Here’s what I learned this summer (1)

This week, rather than refer you to other people’s articles, I thought I’d write about some of my own recent experiences. In the course of launching our Insider Programme this summer, I’ve visited many industrial companies around the UK, and spoken to many more at the series of seminars we held. In doing so, I’ve started to get an idea of the state of online marketing in UK industry, and it’s been most revealing – in some cases, pleasantly surprising, in others, quite shocking. While my small sample of a few dozen companies isn’t a definitive snapshot, I think you might like to know what I found, if only as a rough gauge of how your company compares.
Each day this week I’ll discuss surprises which I then came across frequently (and subsequently ceased to be surprising). Today: the continued existence of regional variations being shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all website.
By this, I don’t mean the websites of companies who only have one sales office and whose product offerings are the same the world over – they obviously don’t need to have different websites for different countries anyway. I’m referring to the websites of multinationals which hoard all the content creation at head office but try to suggest what you’re seeing is some sort of “local” site, despite it being patently clear that the local office (such as the one in the UK) has had no input at all. This totally insults the intelligence of the website visitor.
If I’m looking at doing business with (say) an American multinational, I don’t have a problem with being referred to the US site for product data etc. But I want to be referred there by a proper UK site with all the news and “regional” information which is clearly maintained in the UK. Otherwise, it’s implied (often accurately) that the UK operations of the company are very much second-rate, and the support I’ll get as a customer will be equally poor.
One major giveaway is being asked, when I arrive at a website, which country I’m in. Oh dear. That might have been necessary in 1998, but in 2008 it’s unforgivably bad customer relations. Then there’s the glance at the website address, which instead of being, is probably something like – that doesn’t exactly make me feel close to the manufacturer. There is no excuse for not having a website address other than “we can’t be bothered with making our system do that”.
Worst of all are the bad (or missing) translations – and that can be from “US English” as well as more obviously “foreign” languages. It’s comical how many “UK” websites from US companies have the telephone numbers written in US format with hyphens, or lapse into US spellings. Telephone +44 (1462) 489-060? What’s that?
It’s even more astonishing how many “UK” websites from German companies have menu items on them like “Kontakt”. Did nobody in the UK get to proof-read the website?
The answer, from my travels this summer, is almost certainly no. In company after company, I hear the same refrain: “Our website is maintained by the German (or American, or whatever) head office, and presented as a done deal.” To which I ask: “But can’t you tell them to change things which are obviously wrong, and damaging to your image in this country?”, only to be met with a resigned shake of the head, and an explanation that it takes so long, and embarrasses people at corporate HQ, that they stopped asking long ago.
One of my favourites is “Welcome to the Red Widget Company EMEA”. What the flip does “EMEA” mean outside of sales and marketing departments? I suspect the reaction of many customers is that this company sadly doesn’t operate in the UK (which is a shame, because they seem to have some pretty good products available to customers living in EMEA, wherever that is).
If you’re a UK marketing manager in non-UK-based multinational, you’re probably thinking: “What does he know about the problems I’ve got? Challenging cultural imperialism from head office is not going to make my job any easier”, and of course you’re right. But please make a renewed effort in 2009 to get some degree of local control online. Customers get their first – and often only – impression of your company from your website, and if that impression is that they’re going to have to deal with people in Japan rather than the UK (however untrue that is), they’ll turn to somwhere apparently closer to home.
So the first thing I learned this summer was that far too many multinationals don’t let their worldwide subsidiaries have anything like the autonomy with online marketing that they do with other elements of the marketing mix. It’s absurd: the parent company wouldn’t fly over from Frankfurt to do WidgetEx’08 at the NEC for them, and they wouldn’t do a local mailshot to UK customers from the HQ in Arkansas. What’s different about the website then? Could it be that the uncomfortable truth is that the UK marketing department has never actually argued sufficiently that it needs to do its own thing, because running an independent UK website is a little outside its comfort zone?

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