Meltwater is a company with a simple product: A database of media contacts. These contacts are otherwise hard to find, as most reporters don’t want every “disruptive” startup out there calling them to beg for a story. Yet for a few thousand dollars a year, Meltwater will give you reporters’ emails and phone numbers — placing you one step closer to that elusive “Featured On:” banner.

It’s a simple product. It has a simple value proposition. It should not be difficult to explain to potential customers.

And yet, the first thing you see on Meltwater’s Web 20.17 parallax-ed bootstrap-ed responsive home page is the title card confidently declaring “Welcome to Outside Insight”. Behind it, a video plays, showing, in order: A laptop being placed on a desk. A globe resting on a shelf. A coffee cup being set down. A clock ticking.

What?

Perhaps we’ll see what this company does, what their product is, if we scroll past the first fold… “See how you can use media intelligence to inform strategy, connect with your audience, and measure success.” A button invites us to try a demo, but doesn’t bother to mention what this might be a demo of — clicking it takes us to a contact form, which seduces us with the promise, “Learn how to take your PR and social media marketing programs to the next level”.

At this point, I’ve given up. I’m back to Google, back to searching for a database of media contacts, because even though I came to the Meltwater page knowing exactly what I wanted, I have no idea what they offer.

The New Normal

In reality, when I first encountered Meltwater a year ago, I ended up purchasing their product. I eventually blasted through the confusion of the first page to a phone number near its bottom, and soon was speaking with a human about what the company’s product was. The human told me things that could’ve been explained in five sentences on a landing page, but hey, at least they got a commission out of it.

I barely noticed the Kafkaesque horror of that landing page. I wasn’t fazed that I couldn’t decipher whether Meltwater was a global logistics firm or an office feng shui consultancy. I didn’t mind: Because this was what I’d come to expect from this decade’s websites.

More and more often, upon discovering a new company or product, I visit their website hoping to find out what it is they do, but instead get fed a mash of buzzwords about their “team” and “values”. And this isn’t a side dish — this is the main entrée of these sites, with a coherent explanation of the company’s products or services rarely occupying more than a footnote on the menu.

The examples are countless, and Meltwater only came to mind because I had an email from them in my inbox when I began writing this piece. But, oh, I’ve wanted to talk about this for such a long time, let’s just look at another two of the more… acute cases.

Optimizely

“Good afternoon! Innovation is all around you. Ready to tap into it?”

When my good friend called to say he’d landed a job at this fast-growing company, I wanted to see what on earth they did. The greeting in the first fold made me think, pyramid scheme, probably.

The second fold was a relief: “Be bold. Let your whole team play. Experiment everywhere”, with subheadings “Make your digital channels work harder”, “Deliver exceptional customer experiences”, and “Turn a one-time ‘like’ into long-term ‘love”. Ah yes, no multi-level marketing here. Just another useless analytics tool with nothing of substance to provide.

84.51˚

“We believe in making people’s lives easier”

Probably a pharmaceutical firm, the background image of a laughing father and daughter imply some sort of life-saving drug.

“Our unique, long-term approach to data analytics helps us provide a whole new depth of understanding and a higher level of insight for our customers.”

Aha so you make charts because you work with data sets that can’t fit into Excel. But what kind of data sets? Let me just click on “01: Who we are”…

“We make people’s lives easier. Simple idea, right? Not exactly.”

You know what’s a simple idea? Telling me what your company does.

“We define ‘people’ as our associates, customers, clients and the communities we serve, and we work hard to achieve a deep, personal understanding about all of them. Implementing the learnings — to make their lives easier — is the hard part. Whether it’s shown through offering unparalleled workplace culture and benefits, providing targeted and useful content or using data to help retail strategies come to life, we have the tools to ensure that, depending on which people we’re serving, we can make it work.”

…and I’m out.

I actually came to this site because I was looking for a very specific database: Sales of consumer goods, per item, per week, in all Kroger stores. Numerous blogs had told me that 84.51 was a company co-owned by Kroger, and initially set up to provide this very product. Yet after spending 15 minutes on a site that looks like it belongs in the MoMA, I gave up and turned to Nielsen, which offers a similar product (and is antiquated enough as a company to feature “content” and “product explanations” on their website).

What’s Going On?

I’m not writing this piece for lack of emails to answer or work to do, I’m writing it because today, I finally snapped. I’ve been putting up with these websites more and more in the past few years. Especially so after founding Carpe Lotion three years ago, and seeing, for the first time, the world of B2B services.

I’m confident that most people in the day-to-day of business will agree — the more expensive the service a B2B company provides, the more incomprehensible its website. When you’re getting your first domain, GoDaddy and NameCheap will tell you that, yeah, that’s what they do: They will sell you a domain. When you’re looking to host it, the marketing copy becomes a bit more flowery (what’s the ‘app dependency matrix’?), but you still know what you’re buying. Need online accounting software for your small business? Xero’s home page says “Online accounting software for your small business”.

This is what websites should be, this is when you think — oh this is nice, I know what’s going on.

But then you start looking for a marketing firm, maybe to help you buy some TV commercial spots. “Creativity. Measurability. Accountability.”, TandemROI’s home page creatively states.

Or you’re looking for a broker to take your products to retail, and Niche Products Inc.’s home page tells you their function is “Serving companies from around the world”. Hopefully not with subpoenas.

You persist, though, and those websites eventually relent, telling you what it is their companies do.

And then you get to the level where, even when you’re referred to a company, even if a friend or an article tells you exactly what they do, you get to their website and you start doubting everything. This is the level Meltwater is on, the level Optimizely is on, and the level 84.51 is on.

This is the level where persistence is useless, and resistance is futile.

Why do the big companies with the big products do it? Do they lack self-awareness? Do they have nothing of value to provide, and hide behind flowery marketing babble that’s as empty as their offering? Maybe, but I think this is unlikely. These are big companies, and they’re smart companies.

I think the big companies do it to get you on the phone — so they can upsell. Meltwater’s reps nearly talked me into paying thousands of dollars more per year for a few extra features. I haven’t spoken with the folks at Optimizely and 84.51, but I assume they have a similar strategy. After all, when all the products are laid out in a nice table online, with a few scary X’s and some nice green checkmarks, it’s easy to make a reasonable choice. When you’re talking with a salesperson who really knows how to play up those X’s, you’re likely to give up a lot more money.

So for the big companies, I truly believe these confusing websites, these websites that avoid at all costs telling you what the company actually does, are a deliberate tactic. Not to get leads, because I’m sure they realize they’ll lose a few in their artistic mess of a homepage. But to turn the leads they’d get anyway into overpaying customers.

And while I do my best to vote with my wallet and avoid companies that follow this tactic when I can, the big boys doing this stuff doesn’t surprise me. The real tragedy is when this standard of newspeak homepages trickles down to startups.

storytelling.io

When kids like me start companies, we don’t know what we’re doing — so we learn by imitation. There’s so much that needs to be written, so many things that need to be established: Customer service numbers, letterheads, financial projections — things we’ve never made before but need to crank out just to get started. With a few of these mandatories, we have a strong idea of how we’ll be “different” and “unique”. But with most things, whether we realize it or not, we copy what we see out there — so that we look legitimate.

Unfortunately, with the proliferation of high-profile obfuscation homepages, more and more entrepreneurs are seeing these as models to emulate. That, or they think the Free Responsive Parallax Template they downloaded was made just for them, and that “Our Team Works Wonders” isn’t simply this decade’s “Lorem ipsum”.

And maybe there are a few people out there who see yet another website which opens with “Simple, elegant solutions for your most challenging needs”, and think oh these guys are legit, but I guarantee you that the tide is turning, and more and more people see that and think oh these guys make nothing of substance.

And look, if your startup’s beautiful, award-winning homepage opens with a rotating box that says “We are: innovative — excited — intense — passionate”, I’m not saying you’re a bad person. We’ve all made far worse mistakes with our companies.

But please, for your sake and for the sake of everybody who’ll ever come across your website, realize it’s a mistake. Learn from it. “A one-stop shop for finding media contacts”. “The simplest website A-B testing tool on the market”. “A comprehensive and analytical insight to retail sales”. “A treatment for sweaty hands and feet”. These are what titles used to be, and this is what they should be. They should tell people who you are, what you do, and maybe even why they should be interested.

But they should not look to dazzle with style over substance. They should not make vague promises that can neither be kept nor broken. They should not be applicable to every company that can afford marketing consultants.

So please, when you’re building your homepage, unless you’re Meltwater or Optimizely and trying to badger me into picking up the phone and calling your salespeople and telling everybody I know to avoid your company — please, for the love of God, please just tell me what your company does.

*TandemROI and Niche Products are both great companies that I love working with — sorry for picking on you guys!



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