Is this the end of the website as we know it?

Websites have always been the cornerstone of a brand’s online presence, but over the past several years there has been a shift. The rising popularity of mobile has led to a diversification of the ways customers interact with brands. This splintering of the online ecosystem leads to a question: Do brands even need websites anymore?

This question has cropped up before. Each paradigm shift brings a wave of commentary about how the “new thing”—mobile, social media, apps—could signal the demise of the website. Inevitably, the response has been that websites remain important, they’re not going anywhere, and brands still need to focus on them. That has proven to be correct so far and probably will remain so in the near term.

But the reality is a bit more complicated.

Demise? More like diminished

While websites might be sticking around, one thing is certain: They are no longer the most important part of a brand’s online portfolio.

Ten years ago, the website reigned supreme. But then mobile happened, and the rest is history. Desktop browsing is now considered a “secondary” touchpoint, according to ComScore, which found that all digital growth today comes from mobile. Mobile expanded rapidly alongside the aforementioned explosion of apps, social media sites, and messaging platforms. To remain relevant and useable, websites and digital ads must be responsive to multiple screen sizes.

Rather than focusing on a single primary touchpoint—a website—brands must now cultivate an ecosystem of online assets and maintain a unified visual identity across that entire network.

About that “unified visual identity,” though …

The trick for brands is not just supporting that expanding ecosystem, but doing so in a way that delivers a consistent, on-brand experience.

In her Monotype webinar last fall, IBM Design Language Lead Hayley Hughes espoused the concept of “unity, not uniformity” when developing this brand ecosystem. The idea is that everything in a brand’s portfolio should look like it was built with the same fundamental components—the same typefaces, color palette, and so on—but that teams should use those components to best serve their customers rather than adhere to strict corporate guidelines.

Type is central to this concept. When a brand has a distinct typeface, that typeface becomes the easiest way to connect each online touchpoint to the organization’s visual identity. In cases where design capabilities are limited—responsive ads sized for mobile, for example—it may be the only way to establish that connection.

To do this, brands need their on-brand typeface to be deployable everywhere. That means licensing for desktop (print and online images), web, digital ads, and app usage. This can be done individually as needed, or brands can package licenses into an enterprise-style agreement. This latter option acts as a branding toolbox that can be shared throughout the organization, meaning every team is using the same resources and ensuring consistency across the entire ecosystem.

What happens next?

While no one knows exactly what the future holds—for the website itself or online marketing in general—the trend lines are clear. As mobile continues to grow, traditional websites will settle into “secondary” status as brands search for new ways to meet customers where they are.

What will take their place? That’s harder to say. Google “What's next in online marketing?” and you'll find a deluge of hot takes and prognostications, many of which could be correct, and many of which will be tossed into the dustbin of Internet history. At a high level, messaging and chat apps (which have surpassed social media sites in terms of monthly active users), chatbots, personalization, and a greater commitment to the customer experience seem like obvious contenders to define the next several years of digital marketing. But we’ll see.

This means it’s more important than ever for brands to future-proof their visual identity. By equipping teams with the resources they need, brands can quickly create consistent, quality experiences in whatever new platforms arise. With respect to type, this means having a toolkit of fonts ready to be deployed in a variety of use cases.

The truth is that only customers can determine what the future holds. Companies that are prepared to respond to user feedback and to serve customers in whatever digital environments arise will have an easier time navigating the years ahead.