – www.thepowerstation.co.uk – Randomedia built a site that had to attract a wide variety of potential partners, from the hotel, cinema and entertainment industries, as well as events such as London Fashion Week. ‘The site needed to create excitement around this long-awaited development project,’ explains chief executive Victor Benady.

Hence the 3D animations rendered out of the architectural plans, with colour-coded dots mapped on to them to create Web-friendly animations of the whole development.

Designers must never lose sight of the fact that even business-to-business customers are individual people. And outside of work, they are treated and behave just like conventional consumers. The best business-to-business websites, at least in terms of branding, always bear this in mind.

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