Website design - Creating a rich-media website; Five decisions you need to make

Corporate websites are fast resembling those of TV channels, as firms embrace video and social media feeds. But are PROs ready to keep up with the demand for content? Suzy Bashford reports.

1. What level of interaction with your customers can you realistically handle?

There is no point revamping your website to integrate Twitter or Facebook and invite feedback on your flashy new video footage if you do not have the capacity to respond to comments. While some companies may have the budgets to employ 20-strong teams to manage the flow of information, smaller outfits may only have one person working behind the scenes, perhaps with only part of their job description dedicated to this brief.

If you fall into the latter category, Psion's chief marketing officer Nick Eades, who has launched the brand's community site (ingenuityworking.com), advises firms to make the website's function crystal clear to customers: 'Set out your stall so they are in no doubt about how you are reinventing your site. You have to make sure you are not open to misinterpretation about what you want to encourage on your site.' Nevertheless, even if your resources are limited, he believes that 'ignoring social media is just not an option'.

2. Is the PR department sufficiently involved in managing and executing the organisation's social media strategy?

Many companies are in the throes of working out how they will integrate social media into their organisation. That means there is a fair amount of in-fighting going on between disciplines, from customer service to IT and PR. If this new approach develops without PROs' input, there is a danger the profession will suffer in the longer term.

One in-house PRO interviewed for this article was experiencing the challenges of internal politics, as her company prepares to imminently relaunch its site to be more social media-focused. She describes the situation, familiar to many PROs, of being excluded by the newly created social media department. She advises other PROs to get involved early in the project, before it becomes a venture led purely by technical people. 'Everything is handled by the social media team, which doesn't come under us. But, being all about comms, it should really sit with the PR team,' she says.

3. How are you going to feed information throughout your company?

Whichever function is leading on social media, it's essential that there are processes in place to ensure that information flows quickly and easily throughout the company. This new type of media touches on so many departments as well as PR, such as IT, customer service, marketing, research and product development. A social media department that works in isolation is likely to be a recipe for disaster, which is why some firms have decided to not even have a separate department, but instead integrate social media into everyone's remit across the company.

Others have created 'councils' internally, with representatives from different disciplines meeting up regularly to share learnings and progress. At Psion, the website is run internally by IT, with heavy involvement from its marketing comms department and PR agency, and information is fed into relevant departments such as product development and customer service. 'Social media materially change what people inside your company do, almost at every level. In our case, we are constantly in contact now with our customers, retailers and distributors. It makes you 100 per cent transparent,' says Eades.

4. How much are you going to invest in producing the content for your site?

For some brands, customers might find amateur-style videos, taken by untrained employees on a handheld camera, endearing. For other companies, like professional law or accountancy firms, this would reflect poorly on the brand's image, which is why they often hire professionals to shoot video content for their sites. Ernst & Young has started experimenting with video on its site, for example, through customer publishing company Wardour.

Online white goods retailer DRL (DRLlimited.co.uk), by contrast, decided it wanted to create professional video in-house, so it could have more control over the content. It now has its own studio and an in-house video team. They produce 50 videos a week as well as showing how the products work and mini interviews with staff. 'Customers are wowed by our professional video content. We see video as the key to our future. We know that if you have a video that is about the business and puts faces behind a brand, it has a positive effect on conversion. It shows them we're not just one man and a washing machine in a shed, but a professional business with lots of people behind the scenes, which builds confidence,' says Matthew Lawson, DRL web and SEO manager, who leads the project with PR reporting to him.

5. How are you going to ensure your content is accessible and useable?

Investing huge amounts of money on producing slick video content will be in vain if your customers and prospects cannot view it easily. Web surfers are increasingly impatient and will not tolerate long download times. The issue of accessibility was particularly important for the disability charity National Autistic Society, which has relaunched its site and is shortly due to unveil a community site.

According to Kimi Gill, media and PR officer at NAS, the brand took pains to provide content in different formats: 'We made sure the video content could be viewed on different browsers. We also ensured that each film was not too long, so that it would not cause problems on people's computers when downloading. We had to consider, too, that some users may not be able to view or hear the films due to disability, so we ensured we had support material, such as a link to transcript.' But the joy of social media is that they are an ongoing process and you can always improve what you have done, which is why NAS is wisely conducting research via its Facebook fans into the user experience.

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