Eight characteristics of effective microsites

For years, brands have used microsites, in many cases to great effect. But not all microsites deliver results.

So what separates the effective microsites from the ineffective ones?

Here are eight components of a successful microsite that we have identified.

1. A legitimate use case

The starting point for a good microsite is a legitimate use case. Why is this microsite needed? What benefits will it offer visitors? What benefits will it help the brand achieve?

All of these questions should be answered before the decision to develop a microsite is made.

Commonly, microsites are developed to promote a new product or service or to support a marketing campaign. For example, auto manufacturer Toyota has built microsites to support new car launches and in 2006, retailer OfficeMax created a holiday marketing campaign using a microsite called Elf Yourself.

A viral hit, Elf Yourself has become an annual tradition that people look forward to, demonstrating the potential for microsites to become valuable, long-lasting brand assets.

While microsites are usually implemented to promote new products and services and to bolster marketing campaigns, they are also used for general branding purposes. For example, luxury fashion house Chanel built a microsite called Inside Chanel [paywall] “to inform consumers about the house’s history and heritage through video and multimedia content.”

2. A dedicated domain or subdomain

As a general rule, a microsite should have its own dedicated domain or subdomain. While it might be appealing for a microsite to be hosted on a primary brand domain for SEO purposes, and there are instances in which such a might make sense, more often than not, it’s best to host the microsite on a dedicate domain or subdomain.

There are numerous reasons for this. For one, a dedicated domain or subdomain is typically easier to promote. For instance, cooldomain.com is easier to remember and type in than brand.com/microsites/something, so any microsite that will he heavily advertised will probably benefit from a dedicated domain or subdomain.

Additionally, it’s often the case that deploying a microsite on a corporate brand website can be more difficult organizationally. If an outside agency is responsible for the development and maintenance of the microsite, for example, launching and updating the site might be more difficult if the technical owners of the brand website have to act as middlemen.

3. A clear and convincing call-to-action

Any microsite that seeks to drive action on the part of visitors needs to have a clear and convincing call-to-action.

Microsites are often used to host contests and sweepstakes, and as such, many feature prominent calls-to-action that encourage visitors to submit their information to enter. Case in point: when Alaska Airlines announced its merger with Virgin America, it launched a microsite to promote the merger and run a contest offering 1,200 free round-trip flights.

But even when there isn’t as obvious a call-to-action, one can be created. For example, pizza chain Domino’s created a microsite to introduce consumers to its next-generation pizza delivery vehicles, dubbed DXPs.

The microsite’s homepage is simple: it contains an image of the vehicle and a prominent title. And it offers visitors only two options: Go for a Ride or Locate a DXP, ensuring that visitors follow a tightly-controlled path.

4. Well-defined success metrics

As with any website, a brand should define metrics by which a microsite’s success will be judged. For example, if a brand hopes to use a microsite to collect customer information through a contest or sweepstakes, it should set targets for how many visitors will provide that information.

Of course, where appropriate, an analytics solution should be put into place to ensure that the important metrics can be tracked.

5. A great design

Just because a microsite is typically associated with a marketing campaign or brand asset that might have an expiration date doesn’t mean that brands should skimp on design. To the contrary, for a microsite to be effective, it must have a quality design that is not only easy to navigate but visually compelling.

In many if not most cases, even though the microsite will likely have its own distinct visual identity, the brand should be incorporated into the design to let visitors know that it is associated with the brand.

6. Compelling content and/or functionality

The “content is king” rule applies to microsites as well. If a microsite is to win over visitors, it needs to have compelling content or functionality that engages and delights.

Here again, one of the most successful microsites of all time, Elf Yourself, offers a good case study. While not every microsite is going to be in the mold of Elf Yourself, this microsite demonstrates the value of being creative and thinking about how a microsite can be used to interact with users in ways that inform, entertain and benefit users.

Another good example of compelling content can be found with the microsite Procter & Gamble brand Gillette launched on the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) network in 2009. It featured videos created by WWE wrestlers revealing how they use Gillette products.

7. A marketing strategy

As with any website, if you build it, they will not come. In other words, for a microsite to be productive, it needs to be marketed.

In some cases, when a microsite is attached to a marketing campaign, the microsite is promoted in the paid advertising for the campaign. But it can also be worthwhile to support the microsite directly with dedicated social media promotion, paid search ads, etc.

8. A retirement strategy

For microsites that are going to have a limited shelf life, it’s important for brands to develop a retirement strategy. For example, if the microsite provides functionality that end users value and might miss once it’s gone, it can be beneficial to alert users ahead of time.

Most importantly, brands should have a plan for the location of the microsite once it’s retired. Subdomains or subdirectories should be redirected to an appropriate place, not allowed to 404, and it can be wise for brands to keep a dedicated domain registered indefinitely so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of another person or company that might use it in a way that harms the brand.

Finally, to the extent that a microsite will be kept online, brands should ensure that any SSL certificates don’t expire, rendering their archived microsites useless. This is what happened to the aforementioned Alaska Airlines microsite, which now displays an expired certificate message when users try to access it.

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