6 online branding mistakes made by “green” websites

By James Mulvey 

“The best and most successful brands,” writes Wally Olins, “are completely coherent. Every aspect of what they do and what they are reinforces everything else.” With this in mind, your website needs to be more than just a template filled with stock photography and corporate values written by the intern. 

Consistency needs to run deep from your brand’s central message to the tone of voice of your sales copy to the colors and images you choose. It all has to make sense.

For "green" brands this becomes particularly important. After all, people don’t just buy brands. They use them. People use brands to define who they are, what they like, and the type of world they live to live within. Green energy and sustainable businesses are strong candidates for creating brands that actually mean something. And the best green brands have a consistency that can be experienced from the website to the product to even the type of employees that work at the company.

This article deals with company websites--an area that seems to often fail on the branding front for many small and medium-sized sustainable businesses. It offers some recommendations for properly using your website as a branding tool--and as a way to turn casual visitors into loyal customers.

Mistake #1: Using big sustainable brands for website inspiration

Big brands spend millions on advertising every year. This gives them an earned privilege: when their customers visit their website they know what their company does and trust them. A common mistake for smaller unknown sustainable companies and green brands is to essentially copy the style and structure of large websites.

green branding mistakes

 

In the picture above, the billion-dollar energy giant Schneider Electric basically does whatever they want on their homepage. The classic “slider” with current projects eats up the prime selling real-estate. It doesn’t really matter for them. They have over 100,000 employees, billions of sales, and massive advertising budgets. 

Smaller green businesses shouldn’t copy this approach and here is why.

Companies like Schneider Electric and other energy giants are using their website to continue an existing conversation with their customers. If your brand hasn’t spent millions on TV ads, then you are starting a conversation with your customers.

Instead of putting your 'current projects' in that slider (see 1 in the above screen shot) you should have a telegraphic value proposition. In other words, it’s much more important that within the first 5-7 seconds of landing on your site, customers understand the nature of your company, and whether your product can solve their solution, than it is trying to 'look' like a big company.

And here’s the real secret about online persuasion. Clarity trumps style. This might hurt your writer’s ego. But if you only have 5-7 seconds to convince someone to stay on your site--it’s much more effective to telegraph your company’s core offering, rather than make a joke, play with words, or use a tagline that sounds professional and creative but that really doesn’t mean much to your customers.


Mistake #2: Not making courageous positioning decisions

“The reason why most companies aren’t successful,” says management expert David C. Baker, “isn’t from lack of opportunity. It’s because they haven’t made courageous decisions along the way. You have to make the painful decision to say no to certain things.”

Choosing. That’s the hard part. It’s easy to write generic website copy and to sound like every other 'green' brand out there. Fitting in is easy. It’s harder to take a leap of faith and choose a specific branding identity.

Being a 'Green' company no longer holds the elite social capital it once had. It isn’t a niche in itself. Being green is an industry. That means your green brand doesn’t automatically stand for something just because it advocates sustainability. To differentiate your brand, you need to narrow down your “One Big Thing” and then focus on building a little tribe--rather than taking the generalist approach.

Take a look at ten other websites in your industry. And then look at your own. If your website basically says the same thing as all of your competitors, it means that customers aren’t choosing you--you are gaining their business mostly by the luck of the draw.

It takes a certain courage to specialize your offers, target a specific group of customers, and exclude other types of customers.

Mistake #3: Not answering these two questions on your homepage

Once you have stripped your website of generic promises and bland, generalist positioning statements you’ll need to figure out how to best present your core brand and selling messages online.

So what should your website design look like? It should start by answering two questions: Where am I? What can I do?

Every homepage, regardless of the company, needs to take into account how people read online. Research shows that users read web pages in a F-shaped pattern. Heat-mapping software reveals this (see below).

As a result of these online reading habits, a successful persuasive structure looks different online than in traditional print media. Don’t expect people to dig your value proposition from giant blocks of text. Instead, anticipate where and how people read online, structuring your sales and branding messages accordingly. 

This becomes extremely important for sustainable and green energy brands. The proliferation of websites and companies devoted to green energy litter the web. With such a glutted market, you can't afford to distract users. You need to be persuasive. . . fast. 

Assume the worst--the majority of your traffic is just waiting to leave. And then confirm that assumption by visiting your Google Analytics. My guess would be that the majority of small green businesses have a “bounce rate” (the number of visitors that leave before clicking deeper into your website) of around 50-65%. That’s over half of interested customers turned away at the door because of a poor understanding of how people buy and read online.

Mistake #4: Not understanding how your customers find you online

Another key consideration is to look at your traffic sources in Google Analytics. There are three main sources: traffic from search engines, direct traffic (people going directly to your website url) and traffic sent from other websites.

           

Most new companies and unknown brands will be getting most of their traffic from search engines. This is important to consider because if a customer has found your website through a search then that means they are in “information retrieval mode.” They must be immediately convinced that they have landed in the right spot. If you don’t, they will bolt. At this point, they have no brand loyalty and can easily go search for another green company with a similar product.

The good news is that searchers are lazy. They don’t want to spend five hours searching for a solution to their problem. So if your website can simply convince them that they’ve landed in the best possible place--they’d be happy to buy from you, rather than wasting more of their time.

Where am I? That’s the first question every visitor asks when they visit a new website. What can I do here? That’s the second. And if you don’t provide a clear, compelling answer to both of those questions before the fold (before they have to scroll), you are turning business away at the front door.

Mistake #5: Optimizing for searchers--not buyers   

Can your customers find your website? SEO (search engine optimization) is one of the most cost-effective marketing tactics to increase your brand’s visibility in the search engines.

But SEO is particularly challenging for sustainable brands. The problem is that many smaller companies will default into trying to optimize for general, vague terms (like “energy efficiency”). This holds two dangers. The first is that green energy has a bulk of educational and research sites--these are typically topics that might have a lot of interest and traffic but that will require a ton of energy and time to rank for. Worse, they might not even translate into any new business as you might be targeting information seekers rather than potential customers.

In other words, it could take years and a ton of resources to rank #1 in Google for “solar energy.” And the result might be that your white papers are being used by a bunch of environmental studies college students for their term papers--rather than attracting new business.

A better strategy is to target long-tail keywords. As a rule, a long-tail keyword is much easier to rank on and signals a much higher buyer intent. It’s a much more specific search, looking for a solution to a problem. For example, “the best solar panel for large commercial buildings” signals a user moving closer to the buying stage whereas a search for “solar energy” could be anyone.

It’s outside of the scope of this article to describe more about using SEO as a lead-generation channel. But for now, exercise some caution before you start planning a SEO campaign. Make sure that you have your central services and products nailed down and brand strategy sorted out before you start investing in SEO.

That said, it’s better to start planning for SEO as you redesign your website. Choosing the right domain name and beginning to build content around your central keyword strategy isn’t something that can be changed month-to-month. The faster you nail down your positioning, products, and target market, the faster you will build your presence and authority in Google.

Mistake #6: Writing a blog. Instead of setting a goal.

There is no ROI for simply doing what everyone else is doing. And a blog without a content strategy is basically useless.

Are you writing your blog for SEO purposes (to get more traffic to your website)?

Are you writing your blog to retain and impress clients?

Are you writing your blog to establish your authority in your industry?

Are you writing your blog for lead generation?

If you are like most new sustainable or green energy businesses with limited resources, it simply isn’t possible to use your blog to achieve all of the objectives listed above.Also, the day of the 200 word blog post to simply impress Google with fresh content is over. The recent Panda algorithm updates have made those short, shallow “this is what the company is up to” blog posts a liability to your website.

This means that if you want to write a very informal blog about your company you should indicate to search engines not to index your blog. Otherwise, instead of bringing you traffic your website could be penalized for what is now considered an undesirable SEO tactic.

Instead of simply writing a blog, you should focus on a content goal. What is the one thing you want to achieve with your blog? You’ll find that a blog for increasing traffic and rankings to your site might not attract new customers. If you have a goal, though, you can focus on serving your target audience--it's better to have one hundred relevant customers reading your blog every month than thousands of random visitors looking for free information. 

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