Corporate communications veteran William Dupuy (who's counseled the CEOs of more than a dozen public companies, produced nearly 70 annual reports, and won a Silver Anvil from PRSA), is quickly becoming infamous as the crotchety editor behind LeFile, the Web site that advises the Fortune 500 about what they are doing wrong with their Web sites. Typical quote, "Most corporate Web sites look like management are asleep at the switch."
We contacted Dupuy this week to find out what big, obvious mistakes everybody seems to make, and how they can avoid them:Mistake #1: Choosing Web design in the presentation room
Dupuy says, "When the designers present the site to corporate management in the presentation room it looks great." Everybody's impressed, the CEO signs off, the new site launches … and it is a stinker. Sometimes that's because navigation isn't obvious to the average user who doesn't have a presenter at their side cheering them on. For example, Dupuy notes Bayer's site which "appears to have slick, clean design that makes the corporate site useful" when in reality the lack of obvious links makes it close to impossible to navigate.
Other times the problem is programming -- perhaps the gorgeous graphics and images make the site too slow for the average user to load, or perhaps there's a programming glitch that stops visitors from using the site at all. Dupuy's examples: both Jack in the Box and Starbuck's sites are impossible to enter if visitors' browsers don't accept cookies.
Dupuy's advice: Get out of the presentation room. Your CEO should view your proposed site the way an average visitor will -- using a 56K dialup modem on a regular computer. (Yes, even B-to-B sites, think of how many businesspeople view sites while traveling with their laptops or from home offices these days.) Mistake #2: Flash intros and/or PDF documents
"Anything that proves an impediment to the average person should be thought through very, very carefully," says Dupuy. Top of his no-nos list are Flash intros and PDF documents.
Slick Flash intros are big crowd pleasers in the corporate presentation room, so why does Dupuy loathe them so much? He says, "It stops visitors from finding what they want quickly. It's the same thing as distributing an annual report to your customers with a big piece of tape sealing it shut. Why would you do that? I recommend putting as much content as possible on the home page so people don’t have to sit through Flash intros or go to multiple pages to find what they want."
He also notes that Macromedia's own Top 10 guidelines for the use of Flash on sites (see link below) state, "Avoid unnecessary intros. While intros are exciting, they often delay the user's access to the information they seek."
PDFs are verboten for pretty much the same reason. They present a barrier to many users simply because they are slower to download, and sometimes harder to view properly, than regular HTML pages. For example, visitors with old versions of the Acrobat reader sometimes can't read newer documents properly, and visitors using Macs may have to search their desktop to find the PDF they just downloaded.
Dupuy's notes that companies should take as much care with their Web site's usability -- especially when considering Flash intros and PDFs -- as they do with the layout and design of their annual report. After all, these days your Web site may be far more important.Mistake #3: No high-level eyes look at site content
"Who looks at material before it's posted?" asks Dupuy, "Companies would have a hissy fit if the things that get online were printed in brochures and distributed." While he does not advise adding an approval process that would completely bottleneck all new content from being posted, he does think corporate communications and the CEO should set rules in place about sign-off, especially for mission-critical areas such as your home page.
"I recommend the CEO play a very active role, " Dupuy says, "much as a CEO would do with an annual report, a new TV ad, a newspaper ad or PR campaign. They should be very involved with the look, feel and approval process." Mistake #4: Timely PR updates
Corporate communications also needs to have access to easy-to-use content management tools for the site (i.e. do not set up a system where site change requests get routed through your IT department and take weeks to appear online). Obvious examples of sites where PR was not able to change the site's message when it was necessary include Enron's site, which contains many now-laughable statements, Wendy's site which made no note of founder Dave Thomas' demise for at least 24 hours, and Gary Condit's site which still advertises an opening for an intern.
Dupuy says, "A company's Web site is its own version of CNN. It's available 24 hours a day around the world. It must be kept up to date, honest, ethical -- all the things that reflect well on a company's reputation, otherwise you begin to lose that reputation."
The biggest typical mistake is to post press releases online after they have already gone out on the wires, partly because the media now routinely check your site first for validation and additional details whenever major stories break. Mistake #5: Round the clock media contacts
Again, reporters often check your site first when they get wind of a hot story. If they can not find a PR contact, the story may be inaccurately reported, or you could lose your chance of planting an apt quote.
Dupuy's worst example, "There was a hoax, a fake press release about a company in California. Reporters from Dow Jones and Bloomberg tried to get in touch with the company, but it was 7 A.M. Pacific Time and the Web site didn't have any useful contact information beyond a main phone number. They ran the story without confirmation, and that company's stock went down the drain."
Wondering why so many technology companies' sites lack clearly defined press contacts, Dupuy visited the top 10 technology PR firms' own sites one recent afternoon. He was dismayed to find, "They were abominable. Most didn’t have clearly defined media contacts except the ubiquitous info@myfirm. Some of them only had phone numbers. Imagine on the Internet, only phone numbers!"
He concludes, "I don't know why the practice of clearly identifying how to reach people in a company is not taken seriously online."
Macromedia's Top 10 Usability Tips for Flash Web sites: