A Place of One’s Own (On the Social Web)

By BroadVision on May 23, 2010

How the corporate Web site has evolved … and the implications for us all.

(originally published in All Things That Rise).

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genus = notebook; species = HP

One of the coolest things about being in the marketing biz is that you often get to name stuff. It’s not an easy thing, but when you get it right it can be gratifying. This is true of both product names and categories. The second is even harder, especially if you are naming categories for the virtual world of online communication and computing. I was reminded of this recently while playing on the iPad. It occurred to me — with the iPad’s look, form factor, and portability, this is the first computer that can be truly called a “notebook.” And if you compare what passed for a notebook in 2000 with the iPad (2000), you will see how the technology has finally evolved to meet the hype of a marketing metaphor (the “notebook”), in a way that more closely resembles what we have in real life. What was invented as a category a while back is now closer to a reality — a virtual reality, yes, but closer to thing in the real world than before.

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genus = notebook; species: Apple

I think we’re witnessing a similar kind of evolution with the word “site” — as in Web site.  Consider: what we have been calling Web sites, for oh say 16 years – aren’t really “sites” — in the full sense of the word. From the Latin, situs: “place or position occupied by something.” The standard Web site is not a “place,” and it certainly is not occupied, certainly not by people. But in fact that’s how sites are evolving in the post-Web 2.0 world. The site has evolved into the social network, and networks, as anyone who has spent a lot of time in them will attest, are very much like places. Even their names sometimes evoke a sense of physical place (MySpace, Farmville, many others). And while they are not like real places, they are clearly an advance on the original concept. Once again, technology has evolved to meet the hype of a marketing metaphor (the “site”), in a way that more closely resembles what we have in “real” life. And that, I believe, is the most remarkable thing about online communication and computing. There is an irreversible march toward evolving the objects and tools we use to navigate the virtual world so that they better match the way we navigate the real world.

But unlike the notebook, the evolution of the Web site has implications for anyone in business (i.e., it’s not just HP and Dell’s problem). There was a time when it was understood that every company needed a Web site — it was one’s place on the “World Wide Web.” An entire industry was spawned at the birth of that insight. No such thing has happened yet in the post-2.0 age, unless you look at the corporate blog as an evolutionary advance on the corporate Web site. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s only a small advance compared to the social network. And while practically every company now at least understands the value of a blog (or blogs), very few in comparison understand the value of an enterprise social network. But if you trust the consensus of the market makers in this particular world (I do), it won’t be long before that changes, too. In the meantime, here’s what’s confusing businesses from seeing the horizon ahead:

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genus = real estate; species = Trump

We’re confused about the words, but the objective remains the same. Not only does technology evolve, but the words used to describe them evolve, too. The result is that we discard the old words once the technology evolves, even if the old words more accurately captured the technology’s objective. This is true for both “notebooks” and “sites.” No marketer today (certainly no marketer at Apple) would call a tablet a notebook, and no Web strategist would call a social network a “site.” But what was once worth investing in (the standard Web site) no longer has the same value. And what is worth investing in (social networks) goes by such a different name that you wouldn’t know it for the same product. A recent client — a digital marketing executive for one of the world’s large CPG holding companies — confided: “practically all of our brand managers believe that they need to build a $1 million Web site for every new campaign.” He realized that the budget for the old thing was inflated, but he of course needed to clarify what the new thing is before reallocating budget to it. In the meantime, the original objective for the brand managers remained: a place of one’s own on the Web. I’m not talking about the many other places a business ought to be on the social Web (the worldview of “edge marketing”; more on that below). I am talking about a place of one’s own, in addition to all those other places. It’s an objective shared by practically every business today, even though it’s not apparent what that place should be.

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genus = real restate; species = virtual

The bad news: we are failing to grasp that “sites” have evolved into “networks.” I’ve heard one argument many times, and it has never been convincing. Goes like this: there can only be one Facebook, so why would any company want a network of their own? Aside from the obvious fact that the world evolves — it’s doubtful that Facebook will reign forever — it confuses the place that Facebook and other public networks have created and the place that businesses can create for themselves. It’s as if only a few businesses grasp that virtual real estate — in the form of social networks — is now a reality. In the meantime, businesses keep building those $1 million old-world sites — sites, which Jeremiah Owyang for years has argued, have no “place” in the new world.

The good news: the emerging world of networks is just that … emerging. The world is changing. We are moving from a site-centric world (”site” in the Web 1.0 sense of the word) to a network-centric world. But it’s a new world with lots of uncertainty. How does a business deal with the fact that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn have such a great presence in the network-centric world? Ignore them? That would be wrong — just as wrong, in fact, as it would be to ignore the largest players in the real world of real estate. So much has been written about how companies should make their static sites more compelling and relevant by integrating with social networks and other services (again Jeremiah). I agree — in fact, this point of view informed a big part of my consulting practice over the last few years. But a safe bet would be for businesses — and non-profits — to also invest in a little real-estate of their own, create their own networks, and grab a piece of the American dream. There’s a nascent market of “enterprise 2.0” companies (BroadVision is one of them) ready to respond to the market, and already the market is beginning to see the value. I’ll share more as I move along — I’ve been on the job (officially) less than a month. But it’s one of the most interesting and exciting markets that I’ve competed in for quite some time. It’s a great place to be, literally and metaphorically.