The End of Microsites

It was 2004 (only 10 years ago) and I was a digital brand manager at adidas America. I sat within the broader brand marketing department and was responsible for a few sports — baseball, football, and softball — and a few major brand and product campaigns each year. It was a fantastic job for a fantastic organization. I learned a lot and met many amazing people.

That same year I was responsible for the digital launch of a new running shoe. I first worked with my internal stakeholders — brand marketing, retail marketing, PR, product, etc. — and developed a brief for my agency. As had happened many times before, my expectation was that I would receive three to five concepts for a microsite, primarily focused on cool interactivity, rich photography, and possibly, since I had pushed, a clear path to e-commerce. This was before social media, early in content marketing, and my six-figure budget didn’t support original video.

After weeks of briefings, concept presentations, and iterating, my agency and I landed on a creative direction and rough marketing plan. The microsite would feature original product photography, 360 spinnable shoes, technical videos (provided by product), some nice integration into e-commerce for pre-sale, and then the rollout of new colors. While the agency was on retainer (you don’t want to know how much we paid them,) the bill for the photography and third-party development was north of $250,000. We didn’t hesitate; it would be well worth it. We never discussed or ran a media plan against the campaign; I was all about the microsite.

For many years, building microsites was the standard tactic for digital marketers. We couldn’t be as creative as we wanted within the walls of e-commerce and brand sites were tightly managed by corporate marketing, were broken down by country, and had to follow the templates provided. The CMS just couldn’t handle “advanced” interactivity and custom integrations, and we really didn’t want to engage IT to get it done. Lastly, because we were paying our agency a lot of money, and they had designers and developers in-house, they could do anything we wanted.

For those of us who made microsites for a living, we lived for the creativity and fun, the freedom to do whatever we wanted. And it was a relatively simple endeavor; we didn’t have to consider much beyond the experience and content. For many of us, driving business outcomes was secondary. If people came in and played, explored, engaged…it was successful. If they clicked through to e-commerce or opted-in to email, bonus.

As we all know, times have changed.

Not too long ago I was having lunch with some old colleagues from adidas who were still there. We talked about their evolving digital strategy and they shared that they had made e-commerce their main brand site and had moved all campaign marketing to Facebook. They also shared that the media opportunities had become far more complex.

Consumers have moved from desktop to mobile. And from portals and brand sites to social. As consumer behavior changes, brand marketers have had to adapt digital strategies at every level — from reaching and engaging to converting all the way to retaining.

As marketers start moving dollars from search and display into social and mobile advertising, they’re starting to feel similar constraints on their ability to be both creative and, wait for it…drive higher-value outcomes. With the amount of change and complexity in digital marketing today, it feels like marketers are bringing knives to a gun fight — we just don’t have the tools or knowledge to keep up with consumers and it gets harder everyday to prove and improve the value we deliver to the business.

Indeed, the traditional digital microsite with its full-screen option, rich desktop experience, built in Flash with video, animation, and game-like interactivity is dying. The cost and effort to value just isn’t there anymore. Even Facebook apps, the social-era equivalent to brand microsites, are near death.

Today, marketers are reaching and engaging consumers in social and on mobile, and often at the same time. Even search and email are being consumed more and more on mobile devices. During this transition, many marketers have pushed to make their existing websites, especially e-commerce, “mobile-enabled” so that they can drive from search, email, and social streams to mobile experiences. Many haven’t even gotten this far.

Yet as we learned with search and email on desktop, our websites are rarely tuned for the ads we’re buying or for the segments we’re targeting. And frankly, “mobile-enabled” just isn’t enough for social consumers looking for quick engagement and easy paths to share, explore, or even purchase.

Marketers have a pressing need for what I call “social mobile microsites” or more appropriately, mobile landing pages with agile and lightweight CMSs that can be easily tuned to optimize targeting, ad creative, and conversion actions.

Luckily, in the new social mobile world, these microsites won’t cost a quarter of a million dollars and won’t take months to create. They will be deeply integrated into media buying and programmatic conversion optimization and will need to be as dynamic as your weekly posting strategy.

Have you built a website lately? Everything is headed toward single-page scrollers. Why? Because of mobile. In a truly meta moment, take a second to experience the newly announced Facebook Paper microsite on both desktop and mobile. Not only is Paper the next iteration in our complete transition to mobile, but the microsite, I think, is equally if not more compelling on mobile.

This isn’t 2004 y’all, it’s 2014, and everything has changed, again.

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