Marketing? Corporate Communications? Or is it IT?
It's been a common discussion lately on some of the web design boards and podcasts I listen to. Unfortunately I think there are some significant limitations to all of those choices: Marketing has a primary function of communicating to consumers/end users; Corporate Communications is generally focused on communicating to the media and investors, and IT simply wants to get something done that fills a need but doesn't cause problems with the 'real' concerns of their department. Communications - to end users, media and investors - is only half of what a truly effective site can be (or less!). What about post-sales support, technical assistance, ongoing existing customer engagement? All things that can require much more technology than the basics of a 'brochure' type of website. Without buy-in or assistance from IT, how does the site tie in to customer records to allow authenticated, customized support? How does the ecommerce portion of the website connect with Salesforce or other CRM/ERP type of systems? How can the offline marketing and communications efforts tie into online engagement to provide better metrics of success? Sales, Customer Service/Support, Accounting (payments, rebates, etc) - all groups who could benefit from connections in between that can be facilitated with readily available web technologies all together providing exponentially better end-user experience directly related to the efficiencies gained by those connections.
The biggest value derived from a website is when communications and service to the end user is provided throughout the lifecycle of their experience with your company or institution: from introduction, sales development, the transaction itself (where applicable) and ongoing support and updates (information, software, other products) well past the point where an end-user typically falls out of view. Bringing all these things together involves everyone, making it difficult in the best of circumstances for any one of those groups to effectively 'drive the bus'. While I think that Marketing or Corporate Communications are better prepared than most, I must say that I'm becoming a much stronger advocate for a different structure altogether: a Web Services group that sits at an equal level, providing service and cooperation to both communicators and the rest of IT. The allows one group with the best set of skills required to focus on the users - both external and internal - to provide the best and most comprehensive experience.
The nature of the web is one of constant interplay between communication, engagement and technology. No one group in most corporate structures is really suited to this, yet the benefits and return on the investment of setting up such a group, especially in a large enterprise, is enormous. Web technologies can bring together disparate parts of the company in ways never before possible, leading to countless opportunities for innovation. After 15 years of the web's existence, there are more possibilities than ever, and shockingly few companies that truly leverage them to their fullest potential. The innovation needed here is a recognition that the current options are self-limiting, and the key to realizing the fullest benefit of web technologies across any platform is putting the right people at the helm.
Marketing needs to be the driving force in any web endeavor. Not only is the web another form of company communication and branding, it is now the keystone to all other efforts; the web provides support, the go-to spot for reference, and it is the "first impression" for most marketing mediums. The brand consistency must be maintained and clear on the web. If marketing does not have the majority of control and input, the website can become a garbled destination for mis-matched messages and confusion.
At one of my former employers, THP - TH Properties, (http://thproperties.com), we had this exact issue, where the web needed to be updated, and growth was being stunted by the inter-departmental battles for control. Our new Director of Marketing gathered together a committee of key marketing, IT, and corporate people to provide input on the goals and objectives. Marketing would take the global input and factor it all into the direction and tactics necessary for the website's success. There were hurdles, of course, as we ruffled feathers while pushing newer technologies, but we were able to move forward with more ideas - IT felt they had input and that they were heard, corporate felt they had a voice in policies and employee feedback.
In the end, the "web services group" that we had formed worked well in unifying a diverse group, with very different perspectives, all focused on one company-wide goal. We launched a new corporate website, a video-driven, customer focused site (http://thptv.com), a Realtor web portal (http://thprealtors.com), and several micro websites focused on specific communities (http://northgatethp.com, http://biltmorethp.com).
There were many failures and set-backs. However, the team stayed together and helped the collective to continue working past the negative feedback, the naysayers, and the constant prodding. [I was amazed at all those who were waiting for the next failure, not to offer an out-stretched hand, but to laugh and scoff and your stumble. As it were, those people had more time to criticize than to actually produce anything. It is those people that you have to identify and ignore - helps to keep your sanity :-)]
None of this would have worked had it not been for the persistent efforts of the marketing management team, the IT officers, and the employees loyal to the changes that could be accomplished. Keeping the meeting on track, keeping the end-goal in focus, and maintaining steady progress was always challenging (fighting every step of the way, rarely garnering a reward or "thank you").
This model does not work for all, but I offer this example as a learning tool to those facing a similar situation. Above all else, balance the objectives with the will of those involved - you only have so much strength, so pick you battles.
** Unfortunately, the corporate website has been significantly changed since I have left, and the ancillary websites have been neglected and/or abandoned.
Great comments - thanks!
I agree that Marketing is a key component and that the site is a huge part of any company's branding efforts, but I think that the big problem is that this is really only a part of the story of what a site can/should be doing. What you describe is much closer to what seems 'right' to me - but ultimately I feel like there are other areas of the company that Marketing tends to not touch that must be served for any solution to be truly effective: Corp. Communications, Sales, HR, Accounting, IT. It makes it a bigger and more critical issue that it's not overly controlled or dominated by one of those 'owners.' I'm not sure what the absolute right answer is, but I do think that something more independent is worthwhile. Of course, that is also predicated upon the notion that it must be run by someone who has a deep understanding of and sensitivity to all those facets of responsibility: marketing, communications, brand and business processes. I guess that's why it's so hard to find a company doing this already!
Marketing ownership - brochure-ware, yes... fulfilment, no
I absolutely agree that marketing should be responsible for the content, branding, look-and-feel of a site - and should work closely with the other parts of the business. However, if your company:
a) has a dedicated eBusiness department
b) uses their website as a service delivery platform (everything from customer thinking 'hmm, I would like to be able to do 'x' - through to 'great, I now actually have the thing that enables me to do 'x'
...then 'ownership' of the website should not be the responsibility of marketing.
Marketeers own brand and communications - not Information Architecture (a way-finding/navigation tool - not a sales strategy), not development tasks, not decision-making over functionality. These are the specific tasks associated with eBusiness, who in turn should be owned by 'Sales' or similar - the web is a service delivery channel (unless of course your website is brochure-ware with no fulfillment capability - in that case, it IS the responsibility for marketing :)
Marketing should absolutely have a voice on 'fulfillment' driven sites, but it should not have final responsibility.
As a simple metaphor, marketing don't own the stores that sell products for a company in the physical world - 'Retail', 'Sales', or 'Consumer' do...