PR TECHNIQUE: Net gains: why your website is crucial

A professionally designed website offering easy access to the specific details visitors need can be a key factor in establishing your firm's reputation.

A professionally designed website offering easy access to the specific details visitors need can be a key factor in establishing your firm's reputation.

At the start of a New Year, with resolutions and makeovers in the air, it might be a good idea to take a fresh look at your agency's website - it is your online face, after all. "It's the front line of defense, if you will," says Don Martelli, an associate at Boston-based PR agency Morrissey & Company. "It's the first thing reporters and potential new business contacts review before speaking to us. We are in the business of communications, and they want to see how well we communicate with our audiences." With that in mind, Morrissey contracted a web-design company to rebrand its website in order "to focus on potential buyers of our services." And at the end of last year, the agency's old and, in Martelli's opinion, too wordy and too general web face got its makeover. It now has a simple and professional design with specific links on the home page to content tailored toward different audiences. "We want to be specific - people don't have much time to mess around with websites they get frustrated with," Martelli says. In that respect, Morrissey is at least a step ahead of most PR agencies. According to online marketing expert Damian Bazadona, a lot of PR agency websites don't even fulfill the basics. Bazadona outlines three basic requirements: it needs to be professionally designed; it has to highlight your work through case studies or a list of clients ("anything you've done in an industry you can brag about"), and it must have an easy-to-use interface. These will vary in priority for small, mid-size and large agencies, Bazadona points out. While small and mid-size agencies will need to highlight their credentials, results, and recognition with an impressive list of clients or awards, large agencies will want to establish themselves as leaders in the industry. So it's not surprising that Ketchum or Fleishman-Hillard do not offer one-click access to their client lists, nor do they explain in great detail what they do - they're big enough for an educated customer to know who they are. Agencies of this size should take the basics to a higher level. "It's not enough just to have a listing of your services and offices and fundamental information about your company," says David Wickenden, senior partner and head of Fleishman's interactive practice. "What's becoming more and more important is to be able to offer and show your knowledge about trends, particular industry sectors, in the PR business." Or, to put it in the words of eKetchum director Adam Brown, a website "needs to show opinion and big thinking." Brown recognizes the importance of Ketchum's website as one of the factors influencing a potential client's decision. "Being a top-five agency, people know who we are, and it's not a primary tool for us to acquire new business," he says. "But at some point, every one of our prospects will go to our site - they will want to see the name and bio of the director who'll be in their office in a couple of weeks, and they will want to see them say something smart." To that end, Ketchum's website features regular updates with thoughts and short articles written by its office directors on current industry issues and trends. When Fred LeFranc, CEO of California-based restaurant chain Ruby's Diner, was looking for a PR agency to work on the company's 20th anniversary, he went online before he met with PR professionals. What tipped the scales in favor of the Blaze Company were the team's "smiling faces and creative, playful approach to their business." (Photographs do matter, so if you include them with the management profiles and statements, make sure they're good). LeFranc says he was also intrigued by the Blaze Company's case history section, and appreciated the fact that his team was able to get a list of names to contact for reference before the actual meeting. Larry Chase, the publisher of the e-mail newsletter Web Digest for Marketers, goes further by offering that PR agencies would be well-served if they included clients' testimonials on their home page. "It's much more believable to have clients say good things about you than for you to say good things about yourself," he says. "If you say it, I don't believe you. If they say it, I'm more apt to believe them." Client testimonials are also a credible shortcut to highlighting your agency's competitive advantage, a feature that is particularly important for small and mid-size agencies, but most often overlooked, according to Bazadona. For the top agencies who don't really need praise from themselves or others, and whose client list is so long that scrolling becomes boring after a while, Bazadona recommends a list of select clients, "so the good names do not remain hidden." Bazadona adds that even if everyone knows who you are, you still need to describe your services in detail. And since the web is not heavy-text-friendly, you can offer a printable version of anything you put on your site, so your clients can read it on the subway, for example. Fleishman's Wickenden has an even bolder vision of an agency website. "In the future, the website will have to be more than just an online brochure," he says. He talks of an enterprise portal, an electronic interface customized for each client that will allow the sharing of data online, not only for shared knowledge and collaboration, but for business transactions as well. So, does this mean we are on our way to foregoing the conference table? "All that has been done to a very small extent, if at all, by the PR industry," Wickenden says, "but it's inevitable it will happen in the future."

------ Technique tips Do make your contact information accessible at every level on your website Do include a select list of clients and case studies Do tailor specific information to your different audiences. Potential clients don't like to waste their time with matters that don't concern them Don't cram the site with text. If you want to say a lot, put it in separate files clients can print out and read Don't get too Flashy. It looks great, but few will watch a fancy Flash 6 intro through the end Don't underestimate the power of a simple design that's easy to navigate

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