Greenfield Belser 2017 Annual Review

Greenfield Belser has been a Finn Partners company for almost two years. This year we are adopting the new Finn brand style we created for the firm that is on the second spread of our book. That’s exciting for all of us here at Finn, but that’s hardly all that has been going on this past year. Really, it is impossible to say we love the work we did for one client more than another, but our goal is always to show you a balanced portfolio—across sectors with firms of varying sizes located all around the country. Read more here.

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Website Trends In 2018

By Burkey Belser
June 20, 2018
Website Trends In 2018

It’s that time again—judging the WebAwards for another year. If you've followed these trend reports through the years, you may remember that judges get together to share their insights in advance of being turned loose as judges. We found the conversation extremely interesting in large measure because this year’s trends seem very different from years' past.

Technology is settling in and speeding up at the same time

As users get increasingly comfortable with content management systems and the systems themselves become fully featured, “CMS” is no longer a scary technology. They have become as familiar as cars. Today, the question is how much car do you want? Buyers are just as wary of an enterprise-level system with too many capabilities as they are of a less robust system with too few. Why buy a car that cruises comfortably at 130 mph when you only drive back and forth to work in the city? Yet you also want the pick-up, the zip—even in the city.

Nevertheless, RFPs continue to get it wrong, combining requests for web design with web technology. This is a mistake. First to be settled are the requirements of your technology stack. We frequently consult with clients about their needs, a programmatic discussion that should be separate from their “dreams.” All too often, in our estimation, organizations buy the wrong technology because they prefer a particular design team or the wrong design team because they prefer a particular technology. There is no clear trend here in 2018 except to say the poor purchasing practice continues. The design and tech requirements can indeed be fulfilled by one provider but should be bought in two steps.

Innovation in technology

The land grab for SiteCore and other enterprise level systems is abating somewhat as buyers experience the challenges software like Sitecore can present. Providers are uneven. Almost everyone complains, the installation takes too long. Buyers are beginning to understand the nuances of CMSs. Carrier? Battleship? Destroyer? PT boat? The tendency is to buy more capability than needed or will ever use “just to be on the safe side” continues. Others are coming to grips with the reality of their organization’s budget, staffing and ambition. In other words, if there is no commitment to staffing content development including social media, white papers, news and other updates, not to mention a commitment to tracking the customer journey, then purchasing an enterprise-level system is plain silly. Best practice demands buyers look at the entire marketing function holistically, not just the shiny car that will drive it.

Ballooning web-related staff is still a pipe dream for most

Further to this point: firms are still not evaluating their commitment to their overall communications strategy first as a prelude to a decision about a CMS. Most large B2B and B2C businesses have a substantial commitment to their online presence with job titles that may include a mobile marketer, content librarian, community executive, social media engineer, analytics advisor and manager of engagement. For most professional service firms and associations, these titles outstrip their commitment by a mile. Marketers have other fish to fry—like simply getting cooperation and buy-in from management to market at all. The website is seen as something to be checked off the list, not an integral marketing tool for the organization. As a result, management undervalues the website as just one responsibility in their marketing team’s portfolio. This view is so stunningly out of date with today’s marketplace, it makes me weep. But there doesn’t appear to be much that can be done about it. Marketing is regressing as the unreasonable tug-of-war between marketing and sales continues.

Innovation in site design is good and not so good

We wrote last year that industry “looks” were solidifying like product design. Soap has its particular visual vocabulary; same for accounting, consulting, law firms and associations. But some design trends we reported last year (the long page, horizontal scrolls, etc.) have allowed industry sites to break the mold. Not many. What strikes us is how bleak professional service website design trends are generally. Based on today’s inventory, there seems to be no consensus about what a website should do or why. Most seem to opt for some version of a news site—big wins, new hires, accolades—leaving the brand undefined or muddy. This approach assumes buyers know who you are and what you stand for which, of course, they do not.

Murmuration and the problem of design

A new “standard” has taken over, bleeding across industries, amazingly leading to a new mold for seemingly everyone! You know the formula: full home page image or video with a rectangular do-something box in the middle and a pulsating down arrow to get the reader to slide down the page. Here’s an example below. The good ones at least combine this familiar look with brand messaging, thank heavens. Here’s what’s sad: these sites look good, they really do. But they look good in a sea of sameness. Is looking good enough? Absolutely not. Demand differentiation.

The Old Standard

The New Standard

O, yeah, “murmuration.” Faithful readers will remember an earlier trends report that talked about the movement of millions of swallows in perfect synch, quickly turning in dramatic fashion within inches of outstretched wings. This is what’s occurring across industries and across the entire Internet of Design. Demand differentiation. Damn, I’m repeating myself.

Content

Houston, we have a problem. No one wants to read what is presented today as biographies or service descriptions for professional services. A wall of words is not a sales brochure. Your website is today’s sales brochure. Judges were told to look for innovation generally (see below), imagining the category to be confined to technological innovation. But some smart judges want to see content presented differently. It appears high-value intangible services are the only corner of the Internet where words are the primary means of communication. Hotels? Picture, picture, picture. Retail. Nuff said. The only persistent failure of effective, compelling communication as a class occurs in our little (multi-billion dollar) corner of the world.

The solution to this content problem is to completely rethink the strategy that informs these descriptions. We are not in high-school anymore. No one is demanding a 500-word paper on antitrust or assurance or member benefits. Unfortunately, this means that all 75 service descriptions must be re-imagined, not just rewritten. That moves site redesign into another category entirely. No longer “redesign,” this activity becomes “realign.” Much more work but work with greater ROI in terms of engagement. Here’s a familiar standard below followed by a much improved solution.

The Familiar Standard

A Better Solution

Lewis & Clark and the customer journey

An important phrase you’ll hear more often is the “customer journey.” I get a little warm flash in my zensides when I hear this because the words are usually caressed by the speaker as if he were swirling a fine wine against the palate. But, snarkiness aside, you should care about the customer journey. You’re probably not equipped to act on it or fund the journey-watch process but you should definitely learn more about this idea. It’s your PhD in website marketing.

Innovation in user experience

The biggest, fastest, bestest rolling tide of innovation is in the user experience. This is what distinguishes yesterday’s site from today’s. Smooth loads and silky transitions are comforting and pleasing. Once again, it’s in the details. Every action, every button is now thoughtfully considered to deliver an optimal user experience.

The idea of innovation generally

Judges asked themselves, “What makes a site innovative to you? How do you score innovation when a site is very strong, but not particularly different, or if the mission does not clearly call for the site to be innovative? Is innovation important?” You may not wish to take your time to ponder these questions, but your site designer should be able to tell you how they approach every detail of site design in the context of the organization’s goals.

As great as all this innovation is generally, we cannot forget that websites ought to rely on a simple and direct customer experience and sometimes agree to sacrifice all the hoopla if it detracts from the effectiveness of the user journey. Some effective websites (I’m thinking appliance repair shops here) are being designed as a single page, scrolling, with panels that slide in from the left or right to augment the story. A/B testing is another arrow in your quiver to refine usability and KPI.

Bottom line

Innovation is tricky, particularly innovation in navigation and technologies the average user fails to understand. Innovation has to align with the target audience and industry and match to solid content. Innovation for innovation’s sake often just over-engineers the user experience. Judges found this the most difficult question to adjudicate. But we settled, more or less, on these criteria:

  1. Responsiveness
  2. Speed of loading
  3. Design
  4. Usability
  5. Functionality
  6. Content
  7. Innovation