business, consumer experience, general communication, social media, technologies

Will content marketing replace small business websites?

What's in a website?
What’s in a website?

In a digital world where everything is social and connected, will individual, standalone websites forever remain essential business tools? Or might they come to be replaced by content marketing and social platforms?

What value is there in having a website in today’s frenzied social content super highway?  It might seem oddly simplistic, but the question is relevant.

Of course much depends on who is asking and what they want to achieve.  What kind of business?  B2B, B2C?  How do they win new business and retain existing customers?  I know a long established handyman who has never had a website; I know a guy at the gym who has never owned any kind of computer; I know an electronics firm who deleted their website because it looked tired and dated.  They all get through life; word of mouth remains ever powerful.

Common consent has long been that having a website makes you look official, trustworthy and professional.  Even if it’s just a holding page you’ve had up for six months, there’s a strong signal of intent.  An explosion of social web users, traffic and platforms has brought the new question of whether to dedicate resources to assembling a static website and / or whether to produce complementary regular online content.

But will there ever be a tipping point between social media platforms and individual websites, particularly for small to medium sized businesses, one-man-bands or those with niche but straightforward offerings?  Will there be a time when it’s equally acceptable to just choose one or the other?

It’s arguable that websites have already ceased to be worth the time and effort for many SMEs, but not many want to pull the plug completely.  It’s a radical move.  People searching online want to see a formal web presence.  Even if it’s quite dated and generally not very good, its existence alone is assuring.  Not having a website can be a distinct black mark, a cross in the box, a concern.

Paying for hosting, designers, an agency retainer, or a recurring ‘out of the box’ DIY package, experiencing the clunky pain of adapting to new HTML standards, failing to regularly maintain a website that receives few visitors: is tolerating that more sensible than deleting a website altogether?  Added to which, people are rarely happy with their own website.  Business owners are often perfectionists, their own worst critics, rapidly green-eyed upon seeing someone else’s much snazzier effort.  When they produce something they like, it’s quite possible they’ll be unhappy again in a matter of months, or weeks.

Is tolerating all the pain worth it?  It’s contentious but yes, by and large it probably still is, for now.  Although it’s a question that should continue to be asked.

Safety in walled gardens

Online content is overwhelmingly everywhere all the time: words, quotes, videos, photographs, blogs, news, sport.  However, users’ browsing parameters are rarely all that broad.  Content is increasingly viewed through a small bunch of platforms you regularly use and trust.  Maybe even less, if you’re a busy, careful sort of person subjected to strict workplace firewalls.  If a video link takes you to a website you don’t recognise with tons of advertising, you don’t feel as secure as if the video loads within the current page, or you’re taken to YouTube or Vimeo.

My photography website isn’t too slick, glossy and stylish.  It doesn’t work brilliantly across all platforms.  I don’t have the budget to throw at it.  I am not a designer or a developer.  It’s not great.  It’s not horrific.  I do what I can.  Again, there’s the factor that I’d probably never be happy with it for more than five minutes anyway.

How much does that matter in a world where, really, a handful of social platforms dominate? Where what you see or consume, if you live a busy, careful online life, is presented within one of a few online frames?

Of course design and user experience matters. Creative web development matters.  Naturally I’d prefer my website to look great because people might visit hoping for the stylish presentation of striking images.

Nonetheless I still wonder how much a website, most websites in today’s over-saturated world, can matter. Market consolidation, media world implosions and general economic troubles mean a growing middleweight band of players, more freelancers and small organisations. That brings more challenges to getting noticed.  If you want, you can buy likes and followers to look better, or follow a few thousand people and get a few thousand back, but does that convert to business?

Consistently lacing your best content through the LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter channels where real people live online, can be enough to win you favour, fans, credibility, maybe even paying customers.

If your content is seen often enough – something which can’t always be controlled due to mysterious algorithms – people will grow to favour regular substantial messages, robust meaning and good quality; rather than a glossy wrapping for forgettable corporate-speak.

Still, I concede you should seek the appropriate balance and err on the side of caution, of having a website that’s as dynamic and socially connected as possible. For now, websites remain necessary shop-fronts and it’s not worth the risk.

One day though, maybe…

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