Why Websites Don’t Matter

By now, most companies have gotten 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 new 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 doesn’t even need a website; it can easily be displayed anywhere.

Steve Rubel, a public relations social media visionary whom I profiled in New Influencers, recently announced thathe’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, merely a place to pull them all those activities together. Our own online presence is 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 respects, we have no insight into what’s happening there.

Facebook, for example, offers only rudimentary reporting on activity within its profiles and forums. There is no reliable 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 person’s 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.

Social Media Success? Enter the SNCR Awards

If you got a social media success story to tell, tell it to the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR). We’re looking for nominations for the annual Excellence in New Communications Awards, which will be presented this November at a gala dinner in Boston. There are 12 awards in six categories. Read about them and enter here. The cost of entry is a modest $75, which goes to support the nonprofit Society. Winners and runners-up both are invited to attend the program where they can meet with other innovators in the field.

Tip of the Week: New Twitter Tools

Did I say you can’t measure how many people have seen your tweets? There are actually some programs that take a shot at doing that. A couple of new Twitter analysis tools that I’ve found to be interesting and fun are Twitter Analyzer and What The Trend? Twitter Analyzer is the more practical of the two. It looks at your Twitter activity and provides metrics comparing yourself to others as well as to your own activity. It presents this in some very nice charts (right). What The Trend? is the more fun of the two. If you look at any of the Twitter search or filtering sites, they show you the topics that are “trending,” or moving up the popularity scale. What The Trend? tells you why. There’s somebody behind the scenes doing the interpreting, but that’s part of the fun!

Just for Fun: Photo Mosaics

You’ve no doubt seen photo mosaics like this and marveled at the complexity and detail work they entail. I did, too, until I happened upon Foto-Mosaik, a freeware tool that the developer says you “können Sie aus Ihren digitalen Fotos ein Mosaikbild erstellen, welches aus vielen kleinen Einzelbildern zusammengesetzt ist.” That’s right, the website is in German, but software is a universal language and the program should work just as well for English-speakers. Apparently, you have to assemble at least a couple of thousand photos to create a mosaic, but many of us have at least that many cluttering up our hard drives already. If you use this tool and create a mosaic, send me an image or a link and I’ll post it in a future newsletter.

In Praise of Failure

I was chatting recently with Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, about his company’s somewhat counterintuitive business. Its customers use Bazaarvoice to enable their customers to post product reviews and ratings right on their own websites.

I asked why would a company invite visitors to publicly criticize its products this way. He told the story of one importer who sells a large and eclectic collection of overseas goods. Customer ratings revealed that about one third of its inventory of more than 600 products would never sell well because of aesthetics, utility or other reasons. The company used this feedback to quickly overhaul its inventory. Had it waited for customer objections to show up in sales figures, the process would have taken months longer.

Fear Factor

If you have ever worked for a large company, you know that failure isn’t considered a good thing. Losing products or business initiatives are usually killed off only after long and expensive efforts to save them. Powerful people stick with pet projects even in the face of overwhelming customer indifference. People who fail are reprimanded. People who fail repeatedly get fired.

Social media offers unprecedented ways to avert this syndrome, or at least to cut it short. By listening to customers, we can identify and fix shortcomings much earlier in the product lifecycle. By engaging in continuous dialogue, we are more likely to hit the market head on with new products. If we don’t let failure become some kind of referendum on our self-worth, then we are much freer to experiment.

I look at Google as being the most visible practitioner of the philosophy. Spend a little time with the company’s line of applications and you’ll soon discover its amusing portfolio of error messages. “Whoa! Google Chrome just crashed!” says one. Another moans, “We know this is lame, but consider that Gmail didn’t even have folders in its first version.” Google is a company that doesn’t mind admitting its shortcomings because it knows customers would rather see that it is working to get things right than pretending that everything’s okay when it clearly isn’t.


Google also isn’t afraid to cut its losses. The company has shut down more than a half-dozen products and services in the last year, including the virtual world called Google Lively, and closed a couple of high-profile business ventures. Google makes no attempt to hide these business decisions, but rather explains its reasoning on employee blogs. That’s because Google sees itself as an innovator, and innovative companies don’t mind getting things wrong now and then. In fact, a company that doesn’t make mistakes isn’t trying hard enough.

Shoot the Losers

Unfortunately, few corporate cultures are confident enough to work this way. One of the most common questions I am still asked by audiences is how to avoid negativity in social media. My honest answer is why would you want to avoid it? The faster you correct problems, the less damage is done. It might have been possible to ignore mistakes a few years ago, but that’s no longer an option. We can talk with our customers about our shortcomings or they will simply talk amongst themselves. Which would you rather do?

It’s often been said that the reason Silicon Valley became such a foundry of technology innovation is that the culture accepts and even celebrates failure as a consequence of risk-taking. In today’s media landscape, failure is no longer a private matter. Social media tools enable us to minimize the risks and consequences of our mistakes if we simply own up to them. It turns out that’s not nearly as difficult as we used to think it was.

Over There is Fascinated With What’s Up Here

My writings on the perilous state of the mainstream media have been capturing attention overseas recently. A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the English-language version of Al Jazeera television for an extended interview about the prospects for the newspaper industry. Then earlier this month, a crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. stopped by while filming a report for their markets (right). You can see both videos here. Our overseas friends seem mystified by the sudden implosion of media institutions in this country. I’d suggest it’s not surprising at all to regular readers of this newsletter!

Tip of the Week: New Life in Old PCs

Still spending money on new desktop computers? I’m not sure why, since most of us don’t even use a fraction of the processing capacity of the machines of four years ago. By upgrading memory, disk storage and graphics, most of us can wring additional years of life out of our old investments. I’m not sure there’s any life left in the old IBM 5150 from 1981 (left), but this Computerworld article tells how to pump up an old desktop PC with about $365 worth of components and make it fly like one you just took out of the box.

Just for Fun: The Age Project

How old do you think this lovely young lady is? If you guessed 23, you’re among good company. Visitors to The Age Project site can spend (read: waste) a good many minutes guessing the ages of people from all over the world who have submitted their pictures for the guessing game. When you guess a person’s age, the site then pops you to a page that displays the average guess of site visitors, your guess and the person’s real age. (The girl here is 17 years old, by the way.) The results page also tells you something this person has learned in his or her years on the planet — but not the person’s name or location. This young woman has learned “mankind is the only animal species that trip[s] twice with the same rock.” If you sign into the site, you, too, can send in your picture to be included in the random rotation, along with that one tidbit you’d like to share with the world.