Commentary: Web pages shouldn’t suffer fate of newsletters

The company Web site of the ’90s is becoming the company newsletter of the ’80s.

You remember the company newsletter — offspring of desktop-publishing software, chock full of fonts, clip art, details of Ralph’s Hawaiian vacation. Actually, many such newsletters started off strong, filling a genuine communication need either within the company or between a company and its customers.

But then something happened. The enthusiasm and the information slowed to a trickle and maybe stopped altogether. Today’s company Web site is suffering a similar fate, often becoming the project that no one wants, and dying a slow death from inattention. Sound familiar?

But not every company newsletter is a waste of paper, and not every company Web site is a waste of bandwidth. The things that make a company newsletter successful can be carried over to the company Web site. No surprise, communication is communication, after all. The media may be different, but the pitfalls are much the same.

So what makes a good company newsletter and a good company Web site? Three things: commitment, personnel, and skillsets.

The newsletters and the Web sites that have died on the vine probably had a similar origin: a burst of excitement over a new set of tools and possibilities, some enthusiastic soul who said “We can put all this information together easily and make it accessible to everyone!”, and a willing and eager early adopter who taught themselves the technology and made it happen.

Obviously, though, business information has a limited shelf life. That calendar of events has to be updated, new employees highlighted, other products profiled. Relevant information beyond the company brochure and job postings must be found, and reliable sources for that information must be cultivated and maintained.

Web-site maintenance, like any regular publication, takes time. And that requires a commitment.

Consider these commitments for a company Web site:

1. The material must be updated, according to the needs of your business. If your business is extremely volatile, daily updates may be necessary. The NASDAQ and Weather Channel Web sites change even more frequently than that. After all, what could be more volatile than the stock market or the weather?

2. Any dated material on the Web site must be taken off as soon as the date has passed. This means someone has to be actively maintaining the site, aware of the information on the site, and making changes as needed.

3. A reliable source of information must exist from which to draw the material for updates. So not only does the successful Web site require someone committed to actually managing the information on the site, but also people “on the outside” who can provide information.

The folks in marketing, public relations, product development or personnel are all good candidates, but they must be willing to take the extra time to contribute.

All right, so the commitment is there. Next, you need the right personnel.

Web sites have moved far beyond the realm of curiosity and have become important marketing, sales, and support tools in their own right, and as such, they require a sophisticated and diverse creative team behind them. To make your company Web site an ongoing success, assemble the following personnel:

n An information designer. This is the person responsible for the content of the Web site and how it is organized and navigated.

n A graphic designer. The Web is a visual medium. That’s the major reason we use it instead of gopher or the Usenet or any number of other Internet tools to do business. It’s important that your Web site look good.

This is another potential pitfall, again because of the plethora of software tools available. Believe me, it takes more than a Corel 6.0 upgrade or a package of clip art and fonts to produce good graphic images for the Web

n A technical designer. You can’t get around the fact that you need a computer guru to make all the pieces and parts work. If you’re doing something more involved, like feedback forms, your technical designer will do all the background coding necessary to implement the functionality the Web site needs. A bad link or broken form will not send a positive message about your company.

Having said all that, it’s not necessary that you have an inhouse team of experts to handle your Web site. This sort of work can be contracted out, either in whole or part.

If you go this route, make sure that your contractor’s personnel and skillsets measure up. Look for these skillsets in either an outside expert or in-house staff:

” Excellent writing skills. You need someone who can communicate clearly and succinctly, with the right tone and approach for your audience.

” A customer or user focus. Your readers can wade through pages of facts and figures, learn when your company was founded, and what the CEO does for fun, but if you never answer the “so what?” question for them, they won’t be back. Someone on the Web team must be able to think in terms of what the customer needs or wants and to then translate that into information that’s useful.

” Graphical savvy. Again, great art is not the goal. A good visual design that works within the constraints of the Web (and there are many), no matter how simple, is worth more than all the patterned backgrounds and multicolored buttons and bullets out there.

” Technical mastery. A crashed Web site is never a happy thing. You need someone with a solid and unimpeachable knowledge of server setup, maintenance, Perl, CGI coding, and, if you aspire to even fancier stuff, Java, ActiveX and whatever else may appear tomorrow.

That’s all you need: commitment, the right personnel, and the right skillsets. If you’ve got those three elements covered, you’re 90 percent of the way toward a thriving company Web site.

Terry Burton is an information designer with Invision Marketing in Fort Collins.