If you cast your memory chips back to the late '90s, you may remember a time when the hottest thing on the Web (for business, at least) was the idea that everyone needed to make their site a portal. No longer was it enough to have actual information about your company...noooooo, now you had to have stocks, weather, traffic, news feeds, recipes, games, and (if an electronic version was handy), the proverbial kitchen sink as part of your corporate homepage.
Why? Well, it's easy to ask that question now, but back then someone bucking the trend might ask The Powers That Be why someone would want to get news, weather, and gardening tips from the homepage of, say, a chemical company. And that person would have gotten nothing but blank stares from the black-clad management types ordering said "portal."
Or they may have gotten the following response: Why? Because we want our Web site to be sticky, you idiot! We want to capture eyeballs with comprehensive content that boosts page views and lengthens time-on-site! Don't you realize how we could flip the paradigm of communications if we could capture enough eyeballs to monetize our investment? Once we start selling advertising on our homepage..."
Yeah, it may sound crazy today, but back then the idea was that by putting enough gadgets and geegaws on your corporate site's homepage you could somehow create an experience compelling enough that anyone stumbling on your homepage would be compelled to make your corporate site their "homepage."
Of course, we've all learned that things don't work that way. The search marketing revolution (and the sub-basement performance of display advertising) has taught us that it's kind of hard to snag people who aren't looking for your product or service in the first place. People rarely end up at your Web site by accident -- with the exception of StumbleUpon where visitors take take random Web walks.
If people are visiting your Web site, they're usually there for a reason. They've got a task to perform -- find information, buy something, read an article, play a game -- and they're going to do it and move on. Nothing personal. Just gettin' stuff done. The idea that one of the users might make your site their homepage...well, it just seems kind of silly now.
Yes, there are a few exceptions to this behavior. Brands that inspire fanatic loyalty -- Apple, for example -- or e-commerce sites that have figured out the trick of involving users in rating and commenting on products -- see Amazon.com and Netflix -- enjoy a stream of regular visitors. Well-read content sites and blogs that do a good job keep people coming back to read and possibly even comment on their content. Sites that offer services that have risen to the top of the heap in terms of the size of their user base -- see Twitter -- also have a lot of repeat traffic and legions of loyal users.
And then there are social networking sites. Loads of users. Tons of traffic. Stickier than a Cinnabon dropped in your lap. They're true communities that people are committed to and visit again and again.
They're also the model for a lot of dumb ideas.
Remember the mini-rant about portals at the beginning of this column? I'd place a bet right now that many of us have encountered the same exact kind of discussion with our clients and our bosses sometime in the not-so-distant past...not about portals (so silly now!) but about social networking. Social networking is the portal of the late '00s.
Heresy, right? After all, social networking is the fastest growing segment of the Web over the past two years! Social networking is a way of creating a conversation with our customers, a way to create communities of interest amongst our constituencies, a way to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...
Yeah, I know: I'm an idiot. I'm sure I'll get plenty of e-mails to that effect. But before you fire up your rant-o-tron, I'd like you to ask yourself a question: When's the last time you actively participated (beyond just asking a question on a support forum or making a comment or two) in a corporate-sponsored social network?
There's certainly a lot of interest in creating social networks: this list by Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang provides plenty of examples of companies providing white-label platforms for social networking. But as far as participation in these platforms...well, just go read this article about the latest research into the efficacy of corporate-sponsored social networks. And if you don't want to read it, I'll be happy to give you the bottom line: "Thirty-five percent of the [corporate] online communities studied have less than 100 members; less than 25% have more than 1,000 members - despite the fact that close to 6% of these businesses have spent over $1 million on their community projects." That's from a Deloitte consultant quoted by "The Wall Street Journal," folks.
This may come as a shock to those of you still high on the social networking tip, but if you think back portals, the reasons become clear: people don't really care all that much about your company. Yes, it's painful to acknowledge, but with a few notable exceptions I mentioned earlier, most corporate sites exist to provide some valuable services: providing information on products, taking customer questions, providing support, helping guide the buying decision, communicating investors. As much as we'd wish otherwise our customers aren't visiting because they want to hang out with us. They just don't care about what we do enough to put in the effort and, perhaps more importantly, they've got enough to do maintaining their social networks on the big social networking sites where they have profiles. There's a slim chance that they're going to join the "communities" we create because they already belong to enough of their own. There's only so much attention to spare.
The whole portal paradigm failed for the same reason. Just because we create something doesn't mean that people are going to come and use it if they have it available somewhere else. If you've spent the time and effort to set up your Google homepage with all your blogs, newsfeeds, and widgets. it's pretty hard to imagine that you'd switch over to a Proctor & Gamble-created portal. The same goes for social networks. If you've got profiles on Facebook, Plaxo, and LinkedIn (all of which are sites that could be considered "neutral" as far as corporate sponsorship goes), it's pretty ridiculous to think you're going to join up with your lawnmower company's social network, even if you think your mower is the greatest mower in the world. It's just human nature.
But the biggest reason for why social networking nirvana isn't within easy reach is one of the facts that's been dogging marketers since the beginning of time: creating a true community is hard. It takes work, it takes trust, it takes openness, and it takes a willingness to be able to give up control. And that, my marketing friends, is the thing that scares us the most and that we find hardest to do.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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