The Company Website as a Narrative Space

This article aims to rethink a set of basic questions concerning the company website.

I have often studied the works of talented men of letters and thought to myself that I obtained some insight into their minds at work. – Lu Chi (circa A.D. 300)

This article aims to rethink a set of basic questions concerning the company website: What exactly does a company website do; how does it function; and where, within its workings, can we find opportunities to improve upon it? Rethinking these basic questions can lead to a lengthy study. To avoid this, I will narrow my focus to just a few aspects of website capabilities, namely their potential as a virtual “architecture” and narrative space. As most participants in the FX industry operate remotely and electronically, it’s assumed that FX companies recognize the importance of developing and maintaining a strong company website and online presence.

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Let’s begin with three presuppositions:

  1. Every company website tells some kind of a “story.” It may not tell a story in the traditional sense; rather, it contains the necessary elements to produce a narrative trajectory or effect: setting (you enter a space), sequence of events, modes of tension/resolution and character interaction.
  1. The company website is a virtual architecture. Given that most retail FX participants operate remotely and electronically, the website constitutes a company’s primary “location” (albeit a virtual one), supplanting the traditional brick and mortar space. For this reason, alone, the company website performs a critical function and holds a privileged status.
  1. The company website is a representational embodiment of corporate identity and presence (i.e. brand identity being one critical component).

So here we have it: a hybrid architectural entity that has interactive and narrative capabilities. Let’s critically explore the first two ideas while keeping in mind the effect they have on establishing the third (identity and presence).

Content’s Direction and Refraction:

When viewing a website’s content for information, a visitor will often come away with much more, though without necessarily realizing it. The reason for this is that content, in general, has both directive and refractive attributes. Assuming that the focal aspect of content–the intended message–is a directed and self-contained process, the non-focal aspects of content—its support, delivery means, external references, etc.–are open-ended and subject to various interpretations. When viewing something as simple as product description, it’s hard not to perceive what it also might indirectly reveal: What a company thinks about its customers, how it views its own position with regard to matters of industry, social and cultural outlook, aesthetics, etc. This perception is based on how a company presents itself and its information (i.e. what it emphasizes and/or understates, how it uses different language styles in relation to types of information, how it organizes the user’s web experience, etc.). Content is inseparable from the structures that support it, making its delivery or reception a bit slippery. Although message transmission is a directed process, its delivery and reception process is never unmediated and is therefore subject to transformations.

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Virtual Space + Narrative:

So given the slippery nature of content and its supporting structures, how can a company take advantage of this dynamic? One solution is to exploit its transformative potential. This can be achieved when creating and managing the website as an experience that is aligned with a company’s strategy, culture/values and goals. After all, a website is not a mere receptacle for information retrieval nor is it a static forum. A website is an interactive experience, first and foremost. As an experience, the goal of an effective website is to affect as much as to inform. The speed of impression is much faster than that of deliberation.

Let’s go back to the first two presuppositions. If we think about narrative and space (architecture), and combine the two, we tap into a discipline concerning narrative-embedded structures. Think of Las Vegas, amusement parks or institutional (political or religious) spaces of power. What they have in common is: a sense that the “story” somehow precedes and awaits the visitor, a sequence of spatially-designated events, a degree of illusion (that the visitor may be aware of as a willing participant or not), and a process of tension/resolution. If we were to approach the company website as a narrative space, what would some of its components look like? Here’s one way of looking at it:

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Narrative Creation and Direction: Based on your company identity, what kind of experience are you creating and how are you going to tell it? The following sub-components should serve as helpful guiding tools.

  1. Narrative Arc: Once a viewer is on your home page, the “story” begins. How is that viewer going to be directed? Is there a comprehensive sequence to be “suggested”; is the sequence linear; does each page have an independent and encapsulated flow; do the pages have a montage-like sequence, etc.? Is the resolution and call to action embedded on each page or is the viewer led to a single page in which the resolution and call to action is prominently displayed?
  2. Semiotic Elements: Every image or utterance has a referential relationship to something “outside” of itself. For instance, let’s think about images. Some FX companies use stock photos that reference the gaming industry (trading as gambling and entertainment). Some may use photos that signify high-net worth financial institutions (FX as an investment-worthy asset class). If a site prominently features a person or people (supposing they are neither company principals nor staff), then one can only wonder if the image represents the company’s notion of its ideal customer. Does that image privilege a certain cultural or socio-economic group over others (it certainly wasn’t a random selection)? What are the people in the images doing, what do they represent, how are they placed, which images have prominent or marginal spatial positions? In short, what might the company be saying about its views on people? This is a complicated matter, but it’s better to take a deliberate approach, realizing that you can’t control every reference, than not thinking it through at all.
  3. Language Genres: There are infinite language genres within a given unified language. How are they organized and how do they interact? Is the language casual or technical? How are the main points stated? Does the language sound like a sales proposition, or does it sound like a solution coming from an expert authority, or a friend? Does the language sound legalistic? Is the language using a minimalistic (almost aphoristic) approach or is it long and drawn out?
  4. Design and Text: In cases where prominent images supplement textual descriptions, how are they intertwined? What kind of directional flow does it produce? Where does the “eye” tend to move? Do they flow together, or create dissonance and distraction for the viewer?
  5. Concentration – Spatial and Temporal Considerations: Have you ever come across a website that had multiple boxes of lengthy text? These constitute spaces of concentration for the viewer, and each space implies a certain amount of time for viewing/reading but also digesting information. How is your website managing these spaces of concentration? Will a viewer have time to focus only on a few items at the expense of others (perhaps missing other important sections), or will they read everything and end up forgetting most due to its saturated presentation?
  6. Repetition/Variation: Drawing from a music composition perspective, primary motifs (main messages) in music are always recurring. However, they don’t necessarily appear in their original forms when restated. They are permutated, augmented, diminished, embellished, etc. When your company delivers its message, how effectively is it using repetition/variation? Repetition is effective, as long as it is varied enough to avoid redundancy.

These are just a few elements to consider. But as you begin to analyze the smallest elements that make up the bigger picture, you may find more opportunities to strengthen your web content and, ultimately, your company’s online identity and presence. Remember that web content has two general aims: to inform and to affect. A customer can be informed without being affected, and vice versa. Managing both elements may lead to a stronger connection between your company and your customers.

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