Digital ecosystems: tree surgeons needed?
Much like the trees currently in their autumn splendour, corporate digital structures might often seem like they remain timelessly static and unchanging. In reality though, there’s a story of growth, evolution, and maturation going on beneath the surface.
Large multinational companies tend to be in a constant state of change, as teams and products are shuffled and rearranged between different countries, products, and brands. Managing a corporate’s digital footprint to reflect these evolutions and changes in real time is always a challenge.
Instead, as for the trees, organic (and therefore messy!) structures tend to emerge as a business finds its web presence growing beyond sapling status. So how can businesses and other organisations focus on creating the right digital architecture that works for their audiences?
With this question in mind, we were asked by a large industrial client to audit its online presence, and compare with both direct competitors and best-in-class digital marketers.
Here are some of our key findings:
Firstly, we’re talking more redwoods than silver birch – each of the large multinationals we audited had in their digital ecosystem, on average:
- 24,000 pages
- 63 countries, usually each with their own domain or subdomain
- 24 supported languages
Straightforward navigation through this is always key for a smooth user experience. Like untangling a mangrove however, it’s deceptively difficult to achieve. The vast digital landscapes of many firms can be hard to map and comprehend as a professional, let alone as a casual user.
This causes a serious problem when considered alongside the poor signposting evident across many corporate digital ecosystems from years of organic, unstructured growth. Often, we found a lack of consideration for how the interplay between the levels and layers of the system impacts a user’s sense of direction.
For example, navigational clarity is frequently hindered by having separate domains or subdomains for each division or product. This results in the full scope of the web ecosystem not being visible in any one place, which can easily frustrate and confuse the user, and was by far the most common issue we found in our audit.
A linked issue is consistency of look and feel – crucial in building a streamlined experience that satisfies the user. Again however, it is often hard to deliver this consistency across large, ever-changing ecosystems.
As internet technologies have advanced, it is evident on many corporate websites that updates and new sections have been grafted on in a piecemeal fashion, which can be as jolting for the user as spotting pine needles on their apple tree. Pages designed over the course of three decades can sometimes be accessed within three clicks (or so it feels).
This piecemeal approach can also exacerbate navigational issues, as it is not uncommon for sections to be grafted in ‘one way’, causing a loss of the ability to travel back from leaves to branches to trunk.
The disjointed user experience which inconsistency creates is a real problem.
A company website is a crucial touchpoint between the organisation and the interested visitor. As such, the site’s usability and friendliness can leave a powerful impression about the brand. Any inconsistency which fragments this user experience hinders the ability to build trust, and can negatively impact brand perception, purchase intentions, and user immersion.
This is where the tree surgeon – or digital consultant – comes in.
As a surgeon picks the tools needed based on the tree and the job, the choice of digital strategy and ecosystem design for a business should be based on its needs, objectives, and stakeholder profile.
Two good examples from our audit to illustrate:
- Large FMCG (fast-moving) companies will typically have a large network of different domains, as each sub brand will typically have its own web presence that appeals to and engages its specific customer base (perhaps more spider plant than tree!)
- In contrast, a major oil & gas company we audited took the approach of building a single ‘mega-site’. Hosting its entire web presence on a single domain is an effective solution in this case. As its target audiences (job seekers, investors, the general public) are much less diverse in profile and needs, one site can effectively serve all of them in an efficient and consistent manner (think oak tree)
A good web ecosystem and digital strategy needs to be rooted in a clear and consistent structure throughout, making navigation straightforward and preventing getting lost or stuck. It needs to tell the user a positive story about the brand, building trust and nudging them to take the desired actions.
Sadly, the scale of this task for the largest organisations makes building and maintaining such an ecosystem extraordinarily difficult, as the size of their digital territories can be immense.
For those who can get it right however, or at least reasonably good for most users, you might just have a tree that fruits all year round.
by Dan Wood