By now, most companies have got a pretty good handle on what happens on their website. At the very least, they use a tool like Google Analytics or the simple and easy StatCounter to track total visits, referring URLs, visitor paths and time-spent-on-site. It’s intriguing and fun to see where people are coming from and what they’re doing. It’s also increasingly irrelevant.
The website as we know it is becoming a relic of the first 15 years of the Internet. Sure, websites will always be important, but the action that takes place around a company, brand or individual is moving into a complex web of stateless conversations. Some of these take place on corporate websites, but many of them don’t. Consider Facebook, whose 200 million members are the world’s largest ready-made audience. Some brands have more active communities of customers on Facebook than they do on their own websites. In fact, their own websites may not even enable community at all. Perception of their brand is defined in a community that they host but can’t control.
Our personal activities now take place in many locations. Look at Twitter, for example. While there’s a Twitter website, conversations take place in the ether. People who use TweetDeck, Twhirl, TwInbox or one of the other dedicated Twitter clients may never visit the Twitter website. In fact, the Twitter feed may easily be displayed on any website you like.
Steve Rubel, a public relations social media visionary whom I profiled in New Influencers, recently announced that he’s abandoning his blog in favor of a lifestream. Steve is at the extreme edge of social media activity, so his experience isn’t typical, but I think his point bears considering. He’s saying that the action now takes place in so many nooks and crannies of the Internet that a website is, at best, a place to pull them all together. Our own activities are too expansive to be confined to one place.
This presents some immediate problems. It seems that just as we’ve succeeded in getting a pretty good handle on what happens on our websites, the action has moved elsewhere. In many cases, we have no insight into what’s happening there. Facebook, for example, offers only rudimentary reporting on activity within its profiles and forims. There is simply no way to determine how many people have seen a message on Twitter. Sites like Flickr, YouTube or SlideShare can tell you how many people have watched your presentation or video but not where they came from or how long they spent there. Our window on online activity around our brand is actually becoming more opaque with time.
Not Dead Yet
Does this mean websites are dead? No, but they are changing. The website’s role will increasingly be to present a persons or organization’s view of things in hopes of enticing conversations back to that controllable and measurable forum. It will be the home base for everything we do online, kind of our own organizational lifestream. But marketers must face the new reality that online success has many faces, even if we can’t measure all of them very well.
This also means that businesses should take a new look at hosting their own communities. Facebook is training wheels for the bigger goal of building branded communities that become the primary destination for customers and business partners. If you can build and measure those, you can gain a lot more insight about what motivates customers. If you can’t, well, try to send people back to your trusty old website for your point of view.