Fast Company

The Question

What do people want from a Web site? In our new tech column, we tell you why there's no easy answer on thriving in the ever-shifting digital landscape.

The number-one question lurking in every executive's heart, whether he's a corporate titan or founder of a Valley startup, boils down to this: Just what should I be doing with my Web site to engage with my customers?

You know what? Nobody has the answer.

If you've puzzled over why media companies like CBS and News Corp. are firing and hiring "digital czars" like basketball coaches, it's because they're lost inside "the question." If you've wondered why normally smart outfits like Wal-Mart start and then abandon a social-networking Web site within months, blame "the question." If you've ever stumbled upon yet another Web 2.0 company that seems to have only a me-too moniker and a dream, it's because even those folks, steeped in technology, have no more clue than the suits.

Why are we still so flummoxed by the Web? Why does every ripple in the water, whether it's social networking, user-generated content, or the popularity of video, produce such an outsized tidal wave of frenzied--and wasteful--activity? For one, it's about discipline, or rather the lack thereof. "Technology reduces the barrier to entry and that means less discipline in developing products," says Jeff Housenbold, CEO of photo processing and sharing pioneer Shutterfly. Don't forget myopia, either: the urge to impress only the most ardent and vocal technology users instead of the masses. "We tend to build what we want, or what will get us accolades at the next Silicon Valley party we attend," says Jeff Bonforte, who heads Yahoo's Messenger, Chat, Avatars, and Voice products. "Shame on us."

Perhaps the biggest problem is that we're too hung up on our own Web sites. Your site is your virtual corporate headquarters. Do you hang out in office parks for fun? Exactly. So why do you expect your customers to do the same online? Too many companies want their Web site to be a destination, because they're so used to controlling the way they interact with clients in the real world. But no amount of video, games, or free MP3 downloads is going to get anyone to spend time on your site.

Turns out that "the question" is the wrong one to be asking. You should ask "where your users are, rather than the other way around," as Ted Shelton, founder of news aggregation tool the Personal Bee, puts it. Once you've found them, then you can find a way to join the conversation--without being a tool.

This, of course, is the hard part, because companies are, again, too accustomed to being one-way publishers of information. "Imposing distribution onto consumers" is how traditional gatekeepers think, says Jordan Levin, a former gatekeeper himself as the president of the WB network, now CEO of a content-creation company called Generate. Try to remember that the Internet is a communications medium first and a distribution channel after.

Happily, there's evidence that this different idea is taking root. Viacom's broadband Web channels for Comedy Central and VH1 let you embed its video player on a MySpace page or any other Web site so you don't have to go to its site to watch videos. Consumer packaged-goods companies such as Unilever routinely build microsites or sponsor navigation bars at Web sites where the kind of person who might use Axe deoderant spends time. Frankly, video players, microsites, and nav bars are all kind of lame, but at least it's a step forward.

Ultimately, all the energy we devote now to divining which features our Web sites "need" should be redirected to nailing the point of view we want to project online and whom we want to reach. Do that, and we won't be as tempted by every shiny new feature that comes along. "There's 'useful' for the Web at large, and then there's 'useful' for us," says Craig Engler, who runs SciFi.com. In that distinction, so deceptively simple, lies the answer.

David Lidsky is a Fast Company senior editor. He has covered the technology industry since 1995.

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