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The end of the website

Having been involved in this industry for a very long time, I have the benefit of a long and wide perspective of the business of making the web. This sometimes narrows my thinking, and I have been accused, for example, of not recognising the importance of mobile, or the revolution that is social media.

However, it does allow me see how this industry has evolved, and to plot more points on the graph than many others. That doesn’t make me a seer, but it makes my guesses a little more reliable. This all by way of preamble to positing a theory that’s been knocking around my brain for a while now. Simply put: the age of the website has come and gone.

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The true upheaval wreaked by the advent of both the social and mobile web, to say nothing of the push of digital content into a whole array of other user touchpoints, is that the skin of the website has melted away. To stretch the metaphor, its insides have bled into the community of which it is a part, and that community has seeped in.

To put it in simpler terms: as an online content owner – media business, corporate, web business, you name it – you can no longer draw a neat line around your own web “property” in the way we old-school web developers could. The .com and .co.za were yours, and if someone wanted to get your stuff, they needed to come to your house to get it.

The past decade has seen this change – sometimes dramatically, sometimes organically, but persistently –  into a fragmented world in which your content could be anywhere, in which your “web presence” is so much more than your own websites.

Content islands

Consider the humble Facebook page. It has become an alternative web space for companies, celebrities, brands and products to engage their customers in conversation. It lives entirely outside the main website, and is an island of content that has a completely different profile of user or customer.

This means that even at this basic level, a company or marketer has to concern themselves with what’s going on on the main company website and the Facebook page in order to get a full understanding of the online engagement with the business.

Of course, that’s just the start. Add to this list the company’s Twitter stream, YouTube channel, campaign microsites, blogs (there could be many), Flickr profile, Ning network, HelloPeter page and so on – to say nothing of the mobi site, MXit channel and GRID layer. The digital personality of a brand has become exponentially harder to manage.

The challenges

The challenge is twofold: First, the message the company or organisation puts out has to be managed across multiple distribution channels, and many different formats. Second, the engagement with customers now takes place out there across the cloud, creating even bigger challenges than the bedevilled CRM world has struggled with up until now.

Both of these challenges fly in the face of the old Web 1.0 projects. These projects have been a big part of my career – namely, trying to help companies manage their content via web content management systems and trying to profile, segment and understand audiences consuming that content.

The implications of Web 2.0 in this context are staggering, and have taken a lot longer to gain visibility than the other more flashy aspects of the trend. Just as companies are getting to grips with putting together content teams, defining workflows and strategising their approach to the digital world, the sand is being washed away from under their feet. The proliferation of digital channels is outpacing the fastest, smartest digital architects.

If there’s any comfort here, it’s that the digital channels, while numerous, still contain some clear, dominant players. If you can effectively cover between five and 15 channels then you’ve got most of the work done. But that’s still a giant leap from making sure a few main content websites (all of which operate in a similar way) are taken care of.

So what approach now makes sense? There are three that are being tried:

1. Skill up
Probably the trickiest option, a number of companies are trying to take their web teams into the brave new world by adding social-media experts, online-reputation managers, mobile gurus and so on. Often this involves expanding the existing roles of existing people, with mixed results. From the perspective of an agency, this involves a business having to move as fast as an industry that struggles to even keep up with itself.

2. Outsource to a network of experts
The most common solution right now involves appointing a range of agencies which each focus on a part of the digital landscape: a “traditional” digital agency to handle campaigns; a CMS or web-development vendor to build and manage the websites; a social-media agency to tweet and use Facebook; SEO experts to nudge Google searchers along, and so forth.

This also has mixed results, for two reasons: Firstly, agencies don’t play nicely together, and there is so much overlap in the various businesses that everyone is incentivised to steal each other’s work. Secondly, there genuinely isn’t enough of a difference between some digital channels to warrant different strategies and suppliers.

A great example is a “mobi” site and a “website”. Ultimately these are just two views of the same content. The coding languages are the same. To appoint a focused “mobile web agency” may therefore serve to dilute, rather than strengthen, the web presence.

3. Go singular and central (one supplier, one core technology)
This is, without a doubt, the toughest option because there are few, if any, suppliers who are up to the challenge of taking on the full spread of digital. The old-style Web 1.0 agencies have battled to “socialise” themselves. And the Web 2.0 A-listers have spent too little time building real businesses and too much on building profile and amping up the sex appeal. Mobile is a muddled universe of application development and WASPs – and targets a market a lot of digerati don’t even believe in yet.

Still, this does seem to be the route larger businesses are going to have to get more comfortable with: perhaps dividing the digital account in two or three big chunks, but ensuring that there is a unified approach to the marketing message, customer data and customer interaction.

For me, it all comes down to delivering value to the organisation. Value comes in many shapes and forms. Direct leads and sales opportunity are two. But just as important are the twin assets of organisational content and customer profile data. The fact that content may be dispersed across multiple channels or that customers may be engaging in the cloud rather than in the company’s server room is a fact that demands next-generation systems, and next-generation thinking, but it’s not an argument for fragmenting the effort.

The biggest mistake businesses can make in this Web 2.0 world is to allow the cloud to dictate the terms of their interaction with their key stakeholders. The day of the website may have come and gone, but the web, broadly-defined, is more important than ever. And now is the moment to be laying the foundations of a multi-platform, multi-channel strategy that will see businesses through the next 10 years of digital.

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