Now that we’ve defined what a microsite is, the leviathan question remains: Does my brand need to launch one?
Even more so than other content marketing initiatives, microsites require serious commitments of time and resources to be successful. Despite the name, we’re not talking about a small endeavor. As a standalone content destination that lives on a separate URL, a microsite needs to bring the goods in order to attract and keep readers. Which means you need to make absolutely sure that you need one before you try to launch it. But how do you determine that? Start by asking yourself these three questions:
1. What are your objectives?
It seems like such an obvious one, but it can be tough to answer—or, at least, to answer with consensus behind you. What do you want out of this whole microsite business? In content marketing, as in most things, there is no wise decision-making without firm agreement on goals—if you don’t have goals, you can’t set KPIs, and if you have no KPIs, you don’t know what you’re going to be measuring to determine whether this whole thing was a success or not. Which, in essence, means you’ll set yourself up for failure before you even begin.
So answering the Big Goals Question is critical. What’s most important? Do you want brand lift? Lead gen? User retention? Help with recruiting/retention? A better process for onboarding new customers? Content marketing can help with each and all of these—but the content strategy will vary considerably depending on your goal.
Microsites, as we’ve discussed, are hardly the right tool for every goal. In fact, they’re rarely the tool for a lot of these goals. If user retention or customer acquisition are key, sending people to content on a totally separate URL makes little to no sense.
For brand lift, however, a well-made microsite with engaging content and lots of amazing interactive features, etc. (along with a nicely placed logo indicating your brand owns the site) can be a smart play. An independent site can also create a nice separation from your brand if you’re looking to branch out into areas/discussions beyond your primary business. (Case in point: Contently runs The Freelancer as a microsite, so that the audience can feel separate from the brand-focused discussions on this site).
2. What’s your topic?
As we’ve discussed in the past, it’s foolish to launch a microsite, or any content for that matter, that has nothing to do with the topics on which your brand is an authority. Which means that if you’re considering a microsite, it has to play in a field that relates to your product or brand. (At least tangentially—a credit card company can run content about lifestyle, music, etc., and still fall within the “relates to the product or brand” rule.)
Given how much microsites cost to launch, run, and maintain, now is not the time to be overly optimistic about how much people really want to read about your brand’s areas of expertise.
The simple reality is that people love consuming content about certain things on the Internet, and they don’t love consuming content about other things. This is why BuzzFeed’s “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity” can stockpile almost 16 million pageviews, while “21 Facts About Database Systems Administration” will not.
If your topic is not in that lovely sweet spot of widespread consumer interest, or even intense niche interest, it’s probably not worth your time to launch a microsite. If you want a great home for your awesome content, most of the time, a branded vertical (i.e., a content section on your existing site) will do fine. It will give you all the benefits of a microsite—a lovely blank page to design and fill however you like—and still keep your SEO in-house, as well as your traffic.
For topics that are click-fire, a microsite can provide that “destination” feel that will make users feel more engaged, and inclined to keep coming back. What are those topics? Just take a look on the Internet to see what’s popular, and you’ll know.
Take beauty, for example. Readers simply love it. In 2013, makeup videos attracted nearly 10 billion views on YouTube, and that number rose in 2014. Which meant that it was a smart play by L’Oréal to launch a microsite. The global brand saw an opening to provide great content in an insanely popular space, so they launched Makeup.com, a gorgeous microsite that has attracted plenty of interest.
The content is a well-designed mix of DIY tutorials, expert tips, trend reports, and beauty news. There are loads of original videos, interactive features, and interviews. The tone and voice are a spot-on rendition of “the beauty-expert friend who always looks her best and genuinely wants to help you do the same.” And the fact that it’s a microsite gives it some separation from L’Oréal itself.
For a global brand like this one, the play isn’t straight customer acquisition—it’s bigger than that. L’Oréal is building a media presence in a space that is guaranteed to bring readers, and the audience is likely to grow because the topic is so popular. The strategy has been so successful, the company has even launched offshoots like Hairstyle.com.
3. What’s your budget, available resources, and willingness to “go deep”?
This one relates back to the “extensive time and resources” point. A microsite can sink just as easily as it can rise (actually, the former is more likely) and there’s no point in playing a game you can’t win because you run out of resources halfway through.
Going back to the L’Oréal example, let’s break it down a bit. Before they ever hit “Publish” on a single piece of content, first the team had to take care of the basics, like purchasing the Makeup.com domain, designing an entirely new content site, and building it. Then they had to hire a staff to create all this content, manage it, amplify it—the list goes on. Then they had to attract big-name partners to promote it, like YouTube beauty celebs Michelle Phan (whose personal line is manufactured by the brand) and Eva Gutowski. All of this takes serious budget, time, and commitment.
And the spend doesn’t end there. A site like Makeup.com is consistently adding new features and updating both its tech and editorial strategy—in the Internet era you have to. A site that looked great a year ago will look positively arcane in 2015. No one ever said the digital age wasn’t fickle.
Let’s draw some conclusions
Given all the cost and effort of launching, running, and maintaining microsites, it’s safe to say that they generally make sense in two scenarios:
1. You’re a huge brand that focuses on products or services with proven consumer appeal (i.e., a lot of people love to read about them on the Internet).
2. You’re a smaller brand with a clearly defined niche audience that also has a clear appetite for regular content on this topic (and you have a lot of budget to throw around).
Even if you fall into one of the above categories, that doesn’t mean a microsite is the absolute way to go. Coca-Cola does amazing things with a branded vertical. As does Amex. A good strategist can walk you through the best plan for your brand—after all, every brand and situation is unique. But leaping into the microsite fray without a strategy is a bit like tossing money out a car window and hoping it lands in a bank vault.
(Full Disclosure: American Express and Coca-Cola are Contently clients.)