Do you really need a microsite?

Marketeers love microsites, but are they always the right solution? When are they appropriate and when are they more trouble than they are worth?

It feels like every prospective client I encounter at the moment is microsite obsessed. Whether they are launching a new marketing campaign or want to give emphasis to particular content, the answer always seems to be to create a microsite. However, is that sensible?

What is a microsite?

Wikipedia defines a microsite as:

A microsite is an individual web page or a small cluster of pages which are meant to function as a discrete entity within an existing website or to complement an offline activity. The microsite’s main landing page can have its own domain name or subdomain.

For our purposes it refers to a site that is associated with an organisation, but is on a separate domain and has its own navigation, design and content.

Exactly what is and isn’t a microsite is up for debate. For example, is the Häagen-Dazs website a microsite because the product is owned by Nestle?

Whatever your definition, there is little doubt this is a favourite tool of marketeers. Why then are they so popular?

Why love microsites?

From a marketing perspective, microsites tick a lot of boxes.

For a start they provide the site owner with complete control over design. This allows them to tie the microsite in closely with the visual appearance of the marketing material being used on the associated campaign. This kind of flexibility is not something that is normally available if the microsite content was integrated into the main site.

CheeseAndBurger.com
There is no doubt that microsites provide more flexibility over design and closer integration of design and content.

The flexibility of design also allows them to closely integrate content with design. This is often important on a microsite as the marketeer is heavily focused on driving users to complete a certain call to action. Getting design and content working closely together (rather than content being dropped into a pre-defined template) is the level of art direction marketeers have come to expect from print.

Microsites also remove the distractions that integration into the main corporate site would bring. Main site navigation is removed, as well as footers and other irrelevant elements. The user is focused purely on the campaign and associated calls to action.

Put this way, microsites look like an attractive prospect. However, they come with drawbacks too.

Why avoid microsites?

Despite there obvious benefits I still get nervous every time encounter a microsite while reviewing a clients web presence. I get even more twitchy when I am asked to build one. This is for three reasons:

Microsites confuse users

One of the biggest problems with microsites is that they force users to adapt to different user interfaces. They visit the main corporate website, click on a link and find themselves on a microsite. Suddenly the design is different, navigation has changed and there is often no clear way back. In short it breaks every principle of good user interface design.

Of course, Marketeers see things differently. They see things in terms of their marketing campaign. Users see an advertisement, make note of the url in the ad and then visit the website. They do not see the main corporate website and so do not need to interact with multiple interfaces.

To a limited extent they are correct. However, there are enough exceptions to make this a problem.

  • First, as I have suggested above there are users who stumble across the microsite while exploring the main site.
  • Second, there are those who saw the campaign but didn’t make a note of the url. They just remembered the campaign was by a certain organisation. Googling that organisation will take them to the main site and not the microsite.
  • Third, most microsites are not entirely self contained. Sooner or later they require the user to engage with the wider organisation and so the user has to return to the main corporate site.

Not that confusing the user is the only concern. You also need to consider the cost of microsites.

The cost of microsites

There is a substantial and often unjustified cost associated with the creation of a microsite. The site has to go through the complete design process, be built and hosted on a content management system and may well need additional functionality such as community features, payment processing or newsletter signup.

Were the microsite’s content to become apart of the main corporate site then many of these costs go away. The basic design is already in place, as is the content management system. Even the more specific functionality like payment processing or newsletter signup often already exists on the main site.

Not that design and technology are the only cost associated with running a microsite. There is also maintenance.

Microsites are expensive to maintain

Things move rapidly online and as a result websites cannot just be launched and then abandoned. In order for a site to remain effective it requires long term maintenance.

Microsites that looked cutting edge when they were launched can turn into an embarrassment that reflect negatively on the organisation behind them.

Worst still, a site that was fine on launch can become inaccessible for a significant part of its target audience as technology changes.

One example of this is responsive design. Many organisations are realising that they need to make their sites accessible to mobile devices and are turning to responsive design as an answer. Updating their corporate site is obviously at the top of their agenda. However, what about the microsites they run? Each has a different design and different underlying technology. Each site will need updating separately. If all of these microsites had existed within the main corporate site, this additional expense would vanish.

With so many pros and cons, how do you make the decision about whether to launch a microsite or incorporate your campaign within the main site.

Making a decision

As with all things there is no definitive answer about when to use a microsite. However, there are some questions you might wish to ask.

Consider lifespan

Consider the lifespan of the microsite. If the content is only going to be around for a few months then a microsite maybe appropriate. Short lived campaigns do not need to worry about the ongoing costs of maintenance.

Ask yourself about the user journey

Ask yourself how users will hear about the microsite. If they are coming to the site via clicking on a banner ad then you don’t need to worry about them accidentally ending up on the main corporate site and having to deal with multiple interfaces.

Think carefully about whether the user will need to visit the main corporate site. If they do and you are using a microsite, this could become a point where users are lost.

Find out how flexible the corporate site is

Find out how flexible the main corporate website is. Maybe the design and layout could be customised enough to support the needs of the campaign.

Weigh the return on investment

Weigh the return on investment. If you invest money in creating an expensive microsite, will the campaign generate enough additional returns over that you would have received if you had used the corporate website.

As well as asking ourselves about when microsites are appropriate. We also need to consider what microsites mean for our corporate site.

Are corporate sites failing?

I believe the prevalence of microsites sends a clear message: most corporate websites are not fit for purpose.

A corporate website should be able to represent the depth and breadth of an organisation. If marketeers need to fall back on microsites this is a pretty clear indication that corporate websites are failing to do this.

In particular I believe that corporate websites are failing marketeers in two ways; design flexibility and focusing users.

Failing to provide flexible design

Most corporate websites I encounter are so locked down and inflexible that they essentially offer a one size fits all containers for content. You pour content in and it appears in one of a pre-defined number of buckets.

Aviva Corporate Website
Too many corporate websites consist of a one size fits all template that content is poured into. There is no control over the design.

For a marketeer trying to create an integrated campaign, this is inadequate. They need to be able to control:

  • Colour
  • Imagery
  • Layout
  • Calls to action

The reason these tools are not made available is because web teams are fearful that given too much freedom marketeers will create an inconsistent user experience. They worry that if too much changes between sections on the site this will confuse users.

Ironically marketers want to create a consistent user experience too. Its just that they are trying to make the experience consistent across their campaign. They want the experience between ad, website and completion of call to action, to be as smooth as possible. That is precisely why they want greater control over the sites design.

Fortunately there is middle ground here. Instead of building pre-defined buckets that content is simply poured into, web designers need to start thinking modularly. By providing marketeers with modules for everything from carousels to calls to action, we give them the tools to assemble their pages while still keeping some kind of corporate style.

Environmental Defense Fund
When Headscape built the Environmental Defense Fund website, we provided them with modules they could combine in various ways to assemble pages that best communicated their message.

Most content management systems already allow users to choose the imagery for a page, why not also allow them to choose modules? For that matter, why not allow them to pick from a palette of colours too. This would further allow the customisation of appearance.

In fact allowing content providers to customise sections of the site will probably help the user experience. As long as navigation and key elements remain in the same position, users will be happy. What customisation will do is help the user orientate themselves on the site. Too often users get lost on a site because all of the pages look the same. Some customisation would reduce this problem.

Providing this modular, customisable approach will go along way to keeping marketeers happy, while still creating a good user experience. However, we do also need to consider the marketeers obsession with focus.

Failing to focus users

Most web designers like to think of themselves as user centric. This has become so engrained in the web design community that I believe sometimes it is detrimental.

For example, many web designers seem to believe that it is there job to simply give users what they want; to layout all of the options and let them choose.

Unfortunately things are more complicated than that. Users suffer from choice paralysis, are confused by the options or simply get distracted.

Marketeers understand that users need to be focused. They are obsessed with reducing the number of options and removing clutter that may distract. This is one of the primary reasons why they like microsites.

If they incorporate their campaign into the main site, they will be lumbered with the clutter from that site. In particular, they will have to include the sites navigation.

It’s a fair comment. I am often amazed at how much real estate is dedicated to navigation on the average corporate site. In fact I have even seen occasions where the amount of space dedicated to navigation is greater than the amount dedicated to content!

Unilever website
LIke many websites, the Unilever site is dominated by navigation with only a small area dedicated to content.

If we are going to create large corporate sites that perform well for marketeers and replace the need for microsites, we need to change our thinking about navigation.

Don’t get me wrong; keeping navigation in a consistent location and on every page is essential. However, there is much we can do to minimise its impact.

This is an area that needs further exploration and research, but options might include collapsing navigation on lower pages of a site or introducing a breadcrumb like approach I first suggested back in 2004.

Conclusion

There is certainly a place for microsites. I am not debating that. If your product brands are more well known than your corporate brand, then microsites make sense. There can also be a number of political reasons why a microsite might be necessary; for example campaigns that involve multiple organisations.

However, generally speaking I don’t see microsites so much as a solution as a symptom of a bigger problem; that corporate websites are often so poor.

Before investing money in yet another microsite, I believe organisations should ask whether the money is not better spent on their corporate site.

Headscape

Boagworld