16. September 2009
We were asked this question recently and thought it might be worth sharing our response more widely.
Whatever the hype about social media there are some undeniable truths we need to accommodate in today’s communications landscape.
Firstly, we all now have a platform, if we want it. It’s easy for us to make our opinions public and widely share our experiences. Alas, for some brands, this more often than not means that their failures are highlighted; in a world where we’re all our own publishing empire we all know that news sells and bad news sells best. Online communications takes on a role which looks ever more like a hybrid of PR and customer services. A discretely placed ‘contact us’ in the website footer really doesn’t cut the mustard any more.
The second truth to accommodate is the uncomfortable one, for both brands and the agencies that serve them, that “we” no longer dictate the conversation. It’s already taking place, whether we like it or not. But with intelligence, tact, wit and sensitivity we can steer the conversation and change its outcomes, both at the micro individual experience level and at the macro brand impression level.
Both of these issues point to websites which are more about listening, less about selling, less about bigging up the brand, more about making heroes of the fans, less brochure, more after sales support; less David Ogilvy’s “we sell or else”, more Dale Carnegie’s “how to win friends and influence people.”
Social Psychology and behavioural economics are revealing the truth that we trust our friends more than we trust brands, and our ‘lazy minds’ prefer to abdicate decision making to the group rather than waste cognitive effort thinking things through for ourselves. What this underlines is the need to be where our audience is and talk to the group, not draw in the individual and hope to irrevocably persuade them. So website efforts become an outreach programme, rather than a publishing enterprise. It also means we need to think about what success looks like very differently. It’s ‘net promoter score’ thinking, rather than ROI modelling.
This transition we are seeing in the role of websites can be seen as: -
Informative -> Immersive -> Participative
Brands have mostly moved beyond the ‘informative’ stage of pure brochureware providing a handful of key facts. They’ve moved to large Flash based entertainments; immersive environments where the customer is wooed and seduced, or so the brand hopes. Increasingly a media savvy and cynical consumer base is now looking for more of a two way street and an equal footing with the brands they decide to engage with. And that means participation and the expectation on the part of the consumer that not only can they talk directly and individually to the brand, but that "the brand" will sincerely respond.
This clearly points to very different architectures and build paradigms to those we have seen in recent years. It means that we have to think of the company website more as a channel than a publication, more of a tool than a brand asset and more of a shared platform for the consumer as well as the brand than a simple one-way broadcast mechanism.
Moreover, the key implication is that for many brands, their ‘website’ presence won’t even be on their own website, the role of the domains they own being to point customers and prospects to the many other places where the brand is participating in the wider conversation taking place online.