If you’ve been tossing around these two terms interchangeably, it’s okay. We won’t hold it against you. With some overlapping features and functionality, websites and digital platforms are easy to confuse at first glance.
In reality, they provide very different user experiences — and knowing the difference can be crucial to meeting your business needs.
How are Websites and Platforms Different?
The fundamental difference between a website and a digital platform lies in how you approach user engagement. Websites provide one-way engagement, with users ingesting whatever content the website delivers. Platforms offer reciprocal engagement, with interactions between a platform and its users generating personalized experiences.
Websites rely on implied audience data capture, meaning that users are grouped into broad buckets. If, say, lots of people click on a particular article, the site will assume that most visitors are interested in that topic and will feature it prominently. Essentially, websites are always working with the majority, not the individual.
By contrast, platforms use expressed data capture, where users provide identifying information by registering and logging in. Once someone becomes an authenticated user, you can learn about them directly through multiple touchpoints. That might include filling out forms, participating in discussions, adding comments, completing quizzes or surveys, or bookmarking content. By supplying a platform with real data, users get experiences tailored specifically for them.
Personalized data also allows platforms to streamline business workflows. Take HR processes, for example. When someone logs into a company intranet, they could receive a reminder to complete any unfinished HR forms — a tool that’s convenient and efficient for both the employee and the HR department.
Users generally can’t personalize anything on websites; they visit them for information. Here a few kinds of traditional websites:
- Editorial news: MSNBC, Buzzfeed, The New York Times
- Non-profits: United Way Worldwide, Tourism Saskatoon, Girls Who Code
- Marketing: Well, this one that you are reading right now :)
Platforms encourage users to actively contribute to the digital experience. Here are some examples of what you can do with a platform:
- Amazon: lets you shop faster and more efficiently with personalized recommendations
- Wingspans: uses personalized content discovery to help students explore careers
- MyFund: an easy-to-use, mobile-friendly web app for charitable donations
- Company intranet: provides digital interactions that enhance company culture
- Mirror: customizes workouts based on your goals, preferences, and performance
The Impact of Engagement
Owners of both websites and platforms are generally aiming to increase engagement as a measure of success. But what does that look like?
For a website, increased engagement is indicated by metrics like increased page views, longer “time on page” stats, lower bounce rates, and higher conversions (such as contact form completions or button clicks). Note that all of those metrics point to things that benefit website owners, not users.
News sites want more page views and longer page sessions so they can sell more advertising. Business sites get people to download whitepapers or fill out contact forms, generating sales leads. These are marketing websites designed to capture users’ interest. When a user clicks on a call to action, it shows they want to know more about what the site is advertising.
Once someone engages with a digital platform’s content, however, a two-way conversation begins. The goal is not to just push out content, but to ensure the audience interacts with it. That’s why platforms measure engagement in terms of personalization, community building, and loyalty metrics — things that indicate whether the platform is meeting the needs of both owner and users.
Platforms are also more likely than websites to turn users into loyal customers and brand ambassadors. To get someone to be an advocate for your company, they need to get something of value in return. Websites provide information that’s convenient, but users aren’t getting anything personal from the experience. A platform, by contrast, provides a highly personal connection between a business and its audience.
Which One is Right For You?
The answer, as with many things business-related, is that it depends on your goals.
The purpose of a website is to get users to consume content and return to the site to consume more. If you mainly need an informational site that serves as marketing for your business, a website is likely a good fit.
But what if you need more than that? Maybe community-building is important for your business, whether you need the network effects of a large user base (like social media) or you’re looking to increase employee engagement (as with an intranet). If your business goals require truly understanding your users and building meaningful two-way relationships, you need a digital platform.
In the end, it comes down to how much you need to personalize the user experience to support your business goals, and whether the extra engagement will provide a real return on investment. If you’re pushing out content for marketing purposes, go with a website. If personalization and loyalty are core factors in your business success, build a digital platform.
Looking for a partner to build the right platform for your business? Contact us today to learn how we can help.