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10 lessons from the 2011 Webby winners

Thursday, 5 May 2011 | By Oliver Milman

With nearly 70 categories, attracting close to 10,000 entries from 60 countries, the Webby Awards don’t exactly provide a bite-sized snapshot of what defines the world’s top websites.


Nevertheless, the awards consistently assemble the best online practitioners on the planet. The awards are also a rarity in the online world due to their relative longevity – the first Webbys were held in 1997 when then-unknown sites such as Salon and IMDB were honoured.


This week, Freelancer.com scooped the employment category prize for 2011, the only Australian website to feature.


So what do online start-ups need to do to follow in Freelancer’s footsteps? We’ve sifted through the category winners and spoken to the experts to uncover the 10 key lessons you should be taking from Webby’s class of 2011.



1. No business should ignore the web


If you expect the Webbys to be stuffed full of Silicon Valley tech start-ups that weren’t around in the days when hash tags were just obscure keys on a keyboard, you’d be wrong.


Lego, American Institute of Architects and The New Yorker all feature among winners. Even if you are in a ‘traditional’ business, you need an online presence.


“The blurred lines between digital and non-digital is over – we're all in the digital space,” says Craig Hodges, founder of online marketing firm King Content.


“If you are a start-up today you must embrace the fact that your website is front and centre from not only a marketing perspective but also a business perspective.”


“It’s taken these ‘old-world’ brands a long time to understand this. Today's start-up just has to do it.”



2. Think about different platforms


Modern-day start-ups need to consider doing more than just build a website and hope that customers flock to it. Increasingly, mobile and apps are part of the mix.


David-Michel Davies, the executive director of the Webby Awards, told StartupSmart: “The biggest trend this year is in mobile and apps.”


“With the proliferation of the iPad and other tablet devices, we've seen a huge influx of really great apps, such as Angry Birds, this year's breakout success in games, Flipboard, a news app for tablet devices that builds a custom magazine based on your interests and social networking profiles, and Evernote, a productivity tool to organise ideas, reminders, and random thoughts.”



3. Brands can be built quickly online


Expecting overnight success from your web start-up is, of course, wilfully misplaced, as this video succinctly points out, but it’s true that online brands can be built quicker than they ever have before.


“There are some great success stories on the list that look like they have come from nowhere, but have obviously required bucket loads of blood sweat and tears,” says Hodges.


“Freelancer.com, Groupon and Gone Google have come from almost nowhere to be great brands quickly.”


“Old world marketing and business timelines are out the window. Start-ups are much more agile and the upside greater in shorter periods of time.”



4. Content is king


The Webby winners show that high-quality content is imperative, even if it’s low-volume.


Using social media channels to attract visitors and keep them with useful and interesting content is becoming more important than merely throwing as much as possible at the net and hoping that something will stick. Sites as diverse as the New Yorker and Onion prove this.


“All of these winners have great content,” says Hodges. “It goes without saying that all of these sites have developed great content strategies and value the power of content and that ultimately has paid dividends.”



5. Simple B2B tools are a winner


Improving the working life or online experience of others is as profitable, if not more so, than building a cutting edge, flashy site for your own business.


Tools such as Skype or Dropbox, which topped the ‘best practices’ category, Freelancer and TED all offer something of tangible use to start-ups. Is your site merely an online billboard for your business, or does it add actual value to the user?

6. Crowdsourcing is now mainstream


The bubble could always burst, of course, but, for now, crowdsourcing is front and centre when innovative web start-ups are formulating their business models.


Alongside Freelancer, Avaaz, which was recognised in the activism category, is making great strides by harnessing the collective will of the public. There are still niches within the crowdsourcing category to be exploited, so if you’re going to do it, now is the time.



7. Animation has its place


One of the cardinal sins when creating your website is to introduce as many flashing, colourful animated elements as possible. You may think your site looks lively, but it simply annoys users.


Animation, however, does have its place, as long as it’s not self-indulgent. Lego, for example, won the Webby for the best homepage thanks to some simple animations that wonderfully show off its range.


Ben the Bodyguard, meanwhile, has a nice feature that animates a man walking down the street, revealing text as he goes, as you scroll down the screen.



8. Have a solid strategy


The 2011 Webbys has the beautiful, in Monet, and the functional, in Zappos. Both won awards, however, because they fulfil their respective, but very different, functions.


It all goes back to the core strategy of your website. What do you hope it to do? It you hope it to be a high-volume retail outlet, Zappos-style simplicity is ideal. If you are a high-end boutique that requires people to visit a store to view the clothing, a very different kind of proposition is needed.


Even if you have a very simple site, however, there’s no excuse for looking amateurish.


“I think if you look at the (Webby) start-ups, they haven’t shirked on design,” says online entrepreneur Fred Schebesta.


“They have put some serious effort and work into making great designs and great products. I think those two go hand in hand from these awards.”



9. Don’t forget navigation


“I think the Webbys are great for not just promoting the coolest gimmick or the site with the most traffic but also looking at best practices and best navigation and structure – something a lot of businesses see as a secondary consideration when developing their website,” says Ned Dwyer, head of digital marketing agency Native Digital.


Is your website easy to navigate? Does it provide a good user experience? Could you change some small elements of the site to lessen frustration that users may have?


Even you aren’t sure, check out the Webbys best navigation and structure winner Hidden Heroes and runner-up Zappos.



10. Learn from the mistakes of others


Alongside the more obscure reaches of the online world, there are some familiar names on the Webbys list – Skype, New York Times, Twitter and Pandora, to name a few.


Several of these established internet giants have made serious mistakes in their past, ranging from poor marketing to problems monetising content. All, to varying degrees, have managed to bounce back.


As Schebesta puts it: “A lot of the sites look like they have been through quite a few iterations to get to where they are.”