Server outages. Network failures. Code bugs. If you've lived through the experience of trying to establish your corporate or product website, chances are you've heard these phrases many times to describe why the site doesn't work. And it wasn't easy even getting to this point – you've had to face the eternal question, “how do I best use the web in my day to day business?”.

Many businesses found their initial experience of the internet painful. Web sites were launched under what seems now like an unholy alliance of design, IT and marketing departments – and sometimes not even an alliance. Numerous project managers battled to push the water of creativity up the hill of company compliance. Now many feel what they have is flawed – if not in the technology, then in vision.

But the great thing about pioneers is they thrive on making the mistakes that the rest of us dread. Now is the time to learn from these mistakes and take a more considered approach to web site development. That starts with an understanding of what the web is – and what it isn't.

Put simply, the web is a communications channel – big, flexible, rich, dynamic and interactive, but a communications channel none the less. It is not the answer to everything – it is not a new business process, although it can revolutionise them. At its best, it offers a way to exchange knowledge on a scale and at a speed unheard of ten years ago.

It's all about communication
The key to making the web work for you and your business is understanding how it integrates with all your other communications channels. This means understanding the purpose of those communications, their content and all your audiences' needs.

The basis of any business is customer relationships. Every communications vehicle has a part to play in a relationship with the customer, driving them from ignorance of the brand and proposition (awareness), through the key stage of first purchase (conversion), onto repeat purchases (development) and finally to a defender of the brand, the customer who wouldn't think of going anywhere else (loyalty).

With most communications channels, you can tackle one or two aspects of the customer relationship with a single communication. But with the web, with its intelligent targeting, responsive feedback loops and learning capabilities, companies can manage it all.

So why haven't they? The answer is that web design shops and agencies have grabbed this shiny new toy and thrown away the common-sense handbook on marketing.

There are a number of companies targeting the financial services market with web building packages – some bespoke, some on a click-and-build basis. What is interesting is that they all seem to focus on the process of site building, with little reference to purpose.

True, for many ease of application is crucial, but these should simply support the key proposition of what it will do for you.

In short, build better dialogues with your customers at every stage of development. The problem is that doing all aspects of customer relationship management (CRM) to the right degree at the right time is challenging – because it is a dynamic process with near constant adjustments to the volume and content of the various messages you put out and your responses to the ones you get back. This is where the web can really play to its strengths, but only if you consider it in the wider context of your communications strategy.

Let's start with your positioning. Now this involves careful analysis of things such as your business strategy, culture, core competencies, market context and audiences. It means understanding all the touch points that all your audiences have with your company.

Only then can you begin to focus on your communications objectives – to what degree are they about awareness, acquisition, development and retention? This balance will change over time but you need to be clear from the start so that you can guide that process of change.

The right content
Next, decide what type of content is needed to meet your varying communications objectives – different content for different people and for different objectives. This process depends upon a very clear understanding of your different audience types and the different stages of their relationship with you.

Only now that you know your objectives and content type do you start to consider the medium for distribution that is most appropriate, both to the message and to the audience. The medium is further segmented by whether your communications are intended as passive (one-way, background-building) or interactive (two-way, dialogue-building).

There is a myriad of choice from posters and press, meetings, exhibitions and mail to the web. Of course, your initial audience analysis may have all but discounted the web as, say, a retail channel; but may still leave it open in the form of an intranet or as an alternative to stand-alone supplier management systems.

The point is that many media and channels can fulfil more than one objective but – and this is the promise of the web and what makes it so different – only the web can carry all content types for all four objectives.

Now that is a big promise, but not only is it true, it is also the reason why so much can go wrong. Like customers of an Italian restaurant, communications professionals are spoilt for choice and so either choose everything all at once or simply gorge themselves on one dish. As with food, marketing communications require a careful blend of ingredients.

That, we like to think, is where the skills of a marketing communications agency comes in. Not only should they be able to help you identify and express your positioning but they should also be able to help you through the various stages of the communications process outlined above.

They should then be able to help you develop or acquire that content, manage its distribution (creating communications material such as websites or DM packs) and, finally, they should provide you with the means to capture and recycle into the process all the response data from brand tracking to transaction histories. Because only by analysing and responding to such feedback can you modify your objectives and content types to suit a changing market and the attendant change in customer behaviour.

Fulfilling the promise
Once again the technology inherent in web design gives it a major advantage over other communications channels because its interactive capabilities allow for more accurate tracking and faster message management.

So does that mean you can dispense with the rest and just have a web site? No. Because if you go through the above process you will find that, although the web has the potential to deliver all the content types against all the objectives, it is not always appropriate for all of your audiences all of the time. But only by understanding this will people understand the promise of the web – and only then will it be fulfilled.

  • Derek Nicholson is head of BV Interactive, part of BV Group plc.