“Being able to do something online that you can’t do in any other way is important . . . That’s because the web is a pain to use today! We’ve all experienced the modem hangups and the browsers crash — there are all sorts of inconveniences: websites are slow, modem speeds are slow. So if you’re going to get people to use a website in today’s environment, you have to offer them overwhelming compensation for this primitive infant technology. And I would claim that that compensation must be so strong that it’s basically the same as saying, you can only do things online today that simply can’t be done any other way.” Jeff Bezos
Website Innovation Goes Beyond the Technology
This quote is from an interview Jeff Bezos did in 1998. I remember reading it at the time and trying to wrap my mind around how I could take advantage of the internet in the business I was then running. It seemed clear to me in 1998 that even though we could use the internet to take orders and ship goods (the business was a jewelry industry distributor), using the internet as a simple replacement for phone or fax orders was not going to take sufficient advantage of the emerging technology. Back then, we didn’t even have the computer systems necessary to facilitate significant use of the internet. We didn’t have fast bandwidth to the building. We didn’t have employees who could type fast enough (or in some cases spell well enough) to manage online orders in the absolutely superb way they handled phone orders. We needed all the building blocks and had to build them fast.
So much has changed since then. Today, 70% of internet use takes place on a pocket-sized device with 4G or 5G. Still . . . if you take away the modems and terribly slow internet speeds of 1998, what Jeff Bezos said back then is still highly relevant: Every website must present a compelling reason to use it. And yet, most businesses in 2021 are still not providing a meaningful, differentiated, online experience. That’s what website innovation is all about.
In 1964, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Back then, he was focused on the communication medium of television, and how television was changing not only the way households received information, but the culture itself. But he could have easily been speaking about every communication revolution since then: cable tv, digital distribution of music, video games, then online games, social media, the internet. Each new form of communication brought with it new opportunities for communication, new ways of achieving objectives, and new cultural implications.
Business websites are also a communication medium, capable of changing the way customers interact with, experience, and feel about a business. But instead of using all that potential, most business owners have attended to only the most superficial aspects of offering a website.
- The standard page format of websites has barely changed since 1999: Home, About, Services, Contact, Shop. . . maybe News.
- Many retail websites feature pictures and in-store videos to show the website visitor what it would look like if they paid a physical visit. Some go so far as to spend tens of thousands of dollars producing virtual tours, à la real estate agent home videos.
- Product selection on retail websites is often limited to images and iframes provided by suppliers, or which come as part of an industry platform environment.
- B2B websites are even further behind, failing to put full product offerings online or offer the specific services (and price levels) their customers expect to access when meeting up at a trade show or picking up the phone.
Website visitors do not expect the website to replicate your store, are not motivated by seeing all the same products on your website that they find on every other website, and they certainly do not want to purchase your building. Much of what businesses are doing with their websites is missing the point — and the potential — entirely.
That's because most of the work of creating an effective business website isn’t about building the website at all. Effective websites are borne out of the work that comes before they are built.
The Pandemic Effect
Business as we know it has changed forever. Online shopping and buying trends that were happening prior to the pandemic have been dramatically accelerated – economists and social scientists have estimated that we experienced five years of technological evolution in the eight-month period of March - October of 2020. When physical restrictions are lifted, we will not go back to the old ways of working, shopping, buying, interacting with brands, collaborating with known suppliers, or finding new suppliers.
In many ways, this is excellent news. By 2019, most businesses had become mired in price competition. Too much corporate energy was being focused on driving prices down to satisfy price sensitive B2B and B2C customers. But chasing prices is a zero-sum game, forcing companies to offshore work, lay off employees, pile more work on the employees they have left, and ultimately, reduce quality.
Price sensitivity is not going away, but there is another truth here to which most business owners pay insufficient attention:
And your website, which will remain a central part of your communications strategy from this point forward, must communicate your value offering in more than just words. Your website must communicate your value offering through experience and benefits.
The Cost of Pricing
Ah, now you're thinking, "But price does matter! People bring up pricing all the time!" Sure they do. So let's break that down. When does price matter most? Two scenarios come to mind:
- Price matters when selling to highly price-sensitive consumers.
- Price matters when there is no other point of differentiation between products.
If you are a grocer in a food desert, God bless you and this article probably is not for you. For everyone else, if you are feeling the squeeze of price competition, it is probably because you have not done the work to differentiate your business from your competitors. Sure, there will always be customers (or potential customers) who complain your price is too high. But if you peer beneath the surface, you will quickly realize that those customers are not your ideal customers. Unless you are interested in competing solely on the basis of price, and are prepared to do all the operational improvements necessary to still make a profit while selling at the lowest price, you shouldn't be competing on price at all.
Doing the Work of Website Innovation
You can't produce a website that delivers an ideal experience to your target customer if you haven't defined your strategy. You must be able to articulate who you are, what you do that makes you different, and why you matter to your target customer. It is a big topic, but for a quick overview of what’s involved, here is a 17-minute podcast and transcript.
How you apply your business strategy to website innovation should ultimately be as unique as your strategy itself. Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate the potential.
An Online Retailer’s Website Innovation
This example involves a jewelry designer who sells to both boutiques (B2B) and consumers (B2C). Her product is fine jewelry, so it's expensive. She produces two collections for boutique distribution, for which she stocks small inventories and has the capability to produce reorders quickly. For consumer direct sales she only offers one-of-a-kind and custom. A big part of her brand value is her aesthetic – people come to her for her design. But her customers return because of her commitment to developing and nurturing relationships, and because she has an uncanny ability to help her customers articulate their ideas and desires and then realize those ideas in physical jewelry form. Finally, this designer has the exquisite ability to help a customer give herself permission to spend money on herself.
A Shopify style, put-a-product-in-the-cart-and-ship-it website will never be able to deliver on this value proposition.
To start, her website needed both a consumer front end and a gated B2B back end.
One-of-a-kind products that are ready to ship can be ordered as is or can be adjusted according to the client’s wishes. From within those product listings, it is easy to book a quick video chat or send an email or text message.
The collections available only through boutiques are also available for browsing, with easy links and directions to the retailers that carry them. She uses these pages to explain why she makes some products available only through retailers, and why she thinks it is important to protect and buffer her retail partners. This transparency builds trust and respect for her business principles.
All her product pages are peppered with links to articles with images and commentary about what she is creating and why. This invites her website visitors into her design process in a way that is unique to an online experience. When a customer visits the physical shop, she can experience the design process in a way that is intimately about herself. Visitors to the website can experience the design process in a way that is more intimately about the designer. Both are excellent experiences, and each is designed to work most effectively relative to the benefits and drawbacks of its respective channel.
The site pays extensive attention to the experience of creating custom design, with obvious and easy options to launch or schedule a phone or video call throughout the site. She toyed initially with trying to figure out how to create a ring builder, a website convention showing all the possible components and iterations of a design. But she ultimately decided against it, because dragging a graphic around to make a new graphic could not possibly replicate the rich experience of letting a talented designer guide one through the creative process.
Her B2B clients can log in to a secure back end, where they can see their negotiated prices and order products. They can place a purchase order or credit card order immediately, or schedule or launch a video or phone call to speak with the designer. B2B clients can also see past orders, track order progress, and see shipping details.
This website does not require expensive software or management. The technology is fairly basic. Superficially it may even seem like a lot of other websites. But by approaching her website through the lens of her strategy and value offering, this designer went beyond setting up a website and deep into website innovation.
Website Innovation for B2B
Let’s look at the website of a company that distributes instrument and music supplies to music stores and schools. They manufacture some of their supplies at their northern European production facility and distribute thousands of supplies from other manufacturers. Not only are they faced with a shrinking market, but their suppliers can also take advantage of the same internet technology to cut them out as the middleman.
To shake themselves out of survival mode and actually start growing again, they did a strategic overhaul in the years before Covid-19 came calling. During that process, they recommitted to the idea that their deep knowledge in all things music supplies was just as important as the products they sold. They decided to stop worrying about how much cheaper their clients could find things on Amazon, eBay, CDiscount, and Otto, and instead focus on how much their customers trusted them to not only sell the best products, but to help them select the right products.
They knew all their products had to be available for shopping and comparison, and that their business systems had to be upgraded to support that. Their systems overhaul made it possible to manage all their products in only one system and make those products sellable both through their traditional office support and on the website without any extra administration. The systems update also made it possible to show each customer their negotiated prices automatically and made it easy for customers to check on order history and statuses.
Implementing an Inventory Control System
But the big work of website innovation involved answering these questions:
- What are the things we already do really well – the things that gained us trust and respect from our customers?
- When we update our website, how might a website underperform on those important things due to the insufficiencies of a website compared to a phone call or a meeting?
- What can our website do to mitigate those shortcomings and offer something new and better, ideally in ways that a phone call or meeting could not do?
The answers to these questions clarified that their website needed to provide all the information, training, recommendations, and knowledge that their customer service team had been providing all along. The solution was to create a wiki-like information architecture using tagging and categories to make it easy and intuitive for customers to learn about any product, find other products like it, compare products, and do deep-dives into product features, functions, and benefits.
Because so many of their clients are music teachers, they had always offered proforma quotes and provided an extensive form library to assist teachers with budget requests. They turned these forms into an on-demand, easy-to-use, interactive, system. They are currently in the process of refining that system so they can more closely collaborate with individual schools relative to budgets for music supplies.
The website also makes it easy to jump on a phone or video consult, which blurs the line between online and in-real-life interactions, builds trust, and increases close rates. For this company, website innovation was about making sure the online experience was the best possible experience of their company by mitigating the downsides of the channel and playing up its potential.
What Will Your Website Innovation Involve?
You, too, can use your website as a strategic extension of your brand value. Customers are not looking for thousands of products on one site, without curation or context. Sure, they want to be able to buy things, but it is easier than ever to find things and buy them. In fact, consumers are currently overwhelmed by choice, much of it meaningless.
No, if you want to stand out online, you must identify your target audience and do the brand-relevant things that matter to them (or that will appeal to the right subset of new visitors). The technology is available, and it is affordable. What is generally missing is thoughtful analysis, planning, and imagination. Once you do that work, new answers will occur to you that simply had not occurred before.
So stop. Before you jump into Wix (or Weebly, or Square, or Shopify) and start dragging and dropping your way to a same-as-everyone-else website, do the work. The thinking work of website innovation.