The Most Important Question a Brand Must Answer for Success in 2012 Is…

Twice last month, I found myself in meetings with representatives from Fortune 100 companies during which the conversations shifted to the role a brand’s website should play in the increasingly social, online world. In both cases, the question posed was about whether or not the brand website (not as an e-commerce tool, but for all other practical purposes) had reached the end of its usefulness and whether Facebook could or should be viewed as the pending replacement.

Research our organization, GroupM Search, published in Q4 found that less than 5 percent of all search visits from shoppers resulted in a visit to a brand website (click here for the full study). The majority of traffic was sent, instead, to third-party review sites, comparison sites, and social platforms. With the growing options for discovery and information gathering beyond a brand site, it is fair (and wise) for brands to question what role an owned website should play.

In fact, the question for 2012 is: “What role should my online brand destinations play in communicating with consumers about my business and when should I send people to each location?” For a business to be successful in 2012, they must have an answer and strategy to act upon the response to that two-part question.

Two studies we conducted in 2011 found that there is a growing number of opportunities for brands to influence the purchase path a consumer will take. We call those opportunities “signposting” moments; a moment in the journey when a consumer reaches a fork in the road and must decide which direction to go next. As recently as 12 to 18 months ago, these moments occurred most frequently on Google’s results page, but the options at hand were largely brand websites. Now, the choices are more extreme with everything from third-party category sites (Wikipedia and comparison shopping), brand sites, video sites (YouTube), and through social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Google+).

The death of 10 blue links has helped diminish the ease of navigation to a brand site. But, choices are good and the options at the disposal of a brand can be an advantage if brands can answer the role question posed at the onset of this column. That said, brands need to determine the following for each type of property:

1. What’s the point of the assets we own? Whether it is your brand website, your Facebook page, your Twitter stream, or YouTube – what is the primary goal of the destination and how do we continue to further develop the asset to satisfy that end goal?

2. What assets can we leverage on which we have an earned presence? With more users relying on third-party sites (category blogs, review sites, etc.) it is essential to be present in those locations. Though a concerted community activation effort or API feeds of data brands cannot afford to miss out on these locations.

3. Where are we placing signposts and are they clearly marked? For most consumers, the online journey starts with Google. Increasingly, Facebook plays a role as does Twitter and YouTube. Each of these “destinations” can be a gateway to another location. So, what directions are you offering to potential consumers to get them down the funnel toward a decision that includes you?

My perspective for brands, and what I told the individuals from the two Fortune 100s previously mentioned, is that in no way should Facebook be a replacement at the start of 2012 for a brand website. It should have a clearly defined role for the brand as should the brand site. If you cannot articulate both the role and the differentiation from other owned properties, then there is a real problem. The moment you have blurred the lines in your own organization to the point that you cannot distinguish roles and differentiation, you are not positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead with your targeted consumers.

That’s why, in 2012, there will be nothing more important for brands than to know the roles of their digital assets and how differentiation of each will be communicated to their target consumers. The goal should be to make it easy for any consumer to get to the right destination (owned or otherwise) to experience your brand in the most optimum setting that will in turn progress their own journey to an ideal outcome for your business in this new year.

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