How the web gives organisations the chance to seize the moment

The web uniquely gives organisations the opportunity to seize the moment either to provide an up-to-the-minute service, give emergency support or pull off a marketing coup. But when the moment presents itself, few seem prepared.

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The Hutton Inquiry knows how to use the web. Thames Water and rightmove.co.uk, “the UK’s number one property website”, do not. All have been in the news this week, and all make heavy use of the internet. But where Hutton uses its site to keep us bang up to date, the other two do not. They – along with most other organisations – are failing to exploit a key differentiator of this most complex medium: its updatability.
Every publisher knows that content can be updated on a website with great ease and at short notice. Ft.com puts up news as and when, rather than following the daily cycle of the print paper. Why then do so many other organisations fail to use this updatability to improve their service, respond to a crisis or even to capture new business?

Opportunity knocks three times


The Hutton Inquiry provides a service, in the form of information and background documents, and uses the web as its sole distribution channel. Its simple but clean site displays full transcripts of hearings within a few hours of their completion, along with all the e-mails, letters and documents referred to in each session. There has been much comment that we have been given an unprecedented view into the workings of the government and security service in the last few weeks. Would we have had that without this site? I don’t think so. It is the web that has given the general public unfiltered access to all those documents. Just not possible in any other way.
Rightmove was handed an opportunity on a plate this Monday, when the Financial Times’ UK edition carried a big story about house prices that was based on Rightmove data. I wanted to know more, and headed for www.rightmove.co.uk. There I found no reference to the study, let alone more details. What has this to do with updatability? Because even if the study was not on the site before Monday, Rightmove should, the moment it saw the story, have rushed it online. Even if the document existed only in paper form it could have been scanned, converted into downloadable PDF format and given a link on the home page An hour’s work, maybe less. Instead of which many readers will, like me, have turned to the site, then turned away disappointed. Silly.
But not as silly as Thames Water’s failure to control damage to its reputation by using its site. Last Friday a mains pipe split in south London, cutting the supply from 6,000 homes, including mine. As I write this, on Tuesday afternoon, we still have no water. What we have needed, almost as much as water, is information: where to get supplies, what progress is being made. I got back from a weekend jaunt on Sunday evening, and turned to the Thames site to see what I could find. I clicked on the button for UK customers and arrived at www.thameswateruk.co.uk. Here was a standard corporate/marketing site, with bits and pieces about how Thames could help me, give me a job, look after the environment and so on. Nothing that I could see about providing me with water.

Alternative responses


I looked elsewhere. The BBC London news site carried a sizeable news story, with residents complaining that south London was “like the third world”, but no practical information – except a link to the Thames Water site. Nothing I could find on the London Evening Standard site. And while the local council did provide a link to information on its home page, this was restricted to a phone number for Thames Water, along with an assurance that Thames Water “will be carrying regular updates on the website”.
Only one site was useful. Upmystreet.com carries local information, including discussion boards. It almost went out of business earlier this year. I am glad it did not because I soon found a forum with several postings about the burst main, containing more practical information than all the other sites put together.
It was not until late on Monday that a scrolling news link on the Thames Water site appeared, pointing to an information page. This gave an incomplete list of places where water tanks had been placed, and said the water should be reconnected by the end of the day. It was, briefly, then another mains pipe blew, so I woke up on Tuesday with water no more. During Tuesday, the Thames site has become a little more useful, and has even been updated once. But it is still not as handy as the upmystreet gossip board: I now know what I should do to get compensation, and the names and addresses of all Thames Water’s directors.

Memo for another day


I wonder, when Thames holds a post mortem, if it will decide that it should have a contingency plan to make better use of its website. It makes sense, not only because it keeps customers less unhappy, but also because it takes pressure off overwhelmed phone lines. The company needs a system that allows it to add content during the weekend, and at nights, and update it as often as needs be. But of course it will not be Thames that faces the next similar crisis. It will be another utility, or an airline or a rail network. I wonder how many of them have similar plans?

First published 24 September, 2003
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