The Network Vision

Laying on your back for a week really does change your outlook on things.

No, I haven’t changed professions. Actually, last week I managed to find (and slip on) the last patch of ice left in the entire Baltimore metropolitan area. I’ll spare y’all the entire adventure, but the upside (or, in this case, the downside) is that I managed to break my ankle into tiny little pieces and now have to spend the next month or so in bed while it heals. Yikes!

But after getting out of the hospital, I was amazed to discover how easy it was for me to get back in the work-a-day world swing of things. Painkiller haze aside, as soon as I hit my home turf, I was back on the phone and Internet in a jiffy and connected back to my network of friends, employees, and associates.

In fact, if I hadn’t told you, dear readers, of my predicament, you never would have known that I’m writing this lying in bed with my feet propped up, daytime TV blaring in the background, and magazines strewn about. Not that it’s very different from my normal writing environment, but

The fact is that I was able to jump back into the grind so quickly because I was able to use current technology to connect to my personal network of people. The folks at work get harassed regularly by email and phone, my friends find me interrupting their workdays with requests for entertainment, and many of my clients have no idea I’m running the show from bed.

Neat, huh?

But this isn’t a testimonial about telecommuting. That’s thinking too small. No, the thing I realized, while lying here, is how the Net has transformed our lives by connecting us to everyone else, regardless of time, space, or physical condition. And we all need to start thinking about what we do, with people – not technology – in mind.

Static Communications

While we spend (or are paid) big bucks to put up corporate communications web sites, most of the time it seems like we’re creating barriers to communication, not facilitators.

Static communications vehicles such as brochures, annual reports, or sell sheets came about as necessary tools in a world where synchronous, point-to-point communication was (and currently is still) the norm. We are all part of larger “organizations” that communicate with other “organizations.”

Our “customers” break down into “market segments” that we must market to en masse. We tailor our communications efforts to reach the largest groups of people possible and filter all outgoing communications through a “department” set up to handle outgoing communications.

What we forget is that most external communication isn’t going through the marketing department – it’s going out through individual members hooked up to the Net, using all the tools at their disposal – email, voicemail, personal web sites, teleconferencing.

A Network Medium

So what makes these things so different from the old way of using phone calls and letters for personal communications, and corporate marcom vehicles for mass communications? The medium, folks, the medium.

Email isn’t just a letter – it’s a chunk of communications that can be endlessly passed on, commented on, modified, and re-purposed. A personal web site, or an informal group project site set up by an internal team, isn’t just something that wasn’t possible before the web. It’s a hell of a lot more.

Even the ubiquitous corporate web sites can’t be thought of in terms of traditional marketing communications vehicles. Indeed, the most brochure-like corporate site isn’t anything like a brochure, potentially speaking. Whereas printed pieces or one-way communications (advertising) exist as isolated entities unto themselves, the potential of the web allows us to do things that we never would have dreamed of ten years ago and that many of us still have trouble dreaming of now.

Tunnel Vision

Take the typical e-commerce site, for example. More than anything else, e-commerce has been cobbled by an over-application of analog world metaphors. We speak of them as “storefronts” and group them into “malls.” We create “shopping carts,” fill them with goods, and then “check out.” Why? Because limited thinking has led to sites with limited visions.

The first limited vision is that stores must exist by themselves, or at most be grouped together into “malls” where users can “browse.” Why? In the hyperlinked world, one click is as close as another, and content never has to exist in only one place at a time.

A recent Industry Standard piece shows how porn sites, never the ones to care much about convention, are having tremendous success through a process of mass networking, interlinking, and content outsourcing. Pay-for-view sites don’t try to make it on their own, but partner with a whole plethora of free-picture sites and content providers in a complex food-web of interdependencies that results in higher traffic, higher profits, and more money for everyone involved. Some have even started to sell “exit traffic,” placing ads in the faces of people leaving the site.

While many of their tactics are heavy handed and downright irritating, those of us in the more legit world of web marketing can learn a lot from the process on linking, interdependencies, and just downright realizing that it’s not the network technology, it’s the people.

Work The Network

How could this work? Say you’re an outdoorwear retailer. Right now if you’re constructing an ecommerce site, you probably spend a bunch of time interfacing with your legacy inventory system, hooking up your credit card processing software, and writing and designing an online catalog. Ho hum. So now people can get online, go to your site, and buy stuff. Not a huge improvement over a printed catalog and an 800 number, I’d say. As if you’re the only ones who know about or care about outdoor clothes in the entire world!

A truly networked store would use the catalog as a base and then explode outward by working the network. Get your manufacturers to provide product content. Get your customers to provide stories of how they used your stuff on a recent expedition. Give your employees the means of talking directly to the customers and let them solve their problems and answer their questions at the same time. Set up an auction section for customers to sell used equipment to each other. Take a cut. Partner with an adventure travel agency to provide one-stop-shopping for expeditions. Provide outgoing customers with a list of links to partner sites. Stay in constant email contact. Work the network.

Sure it’s a big vision. Sure it takes a major commitment of time and resources. Sure it’s a scary step to take. But if you don’t do it, you can be sure someone else will do it, and do it big. Heck, your employees and customers could be informally doing half this stuff now. Don’t be left out.

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