Here’s a story.
Back when I wrote for EContent magazine, I worked on a yearly feature called the EC100. It’s a rundown of the 100 most influential companies in digital content, complete with key info (location, size, chief executive, major products, etc). If you want a bird’s-eye view of the companies you should know about as a content professional, it’s a great place to start.
Part of my job was ensuring that all this info (and more) was correct. In fact, not just correct — confirmed via e-mail or phone by a named person at the company in question. We took it seriously, too. I spent many an hour e-mailing, calling, and otherwise nagging PR folk, marketing directors, and anyone else who would go on record to confirm.
Each year, there were a few stragglers. I totally understand — people (and businesses) have stuff to do. Not every company wants or needs to hire a PR firm, and some just don’t have someone internally designated to handle press inquiries. I was normally able to confirm with about 95% of the companies, and the rest we covered to the best of our knowledge, based on the most reliable sources we could find (generally their own website, which we hoped was up-to-date — hint, hint). No biggie.
One year, though, something unusual happened. I came across a company that had more or less no company info on their website. No direct acknowledgment of the chief executive, no canonical formatting of its name, no precise indication of where it was based. Just a bunch of (admittedly very attractive) user-focused content, without any of the meat and potatoes info I was looking for.
I could infer this stuff based on interviews and blogs and whatnot, but that wasn’t really firm enough for us. This was print publishing; once those pages go through the printer, there’s no second chances.
To make matters worse, there was no PR firm or press contact listed. No contact info at all, as a matter of fact — no phone number, no e-mail, not even an address. This was not an insignificant company, either — they’re fairly well known.
This info needed to be confirmed, or at least pulled from somewhere other than random blogs and news stories — nothing spreads bad info like word of mouth, after all. At the very least, we needed to be able to say that we’d tried contacting them and done our best at due diligence. With no way to contact them, I couldn’t even say that.
In a final fit of desperation, I pulled up the DNS entry for the company’s website. There I found a single, solitary phone number, which I called.
I wound up speaking with a very confused man in the company’s internal IT department who, after a brief explanation, transferred me to a somewhat mysterious PR person who asked several times not to be quoted or mentioned by name. (Perhaps they were undercover.)
What’s the point of this story? Well, there’s two of them.
First off, don’t overlook the basics. Name, phone number, address, boilerplate — they’re not especially cool, but they’re important. Are you a retail company, like a store or restaurant? If you don’t have your hours and address prominently listed on the first page, you should be kicking yourself.
Your customers will try to get in touch, whether you want them to or not — and that’s something you should want, in any case. How else will you get to know your audience?
Which brings me to point #2: try to meet your audience’s needs, even if they don’t perfectly align with your own. People want what they want — if you don’t give it to them, they’re going to find other ways to get it. And if you make them go to a secondary source, the info they find might not even be accurate — and it definitely won’t be phrased and framed how you’d like.
Let’s say there’s a piece of info that you’re hesitant to list on your site, even though you know people come looking for it. You need to scrutinize the reasons why you’ve decided not to make it available, and with a vengeance. It’s tempting to gloss over tricky topics, but by giving no information, you force your audience to assume the worst. People can usually tell when a site is pointedly leaving something out.
If your audience is looking for a particular piece of info, there’s probably a good reason for it. Ignoring troublesome questions doesn’t make people stop asking them — in fact, it tends to make them ask the question even louder, possibly in public.
And look on the bright side: if they came to your site for the answer — instead of, say, your competitor’s site, a public forum, or some other venue you have no control over — you’ve got the problem halfway solved already!
Ultimately, a troublesome or unintended site visitor isn’t a weakness or a problem — it’s an opportunity, a sign that you’re making people seek you out. Best case scenario, it’s someone you never knew was interested — someone you’ve reached without even trying. Worst case scenario, they’re someone who’s annoyed with you — and if you ignore them, you’ll lose the chance to learn more and solve their problem.
I’m sure the company I was researching simply had too many press inquiries and interview requests to adequately handle, so they took the contact info off their site. A better response would be to meet the issue head on — make a robust press page, with important info and links to some interviews they do want to highlight. Make a FAQ targeted at members of the press to explain the issue.
Always explain yourself! If you don’t, people are probably going to assume the worst.