Web Zero-Point-Zero

Social networking, or the so-called “Web 2.0” is all the rage, having migrated from whisperings among technophiles in cubicle villages, to missives in the C-suite. Many CIOs have rushed into developing a Web 2.0 strategy before asking the critical question: does Web 2.0 really matter?

The Toothbrush on Myspace

The oft-heralded Web 2.0 “revolution” claimed that internet content would go from websites presenting information, such as traditional news, informational sites or blogs, to sites where visitors would generate content through collaboration and online sharing. MySpace is the most cited example of the phenomenon, where the site owners provide templates and associated functionality, and maintain the site’s backend, but the vast majority of the content is user generated. In a few minutes, even those with rudimentary technical skills can create a “myspace” with information and pictures, and then link to their friends. After reaching the mainstream, marketers begin to latch onto MySpace, with everyone from fictional character like Burger King’s “The King” to up and coming musicians creating a MySpace page and encouraging users to add their entity, real or imagined, to one’s list of friends.

Conceived as an effort at viral marketing, initial product placements on social networking sites seemed fresh and innovative for a matter of moments, yet in mere months everyone from spammers to a dental company’s toothbrush now have a MySpace page. Rather than garnering instant appeal with customers, having a MySpace page used for marketing purposes has quickly become hackneyed. Other efforts at integrating Web 2.0 into a corporate internet strategy have faced similar hurdles. News sites that rely on or prominently feature user input dilute their brand. Would you really want your favorite news agency to prominently feature witty commentary from CoolDude1234, who’s only qualification is an ability to log into a website? Are customers really the best spokespeople for your latest product, and is there quantifiable value to hiring the small army required to sanitize and maintain a social networking component on your website? Do you really think customers are clamoring to add a toothbrush to their list of friends?

Back to the Basics: Web 0.0

Much of the talk around Web 2.0 has presented it as a solution to a problem most companies never had. A social networking site is an excellent way to keep in touch with colleagues or friends, but perhaps not the best way to sell a cheeseburger. Internally, tools such as Wikis and web portals can be very effective if applied to a targeted group or with a distinct purpose. Like so many of the “next big things” in technology, Web 2.0 is a tool, rather than a solution in and of itself. A carpenter looking to improve his skills will not do so automatically by buying a new drill, especially if what he really needs to do is drive nails. Similarly, a company struggling to improve the effectiveness of its customer-facing website will not find panacea by putting up some flashy forums and interactive features, when the content provided is not relevant or helpful to the customer.

While most executives would instantly see the folly of expecting new telephones to miraculously improve the selling ability of an ineffective telemarketing group, they somehow believe applying “Web 2.0” will reinvigorate their internet channel and miraculously generate new business. A CIO’s ability to dispel this myth and regard the web as simply another customer communication channel is the key to Web 0.0.

Web 0.0 is distilling your customer-facing web efforts to answer the question of “how can I most effectively serve visitors who chose to use this communication channel?” The same basics apply to any other communication channel. A pleasing design and functional navigation are as essential to a website as quality printing and no missing pages are to a brochure or book. At the same time, a flashy cover to a brochure or a healthy serving of Web 2.0 technologies will not hold a customer’s attention if the content in question does not serve their basic needs. Take a hard look at existing visitors using your company’s internet tools and ask the following questions: Who are they? Why are they visiting? What information are they looking for? Do they find it? How hard was it to find?

Focusing on these questions will poke holes in what once seemed like good ideas. Customers rarely visit a private-sector website to read flowery missives about missions and values, rather they want something. Perhaps it is product information, which some companies hide behind so many layers of email forms, teaser screens and irrelevant facts that it nearly screams to customers to look elsewhere. Maybe it is support or contact information, which could leave a lasting positive impression or send the customer running for the open arms of a competitor. Never look at your web strategy as one designed to shout a monolithic message at one type of customer, rather ensure it meets the needs of the customers you are most interested in attracting and retaining.

Perhaps there is an entirely new breed of customer that has been too expensive to sell to or service in the past, but a revised internet strategy could accommodate them with very little selling cost. For example many small businesses purchase software in low volumes, but volume nonetheless. They go to a software company’s website with checkbook in hand and are forced to migrate through forms and irrelevant information, wait for a sales rep or channel partner to call, and are given weeks to reconsider their purchase when a simple self-service tool would have provided increased revenue and instant gratification to a customer that would likely make additional purchases in the future.

Web 2.0 may be an excellent tool to enhance an already successful internet strategy, but until you have perfected Web 0.0 you are likely chasing technology rather than chasing customers.