What the Hell Is a Microsite and Why Do I Need One?

One of the most frequently tossed-around terms in the content marketing lexicon is “microsite.” If you think it’s used interchangeably with “branded blog,” “communication platform,” or “independent campaign,” you’re right. They’re all essentially the same thing: a website on which your brand publishes content, and to which your desired readers (hopefully) visit.

Since there really hasn’t been a formal definition of a microsite, I’ll go ahead and create one:

A microsite is a branded content site that lives outside of the company homepage and/or brand URL.

That’s it, really. What differentiates a microsite from a company blog or newsletter or any other branded platform is that it has its own independent URL—likely one that doesn’t include the name of the company sponsoring the site. If you have to register a new domain name, you’ve got yourself a microsite.

But wait! you cry. Can’t microsites exist within a brand’s own site?

Sure. All rules have exceptions. But generally, if a microsite lives on the company’s URL, we’ll call it a “branded vertical.” Like this one.

Now that we’ve gotten the semantics out of the way, let’s break microsites down by their type and value. All microsites can be subdivided into two categories:

1. Sites based around a campaign

Campaign-based microsites are independent sites (i.e., their own URL) created for the sole purpose of anchoring and/or supporting a branded campaign. They’re launched, populated with content (be it written, video, visual, etc.), amplified using whatever strategy the brand sees fit, and then left alone.

An example is Prudential’s “Bring Your Challenges” site, which offers interactive features about the financial life cycle of the average middle-class American. You can watch videos, take quizzes, and track stats that might be relevant to your life. The Prudential-branded site, which lives on and is almost entirely self-contained (you won’t get spit out to, is part of a multi-platform campaign including TV and print ads and plenty of digital buzz.

prudential bring your challenge microsite

The advantage of sites like this is pretty clear: You build it, you amplify it, you leave it. If you’ve tackled the hard part of creating a great site—which plenty of brands are doing—then you can pat yourself on the back while the traffic rolls in. Whether you update the site every occasionally or amplify it on an ongoing basis, the bulk of the work is behind you. Your evergreen microsite stays forever green.

2. Sites that publish regular, ongoing content, presumably for the indeterminate future

These sites act like media sites, in that they publish original content on a regular schedule—and they never, ever quit (unless someone pulls the plug).

A familiar best-in-class example is Red Bull’s aptly named Red Bulletin. It functions like a healthy online magazine in just about every capacity—daily publishing, full staffing, regular redesigns, constant iteration, and steady growth.

red bulletin microsite

This category is a lot harder to pull off successfully. For one, it’s not easy to launch, grow, and maintain a content site that stays relevant, and that people actually want to read. If these were simple tasks, mainstream media sites—run by creative professionals who do this for a living—would have an easy time finding a fit in the digital marketplace, and then growing ad infinitum.

This scenario, of course, is not the case. Finding white space in the marketplace (a.k.a., “finding an original way to write about topics that people care about and that aren’t already being covered to death on other sites”) is a challenge for anyone launching anything on the Internet. If you get this part wrong, your site is doomed.

Even if you get it right, as Red Bull did, you have to go bigger and bigger (and, often, use bigger budgets) to keep that audience, and to top other sites in the same space.

There’s also the basic truth that creating new content, day in and day out, takes a level of work and commitment that would make most people run for the hills. The Internet is a beast that must be fed nonstop, and keeping it sated takes budget, time, and resources. This means hiring a team, overseeing and managing that team, then meeting and tracking and iterating and relaunching and all the other expensive, tricky tasks required to maintain and grow a content site. There’s no end in sight, no guaranteed reward. Years of toil on a microsite might still result in meager readership. The Internet owes you nothing, whether you’re a newbie blogger or a C-suite exec.

Are ongoing-content microsites worth it? It depends on the details of your situation. (And the discussion of microsites’ ROI is worth its own column—coming soon!) If you can pull a microsite off successfully, there’s a big upside: You’ll have a powerful way to communicate directly with an audience, and build relationships over time.

Without question, though, before you embark on a microsite, you need to lay out a careful strategy to determine which of these two categories it should fall into, and why. Whether your microsite becomes the next Red Bulletin or dies a silent death depends on it.

Melissa Lafsky Wall (@Lafsky) is the founder of Brick Wall Media.

Image by Deb Wenof

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