3 reasons to ditch your microsites



By Sean X Cummings

 Microsites = waste

I do not even know where to start with my rant on microsites. They are the bane of the online space, produced by those who do not comprehend the implications of launching them and do not understand the underbelly that they leave behind. They are expensive, they use up agency resources, they become orphans almost overnight, and they are only useful in providing traditional agencies with fodder for winning more business.

So, the agency is personally incentivized to use them. They are containable for the agency, the agency does not have to deal with many of your internal resources beyond marketing, the costs are controllable, and more importantly to them, profitable. But you are not in business to make the agency rich. You are in business to make your company rich on the back of that poor agency. Microsites are one of the few online vehicles where the agency and the client have different goals.

Most microsites are usually advanced brochureware by clients trying to get around their internal process, and the hallmark of an agency that does not get it — or worse — a client that doesn’t. The results are usually paltry, at best, in moving your brand, and the level of development time and money required for the payoff is almost never worth it.

How many can you actually name? BMW Films, Subservient Chicken, Shave Everywhere? Is a microsite going to move your brand forward? No. Why? Because the only reason you are probably creating one is that your main website sucks. They sit there from almost the moment they launch — dying. With the advances in rich media ad serving, you do not have to create a microsite. You can take your proposed microsite to them. Are there exceptions? Of course there are. There are always exceptions. However, almost everyone will sit there and justify that their microsite is an exception, and 99 percent of you are wrong.

I am on a crusade, a jihad, a walkabout to corral microsites into the online netherworld. Why do traditional agencies have to couch everything in “immersively aesthetic” environments? It’s a hold over from traditional creative thinking. Consumers do not care. They want to get in, get what they want, and get out. This is the internet. Let’s act like it.

Don’t believe me? Here are some basic reasons why microsites suck, and why you shouldn’t.

Internal process and speaking to your consumer
I most commonly see microsites produced by large companies that should know better. They manage their brands so well. They massage every form of PR and corporate communication, and they spend countless hours molding the consumer’s perception of their brand. But go to their corporate website and it’s a disaster. Why? Because usually those websites are controlled by an internal group that morphed out of the IT department into an interactive department, which keeps re-morphing.

That department is not an extension to the marketing department of consumer insights. It does not care about the consumer. It is trying to put puzzle pieces that don’t fit into a picture that doesn’t match. They are more a reflection of a company’s internal structure than they are communication vehicles for the brand.

And that’s when you get stuck.

You become sick of railing against internal politics and decide that if the company cannot get its act together, then you are going to help solve the problem by creating what? A microsite, of course, where you can control the messaging. I understand your grief. I have been there countless times, and yes, I have given in to temptation before. Before you go off on a crusade against your own internal systems, think about why are you creating that microsite.

I find that most microsites are just an extension of another program.

“Well, we have to create a microsite for that TV promotion we are doing.” Uh, why? Because when you were brainstorming with the 20 people on the account and they asked for ideas, that one n00b said, “We can do a microsite.” And the team leader wrote it down as one of the extension ideas. Wow, you have no idea how many times that happens.

Online marketers, who in order to get budget, have to make sure it is glommed onto a traditional program. You go off and create a custom URL and name, half the time buying out the name from some domain park that already owns it, or worse, creating a bastardization of it that no one will remember. It gets printed on every ad, every TV commercial, every piece of collateral. And no one comes. Well, you did get those 20,000 people to register; and it cost you what, with all of the fees, not to mention the costs of your agency resources being used up on it? $80,000. You’re better off going out and handing $4 to 20,000 people and spending five minutes telling them about it. “But Sean! They were ‘engaged’ with our brand.” Nope. Probably not. They were engaged with some stupid game your agency created as the extension with your logo in the corner.

So next time the noob raises their hand, use a stun gun, walk over to the internal group that handles your main site and ask them if you can put up something on the homepage that alerts people and drives them to a single internal page discussing the program. And then give the money back to a program that will do your brand some good.

“Please, sir, can I have some more?”
How long is the program running that the microsite is based on? If it’s less than a year, don’t do it. Worse, I see programs that are only really active for weeks or a month, while agencies spent four months building the microsite.

From almost the moment a microsite launches, it is dying, unless it’s one of those rare sites that gets viral traction. Even then, that site will never be an ongoing destination. It will reach its buzz factor, get forwarded by everyone, have a huge spike, everyone will be talking about it, and then, like Oliver asking for another bowl of porridge, it will beg for life support. Microsites are orphans. The URLs are orphans. You have to keep feeding them, housing them and clothing them, even though no one really wants them anymore. How long do you have to keep that URL active? And what is the post-consumer experience if you don’t?

If you are not ready to have a kid, care for it and nurture it until it is able to live on its own, then don’t give birth.

It costs what to get what?
I remember sitting in this marketing presentation by an auto company touting this amazing microsite they did. They had full video of the product, a message board, a contest, and of course their “viral” component — “Email a friend.” They walked us through the entire site, its promotion, the various funnels through SEM and email. When all was said and done, it cost them $1.2M. And then, the other shoe dropped. When someone asked how many cars it sold, the response was enthusiastic and excited. “We got more than 6,000 email addresses.”

Bear with me here: 1,200,000 / 6,000 = $200 an email address. An email address does not translate into a car sale. You know how many cars they did sell? 14, for about $400,000 total, to people that were probably already predisposed to buy the car anyway from TV.

If you realize that the profit margin is probably only 10 percent on those vehicles, they spent $1.2M all outbound, for about $40,000 in profit. Of course, the poor man at this point was being ripped to shreds

“It’s not about that! It’s mainly branding!” OK, we’ll go with you there.

“How many people — uniques — went to the site?” 57,000. So, they spent $21 per person just to take a look. When we dug deeper, only 9,000 spent more than three minutes on the site — 9,000 people. Basically, you can make numbers look like whatever you want them to look like, but the truth of the matter is that immersion sites are often way more costly than the results that can be obtained by integrating that content into your main site.

The immersion everyone talks about online is extremely hard to obtain in a lean-forward, active medium like the internet, and it’s much more prevalent in TV where the lean-back environment makes you receptive to it. You do not have to create a separate website. Eye focus, even on an ad, or a smaller page, tunes out the periphery.

The only reason to have a destination URL is if that URL is going to get into the public consciousness. I do not know how many companies have created microsites in the past year, but I can tell you that those that have penetrated my consciousness can be counted on one hand.

I know there are exceptions, but most of those exceptions, like a “downloadable piece of software” where you want to drive people directly to the download page, usually just require a single landing page, not a microsite.

Simplicity rules. Look, the technologies exist — Pointroll, Eyeblaster, etc. — that allow you to integrate the microsite concept into an actual ad. There are several advantages to that approach. The development time is much shorter. It is much more cost efficient. There are no associated hosting fees or maintenance fees. You get a much bigger bang for your buck with your consumer, and when the program is over, you just pull the ad. You are left with no orphans, whereas microsites take too long to develop, are usually managed by committee, have a relatively short lifespan, cost too much, use up agency resources, use up client resources, use up money and become orphans almost the day they launch.

Look — do what you want, waste your money, but if you are going to do it, do it fast and cheap and don’t try to bolt on every feature. Streamline your construction and develop a microsite strategy. As long as you look at them on a project basis, all you are doing is making your agency rich.


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