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Home > Business Strategy Best Practice > How the Corporate Website Has Become the Hub for Online Reputation Building

Business Strategy Best Practice

How the Corporate Website Has Become the Hub for Online Reputation Building

by Mark Hill

This Chapter Covers

  • The evolution of the corporate website from its beginnings as a narrowly conceived investor relations vehicle.

  • How some companies are using their websites to influence reputation online.

  • How the corporate site no longer simply states a company’s values as abstractions but attempts to translate them into a useful experience for stakeholders.

  • The vital role the website has to play in responding to new reputational challenges from the users of social media.

Introduction

The Internet is the fastest-growing channel for influencing corporate reputation. It is also, uniquely, where all a company’s different stakeholders and audiences converge. Analysts, communities, customers, employees, investors, journalists, NGOs, regulators, and suppliers all turn up, together, in increasing numbers on the corporate website.

So, if reputation is “the net perception of a company’s ability to meet the expectations of all its stakeholders,”1 the corporate website should be understood as the key online location where those perceptions are reinforced or challenged. This means that everything a company does, or fails to do, online has an impact for good or bad on its reputation with these stakeholders, while the experiences they have with a company through its corporate site—including how information is structured, presented, and expressed—act to support or undermine that company’s good name.

Companies that do not appreciate this will see their reputation suffer. User expectations across all classes of website have risen sharply, and standards of web design, usability, and functionality have all greatly improved from even five years ago. For many people, going online is now simply a part of their everyday lives; they don’t differentiate between the online and offline engagement that they have with a company—it’s all part of the same experience. And when they’re online, they expect immediate responses, to be entertained (or, at the very least, to find something interesting), transparency, and, with the advent of social media, something personal.

The best of today’s corporate websites are effective tools for building, supporting, and enhancing reputation online. Although this is partly a result of the powerful online communications tools now available—from video to social media—it is also due to approach. Supporting the company’s online communications goals is a clear priority, but these sites also are user-focused, something which is reflected in the depth and breadth of the content they provide, as well as the links and connections they promote. They connect with and cross-connect diverse stakeholder groups in ongoing dialog about the company, its operations, beliefs, and interests; they provide content and features that not only meet stakeholders’ information needs but offer a values-driven online experience of the company and opportunities to participate in shaping the company’s reputation.

In this chapter we will discuss the evolution of the corporate website from its early incarnation as a narrowly conceived investor relations vehicle and see how some companies are using their websites to influence reputation online; we will look at how the corporate site no longer simply states a company’s values as an abstraction but attempts to translate those values into useful and positive experiences for stakeholders; and we will address the vital role the website has to play in responding to new reputational challenges that originate in the social media.

The First Corporate Websites

With deeper penetration of the Internet in the mid- to late 1990s, a new front opened up for those involved in building reputation. The corporate website, as a company’s first outpost in this online world, was now a significant factor in how a business might be perceived by its stakeholders.

Often little more than a collection of positioning statements, boilerplate copy and financial information, these early corporate sites may have been about the company, but they were not an expression of what the company stood for, nor did they make any real attempt to engage with stakeholders.

In those early days of the Web, investors—who were the main audience—were happy simply to find any usable information at all; whether or not a company was advanced enough in its communications to have one of these bridgehead sites was the main reputational issue.

From Single to Multi-Stakeholder Focus

As Internet use grew rapidly—from 16 million users worldwide in December 1995 to 361 million by the end of 20002—so the early sites bulked up on content and began adding dedicated sections including media, environment, and society (a forerunner of the now standard CSR section), customers, suppliers, and careers (recruitment).

Although these sections tended to be discrete silos of content aimed at specific stakeholders rather than strands of an overall company narrative—as is still the case on too many corporate sites—there was a definite branching out from investor-led communication to a more rounded picture of the company for a broader range of stakeholders. So various elements of the company story were now present, though site users still had to do some work to put it together and the messages that were given were not always consistent.

This process of opening out to the needs of wider audiences has continued to the present day. Figure 1 shows the spread of content consumed across nine FTSE100 websites in one year and gives a sense of how these sites are being used by key stakeholder groups.

The breadth of interest has also been accompanied by an absolute increase in the numbers of people coming to these sites. An index of site visits maintained by the author’s company, The Group, for a range of FTSE100 websites shows growth of more than 1,100% in corporate website visits since 2001.3

While some companies still have an online presence that resembles the early sites aimed at investors in their limited content and lack of engagement, their varied stakeholders are online in large numbers, seeking quite a lot more.

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Further reading

Book:

  • Fombrun, Charles J. Reputation: Realizing Value from the Corporate Image. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Websites:

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