This week's bounty: Online mission statements

Do you remember the cartoon Rabbit Fire where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck duke it out to declare what sort of hunting season it is, with Elmer Fudd chasing them to get something for his pot? Well, I declare a new bounty: Mission Statements.

Before I declare Open Season on these vagrant spacewasters, however, let me backtrack to a question I got on my page.

What’s wrong with having a mission statement on a website? (Please respond in words a client would understand.)

My response is at the end of this article but first I want to direct you to perhaps the most plaintive part of this question: ‘Please respond in words a client would understand’. I think there are plenty of web savvy folks out there that have been noodling about on the web long enough to look at a Mission Statement and know instinctively it is the wrong thing in the wrong place. It pains them but it seems to be a business requirement so it is hard to explain what about it jars so much.

If you’ve been trying to put your finger on it then perhaps this will resonate with you: the web is about doing tasks. It starts with a thought and ends (ideally) with a transaction or exchange of information. Very rarely is this enhanced by knowing the company’s internal hopes and wishes.

Three random examples of opening statement for mission statements, that a quick search gave me:

“business is not just about looking down at the bottom line – it is also about looking up at the horizon” – a training company

“(our mission:) to inspire and nurture the human spirit” – a coffee company

“(we aim) to promote the benefit of the inhabitants of Newtown by the provision of an Internet site devoted to the supply of information about the Newtown area, its public and private facilities and its commercial enterprises.” –  a local town website

So tell me, how is this ‘content’ (in some cases on the homepage) of value compared to:

“We would like to talk to you about your business. You can call us on XXXX”

“We make great coffee and an atmosphere where you can relax. Here is where you can come and sample it – here’s a voucher for you.”

“Here are pages about the town [link], public facilities [link] and our commercial enterprises [link]. We look forward to seeing you at Newtown [map link]”

After all, no-one really needs to say they inspire the human spirit. They just need to do it.

It reminds me of my three year old who insists every morning before nursery that today he will be a good boy and not do shouting or pushing or snatching. When you are three these things constitute a challenge, after all, but when you are a company giving over a section of your site to say ‘Hey, we don’t plan on f**king anyone over and we never snatch toys and we inspire the human spirit.’ I am left thinking ‘Well, yes. You are a grown-up right? Now get on and tell me what you have that fulfils my needs.’

I think web people get this. After all, we are adept at scanning the crap on other sites so it hardly bothers us. When we are given it as content to work into a page structure, well, that’s when we are left thinking ‘hmm, something about this isn’t quite right’ though we can’t quite express it to a client. It’s because a mission statement should be an internal guiding principle not a public morality lecture. The value in the second statements is that they begin to embody the values the companies purport and – great news! – they can just have them on the site, as part of their everyday content.

So, to finish, here is the answer I gave to the question “What’s wrong with having a mission statement on a website? (Please respond in words a client would understand.)”

‘The space and words given over to explaining what you would like to do would be better spent on doing it, especially if you are selling a product or service. Mission statements are to direct companies and not customers.

The values found in a company mission statement should be naturally weaved through what you offer and how you do it (on your site and elsewhere) so stating it *should* be redundant?

Actions speak louder than words and all that.”

Rabbit Season - Frame from the cartoon rabbit fire showing Duffy and Bugs in front of a sign reading rabbit season

So, go on. In the immortal words of Elmer Fudd ‘It’s huntin’ season’. Imma gonna bag me some Missions Statement for mah cookin’ pot! Wontcha join me?

  • Mark

    I think an online mission statement can be relevant and useful if you’re evaluating the ethics/motivation of a company. Discovering a company’s mission statement is “crush all competitors under our feet” may put you off… but then again, who’s going to be that honest in a mission statement anyway?

  • Relly, what a great article… love your stright to the point explanations, perfect :)
    much harder to convince certain clients though – especially those who like to hand you their business plan as site content and look shocked when you explain about the importance of writing content specifically for their new site and its visitors.

    • RellyAB

      There is still much to do. I go for the path of least resistance – persuade the clients that can be persuaded and hopefully these become good examples to show the more recalcitrant businesses what they could do instead.

  • Mark Jackson

    Have to agree in part with Prisca in as much as it can be a really hard sell for some clients, but as you rightly said Relly (Web Source East), the only way is to lead by example, and show clients how much better their content can be.

    I’ve just started my huntin’ season. Gonna bag me some About pages, and CEO biographies… wish me luck…

  • Votre

    The primary function of a mission statement is to provide a point of focus and measurement for the ‘associates’ in an company. It’s not designed to be a marketing tool, and I find it an unfortunate development that so many companies see it as one.

    I think the trend started when somebody (Jay Abrams?)observed that there are really only three responses a company has at its disposal when dealing with an irate customer:

    • Return their money
    • Give them a replacement product
    • Otherwise make it right for them

    In a nutshell, your only real option (in most cases) is to make good on your offer.

    And since you’re basically going to unconditionally guarantee anything you say or do as part of your normal business practice – why not just come right out and say so?

    It became a popular idea back in a time when warranty disclaimers were getting totally out of control. Companies that got less defensive – and who went on record for being so – gained a great deal of competitive advantage.

    Unfortunately, this bit of practical wisdom got extended (as such things often do)to cover mission statements, when it was really only meant to address the issue of warranties and guarantees.

    Give a baby a hammer… ;-)

  • I might also add that, at least here in the US, any tax-exempt non-profit organization is not only required to have a mission statement that is publicly available, but is also liable to lose their status as a tax-exempt organization if they are found to have business practices which are counter to or outside of their stated mission. Corporate mission statements may be internal motivation or public fluffery, but for 501(c)3 organizations they are a legal requirement and driving factor, and therefore should almost definitely be on the website.

    • I don’t know the legality of having to display mission statements on non-profit websites, but I think the point of Relly’s article isn’t necessarily saying that mission statements should never, ever be available on a website. I think the point of this rant is that prime website real estate shouldn’t be wasted for these statements. I think, if anything, the proper place for a mission statement may be a separate link in your site’s footer. It’s accessible for those who are looking for it, but you’re not going to waste space on your homepage with it, and instead use that space for copy that is going to be much more meaningful to your users.

  • Ian

    Marcus mentioned strap-lines in the podcast.

    No one responded saying whether they were worthwhile or not. What are peoples views on this?

    Also where do the boundaries between a strap-line and a mission statement cross?

  • I think it comes down to the basic design question – what can be taken away without detracting from the value of the design… and in the vast majority of cases mission statements don’t belong.

  • Kim

    I’d say a mission statement is probably useless. A “tell me what you do in 20 words or less” statement on the home page is a must. Some folks call that a Value Proposition. I just call it common sense.

  • A mission statement can help your company and clarify what you intend to do both to you, your employees and your customers… It’s not a bad idea to think about a good mission statement, even just a basic one (shouldn’t take long) and put it in your company’s website…

  • Good point. Some companies’ mission statements just sound so unreal that they impress customers in the contrary way as they are expected.

  • Good. thanks for this psost.