Tuesday, December 27, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Scalamandre Gets a D

Scalamandre, Inc., founded in 1929 by Franco Scalamandre (1898-1988) and headquartered in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., produces high-end textiles, trims, wall coverings, and carpeting. Its niche market is reproduction of such items for the restoration of historic homes and antique furniture. Scalamandre fabrics have been used at the White House, the United States Capitol, and The Breakers and the Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island. The company’s about us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: D

Personality: E

The Who We Are page, which is featured at the top of the list of options on the home page, sends us to a box set against a huge white expanse, then takes a disproportionately long time to load scrolling text in an ugly font in a tiny box. We can’t easily skim the text or read it as a block. There are no illustrations with the text, although several historic renovations are mentioned.

Even worse than that is the fact that the only image on this page is a few inches of fabric at the edge of a bolt. For 80 years, Scalamandre has produced textiles stunning for their colors, patterns, and textures. What a wasted opportunity that blank white space is!

Products/Services: D

Examples of Scalamandre’s products are buried under the unrevealing menu heading House Tour, which turns out to include extensive descriptions of historic homes such as The Breakers. The Collection page offers more images, but reaching them requires multiple clicks, and the pictures (apparently from interior-design magazines) include many products that are not by Scalamandre.

Accessibility: C

The Contact Us page offers a mailing address, telephone, fax, and email, but the page is only available from Who We Are.

The tagline on the Contact page says, “America’s manufacturer and importer of the world’s most beautiful fabrics, trimmings, wall coverings and carpets.” This needs tweaking (why mention importing if the company’s main focus is manufacturing?), but some form of it should appear on the Who We Are page and elsewhere.


TAKEAWAY

Scalamandre, a company that produces works that are a delight to the eye, needs to incorporate far more visuals in its website.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy 275th, Bellevue Hospital

If only NYC's Bellevue Hospital had done oral histories with patients since its founding in 1736! We'd have transcripts and tapes from Stephen Foster, O. Henry, Eugene O'Neill, and countless people whose voices are not often heard at all. Not to mention the doctors who set up and staffed the first maternity ward, emergency room, and ambulance service in the US.

Fortunately the country's oldest public hospital is catching up: "As part of the recognition events surrounding the 275th anniversary, Bellevue has been recording oral histories in conjunction with StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit organization that records, shares and preserves stories of American life. The interviews conducted at Bellevue will be archived at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and selections will be played at listening stations at Bellevue beginning next year. Selections will also play on the Bellevue/HHC website, as well as the StoryCorps website," says a news release (link here).

No book, sadly. Bellevue is a city hospital with a perennially strapped budget, and doubtless that accounts for why they had to fit 275 years of storied history into a 24-page commemorative brochure. New York University's Langone Medical Center does publish an excellent literary journal, the Bellevue Literary Review (their Web site fudges about the connection to the hospital itself): http://blr.med.nyu.edu/ The hospital itself is raising money for an in-house museum; if you'd like to contribute, details are in the press release.

Last but not least, click on the title of this very blog post for The New York Times's coverage of the dodranstricentennial (OK, I learned that word from the article!).

Monday, December 12, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Groupon Gets a B+

Groupon, established in November 2008, harnesses the power of social media to offer customers substantial discounts on food, entertainment, shopping, and services in 45 countries. The company employs over 10,000 people in its Chicago headquarters and has offices in an increasing number of locations around the world. Groupon’s About Us page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: B+

Products/Services: A

The About Us page is buried at the foot of the home page, under the Company menu. That’s a pity, because it’s well written and intelligibly organized, moving from the service Groupon provides to its operating principles and then its origin.

Accessibility: A

If you’re asking customers to shell out money for a service to be provided by a third party, at an indefinite future time, you’d better be sure they trust your customer service. We like the fact that when Groupon mentions their dedication to customer satisfaction on the About Us page, their email address and a telephone number are right there in the text.

The Get Help section of the footer offers a Customer Support page with an online form, online support, an email address, and a telephone number with the hours that staff are available. One would expect a mailing address for corporate headquarters--but then, no one without a computer is ever going to use Groupon.

Personality: C

The final section of the About Us page, headed “Our People,” states, “Groupon’s people are our most valuable asset. Everything about Groupon is a reflection of the interests and ethics of its wonderful staff.”

And that’s all it says. Why make a statement so sweeping, and then not elaborate?

The photo under this heading--the only one on the About Us page--shows dozens of people in choir robes on a stage. The caption states that this is the Groupon staff singing at the Chicago Lyric Opera. We suspected this might be a joke, like the “Groupon Says” feature at the lower left of the home page. But there they are on YouTube, belting out Bach. (Don’t leave your day jobs, guys.)

At minimum, we’d like to see a link here to the team that founded and still runs the company. The link to them is buried under Company / Investor Relations / Corporate Governance / Management. These bios could use some tweaking, to make them more closely related to the current positions of the executives: see AirBNB’s site, for example.


TAKEAWAY

Groupon gets almost everything right, but more personality--a sense of who runs the company and what the employees’ attitude is--would improve the About Us page.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, Corporate Historian?!

Kurt Vonnegut hated greed but liked business. Learning that factoid was one of the many pleasures of reading And So It Goes—Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, the excellent new biography by Charles J. Shields. The author of Slaughterhouse-Five was nothing if not a contradictory man.

Son of an architect, Vonnegut grew up in a family of prosperous Indianapolis merchants. It’s common knowledge that he was a public relations man for General Electric’s Schenectady Works for years. What’s less well known is that he was ready to quit until GE put him in charge of being the liaison to Columbia University’s then-new oral history program. As part of it, Columbia wanted to preserve the memories of GE engineers and scientists who had helped launch radio.

Like any good corporate history author, Vonnegut started by compiling interviewee biographies and timelines. Shields reports that Vonnegut “was awed … he genuinely liked these men … Their success was deserved. They didn’t grouse about the company; they were grateful.” Vonnegut went so far as to describe them as “extremely interesting, admirable Americans.” He still quit the PR job—he’d always felt like the company’s “captive screwball”—but he happily drew on his GE experiences for his science fiction writing.

Years later, he used his business savvy to dig up the lowdown on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In an article for Esquire magazine, later collected in his book Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, he noted that the Maharishi spoke to the American people “like a General Electric engineer.” Vonnegut nailed him as a benign salesman who, as Shields paraphrases, “was just pumping the handle of free enterprise as vigorously as the system allowed.”

The biography also reveals that antiwar Vonnegut consciously owned stock in a company that made napalm for bombs, and that he was hardly liberated where women were concerned…but I’ll leave you to discover the whole story for yourself. Just a quick P.S., though: If you worked in publishing during Vonnegut's heyday--I was lucky enough to work for his then-publisher, Dell/Delacorte, and to write promo copy for his books--you'll enjoy the biography even more.

Monday, November 28, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: L.A. Burdick Chocolate Gets an A

L.A. Burdick Chocolate, based in Walpole, N.H., sells delicious handmade chocolates via direct mail, on the web, and through a restaurant and several cafes. The company was founded in 1987 by Larry Burdick and his wife, who still run the business. Its About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: A

L.A. Burdick’s About Us pages are as nicely concocted as their chocolates … and that’s high praise.

Products/Services: A-

The main About Us page is all about the chocolate, describing the ingredients and how it’s made. Photos show the chocolate and the busy, professional people in white coats who produce it.

One failing here: the list of the company’s activities (“direct mail and web business … French-inspired restaurant, as well as three caf├ęs”) should have links to the relevant pages on the site--like the order links on the History of the Mouse page. Yes, the top menu has links, but between the moment we see “restaurant” and the time we find it in the top menu, our email program can ding, our phones can ring, or a colleague can offer a latte. Even if we choose to finish reading the page, the link serves as highlighted text to remind us what page to visit next.

Personality: A

About Our People is geared very well to Burdick, giving the impression of a small, tightly managed company where high standards and customer service are priorities. The page provides information on the founder and 3 top people, with photos of them at work and bios that focus on their qualifications for that work. No extra clicks, no irrelevant information: we appreciate that.

One suggestion re style: Fiction writers know that direct quotes are usually more effective at holding a reader’s attention than exposition. The same is true of bios on web pages. Instead of “Larry has within arm's reach all the qualities of life that he holds dear,” try “Larry says, ‘I’ve got within arm’s reach here all the qualities of life that I hold dear.’”

On this page, too, there should be links making it easy for readers to get back to the business of buying chocolate--for example, when Larry mentions a restaurant, or Michael Klug talks about chocolate.

Accessibility: A+

The company’s 800-number is at the upper right on every page and its mailing address is in every footer. The drop-down Shopping menu is extensive and clear. Well done.


TAKEAWAY

We repeat: Put links wherever they’re relevant: don’t rely on readers to scan your top or side menus.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company, although we have often enjoyed their chocolates. Also, we sometimes show their tiny history brochure to clients—it came tucked into a box we ordered years ago—as an example of how history can be used to marketing advantage even in the smallest places.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Would Abe Lincoln Have Tweeted?

Seven score and eight years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famed Gettysburg Address. It ran just 271 words, amazingly short now for a speech and even more so in 1863, when people had delightfully long attention spans. There’s a great story behind it.

Lincoln was second on the bill. The key speaker, Edward Everett, orated for more than two hours. The crowd of 15,000 loved Everett and wept as he waxed poetic about the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, which had taken place on the site less than five months earlier.

Then Lincoln spoke his 10 sentences:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."


Speechwriters will note the ample use of triplets, the lyrical parallelism, the alternation of short and long sentences, and the chilling personification of the world (“it can never forget what they did here”).

Long-winded Everett later told Lincoln, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

I’d like to think that Lincoln would have considered Twitter too short a medium for serious thoughts, but who knows? It is something to think about next time you visit the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA.

Monday, November 14, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Schneider National Gets a C minus

Schneider, founded in 1938 and headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is the third-largest trucking and logistics company in the United States, with annual revenue of $3.7 billion. Its trucks travel 5 million miles daily, providing services to more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies. We noticed Schneider because of a fascinating Forbes article on its use of technology to plan truck routes. The main About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: C minus

Products/Services: C

Schneider’s About Us page opens with a well-written summary of the company’s services, scope, and size. But more than half of this page is devoted to the company’s commitment to sustainability. Surely a statement about Schneider’s commitment to providing reliable, innovative service deserves at least equal time. (Regarding that, we wonder why the great tag line “Driving the wheels of commerce” appears on the History page, but not on the main About Us page.)

At Corporate History.net we believe passionately in the value of corporate history and institutional memory, so we’re always happy to see a timeline of a company’s history included on the company’s website. But context matters. Most website visitors will be daunted by Schneider’s long timeline, which has no pictures or highlights. The company’s acquisitions in the 1930s could safely be relegated to a sub-page or to a company history.

Incidentally, according to the timeline 2010 was a record year for awards. The Awards page, however, lists nothing later than 2009. Our 10th Commandment of About Us pages is “Remember to keep holy the updates.” This sort of discrepancy suggests no one’s minding the store.

Personality: D

The History page and the Enterprise Overview both mention that the Schneider company is a family enterprise, but neither one quotes the founder to show what his vision was. The Mission and Core Values page, where one might expect such information, offers statements so vague that they could apply to any company, for example: “Safe, courteous, hustling associates creating solutions that excite our customers.”

Accessibility: C

The Contact page is a long online form. We hate online forms because they seldom allow us to track our communication with the company. We particularly hate them when they’re so long they overrun the opening screen, suggesting that it will take a long time to fill them in. At the upper left of Schneider’s page are options for sending an email or making a phone call: these should be much more prominently placed.


TAKEAWAY

Schneider’s About Us pages have some potentially excellent material, but the material is not organized in a way that shows off its strengths.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How many CEOs can you name?

Steve Jobs's recent death, and the outpouring of love it has engendered, set me thinking about the Great Man theory of history.

I confess I am not an iPerson. CorporateHistory.net runs on PCs and software from Microsoft and Adobe. My smartphone is a Droid. And what I read of Jobs's managerial style made me cringe. Yes, eulogies are supposed to look beyond such things. I'm not here to eulogize, just to think out loud.

To qualify as a Great Man, it seems to me, a person should also be a great man without the caps. How does Jobs score there? On the invention front, shouldn't we also pause to remember with gratitude Martin Cooper, the father of the cell phone? He led the Motorola team that invented the concept a generation ago. Even though the early models weighed a cool 4 pounds, without them we wouldn't have smartphones.

Yet who recalls Martin Cooper's name? Following that train of thought, how many contemporary CEOs can you name? Mark Zuckerberg is easy. So is Lloyd Blankfein, if you read the business news. But how about IBM's CEO--the current one, not the woman who is soon to take over? Or the CEOs of the 2011 Fortune Top 5: Wal-Mart Stores, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Fannie Mae? I'm in the business of business history, and I'd flunk the test. All in all, I have to wonder if the Great Man theory is in large part a cult of personality.

And as for whether SIRI stands for "Steve is really inside," I'd rather have LIRI, with the L standing for Louis Armstrong. Now there was a Great, great man.

Monday, October 31, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Gets a D

MGM, headquartered in Los Angeles, was formed in 1924 by the merger of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions. During the following three decades the studio with “more stars than are in the heavens” dominated the movie business. Today MGM controls a library of about 4,100 films (including 15 that have won the Oscar® for Best Picture) and over 10,000 hours of television programming.


OVERALL GRADE: D

One of the biggest issues with MGM’s About Us pages is finding them. They’re buried under the link MGM Inc. in the tiny type at the foot of the Movies page (the home page). The Movies page gives no sense of how long the company’s been in business or what a wealth of great movies have been produced under its aegis – just a long, long list of movies that can be sorted by title or by category, but not by date or awards won.

Products/Services: C

The historical overview starts with a video that shows clips and stills from many of the great MGM movies. Mysteriously, the captions identify some but not all of these.

The text below the video is a decent overview of the company’s creation … but it’s illustrated with one and only one photo, a black-and-white pic of the studio’s headquarters. Why not have a timeline with important movies and TV shows, each with the same links to trailers and purchase info that the main Movies page offers? The point is not only to tell us about MGM, but to persuade us to purchase their products.

We’d also like to see all that gray space on the left and right put to better use. Bensi’s filled it with pictures of food; why doesn’t MGM fill it with movie and TV stills, as on the header to the Movies page? That blank filmstrip graphic at the top is a waste of space.

We cannot let pass the fact that minor grammatical errors in the history page subtly undermine the impression of high quality production that MGM presumably wants to convey. Of Midnight Cowboy, the page notes that “It was changed to an R-rating in 1971,” when the rating (rather than the movie) was changed. In the next paragraph there’s a simple typo, “THese” rather than “These.” And so on. As we said in our 9th Commandment of About Us pages, this sort of error is a “broken window” – it suggests the company is careless about details.

Personality: C

The Corporate Information page offers links to bios (not “bio’s”!) of MGM’s executives, but the bios are standard cookie-cutter summaries that don’t focus on what values drive the executives, and therefore the company. Stressing the number of MGM productions and the number of Academy Awards they’ve received would convey the company’s personality much more effectively.

Accessibility: E

Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?

Having an email list, a Facebook link, a Twitter feed, and a YouTube channel is not a substitute for offering an email address, a phone number, or a mailing address – none of which appear on MGM’s site.


TAKEAWAY

MGM has access to a breathtaking amount of great material spanning nearly a century: what a pity it’s not used more effectively!

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, October 24, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Blu Homes Gets an A

Blu Homes, a privately owned company founded in 2008, manufactures environmentally friendly steel-frame houses that are prefabricated in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and unfolded on the building site. The average time from design to completion of the home is 3 to 4 months. We became aware of Blu Homes through an article in Forbes. Blu Homes’ About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: A

The appearance of the site fits the product the company offers: uncluttered and efficient. We like the fact that the header of every page is a changing series of pictures of the company’s homes - a constant reminder of what the company is about.

Products/Services: A+

The main About Us page offers a summary of the company’s product and outlook. The video clip is below the text, hence clearly optional--we particularly appreciate that, since we have little patience for loading videos of unknown content and length. We would like to see some illustrations here that would clarify the technical talk: floor plans, a LEEDS certification logo, and/or a simple graphic of the house being unfolded.

At the top of the sub-menu on the About Us page is a link to the Fact Sheet, an excellent, laudably brief summary of the company: when it was founded, who owns it, its clients, residential uses, environmental concerns, locations, leadership team, board of directors, board of advisors. It would be helpful here to include links within the summary to individual members of the leadership team, the advisors, and house models.

The company’s FAQ page also offers much useful information. Although the current layout gives a clean look, we’d like an option to see all the questions and answers at once, rather than having to click on each one.

Personality: A

Under Leadership Team, we like the fact that each person’s page begins with work experience, then personalizes him or her with community activities, interests, a fun fact, and education. At the foot of each page is a video--again clearly optional--in which the person talks about his or her connection with the company and its products.

Accessibility: A

A contact link appears at the upper right of every page, and a more prominent contact button usually appears on the right sidebar. The Contact page is dominated by a form that gathers information from potential home buyers. For those with other queries, we’re happy to see an email link and a press contact.


TAKEAWAY

The About Us pages for Blu Homes provide all the basic information in easily navigable layouts whose look complements the company’s mission. Well done!

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Netflix Customers Make History

It isn't often that customers have the opportunity to shape a company's direction as strongly as has happened at Netflix.

"It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs," said an email from Netflix to customers this week. "This means no change: one website, one account, one password…in other words, no Qwikster."

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and Netflix stayed on course. It would have continued to hemorrhage customers otherwise. This episode will become a business history case study, right along with the withdrawal of Coca-Cola's "New Coke" and other pivotal points in corporate history.

I'm not convinced that the July price change was necessary, but I'm glad to hear "we are now done with price changes." If nothing else, the company is emerging as a stronger corporate communicator: the email also informed streaming-only customers like me that we now have hundreds of new movies and more than 3,500 TV episodes to choose from. I'll be happy with one new addition that's as good as "Doc Martin."

Monday, October 10, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Luxury Air Jets Gets a C-

Luxury Air Jets, headquartered in Manhattan, provides private jet or executive jet charter services. The main About Us page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: C-

We have two minor objections to the site. The six clocks in the header cleverly give a sense that Luxury Air Jets can take you around the world -- but their presence makes the page load very slowly in some browsers. This is not a good first impression for a company providing fast transportation.

Also, when we print out pages, the text appears as an illegible pale gray. While not everyone will want to print pages, it’s wise to make minor adjustments for the sake of wealthy curmudgeons who do.

Products/Services: C

The About Us page has adequate information about the company’s services, but it would be more enticing if the second section (“Charter Jet Services”) appeared at the top, before the vague statements of the company’s ethics and donations to charity. This page would also be a perfect place to illustrate the interiors and exteriors of some of the jets the company supplies, with links to pages providing further details.

Personality: D

The About Us page is a pitch for the company’s services. We don’t object to that, but we do think that those who are purchasing such a high-end service might wonder how long the company has been in business, who runs it, and what its track record is in terms of distance traveled, safety, pilots’ qualifications, and so on.

The brusquely titled Letter from MGT repeats material from the main About Us page, with no clue who owns and operates the company. Who’s MGT? Apparently it’s an abbreviation for management. Silly. There’s plenty of space to spell out the word in the headline – or better yet, to have the letter come from a real, named person.

Accessibility: C

For those in a hurry (and what jet traveler is not?), the company’s phone number always appears at the upper right. A “Request a Quote” button appears on the sidebar of every page -- but it takes us to a long, online form that leaves us no record of what we’ve sent. The Contact Us page has a similar form, although at least there is an actual email address buried at the end of the page.

TAKEAWAY

Luxury Air Jets misses many opportunities to persuade visitors that the company provides luxurious, reliable, and safe transportation.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wondrous Workplace Dramas

Aaron "The West Wing" Sorkin, the perpetual poet laureate of the workplace drama, saves the day with his screenplay for "Moneyball" (co-scripted with Steven Zaillian). This baseball fan naturally laughed and cheered at the field scenes -- but also at the conference room confabs with the sour old Oakland A's scouts and at the inside looks at the locker room (hey, they're workplaces too).

Back in the early 1990s I was busy rooting for Robbie Alomar in Toronto, and thus knew little about Billy Beane and the Oakland A's. It's been fun to catch up on which parts of "Moneyball" are fictionalized, and which parts draw directly from Michael Lewis's book.

On Broadway, "Man and Boy" is the workplace drama of choice. The Terence Rattigan plot about a corrupt financier is surprisingly modern, though the father-son relationship is a bit creaky. Maybe I'm just seeing it through 21st-century US eyes. I never miss a chance to marvel at Frank Langella artfully chewing the scenery. He is the American Laurence Olivier.

Monday, September 26, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Peter Pan Gets an A

Peter Pan is one of America’s largest privately owned intercity bus companies, carrying over 4 million passengers per year in the Northeast on Peter Pan, ShowBus, BoltBus and other lines. Founded in 1933 in Springfield, Massachusetts and still headquartered there, it has been run by the Picknelly family for four generations. The company's main About Us page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: A

Our one criticism Peter Pan’s site is technical. When its pages print, the tabs turn into a vertical list of links. People who print the pages will sigh in exasperation at the extra sheets of paper this requires.

Personality: A

Peter Pan’s Company History page is not full of bells and whistles, but it’s well laid out: broken into paragraphs with headings and with well-chosen photos. More importantly, its content is fascinating. It presents the company history as the history of four generations of the Picknelly family, noting coups such as providing the bus service for Bill Clinton’s 1992 whistle-stop tour and introducing e-tickets for buses.

We were impressed by the novelty of having the mission statement at the end of the company history. In that context, we can see how the mission has ruled company policy: it’s not a pie-in-the-sky statement.

The management page doesn’t tell us anything about the people who run the company, but it does make it clear that Peter Pan is still a family-run business.

Products/Services: A

The reason for acquiring each major bus line is explained in the history. We applaud this as an excellent way to mention what each line specializes in. We also like the fact that Peter Pan’s best drivers, the ones who have driven over a million miles without an accident, are showcased in the Safety and Drivers page. For good measure, customer testimonials are scattered throughout the site as well as on the Testimonials page.

Accessibility: A+

The Contact Us page is always available via a link at the upper right. We were pleasantly surprised to see the Mission Statement filling most of the page, with the email form tucked in at the right side. Many people would not bother to click on a separate Mission Statement page, but including the statement here, when customers are about to contact the company, helps remind customers about reasonable expectations for bus travel. (The company motto since the 1930s has been, “On time if possible with safety … late if necessary for safety’s sake.”)

TAKEAWAY

A company’s mission statement tends to be a noble abstraction. It’s exciting to see it placed where it makes sense: at the end of the company history and on the contact page.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company, although company president Marian Calabro recently traveled from New York City to Amherst, Mass., on Peter Pan; she enjoyed the experience.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Netflix' Negative History

I’m one of the millions of Netflix users who got this week’s infamous email from CEO Reed Hastings. I’m also one of the hundreds of thousands who cancelled part of their service (in my case, the DVD-by-mail part) because I didn’t think it was worth the extra money -- and because the company didn’t bother to alert me in advance to the increase. I had to read about it elsewhere.

Policy gaffes aside, what’s interesting about Hastings’s communication are his references to Netflix company history (the italics are mine): “For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) …. It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to ‘Qwikster.’ …. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated.”

Qwikster is starting life with a huge disability. It’ll be interesting to see if Netflix learns anything from its history. In this case, dissatisfied customers are the history teachers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Bensi Restaurants Gets a B+

The first Bensi (“Always Fresh, All Ways Italian”) opened in 1983 in Tenafly, NJ. Currently 24 Bensi Restaurants are open or in development in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

OVERALL GRADE: B+

Products/Services: B

The feature we love most about Bensi’s site is the borders that appear on every page. They include the company’s distinctive awning, a selection of delicious-looking dishes and ingredients, a few glasses of wine, and photos of groups of jolly eaters. All this is set against a map of Italy. The border puts the text into a frame of reasonable size, but more importantly provides a constant reminder of what Bensi Restaurants are all about. (Movado Group, please take note!)

That said, we’d like to see a bit more about the food on the page that tells the Bensi Story. And we’d like Bensi to fix a problem common to restaurant Web sites: they tend to bury their locations and hours. Most people log onto eatery sites primarily for that information (and for menus). Bensi’s Locations page offers a big map with locations keyed to where they think you are. In our case, they were about 50 miles off. Why not add a text list of locations that users can quickly scroll?

Worse, even when you drill down, there are no opening/closing hours for each restaurant. Instead Bensi offers a general set of hours, buried in an red-on-cranberry band; it’s so hard to read that we missed it the first two times around. It’s quite possible that this basic lack of data drives users away to general sites like MenuPages, where they’ll be regaled with ads from Bensi’s competitors.

Accessibility: A

The link for the Contact page is prominently placed at the right of the menu bar on every page, and offers mail and email options. We particularly like the fact that we can click a button to have a copy of our email sent to us. While we recognize the practicality of email forms for avoiding spam, we are often upset that using such forms means we don’t have a record of what we said to the company. (By the way, we used the form a few months ago to email Bensi about the hours issue. They answered promptly and cordially, suggesting that we phone the individual restaurants. Why, when the Web site could so easily provide this info? Bottom line, we’re not expecting site changes any time soon.)

Personality: B

The Home page has a few sentences on the company, followed by a button for “Read the Full Story.” The story of Bensi is short (it’s a relatively new company), but its creators have given it “roots” by linking it to the founders’ families in Italy. We also like the emphasis given to the fact that each Bensi is run by co-owners (the chef and the general manager), which means the restaurants have slightly different personalities and are managed onsite, not from a distant headquarters.

We were somewhat confused by the fact that clicking “Read the Full Story” didn’t always take us to this history page. Eventually we realized that the target of the button changes depending on which of 4 pictures is showing on the Home page. We suggest having all 4 options show at once on the Home page.

TAKEAWAY

The stand-out feature of Bensi’s site is the borders that constantly remind visitors of the chain’s products and services. It’s a brilliant use of space that’s very often wasted.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tips for Better Pictures =
Tips for Better Speechwriting

During a major file fling last week (such a liberating feeling), I unearthed a 1998 folder from Eastman Kodak titled "Tips for Better Pictures." It struck me that the same principles apply to speechwriting:

Show one subject clearly / Get closer / Simplify the background / Place subject off-center / Experiment with lighting / Try a different viewpoint

Digital cameras and cell phone photography have eclipsed the 35mm film featured in the Kodak folder, but otherwise little has changed. To me, the medium isn't the message; content matters most. If Marshall McLuhan were still around, I'd happily debate him on this matter. (He's not; McLuhan would turn 100 this year.)

Monday, August 29, 2011

"About Us" Evaluation: : Freeport McMoRan Gets a C

Freeport McMoRan (FCX) is the world’s largest publicly traded producer of copper, the world’s largest producer of molybdenum, and a significant producer of gold. Its largest asset is the Grasberg mine in Indonesia. Headquartered in Phoenix, AZ, it has more than 29,700 employees. Its main About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: C

Accessibility: B

Compared to Kemet’s Contact Us page, Freeport McMoRan’s is conventional and boring, but it does give the usual information in the usual order, and it’s easy to find.

Products/Services: B

Freeport McMoRan’s business is clear on the main About Us page and on all the sub-pages. The photos are excellent: they show not only that the company is in mining, but that it’s mining on a huge scale.

We’d suggest combining the Who We Are, Our Skills, and Strategies pages into one page, with subheads and plenty of photos. As a narrative, they’d make more sense and be more likely to be read.

Personality: D

The About Us pages give little sense of what drives the company. The Management page states that the company has a 12-member Board of Directors, and gives the names of the chairman of the board and the CEO. The History page was clearly cobbled together after Freeport McMoRan acquired Phelps Dodge in 2007. It starts with a timeline of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold from 1988 to 2007. Although the introductory paragraph states that the “Freeport” part of the company dates to the early 1900s, no history is given for Freeport, nor is any explanation given of why the other half of the company name is “McMoRan.”

At the end of the History page is a brief narrative account of Phelps Dodge, founded in 1834. This was clearly an afterthought, probably pasted in from the old Phelps Dodge site. Yes, there should be some information on Phelps Dodge, but the emphasis here is all wrong: the acquisition gets more attention to its history than the main company does.


TAKEAWAY

The best aspect of Freeport McMoRan’s site is the great use of high-quality photos that clearly convey the company’s products and scope.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Saving Scrapbooks for History

If you want to see an archivist cringe (but who would?), hand her a scrapbook. Sure, scrapbooks are often full of artifacts, but items are likely to tear and crumble at the slightest touch.

In the archiving projects undertaken by CorporateHistory.net, we’ve helped rescue more than a few scrapbooks that illuminate company history. One yielded a telegram from Teddy Roosevelt to flag company executive Louis Annin Ames. It’s not a document that will change the course of American history, but we and the Annin company were excited to discover it. (Annin & Co., Inc., America’s oldest flag maker, is still going strong into the sixth generation.)

With this in mind, it was heartening to read that Woody Guthrie’s scrapbooks are being restored thanks to an $80,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Apparently the great songwriter saved everything from letters to lyrics to utility bills. Better yet, you can even decipher his handwriting (he trained as a sign painter in his youth). Pages from the albums will illustrate an upcoming book about Guthrie by his daughter Nora, and the Guthrie Foundation and Archives hopes to mount a traveling display soon. Guthrie would have turned 100 in 2013.

Monday, August 15, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Movado Gets a D

Movado is famed for the “Museum Watch,” whose face has a single gold dot at the 12:00 spot, and which was the first watch displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. The company’s roots go back to Switzerland in 1881, although the company’s headquarters are now in Paramus, NJ. The Movado Group designs, manufactures, and distributes luxury timepieces (Movado, Concord, Ebel, ESQ) and fashion watches (Coach, Hugo Boss, Juicy Couture, Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger). Its About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: D

The main About Us page and all the sub-pages have black text in a center box with a scroll bar, set in a sea of white space. We are always inexpressibly annoyed at this sort of set-up. It makes it difficult to skim the page or to refer back to earlier material on it. And it wastes prime territory: why are there no photos of the watches on these pages? The LVMH Group did a spectacular job with a similar set-up.

Accessibility: C

The Contact Us page is adequate, offering the option to visit the pages of different brands, to contact a service center, or to write or call the company headquarters.

Personality: D

Movado’s About Us pages are stark black and white, without personality. The only exception is a reprint (in black and white, without illustrations) of a 2003 article from Watch Time on Movado Group founder Gerry Grinberg. Once we scrolled through page after page of tiny type, we learned that Grinberg played an important role in the history of luxury watch sales in the United States. Why not give this more attention? And why not feature newer material? Eight years is an eternity in Web time.

Products/Services: E

It is inexcusable not to have images of watches produced by Movado on the About Us pages, as well as on the separate pages for each brand. Would we click an extra link to look at an unfamiliar brand? Probably not. Would we click that link if we saw a photo of a gorgeous watch next to the link? Well, yes.


TAKEAWAY

By not including photos, Movado loses a great opportunity to entice viewers to look at its products.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Not to Engage an Audience

“Stand up so we can embarrass you,” the keynote speaker said with a booming laugh as he approached a table of business owners. I shook my head and thought: “Did he really say that?” This took place at a networking breakfast sponsored by a large company with which CorporateHistory.net does business.

Obviously the speaker was trying hard to engage a fairly sleepy audience, something his wordy PowerPoint slides hadn’t done. He did get people to stand up and talk. I found him heavy-handed, but then I always prefer an appeal to the brain rather than an elbow in the ribs; give me Monty Python over Mel Brooks any day. Seeking a reality check, I turned to public speaking expert and speechwriting teacher Joan Detz. Here’s her reply:

“'Stand up so we can embarrass you!’ Well, Marian, if I had been there to hear it, I’d have slunk to the back door and disappeared! My guess is: Even though a few people stood up and participated, many more were sitting there uncomfortable –- feeling ‘relieved’ only when that portion of the presentation was over with.”

Thank you, Joan! P.S. A few days after the breakfast, a participant emailed the rest of us to voice his disappointment. He wished that the speaker’s time had been devoted to meeting other participants. In short, a subpar speaker dragged down an otherwise useful event.

Monday, August 1, 2011

About Us” Evaluation: Kemet Gets an A+

Kemet became an independent company in 1990, after 71 years as a subsidiary of Union Carbide. Originally it produced a crucial part for vacuum tubes. After the invention of the transistor, its facilities were retooled to manufacture capacitors. Kemet, headquartered in South Carolina, has manufacturing facilities in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The main About Us page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: A+

Products/Services: A+

Kemet’s main About Us page is a top-notch history page: an essay with narrative flow that covers all major aspects of the company since 1919. There are passing references to the role of the company on the world scene (Kemet capacitors used in vacuum tubes during World War II, in the Apollo moon landing, etc.), but the focus is on the company’s products, growth, IPO, consolidation, and manufacturing facilities.
The page begins with an introduction that stresses Kemet’s passion for quality and customer service, and ends by noting that Kemet produces billions of capacitors per year. Every sentence of the page not only tells the company’s history, but helps sell the product. And despite the highly abstruse nature of the product, we are never overwhelmed with technical jargon.

The only suggestion we’d make (and we’ve make this one so often that we feel like an echo of an echo) is that the essay could benefit from some illustrations. A decade ago, we were grateful when companies didn’t assume we had a fast enough connection to download photos. But this is 2011, and now we’re bored when we don’t get at least a few graphics to break up large blocks of text. Surely a company nearly 100 years old has some archival photos that would make a fascinating accompaniment to its history.

Accessibility: A+
Rarely do we see Contact Us pages that are novel as well as effective: Kemet’s contact page is both. Rather than a list of names and addresses, it lets the reader choose one of several statements: “I need some literature on one of your products,” “I would like sample parts sent to me,” etc. Each statement is linked to an appropriate page. If you want product literature, for example, you’re sent to a page where you can check off items and submit a request. At the foot of the main Contact page (but still “above the fold” for most screens) are the addresses and phone numbers for corporate headquarters and subsidiary offices.

Personality: A
We like the Leadership Team page, which offers 4- to 5-line bios of Kemet’s top executives (name, title, experience, training) on a single page. For most purposes, that’s all we need to get a sense of who’s in charge. The “group” photo of all the executives standing in a row was clearly Photoshopped, but gives a nice impression that all of them work cheerfully together.

The only page on the Kemet site that we disliked was Guiding Principles, which appears as a flash presentation that can’t be paused or printed. Why not offer an option for a print version or one whose speed the viewer can control?

TAKEAWAY
The text of Kemet’s history page could be used as a model for many companies, both for its narrative flow and for the way it covers a wide range of points without ever becoming lost in technical detail. Kemet’s Contact Us page ranks as one of the best we’ve seen for deftly directing visitors to the information they want.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gasp! Google Publishes a Book

To cut through the clutter, Google has opted to publish its "Think Quarterly" b-to-b publication on paper and to bind it. Yes, the result in plain English is a hardcover book. And (are you sitting down?) Google will distribute it to marketing execs by postal mail.

Granted, Google's book has a few cool production values most books don't (not even CorporateHistory.net's corporate histories, though we may consider these ideas). Words on the front cover can be moved around, like magnets on a refrigerator. And when you touch the endpapers the colors will change, just like the mood rings you enjoyed in fourth grade.

No big surprise, really, if you recall what Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounder and president of technology, told The New York Times on January 5, 2009: “There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site.”

I love to think of Brin sitting in his office with a volume of Shakespeare, getting caught up in Hamlet and discovering the origin of "hoist on his own petard."

http://nyti.ms/pTnjLf

Monday, July 18, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Chicago Manual of Style Gets an A

The Chicago Manual of Style first appeared in 1906, as a handbook for typographers at the University of Chicago Press. Now in its sixteenth edition, it is one of the most widely used guides to grammar, usage, and document preparation for American English. The main About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: A

Personality: A

The only people mentioned on the Chicago Manual of Style site are the eminent figures on the Advisory Board. This is perfectly appropriate, since the Manual is portrayed as an impersonal authority on currently accepted usage--not as a group of writers with quirks of their own.

The image of an impersonal authority is buttressed by the substantial page devoted to the history of the Manual, which stresses its origins as the handbook for a university press with advisors in publishing and academia. We would like to see that large block of text broken up with some illustrations: covers of earlier editions are the obvious choice.

The layout--a sturdy, legible font in pink, green, and blue on a white background--matches the personality the Manual is projecting: classic with a modern edge. We were particularly struck by this in contrast to Berkshire Hathaway’s site, where the colors are similar but both the font and the colors seem to be computer defaults.

Products/Services: A+
Since the bulk of the Manual’s sales are probably current users buying updated editions, it’s a great touch to have pages listing what’s new in the 16th edition and significant rule changes. We love the offer of the first edition of the Manual as a free PDF. It reminds readers that the Manual has been in use for a hundred years, but also gives us a glimpse into how usage has changed, and presumably will keep on changing. All the more reason to buy the latest edition of the Manual.

Accessibility: B
Contact information is buried under “Help,” but the options are perfectly adequate to this particular site: contact customer service, report a problem with the site, or submit a question.


TAKEAWAY
This is a nearly perfect, laser-focused site for a single product that relies largely on repeat customers. It’s simple and elegant, with the on the authority of the product and the customer’s need for the latest version.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company, although CMS is our style guide of choice.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Low budget, high impact: Sierra Trading’s 25th anniversary

Sierra Trading Post has peppered its summer catalogs with short blurbs celebrating “25 Years of Great Deals.” Nothing fancy, but that’s in keeping with a company that offers closeouts and seconds from brand-name retailers. Even this super-casual approach to corporate history relies on the usual good elements: timelines, memorabilia, photos.

But what’s especially effective are the tributes to the company's history from business partners like Columbia Sportswear and long-time customers. And Sierra Trading Post is celebrating by giving away more than $25,000 worth of goodies to entrants (in exchange for your email address) at www.stp.me/25th.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Berkshire Hathaway Defies Grading

Berkshire Hathaway, run by Warren Buffett and headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, oversees and manages businesses ranging from railroads (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and ice cream (Dairy Queen) to paint (Benjamin Moore), underwear (Fruit of the Loom), and newspapers (Buffalo News). Over the past 40-odd years the company’s average annual growth has been 20 percent, making Buffett one of the most successful investors of all time and Berkshire Hathaway the eighth largest public company in the world (market value $187 billion). At over $110,000 per share of Class A stock, Berkshire Hathaway is the most expensive stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Its home page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: D (for “Defies Grading”)
Of the 19 "About Us" and corporate history evaluations we've written, Berkshire Hathaway has been by far the most difficult--and not because of the complexity of the site, which consists of a couple pages of blue text on a white ground. If it were any more low-tech, the page would be in DOS. There is no About Us page, and very little of the information we usually grade on: personality, products, accessibility. Someone seeking to check facts about Berkshire Hathaway would come up empty-handed.

On the other hand, we had to ask: What’s the point of spending time and money on an About Us page when your business is that successful and your founder is lauded as “The Oracle of Omaha”? Do you really need a corporate history page when bookshelves are groaning with volumes about Warren Buffett?

In the case of Berkshire Hathaway, we think it comes down to this: Even for a company as stupendously successful as Berkshire Hathaway, having a decent website (including an About Us page) is like putting on a clean shirt and tie to go to the office: you do it partly from self-respect, partly from attention to the current conventions. “Decent” in this case doesn’t mean all the latest bells and whistles. It means offering the right content in the right order. With that in mind, we offer these comments.

Accessibility: F (or A)
Berkshire Hathaway is famous for keeping minimal staff at its headquarters. Its stockholders trust Warren Buffett’s judgment and don’t expect to be consulted about Berkshire Hathaway’s investments. Not surprisingly, the company positively discourages contact: “If you have any comments about our WEB page [caps theirs] you can either write us at the address shown above or e-mail us at berkshire@berkshirehathaway.com. However, due to the limited number of personnel in our corporate office, we are unable to provide a direct response.”

By our usual standards, Berkshire Hathaway ought to get an “F” for making it difficult to contact them. By their own standards, they get an “A” for eliminating distractions and getting on with their work.

Personality: F
The website conveys none of the personality of Warren Buffett or the exemplary record of Berkshire Hathaway stock. We can understand the choice not to promote themselves. However, we are exasperated by the order of the material that is included.

The most prominent place on the home page (top of the left column) has a link to a Message from Warren E. Buffett, which turns out to be an exhortation to buy from GEICO Insurance and Borsheim’s, two companies that Berkshire Hathaway owns.

Why are the annual and interim reports in the left-hand column, the letters to stockholders on the right? Why is the one and only link to a time-sensitive issue (Sokol’s trading in Lubrizol shares) halfway down the right-hand column, tucked between Charlie Munger’s letters to shareholders and annual meeting information? A few horizontal lines would do wonders to clarify the organization of this page.

One good point: most links on the home page say “Updated June 24, 2011” (or whatever the actual date was). We wish more sites did this.

Products/Services: D
The home page includes a link to a page of companies Berkshire Hathaway owns. If it’s worth having this list on the site, then it’s worth including the company logos and a one-line description of the products and services they offer. It would be an effective way of promoting all these companies as well as GEICO and Borsheim’s.


TAKEAWAY
A website, including an About Us page, is the public face of the 21st-century company. Even if the company is famous, the site should meet certain basic standards of good writing and presentation. There’s plain and then there’s too plain – and then there’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

100 Years in 13:15 minutes

This unprecedented corporate history video by Erol Morris will make you think that IBM invented 99 percent of the things we started using in the last 100 years -- and you wouldn't be far wrong.

Academy Award(R)-winning filmmaker Morris isn't someone you'd normally associate with company histories, though he has created scads of high-concept TV ads. It's likely that IBM devoted a seven-figure budget to this production alone, with similarly healthy investments in its other 100th anniversary and corporate history efforts.

The genius lies in having 100 real people present IBM's business history achievements, each one from the year they were born.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39jtNJGgmd4
http://ibm.com/ibm100

Monday, June 20, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Algonquin Hotel Gets an A

The Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan, in business since 1902, is the oldest operating hotel in New York City. It prides itself on its traditions and its status as a cultural center. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is as the home of the Algonquin Round Table, whose members (among them Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Harpo Marx) changed the face of American comedy. The Algonquin’s main About Us page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: A

Personality: A minus

The mention of famous guests that have stayed at the Algonquin or dined there over the past century is a great touch--it gives us a sense of the type of clients the hotel caters to. It would be even better to quote such celebrities. If Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Angela Lansbury, or Harry Connick, Jr. made a comment on about why they loved the Algonquin, why not showcase it?

The interviews with long-time staff members Gulfer “Chuck” Shah and Bob Wilson (under Staff Stories) give a personal face to the hotel: these are the people most guests would be interacting with.

The Interesting Facts page is full of charming tidbits. It would be much more attractive and readable, though, if the facts came with photos. Transforming this page into an illustrated timeline would be a great way to incorporate even more names and stress the longevity and cultural importance of the Algonquin.

Products/Services: A

We love the fact that the Algonquin stresses its uniqueness: its long history, its distinguished guests, its status as a cultural center, its hotel cat. Doubtless many high-end hotels track their guests’ preferences, but the Algonquin gets points for playing this up, on the Traditions of the Algonquin and the Staff Stories pages. Given their history, we’d like to see more photos that convey the ambience of the hotel.

The Algonquin was recently acquired by Marriott. We applaud the fact that the Algonquin’s website wasn’t overhauled to give it a homogenized, corporate feel.

Accessibility: A

The footer on every page has the hotel’s address and a contact link, which is adequate. We wonder why there’s no direct contact for media, even on the Newsroom page. People who can offer free publicity should always have their paths made easy.


TAKEAWAY

Sometimes a slick set of About Us pages is less effective than a series of pages that emphasize a company’s uniqueness. But it’s still important to cover the basics, including--if the organization is a century old, as the Algonquin is--the qualities and the attitude that have made the company last so long.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, June 13, 2011

10 Commandments of About Us Pages (continued)

Commandment 10. Remember to keep holy the updates. Once your “About Us” pages are polished, keep them fresh. A copyright date from even one year ago suggests that no one’s minding the store.
Tenth in a series; for the entire series, click here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Sweet Revenge Gets a C

Sweet Revenge, which opened in 2008 in New York’s West Village, serves wine and beer paired with “grown-up” cupcake flavors such as chorizo sausage and Manchego cheese. The restaurant’s unique concept was developed by Marlo Scott, who hated her corporate job and prides herself on having launched her own business (hence the restaurant’s name). Sweet Revenge was the cover story of Entrepreneur magazine in April 2011. Its About Us page (“The Story of”) is here. Unfortunately, Scott couldn’t land the Web address you’d expect – a plain dot-com. For the record, the company’s address is sweetrevengenyc.com.


OVERALL GRADE: C

We like the graphic design of this site: the calligraphic lettering and stained parchment are about as far from corporate as you can get. All by itself, this design makes a statement “About Us.”

Products/Services: D

Clicking on The Story Of takes visitors to a page called “Genesis” and starts loading a video. This is a problem: not all of us want or have the time to watch a video, particularly when we don’t know its length or the content. Another drawback: the video doesn’t open at all unless you have Apple’s Quicktime, which some PC loyalists are not interested in downloading.

“Genesis” is an animated account of how Scott left a mega-corporation to open Sweet Revenge. While the visuals are attractive and the story is told in a charmingly offbeat way, the video is more about Scott hating her previous job than about the delicious uniqueness of her restaurant. And for a restaurant’s website, the About Us page should never veer too far from evoking the mouth-watering food that a visitor to the restaurant will be able to see, smell, touch, taste.

Incidentally, on the Sweet Revenge home page we’d love to see some names attached to those yummy-looking photos that cycle at the upper right. It’s not obvious which one’s the chorizo and cheese and which one’s the Jamaican curry. Besides, a hasty visitor might not realize that this is anything more than another Magnolia Bakery wannabe. In this respect, the Entrepreneur article was more enticing than the company’s own site.

Personality: B

Clicking on Bio under “The Story Of” takes us to a short description of Scott’s career, which ends with a clever reference to “the sweetest revenge.” Unfortunately, this narrative is only a variation on the Genesis video.

Yes, it is fascinating that Scott ditched corporate life and is doing very well in a niche market that she created. But again, we’d like to see more focus on the positive (the food) rather than the negative (what Scott wanted to escape from). Which cupcakes were most popular among the friends who served as her guinea pigs? What were some of the bizarre flavors that didn’t make the cut? Scott’s personality comes through vividly, but About Us pages always need to be closely tied to the product or service being offered – and to how it solves a problem or meets a need for the potential customer, even if the need is as frivolous as what flavor of cupcake to try.

Accessibility: C

The address and phone number appear in the footer on every page, but there’s no email for contacting Sweet Revenge. There’s also no separate contact for media and no encouragement (or specific contact info for) those who wish to order sizable numbers of cupcakes in advance, though the “Extra! Extra!” page vaguely hints at it. (Cute page title, perhaps too cute.) We wouldn’t even know that mass orders are possible had we not read Entrepreneur’s cover story.


TAKEAWAY

Media coverage provides invaluable clues about the aspects of your product or service that interest outsiders. Be sure to include information about those aspects in your About Us pages. And when you’re in retail, sell your product at least as much as you sell your personal story.


Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

10 Commandments of About Us Pages (continued)

Commandment 9. Worship clarity. Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other fine points. Errors here are “broken windows.” They suggest you’re careless with details--that you may be as indifferent to a misplaced decimal point as you are to a misplaced apostrophe.
Ninth in a series; for the series so far, click here. Commandment 10 will be posted in mid-June.

Monday, May 23, 2011

“About Us” Evaluation: Airbnb Gets an A plus

Airbnb crosses old-fashioned bed-and-breakfast lodgings with social networking, putting travelers in direct contact with private individuals willing to rent anything from a single room to a whole castle. In the 3 years since its founding in 2008, Airbnb’s property-rental listings have increased from 40 to 40,000. Airbnb was featured in a story in Entrepreneur magazine in April 2011. Its main About Us page is here.


OVERALL GRADE: A plus

We particularly love the intelligent use of photos on the About Us pages of this site. Airbnb is a service for travelers, and nothing makes one want to go on the road as much as a gorgeous picture of an exotic destination. But the well-thought-out use of photos goes beyond collages of exotic rentals. The Story page, for example, includes a photo of the Airbnb’s staff in their former office, with a huge map of the world on one wall. The image conveys that the company has a worldwide scope even though it’s a small operation.

We also like the graphics on the site, which are reminiscent of social networking sites such as Facebook: again, a perfect fit for the type of service Airbnb offers.

Products/Services: A plus

The About page is not about Airbnb’s founders or staff, but an explanation of the service Airbnb offers. This makes sense, given that Airbnb isn’t an intermediary in booking the rentals: guests contact hosts directly.

The only minor change we’d recommend on this page is putting the headings “Booking Made Easy” and “Host Like a Pro” side by side at the top, and demoting the “Vitals” section to a less prominent position, or even to the Press page. The statistics in “Vitals”--the company’s year of founding, current size, etc.--are not likely to persuade anyone to use the site.

Personality: A plus

The founders of the company only appear on the Team page, which is listed at the bottom of the About menu. We appreciate the fact that the founders’ bios are brief, and that each showcases a connection to Airbnb. For example, we learn that Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder, gave up his apartment last year and has since been living in rentals offered on Airbnb. (Still, Brian, can’t you find a better photo of yourself--preferably one without red eyes?)

Since many of us would be anxious about allowing complete strangers into our homes, we also appreciate the fact that the Press page offers links to stories about Airbnb that have appeared in mainstream media. Directing visitors to outside sources who can testify to the integrity, credibility, and value of your company is always an excellent move. Having the logos of the media appear makes a good impression even on those who don’t click on the links.

Accessibility: A plus

It’s pleasantly easy to contact the host of any place listed or to list your own space for rental. The contact for Airbnb (which far fewer visitors would need on this sort of site) is in the footer.


TAKEAWAY

Airbnb’s About Us pages offer enticing visuals and emphasize the social networking aspect of the company, rather than the company’s employees: an intelligent choice given the type of service they offer. Appropriate About Us content is always determined by the products and services offered.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation.

Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.