Facebook for business highlights what’s wrong with web design and development.

On XML and thermodynamics

Image by quinn.anya via Flickr

I’ve had a several conversations about marketing on Facebook lately. They usually go something like this.

Business owner: Can I just use Facebook instead of a website?

Me: Sure, you could scrap your business website (or for new entrepreneurs not get one in the first place) and just use Facebook. I wouldn’t recommend it though.

Business owner: Why not?

From there our discussion veers into issues of search, findability, meeting new people online, control of your destiny and so on. But I’ve begun to wonder really, why not?

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about an entirely distributed web presence, where you scrap your website in favor of an entirely social media presence. In fact, I first wrote about it almost exactly three years ago. And companies, typically agencies, have given this a try as well. I’m certainly not alone in talking about this.

What’s new is that this conversation is being initiated by business owners. And not business owners who are necessarily looking to be on the cutting edge like Modernista or Dachis Group or Zeuss Jones.

I’m hearing this conversation coming from mom and pops, real estate agents, local businesses. These people aren’t trying to win awards or land high-profile accounts. They’re trying to make the next sale.

I still think the “Stepping into Traffic” strategy is usable for an organization that is prepared to go through with it. But today I want to look at the issue from another angle.

Why are business websites so broken that business owners are willing to hand over their access to the market, their customers and their operational capability to a guy who has demonstrated schiesterly traits throughout his business career?

If I were to walk up to someone who had a retail storefront and ask them to locate to a mall that:

  • requires shoppers to be members in order to enter any of the stores
  • doesn’t share that membership information with any of the stores
  • has very strict requirements requiring all stores to look very much the same
  • changes rules and policies frequently and without warning
  • doesn’t let you address any of the shoppers directly
  • has such an engaging center court that shoppers may not ever really want to visit the store at all

I think the store owner would think it through very very carefully before moving locations.

That is, unless the current landlord wasn’t much fun to work with.

Answer: Building, maintaining and managing business websites is too hard for business owners.

I believe the reason that business owners are starting to seriously consider a fully distributed web presence is because their current situation is untenable. They’ve paid significant sums of money and spent a lot of time making websites. These sites are often not being measured for performance.

Since these sites aren’t being measured for performance business owners don’t know if they work better than Facebook–but they do know the website costs more.

There’s a lot of problems and fingers to point here. None of these examples are you, gentle reader, they’re someone else you know, perhaps a very close friend:

  • The people selling the website promised a “build it, they will come” scenario
  • The tech-enthusiast who recommended the content management system insisted it was “easy enough that her mother could use it” (without mentioning her mother was a computer science PhD)
  • The business owner demanded being involved in every minute pixel shoveling during the web design process, but never considered business goals of the site
  • The employee of the business who researched what to put in the RFP read every blog and web article on web design requirements–including some that are from before 2004

The end result is that business owners primarily only know what their website costs and the amount of time and pain that are involved in making a change.

Even if a site is designed on a supposedly user-friendly (you’re the “user” by the way) content management system like WordPress it’s still too hard to manage.

If you disagree, please leave your explanation of the difference between a WP page and a WP post in the comments below or how a WordPress theme has an impact on search engine rankings.

Don’t get me wrong here. I like WordPress and all CMSes a great deal. They saved us from doing manual updates and other crazy things. But ultimately, they just outsourced the hassle of maintaining a website onto the business owner.

Websites that are fully in the control of the business owner are great for everyone in a lot of ways (no more 2am calls to do a “minor” update on the website). But they are not so great in others (the business owner already has a full time job).

People who design and develop websites need to be more honest about what is required in operating a website on a day to day basis. They also need to be honest about making sure site business goals are accurately reflected in the finished product.

Business owners need to be more honest about having a business reason to be on the web in the first place. They also need to be honest about how much time they will devote to their online efforts.

Perhaps new skills are required

The way business operates today is different than it was even just ten years ago. There are new ways of reaching customers. The old ways of reaching customers has changed. And the pace of change doesn’t seem to be slowing.

Business owners are in an environment of constant change on the web. Costly constant change: switching costs, CMS costs, content costs, training costs and so on. In the face of that, no wonder they look at the relatively static and pre-determined experience of Facebook as a serious way to get out of all those costs.

There are old processes, from the mid 20th century, that are still prevalent in many business organizations. Silos. Waterfall. CYA. Specifications gathering. Core competencies. Standardized toolsets. None of these things fare well in a constantly changing environment. Not that they should all be thrown out, but their value to the business organization must be fully understood and if there is no value perhaps they need to be thrown out.

Perhaps business owners who are not willing/able to develop new skills and processes that are able to thrive in an environment change will be better served by exiting the open web and going to Facebook–where someone else manages change for them.

5 Comments

  1. Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Agreed on all points Gahlord!

    I believe the crux of the problem is that 98% of agents don’t have differentiated brands, with no USP, or remarkable marketing ideas that are are worthy of note. Print ads, open houses, pro photography, even a blog are all mundane bare minimums these days.

    If an agent truly differentiated themselves and strategically marketed their businesses and properties in unique ways, they would win more listings, and match more buyers to homes on the market….

    which leads to more money…

    which in turn would allow them to outsource their web management…

    strengthening their online presence….

    which attracts more business…and therefore pays for itself!

    Agents who are worrying about their website vs facebook might first need to figure out how they will make themselves remarkable, THEN worry about how that uniqueness is incarnated online.

    If they aren’t willing, able or considerate enough to do that, then perhaps they should just use a Facebook page, and continue to sell exactly as many homes as they presently do.

    Here’s an agency that sure looks different to me: http://youtu.be/-P1fis7ucMk?hd=1

  2. Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Tony: You highlight what is probably at the root of this whole thing: there’s not a very good on-ramp for digital technology or business ownership in an increasingly digital world.

    So it’s hard for people to get started. They’ve taken a leap of faith before and likely not felt all that good about it. This makes getting started even harder.

  3. Posted April 21, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Gahlord, You forgot to mention that the Mall is built on wheels, and you have NO real lease. On any day, the landlord could either take your store back, or drive the entire mall away. I think that this problem is many… some notables are

    1) Web Designers that use CMS platforms have gotten lazy. It is now VERY possible to make a site that TRULY is easy to use. It just takes a lot of UI work. They refuse to do it.

    2) Business Owners seek out Web Designers instead of Internet Marketing compaines that do web design. They feel that web design is “intuitive.” It is not.

    3) Web designers dont say NO, enough. They ALLOW the client to dictate changes, even if they know that it will diminish ROI. Say Yes, do the work, collect a check.

    4) Neither the business owner or the We designer CARE enough. I cant tell you how much CARE matters in the process. Do you want the work? or do you want to help each customer the most possible. Do you want a website? or do you want to create and work a marketing plan. Both parties need to pay more attention to each other and CARE more. </soapbox)

    Oh….. and…..

    Posts are entries on the blog home page or on the posts page if you have set one . Posts can be found in the Archives, Categories, Recent Posts, and other widgets. Posts are also displayed in the RSS feed of the blog. You can control how many posts are displayed at a time.

    Pages, on the other hand, are static. Pages do not use tags or categories. Pages can be displayed in the sidebar using the Pages widget, and some themes display pages in tabs at the top of the blog.

    Now Themes and SEO…. (cracks knuckles….)

  4. Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I’ve been asked the question “Should I ditch my current website for facebook?” by a number of agents and your post will be a great resource. I agree that most brand and agents do not have a USP or if they do they borrowed from a top producing agent. Creating a USP can be very difficult.

    How about a post on how to create an effective USP?

    As always your blog provides excellent information. Thank you.

  5. Posted April 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Jim Marks: Your notes are all excellent, but the one on the requirement of care in the process is spot on–one of the best assessments I’ve seen on the topic.

    As for posts and pages, that’s a pretty good definition as well. Of course, it probably sounds like Klingon to someone who has never really operated a website before. 😉

    Jim Renshaw: It’s funny how often people and companies try to borrows the Unique Selling Proposition from their competitors. Something about the word “unique” just never quite sets in.

    I’ll take the bait on writing about USP sometime in the coming months. It’s such an important part of a usable strategy. Thanks for the suggestion!

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