The 10 Least Useful Trends in Agency Websites

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Do you know what proportion of serious new business prospects visit your website? 100%. They all do. Because all prospective buyers of your services want to know what exactly what it is you’re selling. And although different marketers might want to know different things about your firm, they’re all ultimately looking to find one thing: expertise. 

Marketers are interested in your firm because you have expertise that the client can’t duplicate in house. And while agency websites have generally migrated toward simpler design, easier navigation, and more mobile-friendly templates, here is Ignition’s list of 10 recent trends in agency sites that are likely to work against you in new business.

1) Mysterious business model

This is by far the most counterproductive feature of agency websites because most firms are so desperate to appeal to everyone that they describe their firms in ways that end up appealing to no one. The “about us” section avoids putting a stake in the ground and instead uses such wide-ranging language that clients have an infernally difficult time knowing if this is the type of help they’re looking for or not.

Today’s marketers are not looking for an agency that can do everything (which they know doesn’t exist) and instead are actively on the hunt for what they call “best in class” competencies or market expertise. If you fail to say what (competencies) or who (markets) you know best, you’re passing up opportunities with the type of sophisticated clients you say you most want on your roster.

2) Perplexing people section

It usually surprises agencies to hear that research shows the most-often visited section on an agency website is “our people.” Unfortunately, in an apparent move to democratize the agency and make everyone look equally important, it’s now fashionable for agencies to put up a photo of literally every employee, right down to the receptionist. Then, in addition to this type of photographic overkill, agencies make it difficult for website visitors to find the leadership of the agency because they are scattered throughout a very long web page, often with no titles shown. If and when the prospect does find the key people they’re looking for, the bios are often reduced to 200-word descriptions that focus more on hobbies and personal interests than professional expertise.

3) Simplicity taken too far

Many agencies have fallen victim to what Einstein warned about when he said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not too simple.” Far too many agency sites are simple to the point of too simple -- long on style and short on substance.  

“Buying” an agency isn’t like buying a software subscription, where a scroll-down series of icons with captions can make the sale. You’re selling custom problem solving, not a monthly subscription. The purchase risk in hiring an agency is exponentially higher than most online products and services.

4) Selling drills instead of holes

Harvard’s Ted Levitt famously taught his marketing students that no one ever buys a three-quarter-inch drill; they buy the expectation of a three-quarter-inch hole. The buyer seeks an end, and the drill is only the means. Professional service firms like agencies are in the bad habit of selling drills instead of holes -- inputs instead of outcomes -- which turn into commoditized bullet-point lists labeled “our services.”

As marketing experts, agency professionals should know that buyers are looking for solutions (benefits), not services (features). Putting up a laundry list of capabilities is a lazy and ineffective way to demonstrate your expertise. The best agency websites describe solution sets, which are supported by certain capabilities. Citing capabilities by themselves is like listing the chemical ingredients on the front label of a Tide bottle instead of promising clean, fresh-smelling clothes.

5) Actualities in place of stories

Eavesdrop on random client-agency meetings and you’re likely to hear the agency extol the virtues of “storytelling.” Agency creatives preach the idea that brands can benefit from the same dynamism baked into the world’s best novels, movies, and TV shows. Then on their own websites agencies resort to showcasing the same dull facts and figures most clients don’t care about in the first place: founding date, growth rate, number of employees, awards won, honors achieved, ad infinitum. This hardly constitutes a story but is rather more like a submission to Dun & Bradstreet.

What’s the story of your agency? How did it come into existence and why? What difference are you trying to make in the world? The best examples of agency stories are not only verbal but also visual. The same goes for the dreaded “case history.” Much better to tell a “case story,” complete with characters, a plot, conflict, and resolution.

6) Failing to demonstrate fit

“Is this the agency partner we need right now, for this particular brand, to solve this particular problem?”

That's the question marketers have in mind when they’re surfing through the pages of your website. The ever-insightful Clayton Christensen argues that we as buyers “hire” products and services to perform a job for us, which he says applies to everything from milkshakes to consulting firms. Your task, as the seller, is to show the buyer what jobs you’re best suited to perform. If your website is so nebulous that anybody could be a fit, then no one will identify as a fit. An excellent example of this principle in action is the agency Quarry in Ontario, Canada, who actually uses the word “Fit” in their navigation bar.

7) Selling out of context

Agencies are notorious for “portfolios in space” -- examples of work with no connection to the business problems they were designed to solve. The worst example of this is the online portfolio that is broken down by medium -- television, print, digital, outdoor -- as if the client is shopping for a “television agency.” This is inside out thinking at its very best (or worst). If you have an impressive collection of work, it will be even more impressive if you give it some context other than the marketing channel in which it appeared. This would be like an architect showing work classified by building materials rather than by type of environment.

8) Overvaluing the fun factor

Do clients want to work with an agency that’s amusing and entertaining? No doubt they would prefer a team with a sense of humor over one that takes itself too seriously. But prospective clients aren't Googling for “fun agencies.” Rather, they pretty much assume most agencies have a healthy fun factor (at least compared to the corporations where most clients work). For that reason, a fun culture is not differentiating. In fact, “we’re fun” has for some time been included on Ignition’s official top ten list of undifferentiating things agencies say about themselves. Should your site be lighthearted, engaging, and maybe even slightly witty? Sure, you’re an agency after all. Just don’t devote all of your digital real estate to trying to out-fun the other guys. If this were plotted on your website brief, it would be under “tone and manner,” not “reasons to believe.”

9) Uncommitted content strategy

Do your blog posts, white papers, or other artifacts of thought leadership on your website add up to strategic integrity? Or do these articles ramble into so many different areas that prospects have a hard time knowing how to think about you? A focused, consistent content strategy is undoubtedly something your firm recommends to its clients. This really is just a matter of taking your own advice.

10) Pleasing instead of polarizing

Quick ... name the world’s strongest brands. Do they not only have ardent supporters, but virulent detractors? People who love them, and people who hate them?

This is actually one of the key characteristics of a successful brand, and what’s true for consumer brands is just as true for professional service brands. When we strive to present ourselves as universally lovable and acceptable, we miss the opportunity to make ourselves strongly appealing to a select group of prospects. The best agencies -- and their websites -- are willing to advance points of view that are provocative. Agency professionals are infamously thin skinned, so the idea that some audiences might actually disagree with them goes against their nature. But it's better to be loved and rejected by some than ignored by everyone. That’s the very essence of a strong brand.

All this said, there are many agencies that have an outstanding online presence. They tend to be the ones who apply to their own firms the same advice they give to their clients. Want a remarkable website? Just practice what you preach.

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