Journal of Interactive Advertising, Volume 3, Number 2, Spring 2003
The primary purpose of this study is to explore and explain the concept of the Web site as corporate advertisement. Three coders analyzed 160 corporate Web sites. Corporate Web sites are able to combine multiple functions such as providing information and image-building strategies for companies and their brands as well as direct and indirect selling functions. Corporate Web sites are also able to address multiple audiences from a single umbrella site. Message strategies were more likely to be informational than transformational – possibly reflecting the information-delivery potential of the Web. In general, high-revenue companies had more functions and addressed more audiences through their Web sites than low-revenue companies. High-revenue companies were also more likely than low-revenue companies to use transformational message strategies. However, no predicted relationships were found between overall message strategy and either number of functions at the Web site or number of audiences served. The study provides details on application of a relatively new message strategy model to a unique new form of corporate advertising – the World Wide Web.
Internet advertising is more than banners, buttons, and pop-ups. This study starts from the premise that the corporate Web site can be an extension of, or a different form of, traditional corporate advertising and that corporate Websites can be broadly defined as Internet advertising.
This study examines literature on three characteristics of corporate advertising – function, audience, and message strategy – and explores how those characteristics are applied in the multiple types of corporate Web sites. Product category and size of company were considered in selection of corporate Web sites analyzed in this study to ensure that a wide range of functions, audiences, and message strategies could be identified.
The primary purpose of this study is to explore and explain the concept of the Web site as corporate advertisement. Banners, buttons, and pop-ups may more closely resemble traditional advertising than do Web sites. But this does not diminish the importance of the corporate Website. Rather, this study will seek to show how Web sites can build on and expand the function of corporate advertising.
This study is an important addition to the literature because it shows how Web sites are changing both the theory and practice of advertising. Traditional concerns such as function, audience, and message strategy remain, but issues may shift in an environment where marketers have virtually unlimited time and space to communicate their messages. By examining the corporate Web site as corporate advertising this study may provide advertising practitioners with tools that will help them to better integrate the Web site into the marketing communication plan. The study also tests a relatively new model for defining message strategies and seeks to expand advertising-related theories to Web-based messages. Thus, findings may also provide researchers with new tools for analyzing Web sites and new directions for theory development.
Corporate Advertising: Purpose, Audience, and Message Strategy
With the enormous growth of the advertising industry, corporate advertising has become a significant business activity with expenditures exceeding $9 billion as of 1996 (Belch and Belch 1996). It is critical for brand managers as well as corporate advertising practitioners to understand corporate advertising strategies, because consumers’ knowledge formed from corporate advertising may influence the way they think about individual brands the company markets (Biehal and Sheinin 1998). Research on corporate advertising has examined its messages (Garbett 1983; Rothchild 1987), its objectives of enhancing corporate image (Haley 1996; Javagli et al. 1994; Schumann, Hathcote, and West 1991), and its role in increasing investment for brands (Javagli et al. 1994; Winkleman 1985; Winters 1986).
Corporate advertising (CA) pursues several purposes. Schumann, Hathcote, and West (1991), in their historical review of CA, stated that the role of CA has changed over time. In the 1960s, CA’s primary function was “goodwill” and its subdividing topics were “patronage,” “public relations,” and “public services” (Stanton 1964). The concept of “image advertising” was broadened in the 1970s and advocacy and issue advertising became central to CA. Advocacy and issue advertising provide means for companies to promote political, social and economic ideas and to elicit public support for corporate positions (Schumann, Hathcote, and West 1991). Currently, the demands of the marketing environment require that corporate image advertising continue to promote goodwill, but also that the message being conveyed have more clout. This can be achieved through issue or advocacy advertising, or through the newer “hybrid” ads – advertising that combines promotion of products and services while communicating a general message about the company (Hartigan and Finch 1986) thus addressing the constraints of limited advertising budgets.
McLeod and Kunita (1994) proposed a typology of corporate advertising based on either image-based objectives such as: “goodwill,” “charity,” “financial,” “employee recruitment,” and “awareness” or issue-based objectives such as “issue position” and “counter arguments.” Garbett (1983) also categorized corporate advertising as “issue or advocacy,” “image or identity,” “financial or investor relations,” and “market preparation (sales-related)” advertising. He also identified different objectives for different kinds of corporate ads. Many researchers suggest that issue advertising is fundamentally different from other types of corporate advertising (Garbett 1983; Rau and Preble 1988; Waltzer 1988). Issue or advocacy advertisements are designed to promote the corporation’s position on current social issues in order to influence public attitudes or public policy (Sethi 1979; Waltzer 1988).
One objective of CA may be to persuade an investor to look into a company’s stock while other ads have objectives such as attracting top scientists to work for the company. Therefore, the corporate advertising campaign of a company usually needs to consider multiple objectives to satisfy multiple audiences (Garbett 1983; McLeod and Kunita 1994).
Different objectives, or functions, and different target audiences can be associated with different message strategies in corporate advertising. Message strategy is usually determined after advertising objectives and targeting are established. Thus, corporate advertisers need to vary their message strategies for different stakeholders (e.g., investors, consumers, etc.) and objectives (e.g., building corporate image, driving sales, etc.).
Web sites can be used for all of the roles of corporate advertising identified above. To address multiple objectives and the differing needs of different audiences, corporate advertisers can include a variety of content in their sites. For example, multi-purpose umbrella corporate advertising can be effectively used in the Web environment because adding additional messages does not result in the need for purchasing additional time or space in media vehicles. In fact, like hybrid advertising, many corporate Web sites contain information about their products and services as well as messages that focus on both corporate image and issues.
Many features of these corporate Web sites reflect the objectives of corporate advertising detailed above. For example, some Web sites contain menu items for investor information that lead to information targeted to stockholders and other investors. A career menu item often leads to information targeted at prospective employees. Features such as these may satisfy the objective of enhancing relationships with various stakeholders. Other parts of the Web site provide information and/or branding for the company and its products.
The corporate Web site adds an important functionality that is not often available in traditional corporate advertising: sales. Many corporate Web sites combine advertising messages and distribution channels. Additionally, the Web offers a unique opportunity to combine multiple message types targeted to multiple stakeholders that was simply not possible when corporate advertisers were limited by the constraints of time and space available in traditional media. Thus, the Web has the potential to build on and expand the opportunities for corporate advertising.
Finally, the nature of corporate Web sites might be influenced both by product category and company size. Inherent characteristics of product categories are a critical factor affecting message strategies because the consumer’s motivation to purchase a product can vary based on product characteristics. For example, food companies might be more likely to appeal to the senses while apparel companies might be more likely to appeal to the ego.
Big companies are more likely to invest heavily in corporate Web sites than are smaller companies resulting in sites with more features and more message sophistication. High-revenue companies are also more likely to manage relationships with multiple stakeholders and will thus be likely to address more audiences through their Web sites than do small companies.
Theoretical Framework for Message Strategy
Although many researchers have investigated message strategies in advertising for specific products or services (e.g., Laskey, Day, and Crask 1989; Morrison and White 2000; Ramaprasad and Hasegawa 1992; Reid et al. 1985; Zandpour, Chang, and Catalano 1992), no studies were found that examined message strategies of either corporate advertising or corporate Web sites. While the purposes of corporate advertising are often quite different from those of brand advertising, basic principles of message strategy apply to both types of advertising. To provide a framework for analysis of corporate Web sites, more detail is provided here on the concept of message strategy.
Advertising strategy is about “what to say” while advertising tactics address the actual implementation of the message (Felton 1994). Many studies use the terms message strategy and creative strategy interchangeably. However, some researchers (Frazer 1983; Laskey, Day, and Crask 1989; Taylor 1999) have distinguished the two terms suggesting that the term message strategy focuses on the concept of “what to say” while creative strategy incorporates both “what to say” and “how to say it.” Taylor (1999) defined message strategy as “a guiding approach to a company’s or institution’s promotional communication efforts for its products, its services, or itself (p. 7).” The current study adopted this definition of message strategy and used Taylor’s six-segment message strategy wheel as a framework for examining corporate Web sites.
Taylor (1999) proposed a comprehensive message strategy model synthesizing a large body of knowledge dealing with message strategy. The model first divided advertising strategies into Carey’s (1975) two communication views: transmission and ritual. The division is similar to the informational and transformational dichotomy suggested by Wells (1980) and Laskey, Day, and Crask (1989) and those more familiar terms are used throughout the reminder of the current document. The purpose of advertising operating in the informational view is to impart, send, transmit or give information to consumers. Advertising using informational strategies provides factual product information about a brand. The Web would seem to offer an ideal venue for information-based strategies because of the virtually unlimited amount of information that can be included in a single Web site. The purpose of advertising operating in the transformational view is to construct and maintain an ordered, meaningful cultural world where consumers live. Advertising using transformational strategies associates the experience of using a brand with a set of psychological characteristics of consumers and constructs a shared meaning of using a brand among consumers. Larger companies have often made better use of transformational strategies than have smaller companies because they have more time and money to invest in building their brands through these experience-based strategies.
Taylor (1999) proposed six segments of advertising appeals by subdividing each of the primary categories. Within the informational view he identified three segments: ration, acute need, and routine. The transformational view is also divided into three segments: ego, social, and sensory.
In the ration segment under the informational view, purchase decisions are very important to consumers who seek as much information as they can get. The role of advertising is to inform and persuade. In the acute need segment, consumers need information to make purchase decisions but time limits the amount of information they can process. The role of advertising in this segment is to build brand familiarity and recognition. In the routine segment, purchase decisions are made on the basis of rational buying motives, but consumers buy according to habit without large amounts of deliberation time. Advertising appeals in this segment deal with convenience, ease of use, and product efficacy.
In the ego segment under the transformational view, purchase decisions are emotionally and personally important to consumers and “allow the consumer to make a statement to him/ herself about who he/she is” (Taylor 1999, p. 13). Appropriate advertising appeals are ego-related. In the social segment, products are “used to make a statement to others”(p. 13). The advertising appeals are related to gaining social approval and to recalling and reliving social experiences through product consumption. In the sensory segment, products provide consumers with “a moment of pleasure” based on any of the five senses.
Taylor’s model is valuable to the current study for two reasons. First, the model was developed on the basis of previous theoretical work from the fields of communication, consumer behavior, and advertising. Therefore, the model considers message strategy from the perspective of how people make buying decisions and how advertising works. While previous typologies of message strategies proposed various kinds of advertising appeals identified by practitioners without theoretical frameworks, Taylor’s model is based on several theoretical frameworks (i.e., Kotler’s buying model and individualism-collectivism). Second, the model offers more detailed reasoning for identification of sub-segments than other previous models (e.g., the FCB Grid) did. Because this model is based on consumers’ motivational behaviors, its application is not limited to message strategies in traditional media such as television and newspapers.
The following hypotheses about the corporate Web site as corporate advertising grow from the literature reviewed in the previous sections:
H1: Corporate Web sites will combine multiple functions found in traditional corporate advertising including: a) communication about the company, b) communication about the brand, and c) facilitating sales.
H1a: Web sites developed by high-revenue companies will have more of the above functions than those developed by low-revenue companies.
H1b: Web sites that utilize informational message strategies will have more of the above functions than will those that use transformational message strategies.
H2: Corporate Web sites will have messages targeted for multiple audiences available from the same umbrella Web site.
H2a: Web sites developed by high-revenue companies will target more types of audiences than those developed by low-revenue companies.
H2b: Web sites that utilize informational message strategies will target more audiences than will those that use transformational message strategies.
H3: Message strategies based on the informational side of the strategy wheel will be more prevalent than those based on the transformational side of the strategy wheel.
H3a: High-revenue companies are more likely than low-revenue companies to utilize transformational approaches in their corporate Web sites.
Finally, two research questions were developed to further test the application of Taylor’s (1999) six-segment strategy wheel in the context of corporate Web sites.
RQ1: What message strategies are used most frequently at corporate Web sites?
RQ2: How do message strategies differ among the eight product categories used in this study?
Content analysis offers a method for examining manifest content of messages and is an ideal tool for the current study that examines corporate Web sites. Traditionally, content analysis is primarily a quantitative method but it requires some qualitative analysis as well (Berelson, 1952; Stern, 1989). Researchers generally need to develop their own coding scheme for analyzing content, although sometimes researchers can adopt existing coding schemes established by their peers. Human intuition can intervene in the process of developing coding schemes. Although all research is subject to some human intuition, the process of content analysis allows relatively more room for the researcher’s intuition (Kassarjian 1977) than do some methods such as surveys or experimental designs.
Analysis of Web-based messages adds new complexity to the process of content analysis. McMillan (2000) reviewed nineteen empirical studies that applied content analysis to the World Wide Web and pointed out some problems with application of content analysis to Web research. Particularly, she noted that problems of sampling, unit of analysis, and work of coders are most challenging because of characteristics of the Web that are different from traditional media. The number of Web homepages is virtually impossible to measure and the number of subsequent pages under a homepage varies considerably by site. Moreover, many sites continuously change content. This ambiguity and complexity lead to complications in sampling, defining units of analysis and achieving reliable coding. But, as detailed below, steps can be taken to address these concerns.
Before the final content analysis was conducted, a series of initial pre-tests were used to develop a coding scheme for message strategies and Web features. Using the sampling frame and procedures to collect data as described below, 44 Web sites were examined by two coders in the first pretest. This pretest primarily aimed to identify ways to measure site functions and types of audiences addressed through Web sites. Later, three researchers each examined eight sample Web sites in two pre-tests that also provided coder training. The primary purpose of these final two pre-tests was to refine earlier coding schemes for message strategy to make them appropriate for Web site analysis and to finalize the coding of functions and audiences. This final coding document (see Appendices) was used to code 160 corporate Web sites.
Eight product categories were selected for analysis: Cookies, Beer, Clothing, Footwear, Audio & Video, Computers, Life Insurance, and Hotels & Motels. According to Taylor’s (1999) preliminary study of consumers, these product categories are expected to distribute across the six segments. For example, Life Insurance and Hotel & Motel categories would be expected to employ acute need strategies more than other product categories, while Cookies and Beer are expected to use routine or sensory strategies. The ration strategy is expected in Computers and Audio & Video categories. Selection of these product categories also reflects the distribution of message strategies across the product categories in a previous study using Taylor’s model to examine TV commercials (Lee, Nam, and Hwang 2001). Nonetheless, this distribution is not rigid; as Taylor stated, any ad may easily contain either a single strategy or multiple message strategies. Thus, this sampling of eight product categories is not designed to predict the outcome of this research but to enhance its external validity by considering a variety of product/service types.
Ward’s Business Directory provided the sampling frame. The directory contains all industries sorted by four-digit SIC code. This directory provides a good sampling frame for this study for several reasons. First, the directory contains numerous companies in each industry. For example, more than 250 life insurance companies are listed. Second, companies in each industry are listed by financial data, which enables the researchers to sample from both high-revenue and low-revenue companies to test hypotheses 1a, 2a, and 3a.
A total of 160 companies were identified (20 for each of the 8 product categories). In most categories, the top-10 and bottom-10 companies, ranked by revenue, were selected. A few exceptions were made. For example, three different divisions of Nabisco were the top three listings in the Cookies category; the second and third listings were disregarded and additional selections were made from the next high-revenue companies. Search engines such as Yahoo! and a database showing more than 1,600,000 manufacturing companies – D&B Million Dollar Database – were used to find Web sites for selected companies. Web sites were found for most companies in the initial sample, but some could not be found. In those cases the next highest-revenue (or lowest-revenue) company on the Ward’s Business Directory list was substituted.
Unit of Analysis
The unit of analysis was the homepage of corporate Web sites. Analysis of message strategy focused on text and graphics of the homepage but did not include analysis of links. By looking at the homepages in this way, the primary text and graphics can be considered as similar to many print advertisements. Furthermore, focusing on just the primary text and graphics helps to equalize differences between small sites with few links and larger sites with many links. Analysis of functions and audiences focused more on the links that were provided on the homepage. For example, if a menu item was labeled shopping, the site was coded as having a sales function. Similarly, if a link was labeled investor information the site was coded as targeting investors as an audience. In some cases researchers had to go to sub-menus to verify content, but the primary focus was on the homepage.
By using the homepage as the unit of analysis, Web sites of varying sizes can be more effectively compared. Web sites vary substantially in size. Ha and James (1998) reported Web Techniques’ estimates that Web sites range from one page to 50,000 pages. They argued that coding an entire site could be extremely time-consuming and introduce biases based on the size of Web sites. Furthermore the homepage is central to Web-based communication because it takes on a role more important than the headline of traditional print ads. The homepage not only states a key message, but it also provides a kind of “front door” to all corporate messages contained in the site. Most visitors to a Web site decide whether they will continue to browse a site based on their impressions of the homepage (Ha and James 1998). Thus, the homepage of corporate Web sites is an effective and valuable unit of analysis for this study.
This study took two separate steps in the coding process. First, message strategies of corporate Web sites were evaluated and coded. As previously noted, only the homepages of corporate Web sites were evaluated at this stage. However, when a Web site showed introductory pages, usually using Flash, before loading their homepages, an exception was made. To get consistency, these introductory pages were disregarded. Throughout the pre-tests, the researchers were able to identify the main images and text in each Web site without confusion.
Message strategy was coded in two stages. First, researchers determined whether or not each of the six strategies was used in the home page image and text. Because Taylor (1999) argued that multiple message strategies are frequently employed in a single advertisement, all specific message strategies employed on a homepage were coded. Then, coders used a 5-point Likert scale to indicate whether the message strategy was entirely transformational, relatively transformational, both transformational and informational, relatively informational, or entirely informational. This coding of message strategy was similar to coding schemes used in studies of message strategies of traditional advertising media (Morrison and White 2000; Lee, Nam, and Hwang 2001).
Functions and Audiences
In the second step of the content analysis, functions and audiences were examined. The pilot study of 44 sites generated a pool of 32 items that might indicate the function of Web sites and/or the audiences targeted. After review, this list was narrowed to three types of functions: communication about the company, communication about the brand, and facilitating sales. Communication about the company includes both informational and image-building features (e.g. corporate histories, philanthropy activities). Communication about the brand includes both informational and image-building features related to specific brands (e.g. product feature lists, individuals’ experiences in using a brand). The unique selling capability of the Web was coded in terms of both direct transactions (online sales) and indirect transactions such as providing contact information for sales people. Six different types of audiences were identified: business partners (e.g. distributors/retailers), communities, consumers, employees (prospective and/or current), government, and investors.
Final coding was conducted between September 18 and September 23, 2001. Data collection was compressed to address concerns about potential changes in content. However, this particular time frame resulted in a unique code that was added to the coding sheet during the final pre-test in mid-September. Researchers discovered some Web sites had added a message to their home page directly related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of these messages expressed concern for victims and their families and some indicated what companies and/or their employees were doing to help. This code is shown as an “acute response” function, but it may have also had some effect on the message strategy because most of these messages draw on the social message strategy. However, coding at this time provides a good opportunity to observe how each company reacts to a socially critical phenomenon. This is what traditional corporate advertising also does with a form of issue advertising as previously described.
Three researchers who are familiar with Taylor’s framework conducted the coding. The total of 160 Web sites were divided and each researcher examined one third of the sample.
Average time spent coding each Web site was approximately ten minutes. To calculate the intercoder reliability, 20% of the sample (32 Web sites) was selected. Selected sites were representative of the whole sample in terms of product category and size of companies. Two out of three researchers examined each of the 32 sites and the intercoder reliability of each coding item was calculated using Holsti’s formula. Intercoder reliability ranged from 75.9% to 87.5% with an average of 81.0%. Reliability scores were 80% or higher in most categories. The few items with lower reliability required qualitative and subjective decisions (e.g., the five-point Likert scale for overall message strategy).
Functions of Web Sites
As shown in Table 1, most corporate Web sites combine multiple functions as predicted by hypothesis 1. Only 4 of the 160 sites (2.5%) had a single function and 105 of the sites (65.63%) combined all three functions. The second-most frequent mix (20.63%) was sites that combined communication about the company and the brand but had no sales functions. Almost a third of all sites incorporated a message about the September 11 tragedy on their home pages.
Table 1. Summary of Functions
Hypothesis 1a predicted that Web sites developed by high-revenue companies would have more functions than those created by low-revenue companies. As illustrated in Table 2, this hypothesis was generally supported. High-revenue companies were particularly more likely to have both company and brand-related news releases linked to their home pages than were low-revenue companies. Web sites created by high-revenue companies were also much more likely to respond to the September 11 tragedy.
The smallest differences between high- and low-revenue companies were found in terms of how they either directly or indirectly facilitated sales. This may suggest that company size is not much of a relative advantage in terms of ability to do business online. This possibility is further supported by one of the significant findings reported in Table 2 that is not in the direction predicted by hypothesis 1a – low-revenue companies were more likely than high-revenue companies to include indirect transaction information. An example would be information about where to purchase goods and services in a particular area.
Table 2. Functions by Revenue of Companies
Most numbers in the high/low revenue columns above represent percent of sites that included a specific function (e.g. 87.5% of high-revenue sites included basic corporate information). However for the bold face categories (e.g. Communication about the Company) the numbers in the cells are the mean number of functions in the category (e.g. high-revenue sites had an average of 2.04 Communication about the Company functions).
Hypothesis 1b predicted that Web sites utilizing informational strategies would have more functions than those utilizing transformational strategies. The mean number of functions (combining all items coded for communication about the company, communication about the brand, and sales functions) for informational strategies was 3.99 and the mean number of functions for transformational strategies was 4.13, but this difference was not significant (F = .256, p > .05). Thus hypothesis 1b was not supported.
Hypothesis 2 predicted that corporate Web sites would have messages targeted for multiple audiences from the same umbrella site. Table 3 shows this hypothesis was supported. Most sites had links targeted to two or more audiences. The most common audiences addressed by these Web sites were consumers, business partners, and employees.
Table 3. Audiences addressed
Hypothesis 2a predicted that high-revenue companies were likely to target more audiences than were low-revenue companies. This hypothesis was supported with Web sites from high-revenue companies having links to an average of 3.13 audiences while those created by low-revenue companies linked to an average of only 1.63 audiences (F = 52.407, p < .001). As illustrated in Table 4, the largest differences were found in investor, community, and employee relations. No low-revenue companies had government relations links while only 7.5 percent of high-revenue companies had such links.
Table 4. Audiences by Revenue of Companies
Hypothesis 2b predicted that Web sites using informational strategies would have more audience links than would those using transformational strategies. Informational sites linked to an average of 2.45 audiences; transformational sites linked to an average of 2.30 audiences. This difference was not significant (F = .955, p > .05); hypothesis 2b was not supported.
Hypothesis 3 predicted that informational strategies would dominate Web sites. Table 5 shows support for this hypothesis. Nearly two thirds of sites are based on informational strategies while only about one third of the sites are based on transformational strategies. The prevalence of informational strategies is understandable because the Web requires more viewer involvement than traditional media such as television. In fact, most viewers enter corporate homepages very intentionally. Additionally, one of the most frequent motives users have for Web use is “information search” or “research” (Strauss and Frost 1999).
Table 5. “Transformational – Informational” Distribution of Corporate Web Sites
Hypothesis 3a predicted that high-revenue companies would be more likely than low-revenue companies to utilize transformational strategies. Of the sites that utilized a transformational strategy, 69.1% were high-revenue companies and only 30.9% were low-revenue companies (Chi-square = 11.641, p <.01). Thus, hypothesis 3a was supported. Specifically, ego and social strategies were preferred by higher-revenue companies, while the routine strategy was prevalent in the Web sites of lower-revenue companies as shown in Table 6.
Table 6. Message Strategies by Company Revenue
Two research questions were posed to further explore applications of Taylor’s strategy wheel to corporate Web sites. In answer to the first research question, Table 7 shows the distribution of Web sites among the six message strategies. Routine was the most popular message strategy (employed at 73.1% of Web sites), and the other five strategies were distributed relatively evenly (ranging from 25.0% for sensory to 37.5% for ego). Many corporate homepages show a single visual image and a short amount of copy designed to provide cues or reminders of communication about the company. This type of simple site was most likely to be coded as routine thus accounting for the high occurrence of that message strategy.
Table 7. Specific Message Strategies of Corporate Web Sites
Table 8 addresses the second research question as it illustrates differences in message strategy based on product category. Message strategies varied somewhat by product category. Specifically, the three transformational message strategies (ego, social, and sensory) showed significantly different distributions across product categories. The ego strategy was most often found in the Clothing and Footwear product categories. These categories often use ego appeals in their traditional advertising as well. The social strategy was most likely to be found in the Life Insurance category. This finding was strongly influenced by the social-based messages related to the September 11 tragedy found on many (11 of 20) of the Life Insurance sites. The sensory strategy was most likely to be employed in the Cookies and Hotel & Motel categories. Cookie sites often appeal to the taste or smell whereas Hotel & Motel Web sites often stimulate the sight.
Table 8. Message Strategies Across Product Categories
This study explored corporate Web sites’ functions, audiences, and message strategies. Most of the hypotheses were supported. The study provides strong evidence that the corporate Web site can fulfill many of the functions of corporate advertising.
Furthermore, with the virtually unlimited time and space a Web site enables, multiple audiences can be addressed at a single site. The information-driven nature of the Web was reflected in the dominance of informational message strategies.
While high-revenue companies were generally able to provide more functionality at their Web sites than were low-revenue companies, there is some evidence that the Web could actually help to level the playing field for smaller companies. Generally, low-revenue companies were able to come fairly close to high-revenue companies in the number of sales-related functions they provided. This may suggest that small companies are more focused on using the Web as sales tools then are their larger competitors. In particular, low-revenue companies seem to be doing a better job than high-revenue companies of providing Web-based information about how to do business with them. For example, many low-revenue companies provided information about where to find their retail locations.
High-revenue companies also were more likely to appeal to multiple different kinds of audiences than were low-revenue companies. This is intuitively logical because high-revenue companies will generally have more stakeholders than low-revenue companies. High-revenue companies are more likely to be publicly owned which could easily explain the fact that one of the biggest differences in audiences was that 56.3% of high-revenue companies include investors as an audience while only 8.9% of low-revenue companies targeted investors.
As shown in Table 4, even in the area of audiences there is some evidence that the Web might provide opportunities for smaller companies to compete more effectively with their larger competitors. The audience with the smallest difference between high-revenue and low-revenue companies was business partners. This is consistent with the trend noted for low-revenue businesses to use the Web as an indirect selling tool. Some of the smaller Life Insurance company sites provide an interesting example of how these two trends complement each other. A site might provide consumers with information about how to contact local agents of a small insurance firm. The site might also provide links that enable those agents to stay current on the offerings of the small company. Thus, using the Web to build and support networks of independent agents, small companies can provide many of the same services as their larger competitors and often have a price advantage because they have reduced overhead by doing much of their business virtually.
The lack of support for hypotheses 1b and 2b suggests message strategy is not closely related to number of functions or number of audiences addressed by a Web site. These two hypotheses were based on the idea that an informational strategy might be driven by the need to inform multiple audiences and/or support multiple functions. However, the findings are not surprising because both functions and audiences are potentially more enduring than message strategy. A company may choose to change message strategy as part of a new advertising campaign, but that is not likely to change the number or type of audiences it addresses. Shifts in audience would reflect a major organizational change such as becoming a public company and adding an investor audience. Similarly, shifts in the basic functions identified in this study represent large organizational issues. Decisions to sell online are often tied to long-standing distribution agreements that cannot be changed as easily as can advertising campaigns.
Findings related to hypothesis 3a found message strategy is related to company size. Specifically, high-revenue companies are more likely to use ego and social strategies than are low-revenue companies. These strategies may work best when there is already a relatively high level of corporate or brand awareness. Investing in brand building is a long-term strategy that is often not available to smaller companies that must focus more on reaching short-term sales goals in order to survive. The high number of low-revenue sites that used the routine strategy may reflect lack of attention to brand building among these companies. Many of these sites were little more than a corporate or brand logo with minimal text and links for various functions and audiences. Such a layout reflects a strong tactical focus without much strategic underpinning.
Even though high-revenue companies generally use transformational strategies more than low-revenue companies do, Table 6 reveals one interesting trend that should be explored in more detail. Low-revenue companies actually used the sensory approach more than high-revenue companies – even though the difference was not statistically significant. Again, this might reflect more tactical thinking rather than true strategic message planning. For example, low-revenue food companies might have simply selected a sensory-based strategy without thinking of other ways to effectively communicate their messages. By contrast, some of the high-revenue food companies utilized ego and social strategies that were more focused on building product and/or the company image through long-term branding efforts.
The routine strategy of Taylor’s model was the most popular message strategy. The dominance of routine is consistent with the result of an earlier study by Lee, Nam, and Hwang (2001) that reported routine as the most popular strategy in U.S. television commercials (found in 58.6% of 886 commercials). By contrast, Morrison and White’s (2000) study of Super Bowl ads found ration to be the most popular strategy (52%).
Distribution of other strategies in this study is quite different from findings of earlier studies. While ego, sensory, and acute need were employed in less than 10% of TV commercials as either the primary or secondary strategy in the study by Lee, Nam, and Hwang (2001), corporate Web sites were more likely to employ these strategies as reported in Table 7. Acute need was used in a quarter of all Web sites, while only 1.4% of TV commercials used this strategy. Morrison and White (2000) rarely found routine, sensory, and acute need strategies in TV commercials. This high use of the acute need strategy could be related to constant availability of the Web. A person in an acute need situation could use the Web to search for relevant products/services that will help to meet that need.
Product category is related to message strategies. Information-intensive products such as Computers and Audio & Video were likely to use informational strategies, while emotion-laden products like Footwear and Clothing were dominated by transformational strategies.
Previous sections have suggested some implications for marketers. Specifically, low-revenue companies lag behind high-revenue companies in terms of many of the characteristics of corporate Web sites examined by this study. But, there is evidence that low-revenue companies can still make effective use of the corporate Web site. In particular, small companies seem to be exhibiting a fair amount of flexibility in using their corporate Web sites to support their sales functions and maintain their relationships with business partners.
While some connections were found between message strategy and product category, they were not strong enough to suggest any kind of mandate. Not all cookie companies used a sensory strategy and not all clothing companies used an ego strategy (in fact the most common message strategy for both of these product categories was routine). This suggests that Web site developers have a great deal of flexibility in determining what strategies to use for making the corporate Web site an effective advertising venue. However, there is some evidence that the simple type of routine strategies described earlier can often be a kind of “crutch” for low-revenue companies that do not spend the time or creative effort to develop a solid message strategy.
The study also has implications for researchers. Perhaps most significantly, it confirms the notion that the corporate Web site can be considered to be a form of advertising. It fulfills many of the purposes of corporate advertising and allows the marketer to address multiple audiences. From a research and theory perspective this has broad implications ranging from identifying the corporate Web site as a valid venue for the study of advertising to the possible need to redefine advertising itself. Banners, buttons, and pop-up messages are “like” traditional advertising because they are messages placed in a medium by a marketer with the intent of reaching a specific audience. The entire corporate Web site is a marketer-controlled message that doesn’t have to be bought from any content provider. Targeting of audiences ceases to be based on concerns about finding the right venue for a message and shifts instead to a focus on how to make sure that the appropriate audiences find relevant information in the Web site.
The study also provides an important venue for applying Taylor’s (1999) message strategy wheel. It illustrates the flexibility of that model for identifying message strategy of a new form of advertising – the corporate Web site. The coding sheet provided in the appendices offers other researchers specific guidance in how to apply the strategy wheel to an analysis of message strategies in the complex venue of corporate Web sites.
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Studies
Future studies should address a few factors that potentially limited this exploratory study. A more sophisticated guideline may be needed for evaluating message strategies of corporate Web sites. Taylor’s six-segment strategy wheel was designed for use in analyzing strategies of traditional media. Future studies should consider ways to adapt the model to address unique characteristics of the Web such as depth of information available and interactive capability.
Future studies may also want to revisit the unit of analysis. While the homepage provides an important “front door” to the site, other links might provide more information about the corporate Web site as advertising. Evaluating entire Web sites may seem to be a daunting task. But qualitative research might help provide focus to future work. For example, interviews with consumers or viewers can capture what they feel about the homepage, subsequent pages, and specific Web site features.
Another qualitative approach that may be valuable in future studies is to employ in-depth interviews with practitioners who develop corporate Web sites. Understanding how they formulate message strategies and determine Web features could provide key insights into the use of the Web for corporate advertising. Researchers could also use qualitative research to compare intended strategies with consumer perceptions of Web sites. Such qualitative research could also explore what kinds of motivation arise from specific content and features.
The fact that multiple functions and audiences are accommodated at a single Web site as well as the reality that multiple message strategies are usually employed in a single Web site makes content analysis of corporate Web sites very demanding. To grasp the overall picture of each Web site, more work may be needed to develop an effective coding scheme without undermining intercoder reliability, a fundamental rule of the content analysis. One solution is to let a third person who is familiar with the study intervene in the coding stage as Morrison and White (2000) did. Another way to solve this problem is to have detailed discussion of disagreements between coders.
Nevertheless, this study can give some helpful insight for corporate advertisers as well as researchers who are interested in Internet advertising. The Web does seem to provide a venue for the primary functions of corporate advertising and it enables companies to address multiple audiences. High-revenue companies currently seem to be utilizing the Web as a venue for corporate advertising more than low-revenue companies do, but there is evidence that the Web can help level the playing field for smaller competitors. In the sites examined for this study, informational approaches dominate message strategy, but some companies are using transformational approaches. Technological development may influence future strategy development. For example, the sensory strategy might need more advanced technologies, which can stimulate visitors’ five senses. But even without tapping future potential technologies, this study shows that the Web is a viable and robust forum for corporate advertising.
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1. Message Strategy
2. Web Features (Check All That Apply)
1. Message Strategy
General direction: Mainly examine the main visual and texts but links including buttons. To get consistence, code the specific strategy (a) first followed by overall strategy (b).
a. Specific Message Strategy
b. Informational/ Transformational Strategy
General direction: This five-point scale needs to get somewhat qualitative sense. The decision needs to be made strongly based on the result of specific message strategy (1-a). For example, if no transformational strategy (e.g., Ego, Social, sensory) is found in the precedent step of 1-a, the decision on this item should be either “Relatively informational” or “Entirely informational.” If the coder evaluate that both transformational-side strategy and informational-side strategy are almost equally employed, “Both transformational and informational” should be coded. Both “entirely informational” and “entirely transformational” can be coded when all specific strategies coded in 1-(a) are one-side (either transformational or informational) strategies. (Basic assumption: Six message strategies can cover all message strategies.)
2. Web Features of Corporate Sites
Jang-Sun Hwang is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Advertising at The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His academic interest is consumer behavior on the Web with qualitative research.
Sally J. McMillan (Ph.D, University of Oregon) is an Assistant Professor of advertising at the University of Tennessee. He research focuses on exploring the concept of interactivity, definitions and history of new media, and impacts of communication technology on organizations and society.
Guiohk Lee (Ph.D., University of Tennessee-Knoxville) is an Assistant Professor of Communication Art at Sejong University, Seoul, Korea. Her research interests focus on advertising message strategy, cross-cultural advertising, and the social roles of advertising.
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