ON THE face of it, this article might seem to be about the launch of Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 7 browser — but it really is about much more.
It is a story about unheeded warnings and missed opportunities that cut to the heart of what ails investor relations departments in an era where competence in Web-based communications is a mission-critical capability.
It is a story you won’t read anywhere else in the investor relations industry because no one has the knowledge or guts to tell you, or because they’re beholden to big players who benefit from your ignorance.
Unheeded warnings catch companies off side
So let’s start at the beginning. Last week, Microsoft Corp. released its new Internet Explorer 7 browser via an automatic update to a large section of its customers. Though it was done with little fanfare, the event marks the dawning of a new era for the Web.
This is simply because IE7 gives the vast majority of Internet users around the world the opportunity to experience powerful new technologies that were not previously available without them switching to other software. These include technologies like RSS feeds, AJAX and some features of Cascading Style Sheets.
However, a fundamental upgrade to a browser like that done to IE7 also brings with it challenges for companies and website owners. For months, Microsoft, web developers and people like us have been warning companies to test their sites for compatibility with the new browser.
Unfortunately, those cautions fell on deaf ears at far too many companies. Amid last week’s release, reports continued of companies with public websites and services that are not compatible with IE7.
Usability and accessibility consultants, Etre surveyed the homepages of over 100 big UK companies and found a number with serious rendering problems in the new browser. However, the survey understates the problems because they only reviewed the companies’ homepages.
Our own reviews, which probe into the nooks and crannies of investor relations websites, have found a variety of design and usability issues.
Take Reuters Group plc, for example. Although its homepage cleared the Etre survey, its investor relations pages are almost unnavigable in IE7 due to garbled and misaligned menus. See screenshot below.
Oil giant BP plc is another company with particularly noticeable issues throughout its IR site (see screenshots below). What’s remarkable about this is that BP typically is no laggard when it comes to Web-based communications. That it should be caught offside demonstrates the pervasiveness of poor website management today.
Opportunities missed or botched by big vendors
However, incompatibility of IR websites with new browsers like IE7 and Firefox tells only half the story. The other half of the story is all about a lack of innovation by companies and their vendors.
New browsers introduce capabilities that can help IR departments offer richer user experiences and build closer ties with their users. However, most companies and vendors have failed to take advantage of these. In some cases where vendors have made improvements, their implementations leave a lot to be desired.
Viewed objectively, the way companies have handled – or not handled — the introduction of IE7 demonstrates that IR departments are either not getting good advice or are not paying attention to the advice that’s available to them.
Companies, particularly those who rely on big IR website vendors — Thomson Financial and Shareholder.com, I’m looking at you — should be spitting mad about the poor quality product that’s currently being offered to them.
To put it mildly, these vendors need a solid kick in the pants or a kick to the sidewalk. They have dropped the ball on getting their clients ready for the IE7 era and the new participatory model of Web-based communication.
And where they have tried to add new things, they’ve mostly bungled them.
Indeed, if the past 18 months have proven anything, it’s that companies are not well-served by having their sites hosted by big vendors. They are either unable or unwilling to move quickly or stay on top of fast-changing practices and expectations.
Hundreds of competent web development firms ready to help
Companies would be much better off bringing their sites in-house or building close relationships with smaller, more dynamic and competent web developers who can bring a higher level of focus, customization and competence to their clients’ sites.
We are at the beginning of a new era in web-based investor relations communications, brought on by a confluence of new technology, new regulations and changing audience expectations.
Mastering the Web and being flexible and adaptable are the new imperatives. Those who can adapt and move quickly will reap significant rewards. Laggards will be mocked and ruled irrelevant.
What is now required is both a change in thinking and a fundamental overhaul of practices and processes, such as the creation of inter-disciplinary web communications departments inside big companies.
If you need help, look around. There are hundreds of capable web development firms who would love to win and earn your business. They can help you communicate and connect with your audience in new and highly effective ways.
Will it cost you more? Yes, it probably will, but the cost will be more than offset by the savings you will get from reduced print and mailing costs.
If companies fail to address the challenges and opportunities of today’s electronic communications environment, the real cost is likely to be lost credibility and stature in the market. Because in this case, doing nothing has already proven to be the biggest risk of all.