Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Every Object Tells a Story

Although I usually find business history more fascinating than military history, I'm making a point of seeing "The Civil War in 50 Objects" at Manhattan's New-York Historical Society before the exhibit closes on September 1. There's a companion book, too--hooray.

Whether it's company history or personal history, relating history through objects is a long-standing idea that is much in vogue. And why not? Every object radiates history. People made that object; people used it; people saved it for a reason. With luck, an archivist formally catalogued it. I've been known to squeal when CorporateHistory.net unearths an object that illustrates a client's story in a way that nothing else can. A few that come to mind:
  • a 1960s candy striper uniform for our Northwest Community Hospital 50-year history book; 
  • a battered little cabinet containing delicate watch springs for CorporateHistory.net's Sandvik US history; 
  • one of the original glass bottles that was used, sanitized, and reused hundreds of times in the 1920s for Clorox liquid bleach. (Those bottles were recycled, too--The Clorox Company has been green since 1913.)
Draft Wheel, ca. 1863. New-York Historical Society,
Gift of Frederic C. Wagner.
Even to read a short list of objects in the NYHS exhibit is enough to evoke a range of emotions: "A soldier’s diary with the pencil still attached, John Brown’s pike, the Emancipation Proclamation, a Confederate Palmetto flag, and the leaves from Abraham Lincoln’s bier." Pictured here (with thanks to the NYHS) is a draft wheel used in conscription.

What objects would go into your organization's history?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Clarks Originals: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate History.net

Clarks, famous for classic shoes such as the Desert Boot (introduced in 1950) and the Wallabee (1965), dates back to 1825, when two Quaker brothers in Somerset opened a business making sheepskin rugs and slippers. Until recently, all Clarks products were still manufactured in the south of England. Today, most come from China. With sales of over a million pounds, Clarks is one of the largest private companies in the U.K.

The About Us page for Clarks Originals (“Our Story”) is here.

Via the Collection menu on the top navigation bar, we know that Clarks offers a couple dozen styles -- but nothing on the Our Story page indicates that Clarks produces more than the five styles featured there. We are befuddled. This slice of business history (dare we say it?) sets off on the wrong foot.

Products/Services: D
Clark’s Our Story is one of the most aggravatingly cute About Us pages we've ever seen. The cursor turns into a big black dot that says “Click.” Clicking it shows us a pull-down menu of 7 options (Introduction, 5 shoe styles, Shoe Making). Click any option and we progress, jerkily, along a trail of shoelaces to a paragraph so short (100 words or so) that reading it takes almost the same amount of time as arriving there did. A tremendous amount of space and time are wasted on this page. Remember our Commandment Five of About Us pages: respect your readers’ attention spans. In this case, make the story worth the wait – or shorten the wait. And make it a story.

Why not fill some of the empty space on the Our Story page with images that would make us want Clarks shoes on our feet? The famous crepe rubber sole, the tree that’s the source of it, the Harris tweed used in the shoes ... The Collection pages (here, for example) have black-and-white images that look archival. These images ought to also appear on the page devoted to the company’s corporate history, where they would visually reinforce a company history that’s approaching the two-century mark.

Personality: E
From the Our Story page, we don’t get any sense of the personality behind the company. Who was the founder? When and where and why? What’s the policy behind limiting shoes to a few timeless styles, and making them the same way they’ve been made for ... Well, we don’t know for how many years.

Actually, we do know--but only from Wikipedia. The fact that we learn far more of Clarks’ business history from Wikipedia than from the company’s own site is a black mark against Clarks.

Accessibility: C
The company’s mailing address is at the foot of the Our Story page. Contact information is via the Feedback Form, which includes a phone number, snail-mail address, and the ubiquitous online contact form. This is not exceptional, but it’s adequate.

The About Us page should give an overview of your company. By all means brag about your bestsellers, but if you offer other items, give your visitors a chance to learn about them, too.

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?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Avery Dennison: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate History.net

Avery was established in 1935 to sell self-adhesive labels for pricing merchandise in stores. Pressure-sensitive materials are still the bulk of its $6.7 billion sales, but it has also expanded to new technology such as RFID tags. The About Us page (“Our Company / The Big Picture”) is here.

Unfortunately most of the space above the fold on the Big Picture page is filled with a video – one that has no caption to entice us, little indication of content from the title (“Everywhere You Look”), and mostly glittering generalities when you view it. We suggest adding a caption and putting the video in a smaller box to one side, so that we can see the well-written descriptive text.

Products/Services: B
The text on the Big Picture page is a pithy summary of the company in four sections, each with an appropriate image (the founder, tape, labels, that unmistakable logo). The layout is simple and the sequence is easy to follow. A minor tweak that would be a major improvement: include links within this text to pages that offer further information. For example, the Business Summary page gives details on the company’s operations: why not put a link to it under the “What We Do” heading?

One other small fix: Eliminate the repetition on the Big Picture page. The fact that the company has 30,000 employees in more than 50 countries appears in the first section and again in the second, 5 paragraphs later. Repeating such information on separate pages would be fine, but here it seems like the company ran out of things to say.

Personality: C
 “Heritage” on the Big Picture page has an excellent summary of how Ray Stanton Avery founded the company. There’s even a photo of him! (We have grown weary of Faceless Founders.) Since Avery is still moving along the path mapped out by its founder, why not give him his own page? The long, successful business history is a testament to the quality and usefulness of its products.

Accessibility: D
Oops! Our Commandment Eight of About Us pages is, “Remember to make yourself and your organization easily accessible.” Avery’s Contact Us page (available via a link in the footer) opens with, “Get in touch with Avery Dennison by submitting a general contact request, or contact one of our worldwide offices.” But there’s no email or online form here, and no link to the Locations page, where worldwide offices can be searched. This is a serious oversight.

About Us pages should be part of the website, not in their own sealed-off ghetto. Help turn curious visitors into customers by adding links to other pages on the site.

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?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Wall Street Women's History

At this year's Biographers International Organization conference, I was delighted to meet author Sheri J. Caplan -- an attorney by training and a writer by temperament. Her new book, Petticoats and Pinstripes: Portraits of Women in Wall Street’s History, came out today from Praeger. Like so many motivated authors, Sheri noted that she wrote the book that she herself wanted to read -- she just couldn't find a collection like this on the shelves. Impressively, she sold her work to Praeger without an agent. This is corporate storytelling raised to the broader level of industry narrative. Congratulations, Sheri!

This review captures the book's spirit: “The contribution of women to the growth of Wall Street and ultimately our capitalist system has been largely hidden, until now. From colonial times to the present, Caplan leads us through the adventures of the ‘she merchants’—women who pioneered in the male-dominated world of finance. Phenomenally well-researched, Petticoats and Pinstripes delves into the lives of very real women, from Abigail Adams to Abby Joseph Cohen, all of them groundbreakers, and their relationships with men and money.”—Lisa Endlich, Author, Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success