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The state (and future) of New Zealand websites

An interview with Intergen’s Lead Web and Digital Strategist, Giles Brown.

Last week we launched The Engaged Web in New Zealand 2012. As part of our launch, we locked our lead web strategist, Giles, in a room and pointed a video camera at him, probing him mercilessly for his thoughts on the report and what its findings showed us about the state of the New Zealand web industry and where it’s heading. You can watch the video below.



Unfortunately we couldn’t fit all of Giles’ pearls of wisdom into a mere five minutes of footage. The transcript that follows is the bit that ended up on the cutting room floor. If you’re after the summary, watch the video. If you’re sitting down with your morning coffee and want to get a bit deeper into the subjects of engagement, the web, and where it’s all heading, the following interview has plenty to get you thinking.

Is the web dead? Where is it heading? How do we stack up against international websites? What were the most noticeable web trends? What kinds of things should we be thinking about when we set about engaging our users?

Giles has thoughts on all these things, and more… 


Comparing last year’s Engaged Report with this year’s, what changes have you seen in the past year?

The biggest changes we have noticed in the last year have been in the social media and mobile space. People are investing heavily in those channels. It remains to be seen where this investment will end up in five years. I think it’s clear that many brands are not moving away from the Mothership website, if you like, but they’re having to spread their investment across many web properties. Obviously they still have the Mothership website but more and more they’re spending money on social media and mobile channels.

That said, there is still a lot to be done in the mobile space. Some of the brands and the companies that we looked at in the mobile space haven’t gone as far as they could. There’s a lot that you can invest in in mobile channels. You can have custom apps, whether they’re on mobile device, smartphone or tablet, and the number of apps on you can have on a device is unlimited. Some people just have their basic website on their device and others have a mobile-optimised site; some have different versions of that site depending on the device, and then, increasingly, people have custom applications to improve the experience and focus on key tasks or key benefits from the user’s point of view.


Why did Intergen do the report?

Last year was the first time we did the Engaged Web survey, based on a study that EPiServer did in 2010.  We took 10 vertical sectors and looked at the top five sites within each of these. We took a very difficult concept, engagement, and we put some parameters around it and we asked some relatively straightforward questions, scoring each site based on how engaging the user experience was. We did the same thing again this year, assessing the same 10 sectors. We still took the five most trafficked sites in each sector, although in two sectors we had to cast our net a bit wider because too many of the examples were from offshore. To properly determine what is engaging and engagement we did tweak those variables slightly, again to reflect the change – obviously mobile and social media being the things that we wanted to look at a bit more heavily.

Why did we do it again? We wanted to have some comparative data. Last year everyone got a score and we got the overall picture that performance was average. Not very exciting, but that’s where we felt sites were at. And this year sites did move up markedly – a reasonable amount, sometimes 20% or 30% based on similar criteria. So basically even though engagement is obviously a very subjective term and it’s hard to quantify something that will vary from user to user or site to site, I think the trend overall was a far more engaging user experience across those 10 sectors and in the five sites we looked at for each. We expected this, although the jump from last year to this year was perhaps more pronounced than we would have expected.

If we do it again next year, we’ll probably focus even more on mobile devices and social media. But of course we can’t forget about the website. People do still make websites!


What were the main engagement trends that came out of the report, and why do you think these have come to prominence?

I think a lot of people have upped the ante in terms of level of investment – using more rich media and more interactive content. This is especially the case for those channels you’d expect: news and media, entertainment, banking and finance, shopping and classifieds – but less so in other sectors like health and lifestyle, government, and there is no doubt good reasons for that. Creating rich interactive media can be expensive and so, for some of those vertical sectors or channels, there’s just not as much ROI in making everything interactive or reproducing everything as video or trying to repurpose something that’s a basic webpage and make it more engaging.


What do you see as being the biggest growth areas for New Zealand websites?

I see one of the big growth areas in the next five years being increasing fragmentation. The web is all around us these days; it’s not just on the desktop or the laptop. There’s going to be continual proliferation of devices and platforms and ways to consume media and content, so we can just expect the web to be around us more and more, on more devices, with content being consumed in an increasingly diverse number of ways. It’s easy to speculate and get carried away that we’re going to have this haze of digital stuff around us and it’s all going to be holograms and hoverboards, but I think increasingly we will move further and further away from the desktop experience.

I don’t think that websites are just going to go away. I think a lot of people speculate that websites are gone and it’s all about apps. I think it’s like anything: it’s just going to be an additional number of platforms and more ways to consume content than what we were used to five years ago.


What do you see happening in the web world five years from now?

It’s a tricky question. Things are changing fast. We know that. We know that a lot of the sites that were around five or ten years ago – Myspace, Bebo and the like – are either not around or certainly no longer exist on the same scale as five or ten years ago. Likewise, a lot of the big brands that we take for granted today, who knows whether they’ll be around five or ten years from now, whether they’ll still take the same shape or choose to specialise in a specific area.

In the New Zealand market what do we expect to see? I guess a lot of aggregation of sites. So what does that mean? Sites have a user base and they have databases behind the site building up a profile of the customer, so when you log in you get a personalised or customised experience. We’re all familiar with Trade Me and how that works – everyone likes that and it does a fantastic job. Increasingly, we get more and more sites aggregating their data. And for people wondering what that means, it just means taking all of the profile information they have about their customers and merging it with other large databases or customer sets.

A recent example of this aggregation is the partnership between Westpac and realestate.co.nz. Westpac is a bank in the business of selling mortgages, amongst other things. Realestate.co.nz provides property information, so there’s they’ve put out an application using both their data sets, which makes perfect sense. You’ve got that big dataset of mortgage information, and you’ve got another of property information. You put those together and there are benefits for both. They get to cross-sell and up-sell, and it’s great for users of that information as well – when they’re out and about looking at property or information, they get the latest information or advice. 

I’d expect to see more of this kind of aggregation, or just mergers between those big online properties in New Zealand. We’ve seen lots of that recently with big fish swallowing little fish, taking their data sets and plugging them in to their site and serving up that content to a user, in a browser or desktop device.


If you could give only one piece of advice to website owners wanting to engage better with their users, what would it be?

It’s a tricky question because everyone is different, it’s a very subjective term and it depends very much on the content and your brand. You may be in the business of ecommerce or providing information but I think the key is to just try and do a few things really, really well. That comes down to understanding where your users are at and understanding the way that they want to consume content and making that as palatable for them as possible.

 I think it’s easy for people to try and do too much and end up doing a lot of things not particularly well. I think one of the reasons for that is that people’s expectations are so high, because they are used to the Googles and the Amazons, the Facebooks and Trade Mes. It’s hard for people who don’t have the resources or the budget of some of those organisations to perform at that level. Yet that’s where people’s expectations are – they want to be able to rate and tag and add to favourites; they want a completely customised, personalised experience; they want to be able to share things.

Expectation levels are really, really high, and yet not everyone has those sorts of resources or capabilities. Some of the big brands, even in New Zealand, have tens, dozens, even hundreds of people in their online marketing departments. And there might be people out there who only have a community manager, an online manager, or two or three or half a dozen people in their web teams. This just means you really need to be smart about where you invest your effort. It means you can’t necessarily do everything; you’re better to focus on those core tasks. So instead of bolting on dozens of new features to your site, maybe it’s better to focus on the first three or four things. Or, if you’re thinking about what to do in the mobile space to get that application underway, do those three core tasks really well first and then look to add those new features as you go.


Did the report bring any surprises?

There wasn’t a huge shift in the placement of sectors from last year to this year, with the exception of banking and finance. Government also dramatically improved on its 2011 score. The results have to be tempered with reality – we looked at ten sectors with only five sites per sector, so you can get results being skewed by one or two sites that have changed markedly, and the amount of traffic to the sites determined the sites we looked at.

But why those sectors in particular? I guess it probably just reflects the amount of effort they’re putting into online investment. Government, for example, is an interesting one. Their score last year was quite low, so the increase is relative to where they were at last year. But with those other sectors, when you think about engagement, the kinds of tools they’re using – lots of social plug-ins, rich media, a high degree of interaction, lots and lots of content, building sub sites or microsites within the Mothership around specific events, or in the case of news and entertainment, they have the content and they’re building up a community in their own right, this time around TV shows. They’re creating deep, rich, interactive experiences for each of those shows, and we would expect that to continue as more and more spend moves from offline to online. The sites and experiences are just getting deeper, richer and more and more engaging.


Do all sites need to be engaging?

Yes, of course they do. It doesn’t matter what your content is or how you present it. You might be a medical site, for example, and you publish whitepapers around surgery – well there are lots and lots of ways to make that more engaging. You can use video, you can use interaction, you can have discussion threads and forums, so the ways that you engage are quite different. But, yes, every site should in some way endeavour to be engaging, even if the features that you’re providing are quite functional. Even if you’re doing ecommerce and you want people to come and transact and get out of the site as soon as possible you still want them to have an engaging experience as they go through,  because you want repeat visits, you want people to talk about the brand or the experience and you want them to return. You can be functional and engaging at the same time. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.


How important is it to focus on your user’s needs?

Within the wider subject of engagement, there’s a lot of talk about user-centred design. It’s important to be user-centred and business focused. You can be both of those things at once. Users are fantastic for telling you what they like and what they need, but there’s not always a direct, corresponding overlap between user-centred design and business needs. You want to try and find that sweet spot between the two where you’re doing stuff that your users have asked for and the business in fact needs it. Users might want stuff on the homepage, or they might want an app that the business has no real need for, there’s no ROI or good reason to do it. So you’re always trying to find that sweet spot between what your users want and what the business needs, and if you can do that you’re doing pretty well.


How did New Zealand sites stack up compared to international sites?

I think we do pretty well, actually. I think there are some fantastic examples – Xero is a good one, and Trade Me is another great example. A lot of the banks have really lifted their game in the last 12 to 18 months, so there have been a lot of new launches of websites, and, of course, the corresponding smartphone applications.

We’re early adopters, and we do actually have quite high smartphone usage here despite the fact that broadband still rates quite poorly internationally. Kiwis like to get amongst it and we do pick things up early. Also New Zealand is a good testbed because the market here is quite small. It’s relatively easy to spin up software quite quickly, test something and get it live, whereas this is often harder to achieve overseas, sometimes just because of the scale or size of the organisation. Granted, these organisations do often have more money and they can get VC funding to build these juggernauts. But here, I guess because our market is quite small, we can get things up and running quite quickly. The standard of design and development here – and the people that are at the top of their game – is really, really high, as good as anywhere internationally. We do very well.


Were there any areas where we engaged poorly?

For each of the sites we looked at, we analysed particular attributes of engagement, such as personalisation, multimedia and blogging. Blogging was an interesting one – that did actually drop this year compared to last year.

So why has blogging declined since last year? It could be for a number of reasons – again, the existence of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn (for example) means that people can share and distribute content quickly and easily. A blog takes a lot of effort. It’s hard to keep coming up with material all the time; it’s hard to write good long form content, especially if you’re a small organisation. If you’re a large organisation you can share the load a little bit.

Then there’s been a degree of aggregation in the blogging space. A number of New Zealand’s larger and more successful blogs are an assembly or a collection of blogs from people who have been doing it for years and years – Public Address and ReadWriteWeb are two good examples. There’s no get rich quick scheme with blogging. It’s like anything – it’s hard work. They need to keep investing in that channel.


Is the web dead? Is Facebook going to rule the universe?

No, the web is not dead. Yes, we will still be using websites in five years (I believe). Of course there will be more and more stuff out there, and more and more of it will be consumed on devices. We know this – we can look at the statistics and the growth trajectory and, yes, it’s quite obvious that mobile is where it’s at, but people are still going to be sitting down browsing content on a screen, whether it’s a tablet or a wall or a good old desktop PC, even. I don’t think that will go away.

There will be more and more content on more and more devices and we’ll be able to do more with it. It makes life a lot harder for designers and developers, of course, because you’ve got so many more platforms to consider and ways to consume your stuff than ever before. But I don’t think the web’s dead. Not yet. I hope not!


Are there any technologies coming down the pipeline that you’re excited about that will perhaps change the way that we engage?

For me, I’m a content person from way back, so yes, there are always going to be new technologies and new ways to consume and publish media. But I think that the fundamentals of interesting, relevant and timely content, content that’s useful and consumable – basic communications 101 – will always remain, no matter how many shiny new devices we have to consume all this stuff. The basics are still relevant.


Engagement is a pretty broad, wide-reaching subject, and you could tackle it in numerous ways. Where do you start?

The first thing to think about is that it’s not just your website any more – you have to think about all those platforms – mobile, social, the whole nine yards. There are lots of practical steps you can take to engage better. Like…

Keep an eye on your sector. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s lots and lots of stuff going on, constant releases of apps and activity in your sector that you may or may not be aware of. You can sign up to LinkedIn groups and all sorts of stuff. You can go to conferences and seminars. Of course there is Webstock here in New Zealand which is a world class event, and there are a number of events in Australia.

Sometimes it’s useful to just step outside your sector but be around your peers, whether they’re designers, developers or content people, whatever it might be. That’s a really good way of getting away from the day-to-day grind of cranking out projects, because we do, all of us, fall into this project mentality where you’re delivering a thing, because someone said, “I want you to make me a thing.” It’s good sometimes to get away from all of those day-to-day projects, just clearing the mind a little bit and getting you thinking about other problems that other people have in other sectors that may be relevant to what you’re doing.

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 21 May 2012

Tags: Social Media, Engaged Web

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