The Microsite: A Definitive How-to Guide for Their Effective Use

Paul Boag

The microsite is a popular solution to certain design challenges. But, what are they, when should you use them and how can you create an effective one?

Much like a chainsaw, a microsite can be a useful tool in the right hands or disastrous in the wrong ones. That is why I have written this definitive guide to their use. In this post we cover:

But let’s start with the fundamental question of what exactly makes a microsite.

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 a dedicated domain name or subdomain.

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 a part of Nestlé ?

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

Whatever your definition, there is little doubt they are popular. Why, then, do so many organisations favour the microsite.

Why Consider a Microsite?

There is no doubt that microsites do offer some compelling benefits, especially in larger, more marketing driven organisations. Three, in particular, stand out:

1. Greater Design Control

Microsites provide the site owner with complete control over design. That allows them to tie the microsite in with the visual appearance of the marketing material that the company is using on the associated campaign.

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

It also allows them to create a visual language designed specifically to the user segment that they are trying to reach. That is particularly valuable when the main site has to cater to a diverse set of people.

That kind of flexibility is not something that is usually possible if the company chooses to add microsite content to the existing website.

2. A More Focused Experience

Also, microsites remove the distractions that integration into the main corporate site would bring. Primary site navigation is removed, as well as footers and other irrelevant elements.

That can feel important in larger corporate organisations. Typically they have large sites that are many levels deep and made up of numerous subsections. That can make navigation feel cumbersome and in many contexts damaging to the experience.

By contrast, microsites allow the user is focused purely on the campaign and associated calls to action.

By using a microsite for their walking guide of New York, the New York Times was able to avoid the clutter of their main site.

3. Clear Definitions of Responsibility

Finally, many organisations favour microsites because they are cleaner to manage internally. A single department can run each website, or the company can associate the site with a specific project. That helps define clear lines of responsibility and ownership.

Put this way; microsites look like an attractive option. However, they come with drawbacks as well.

The Drawbacks of 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. That is for three reasons:

Microsites Confuse Users

One of the most significant 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, organisations see things differently. They view the world as a series of marketing campaigns or product lines. They believe users see an advertisement, make a note of the URL in the ad and then go to the website. They do not visit the main corporate site 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, some users 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 advertisement was by a particular organisation. Googling that company 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.
Microsites can create a disjointed and inconsistant experience for users.

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.

If the microsite’s content were to become a part of the corporate site, then the costs of design and build would be reduced. 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 change rapidly online and as a result, a website cannot just be launched and then abandoned. For a site to remain effective, it requires long-term maintenance.

Microsites that looked cutting edge when a company launched them can turn into an embarrassment that reflects 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 was 'responsive design'. When organisations realised that sites needed to be accessible on mobile devices, they turned to responsive design as an answer. Updating their corporate website was at the top of their agenda. However, what about the microsites they ran? Each had a different design and different underlying technology. That meant they had to update each site separately. If all of these microsites had existed within the main corporate website, the organisation could have avoided that additional expense.

With so many pros and cons, how do you decide whether to launch a microsite or incorporate your campaign within the main site?

When to Use a Microsite

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.

How Long Will the Site Need to Be Live?

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

What Is 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 website 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 you lose users.

Could You Do It Within the Corporate Site?

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.

What Is 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 using 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.

The Reason Microsites Exist

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 marketers 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 marketers 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 mostly offer a one size fits all container for content. You pour copy in, and it appears in one of a pre-defined number of buckets.

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 marketer 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 that web teams are fearful that given too much freedom marketers will create an inconsistent user experience. They worry that too many changes between sections on the site will confuse users.

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

Failing to Focus Users

Most web designers like to think of themselves as user-centric. That has become so ingrained in the web design community that I believe sometimes it is detrimental, especially among less experienced designers.

For example, naively, many web designers seem to believe that it is their job to give users what they want. Unfortunately, things are more complicated than that. Users suffer from choice paralysis and become confused by too many options or get distracted.

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

If they incorporate their campaign into the main site, marketers find themselves dealing with the baggage that comes with that. In particular, they will have to include the site's navigation.

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

Like many websites, the Unilever site dedicated significant portions of the user interface to navigation.

If we are going to create enormous corporate sites that perform well for marketers 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.

That 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.

All of this leaves us at a bit of an impasse. Microsites are often not the best approach, yet our corporate sites are letting us down. How then do we solve this dilemma?

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Different Approaches to the Microsite Problem

The whole debate about which approach is preferable rages on in many organisations.

This problem is most pronounced in organisations that are:

  • Naturally devolved (like a University),
  • Who is made up of many acquisitions,
  • Who owns products with a stronger brand than the company itself, (Unilever would be an excellent example of this.)

Unfortunately in my experience companies rarely confront this problem head-on. Instead, there is an ongoing turf war between the centre and the individual divisions. Unsurprisingly the web (and users) are caught in the middle.

Centralised vs Decentralised

In some organisations, the centre wins with branding becoming centralised. The website ends up presenting a unified vision of the company. Apple is an excellent example of this, with their website providing an incredibly focused view across all of its products and services.

Apple enforce a consistent look and feel across all of is products and services.

Other organisations are the complete opposite, allowing divisions to dictate their brand. Instead of a single mega-site, they build an interconnected network of smaller sites. Nestlé is an excellent example of this, with no design consistency existing between microsites like Kitkat and Nespresso.

Nestlé has no design consistency across brand microsites.

At first glance, you would think that a unified mega-site like Apple provides a better user experience. Although this can often be the case, it is not always so. As I have already said, these large mega-sites have increasingly complex navigational challenges, and it is easy for users to become lost when all the pages look very similar.

Microsites That Provide a Consistent Experience

Of course, we are not just limited to these extremes. Other companies have found a middle way. Virgin, for example, allow their brands to create separate sites and yet use their corporate colour to help maintain unity.

Virgin uses colour as a tool for unifying their various websites.

However, an even better example is the BBC. From my perspective, they hit the sweet spot between uniformity and overly rigid conformity.

When you look at the BBC microsites, you will see different design styles aimed at different target audiences. However, there is a certain degree of uniformity across each site regarding navigational positioning, typography, grid system and stylistic elements.

The BBC maintain consistency through navigational, typography, grid system and stylistic elements.

That is achieved through the creation of a Global Experience Language. This design language is used across all BBC sites and ties them together. However, it still provides enough flexibility for individual divisions to stamp their brand on a website and cater for the specific needs of their audience. Best of all this approach does not undermine the user experience across the sites because of a consistent approach to navigation, layout and functional elements (such as a carousel).

Not that the approach is without its downsides. It requires a central team with enough authority to enforce the design language (something that some organisations just don’t have), and yet it still has some of the costs associated with designing separate sites. Also, careful consideration needs to be given to navigation so it does not come to dominate the interface.

That said, I believe there is a lot that larger organisations can learn from this approach and that it could be used to resolve a lot of internal politics.

What we learn from all of this is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to microsites. Although not always desirable, there are times when a microsite makes sense. With that in mind, let's turn our attention to what makes an effective microsite.

What Makes an Effective Microsite?

We know that microsites tend to work best with a limited lifespan, with a well-defined audience and no need to integrate with a broader site. Knowing this helps us define what makes an effective microsite.

They Are Tied Into a Broader Campaign

For a start, because we know that the microsite is a part of a broader campaign it needs to tightly integrate with that in both visual language and written style.

In other words, going from a Facebook advert to your microsite needs to feel like part of a consistent experience. Equally, any emails sent from the microsite need to reflect the design and content found on the site.

They Have a Clear Focus

Because we should be building microsites around a campaign, it is essential that they remain focused. We should focus them on promoting a single product or appealing to a narrow demographic. The more we can do this, the more effective the site will be.

The data that lies beneath works well because of its clear focus on a simple narrative.

They Have a Well Defined Sales Funnel

We should design most microsites with the emphasis on conversion. They exist to drive users through a sales funnel towards a call to action.

Successful microsites are those who have a defined, singular, call to action. The entire site is structured around getting users to complete that one goal, unlike standard websites which can often have multiple calls to action competing for attention.

They Use Tightly Integrated Design and Copy

Because microsites have a singular purpose, it makes it possible to integrate the design and copy together more tightly. Successful microsites have a high degree of art direction and often adopt a more creative approach than you might find on the main site.

Every Last Drop works well because it closely integrates design, copy and interation into a seemless experience.

Microsites Should Be Used With Care

At the beginning of this post, I described microsites as being like chainsaws. That, they can be a useful tool in the right hands or disastrous in the wrong ones. In other words, like a chainsaw, you must handle them with care.

You have to be sure they are the right tool for the job. Otherwise, microsites can create a disjointed, unpleasant experience for users and will fail to convert as you hope.

That said, done right, they can be the ultimate online conversion funnel. It all comes down to knowing when and how to use microsites. If that is something you need help with, get in touch.