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
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
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.
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.