Paul Boag asks: one site or many?

Could more brands benefit from utilising micro-sites?

Headscape co-founder and digital strategist Paul Boag has asked whether companies should have a unified site or break down their online presence into a series of micro-sites. In his article, he explained how he often works on ‘mega sites’ that are frequently many levels deep and cater to many audiences. This causes numerous challenges, from dealing with internal politics to devising complex navigation that remains usable.

Boag explored the pros and cons of a very consistent site-wide approach versus companies that target smaller, more specific audiences. He also looked at the likes of the BBC, which offers a “global experience language”—a kind of compromise that provides flexibility yet doesn’t undermine the user experience across the organisation’s various sites.

We spoke to Boag (PB) to find out more about this approach and whether it could benefit smaller sites as well as internet giants.

.net: In your article, you mention the likes of Apple, the BBC and Microsoft, but could the micro-site approach also work with smaller sites, enabling them to target more specific audiences?
PB: It depends on what you consider a smaller site. For me, this conversation started with two of our clients, the RSPB and University of Strathclyde, both of which had this issue for different reasons. Universities tend to be quite decentralised, with faculties wanting to do their own thing, and the RSPB ran a lot of campaigns over different issues. Traditionally, each had its own micro-site with its own brand and navigation.

That got me thinking. Is that the right approach? Should there be these separate micro-sites? It’s fine if a user goes through the entire process on that site, but if they have to switch, it can throw up interesting issues and challenges.

.net: Are there any areas in which you feel the approach could work well for smaller sites?
PB: Where there are campaigns or landing pages around specific issues, there’s maybe an argument for separate branding. Also, there are companies with very distinct brands, or those where you know the products but not necessarily the company behind them. In those cases, perhaps separate online branding is appropriate.

.net: Could this also be a more modern and fluid approach, rather than forcing everything to fit under one hat?
PB: I’ve got mixed feelings about it. The UX part of me is going, “Everything has to be consistent! People have to find their way around the site!” But the marketeer part of me is thinking if different users are interacting with different parts of the site, and those users are different enough, the messaging and how we approach them has to change.

.net: Are there any good examples of this in action?
PB: Well, when you look at the BBC, it would be ridiculous if CBeebies looked exactly like BBC News! It wouldn’t be appropriate, because the audiences are radically different. But I think the BBC hits that sweet spot, maintaining a consistent user experience while still allowing individual character to come through from each brand. Also, even from a UX standpoint, you could argue it’s easy to get lost on massive sites, and so that approach of breaking things down a bit more can give you a clearer sense of place.

It’s very difficult. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. The last thing I want to communicate is the BBC approach is right or the Apple one is right. It all depends on fundamental questions about how an organisation wants to present itself to the world. Is it a single organisation that is closely integrated together like Apple or more like Microsoft, where it produces lots of different products and the emphasis is on those products?

.net: It seems that could apply to any company and how it sees itself—as long as that's done honestly!
PB: And that’s the danger—honesty! Perhaps where a user perceives a disparate set of products, an organisation has this perception of being one big organisation. I’ve worked with clients who’ve had slogans about being ‘one institution’ with ‘one offering’ and ‘one set of values’, but were in fact very separate divisions. There can be a huge discrepancy between how a company wants to present itself and the reality!