The end of the fantasy

Online fragmentation is accelerating – by device, geography and platform – and big companies are not adjusting to the new world order, David Bowen says.

The online communications fantasy is coming to an end. Big organizations have become used to getting extraordinary value for money. I know one household name that doesn’t have a single full time employee working on its group site; teams that get into double figures are rare as hens’ teeth. They have to pay agencies to build the sites, there are IT costs – but the costs of running a website are trivial. Best of all, web technology is absolutely standardized: you can use it to create a shop, a cinema, a publication, an employment agency, a complete reputation management system. All using the same rather simple technology.

That is going to change.

Killing the ‘category’

If in the early Nineties Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN had decided they wanted to make money from their new confection, the Worldwide Web, the fantasy would never have started. We would have had a commercial battle between them and companies like CompuServe and AOL, which dominated the embryonic online industry. I imagine Microsoft and others would have joined in, but there would have been nothing like the explosion the oh-so-cheap web brought. It killed the category stone dead.

Maybe (I still wonder this as I listen to companies trying and failing to be really radical), quite different approaches like virtual reality would have come to dominate. There would certainly have been battles between incompatible technologies promoting their own software. Organizations that wanted to get the benefits would have had to bet on the systems they thought would win, and would face a nightmare of complexity and wasted investment …

The category lives after all

Which is pretty much where we are heading now.  The web did not slaughter the category. It is coming back to life.

We started writing about the Balkanisation of the web several years ago – Facebook, MySpace, Google, Microsoft and others all trying to get us to sign up to their systems, and to forget the rest. Walled gardens equalled profit.

It also equalled a jump in complexity for companies trying to work out how to use the internet. These systems were all web-based, and cheap as chips to run, but they needed extra resources (people) to make any sense of it. The social media manager suddenly became the must-have employee.

This was, by and large, a mistake: these channels are all part of the same communications effort. What should have happened was that the people who ran the websites got to learn how to run social media as well.  Some companies are discovering that now and we are getting coherent strategies – but the teams don’t seem to have got any bigger.

Fragmentation through social media was the first source of new complexity, and thus stress. Others are either here, or are round the corner. Of course corporates and other large organizations can ignore them – as many ignored social media to start with. But should they?

Responsive is not enough

So we come to the second new source of stress: the proliferation of devices and screens. The separate mobile site may appear to have already come and gone as responsive design makes it all so simple – but responsive is a compromise that can never give the best answer for everyone. That Siemens has shunned it, instead launching a tablet site to go with the desktop and phone versions, is a big clue. People use mobile phones, tablets and computers in different ways and at different times – so to give them the best service at all times, they need to be given a subtly different service as they move between devices. The sites are all fed from the same database, but this approach is a recipe for complexity and subtlety. Not something you should land on a small and already overstretched team.

A world of national intranets?

The third source is fragmentation by nation and region. China bans most of the big social media networks, but that has not stopped social media flourishing – it is at least as vibrant as anywhere else. Many western organizations use Sina Weibo – somewhere between Facebook and Twitter – but this is done at a local level. Does the digital team need to get involved? Well, if ‘normal’ social media should be handled or at least guided centrally, why should Chinese efforts be excluded? Will there be more Chinas? Quite possibly, but for more or less the opposite reason: in 2013 the Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff said countries should disconnect themselves from the internet, because that was only way of stopping the Americans spying on them. Her plan was for a walled-off national intranet - about as far from the ideals of Tim Berners-Lee as you can get.  With any luck that won’t happen, but national and regional differences must be increasingly considered by any sophisticated organization (for example not assuming that the big western social networks will do the trick everywhere; they won’t).

We chat behind walled gardens

Fourth, and closely linked: fragmentation by technology, which brings me to the return to proprietary systems. 

I was talking to a China-based manager of a large group as we discussed its web estate. It’s not really that relevant to us, she said, pulling out her phone. It was not the web-based Sina Weibo she wanted to show, but the WeChat app. She explained that the company uses it to provide information, to talk to customers, to allow employees to talk to each other – it’s more like Facebook or LinkedIn than a website, but it’s what people use to do business in China: 370m of them, with another 70m outside the country.

WeChat is not the biggest app of this sort – that’s WhatsApp, which is now part of Facebook. It has 600m users, of whom 70m are in India. Its big use is to get round text messaging costs (it uses wifi instead) – but that’s just a start. It can’t be used for advertising or selling, but it can be used to keep in touch with customers and answer their questions, or to provide a cosy place where team members or project participants can keep in touch with each other.

There are other apps, often with a strong regional slant: Line, for example, is a mobile app that is Japan’s biggest social network. They are incredibly popular, and they are nothing to do with the web: its elegant standardisation is out of the window.

The status quo is unsustainable

I’m intrigued by the new cheap Android phones being launched in the developing world. Global organizations would be foolish not to investigate the possibilities they bring. SMS is already a powerful tool in many countries. How much more powerful could an app be?

It’s all getting quite complicated, isn’t it?

I’m not saying that a small central team should be responsible for all these. But if a global organization wants to have a sophisticated communications strategy, it must surely be at least thinking about them. And I’m not sure that’s possible if the digital team can fit into a small cupboard under the stairs.


First published 07 January, 2015
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