Monday, November 25, 2013

Williams-Sonoma: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

In 1956, Chuck Williams opened a store in Sonoma, California, that sold high-end kitchenware that few Americans had even heard of. By 1971 he had moved the store to San Francisco and had begun publishing a mail-order catalogue. The company went public in 1983; it now has over 250 stores and revenues in the billions. Its main About Us page is here.


Personality and Products: B
The text on the main About Us page is brief and not very exciting, but we do learn when the company was founded, what it sells, and its size. The best feature of the page, though, is the three photos above the text, which are very effective at conveying the style and quality for which Williams-Sonoma is famous.

The main About Us page includes a link to the page devoted to founder Chuck Williams. Instead of a bio, the page has a small image of Chuck surrounded by photos of brands and gadgets that he introduced to Americans: Le Creuset, Bundt cake pans, silicone spatulas, Wusthof knives. Rolling over a picture pops up a brief description of the item and a link so we can shop for it. This is a great way to make corporate history relevant: the page reminds us that without Chuck, we might never have heard of these items, and then gives us the option to buy them.

Accessibility: A
The Contact Us page offers the standard options (phone, email, fax), plus toll-free numbers for foreign customers and an online form. New to us was the “Let Us Call You” feature, which appears on every page. Those of us with limited phone minutes per month are always grateful if we can avoid time on hold. Our Commandment 8 of About Us pages is, “Remember to make yourself and your organization easily accessible.” “Let Us Call You” makes us feel like Williams-Sonoma really does want to speak to us.

Think about innovative ways to make it easier for your website visitors to reach you. And tie your business history into the history you share with your customers: it’ll be much more engaging.

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; has no ties to this company.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

JFK oral histories

One of the most effective museums I've ever visited is the Sixth Floor Museum of the former Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas, now owned by the JFK Library and redesigned as a memorial to the day of President Kennedy's assassination. What makes it so meaningful, in part, is the use of oral histories. The local disk jockey who was covering the motorcade on AM radio, the Parkland Hospital nurse who was the first to respond when the stretcher arrived, the motorcycle policeman who flanked the car on Jackie's side. . .their voices ring loud and clear through the headphones that the museum issues to each visitor.

Robert MacNeil (formerly of the MacNeil-Lehrer Report) covered that event too--he was in the motorcade. He lends his talent to a new oral history program that draws on recently discovered interviews. We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archives can be heard in its entirety online at and is highlighted during this week's "On the Media" on public radio stations. as well. Worth a listen, especially for those of us who remember exactly where we were that fateful day. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happy 23rd anniv to WWW

The World Wide Web turns 23 today, barely a college grad. How did we live without it? Inventor Tim Berners-Lee has been knighted for his work, a well-deserved honor. I'm glad they didn't name it "Mine of Information," but the poet in me has always wished that the protocol was "WEB-dot-sitename" (with a one-syllable WEB) versus "WWW-dot-sitename." The nine syllables of that WWW grate on the ear. Below is good history from The Writer's Almanac, that estimable service from PRI International. How prescient Arthur C. Clarke was!

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, courtesy of
Paul Clarke/Wikimedia
WWW ... "turns 23 years old today. The proposal for a new global system of interlinked documents on the Internet was published on this date in 1990.

"Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist who was working for CERN, wrote an early proposal in 1989. He wanted to create a more efficient method of information management and communication throughout CERN, but soon realized that the concept could be broadened to span the whole world. His first proposal didn't generate much interest, so he enlisted the aid of another computer scientist, Robert Cailliau. The pair produced a more elaborate proposal on this date in 1990, including a prototype Web page. They predicted it would take no longer than three months to have a Web of read-only files up and running, and they were correct. ... Berners-Lee and Cailliau tried on a few different names for their system, including Information Mesh, The Information Mine, and Mine of Information, but rejected them. Early on, they referred to the World Wide Web as W3, but that nickname didn't stick; most people just call it "the Web." ....

"The very first Web page was nothing fancy. There were no pop-up ads, no social media, no emoticons, and no funny cat videos. There was a page header that read "The World Wide Web Project," and an introductory sentence that explained, "The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents." The Web became available for use by the public in August 1991.

"The vision for the World Wide Web was already 20 years old by the time Berners-Lee wrote his proposal. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke had predicted it in the 1970 issue of Popular Science, writing that satellites would "bring the accumulated knowledge of the world to your fingertips." People would access this information, Clarke prophesied, through a machine that was a combination of computer, telephone, television, and photocopier. He also envisioned every home having its own small computer that would deliver to a person "all the information he needs for his everyday life: his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need over the course of living in a complex modern society."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dow Chemical: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Back in 1897, when Herbert Henry Dow founded Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, the company produced bleach and potassium bromide. Soon it diversified into plastics, agricultural products, and other chemicals. Today Dow employs about 54,000 people in 36 countries. With sales of over $56 billion in 2012, it is one of the two or three largest chemical manufacturers in the world. The main About Us page is here.

(An aside: While Dow made bleach for industry in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 20th that the product made its way into U.S. households. The Electro-Alkaline Company, founded in 1913, launched that process. They’re better known now as The Clorox Company, and we’re honored to have written the Clorox history.) 

After half an hour on the Dow site, we had the uneasy feeling that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back to pages we’d already seen, and might well have missed important material. First problem: the navigation is incomplete. The drop-down menu under Company offers 12 choices, ranging from “Solutionism” to “Worldwide Olympic Partner.” Quite by accident, we stumbled across fascinating pages such as Leadership Insights and a Timeline. Why are these not accessible from the main menu?

A related issue: page names are deceptive and hierarchy is unpredictable. Awards are under Innovation. Geographies (which shows Dow sites worldwide) is under News rather than Locations. Our Commandment 7 of About Us pages is “Remember to keep navigation easy.” We mean not just visually clean and easy to read, but efficient at helping us find the information we want plus great material we didn’t realize we wanted.

Products/Services: C
A web search for “Dow Chemical” turns up stories about the Bhopal disaster, breast implants, Agent Orange, and the Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production site. To counteract this, the About Us pages of the Dow’s own site need to provide a stellar list of the ways Dow products have improved peoples’ lives over the past century – and to acknowledge negative events and perhaps explain them in the context of lessons learned.

They don’t. We thought there was no history of the company at all, until we typed “history” in the site’s search box and found a timeline that runs back to 1897. But its graphics are odd, its display occasionally goes awry (events of the 1940s march relentlessly across the introductory paragraph), and the pop-up, decade-by-decade format makes it impossible to get an overview of highlights.

The Discover Dow page links to a great archive of stories that explain Dow’s innovations in laymen’s terms. Good corporate storytelling—but unfortunately the stories are only accessible by clicking through the titles one or two at a time. With no indication of how many stories there are, few visitors will bother to keep clicking and clicking and clicking and .... Why not have an option for seeing stories by category, or at least for seeing a dozen or so titles at a time?

Personality: D
Herbert Henry Dow is mentioned only once on the Dow site - a one-line quote on the Timeline. Talking about how the founder’s vision drove the company would be a great starting point for an overview of Dow Chemical’s corporate history and its goals for the future. The bios of the current Leadership (buried under Investors / Corporate Governance) don’t give any better sense of the company’s direction. The Leadership Insights page features links to Dow’s management talking about important issues ... but that page isn’t accessible from the Leadership page.

And then there are the oddities. The Leadership bios are written as if for a third-party publication, e.g., “Andrew N. Liveris is President, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Dow Chemical Company, a global specialty chemical, advanced materials, agrosciences and plastics company based in Midland, Michigan with 2012 annual sales of approximately $57 billion.” This seems to have been pasted in without thought of the context: it suggests to us that no one really expects visitors to read the bio. In the midst of the text of the main About Us page we are warned: “References to ‘Dow’ or the ‘Company’ mean The Dow Chemical Company and its consolidated subsidiaries unless otherwise expressly noted.” We understand that Dow Chemical doesn’t want to be confused with, say, Dow Jones. But is this a website or a binding legal document?

Accessibility: D
The Contact page is easily available from the foot of the left-hand navigation menu. It leads to a one-size-fits-all online form: no options for specific topics or for the major departments of Dow. The only other choice for communicating with Dow is via telephone or fax.

Make sure that your site plays up the best aspects of your company, and that visitors can find the great material you put there.

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; has no ties to this company.

Monday, November 4, 2013

75 Years in 75 Seconds

Check out Xerox Corporation's video featuring 75 years of its history in 75 seconds, beautifully done.

Happily, there’s also a business history book that focuses on Chester Carlson and his invention of the photocopying machine: David Owens’s Copies in Seconds. 

Here's a great quote from Carlson (1906-1963) about the origins of his idea. Satisfying to see how he followed several interests at once and found a way to combine them, right from childhood. Of course, I also love that he "started a little inventor's notebook."

"Well, I had a fascination with the graphic arts from childhood. One of the first things I wanted was a typewriter—even when I was in grammar school. Then, when I was in high school I liked chemistry and I got the idea of publishing a little magazine for amateur chemists. I also worked for a printer in my spare time and he sold me an old printing press which he had discarded. I paid for it by working for him. Then I started out to set my own type and print this little paper. I don't think I printed more than two issues, and they weren't much. However, this experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes. I started a little inventor's notebook and I would jot down ideas from time to time."  

[Quote source: Dinsdale, A. (1963). "Chester F. Carlson, Inventor of Xerography—A biography". Photographic Science and Engineering 7: 1–4]