Well, Sports Fans & Valued Readers, it turns out I'm giving a
talk in Denver on Friday (11/6/98) at the
Rocky Mountain Internet Expo. Here's how it's billed on
Yeah, yeah, OK, so I wrote that myself. But I haven't yet figured
out what I'm actually going to say. I hate this.
Horror Stories From the World Wide Web
Technology and implementation issues often crowd out all
others when companies construct their web strategies. However,
these are typically not the greatest challenges facing such
projects. While technology is clearly important, expectations
and assumptions about the medium itself -- and the
qualitatively different type of market attitudes it has
spawned -- are far more likely to determine failure or
success. Understanding these differences doesn't involve
rocket science or academic handwaving, yet these surprisingly
simple lessons are too often learned the hard way.
The speaker will share his personal experience of some
costly failures -- with emphasis on how not to
replicate them -- and provide successful counter-examples that
are winning over whole new markets.
I'm feeling more than usually cantankerous today because a
dozen people just unsubscribed from EGR, ostensibly in reaction
to that last thing I sent around suggesting we should all wear
ape suits for John Glenn's return from space. Jeez, people have
no sense of humor at all anymore! However, maybe it's just that
they expect greater substance. You know, some of that penetrating
punditry and laser-like analytical insight I'm supposedly so
famous for. God, I hate this.
But having demonstrated the bad judgment to sign up for this
speaking gig, I guess I have to say something to this
crowd. And it probably can't be the usual "korporate websites
like suck, man!" I guess I'm going to have to see if I can say
something a bit more cogent this time. Needless to say, I hate
this. But here goes.
I have personally witnessed the squandering of hundreds of
millions of dollars on misguided and misbegotten commercial web
initiatives. While my intention here is not to name names and
point fingers, this firsthand experience does inform the views
delivered below. They are not just the armchair whinings of a
disgruntled zinester -- though, of course, they're all that as
Let's examine the Seven Deadly Web Sins that seem to beset
companies -- especially, but not exclusively, large ones. These
are nearly always the root causes of why corporate web efforts
bomb. Some very large and seemingly successful sites have these
problems today. While they have not yet failed, I predict they
will eventually go down like the Titanic unless they take a long
hard look at how these attitudes and practices affect what they
set out hoping to achieve.
Taken together, these attitudes, assumptions, proclivities and
the plain old dunderheaded blunders they almost always lead to
make a lot of sense. In a perverse sort of way, that is. None
exists in isolation from the others. Instead, all are part of a
single constellation of problems that has been coming together --
some would say congealing -- long before the Internet appeared on
Greed is not about wanting to make money. All of us want to do
that, and companies have to. In contrast, greed is about being
unable to think of anything else. When money is the sole
motivator, it shows. Internet markets are smart markets. From
many a virtual mile away, they can smell sites that telegraph the
message: "Hey! We're here to make a buck off you rubes!"
Aside from vastly increased profits, there are other reasons a
company might want to have a website:
- to cement relationships with current markets through better
- to become more attractive to new prospects
- to better position itself vis-à-vis competitors
- to attract new investment
...and so on. Obviously, the prospect of making money isn't an
afterthought in any of this. However, if the assumption going in
is that a website has to break even in three months and turn into
the Midas Touch in six, its not going to last very long. Yet this
sort of assumption is a common one today.
A side effect of the more-revenues-as-fast-as-possible
approach is that the resulting site will not reflect any real
enthusiasm or true passion for its subject matter. Worse, it may
very well communicate false passion.
Oh Wow! We're Just So Excited About Our Kew-el New Offering...
Gag! Retch! To net-savvy audiences, this is the equivalent of
being served a steaming hot SkunkBurger at McDonald's.
Not-so-by-the-way, many suitish types assume that "net-savvy"
equates to old die-hard Unix heads who still prefer command-line
FTP and Lynx browsers. Wrong. As I'm using the term here, a
net-savvy user is anyone who's had an AOL account for more than
three months and has an IQ above 45.
The message here is: even if you are a pack of greedy
bastards, try to at least file your teeth down a little. Look as
if you're committed and have come to stay, not like you'll be
gone the second you realize the web might actually cost you
something. Talk about horrors!
Even better is to really believe what you're doing. Bring
something of value instead of another T-shirt, sweepstakes or
brain-damaged software download that does nothing more than suck
system resources to display your million-dollar corporate logo.
But what do online audiences perceive as having genuine value?
After you've finished wringing your hands over this one in
innumerable meetings and wading through innumerable abstract
analyst reports, pull up a browser and surf around a spell.
You'll get the vibe if you just hang out a while and stop
thinking about all those easy profits about to fall into your
So you spent a huge wad on web banners. So what? Let's hope you
saved a buck-twenty-five for a cup of coffee, because maybe
that's all it's really worth. You've got your site up and hummin'
loaded with the latest shockem-sockem javajazz -- but no one
gives a damn. What's up with that?
Your brand should be bringing those golden eyeballs winging
in, you say? Are you familiar with the expression "LOL"? Look,
wise up. Most of the people online are like 12 years old. They
never heard of your frickin brand. OK, so some are actually over
20, but still, who cares about you and your slick brochureware
site? And why should they?
Arrogance takes many forms online, the foremost of which is
assuming you already know it all. Large companies are especially
susceptible to thinking that because they're big, because they've
got revenues in 99 figures, they're bound to win at anything they
try. Guess again.
Here's a question for ya. Would you open a car dealership
without ever having driven an automobile? If you did, you'd probably want to load up on cheap car insurance. Weird concept you may
think. You might find it ever weirder though -- I sure did -- to
discover how many so-called "Internet Executives" have never
spent any time on the web. And sorry Charlie, but protesting "My
secretary takes care of that" is just not an acceptable response.
Which brings us to...
Cluelessness is the objective correlative of "not getting it," a somewhat mystical concept that
we'll take a pass on this time around. However, we're not talking
mysticism here. Call it "unfamiliarity with the medium" if you
prefer. Call it whatever you like, we're talking about high-level
management types who think Yahoo is browser, who can't tell a
modem from a fire hydrant, who literally don't know where the ON
switch is. These are real examples, by the way, taken from real
life -- or as close to real life as it gets in some of our more
surrealistic corporate "web-centric" wannabes. And yet, many of
these same people are responsible for defining and administering
high-budget "e-commerce" plays. You can meet them in droves at
Is the problem here that these corporations somehow missed out
on enlisting the requisite talent? No way. They've got cadre upon
cadre of technical adepts, most of whom don't come cheap these
days. But do they listen to them or -- heaven forfend! -- ask
their advice? Of course not. That would be showing weakness. Or
at the very least, admitting ignorance.
A well-known analyst outfit is currently putting together a
report on why companies with bigtime web plans are operating in
that regard at something like 10% efficiency. (I know about this
because I contributed to the study.) Again, the problem isn't
lack of people or incompetent or lazy people. In fact, the talent
is ready to rock and roll. The real culprit is a little number
U.S. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover was once quoted in The New York
Times as saying: "If you're going to sin, sin against God,
not the bureaucracy; God will forgive you but the bureaucracy
in-depth analysis of what's wrong with bureaucracy would
get us hopelessly sidetracked here. In a nutshell, though, this
authoritarian hierarchical management style was developed in the
heyday of mass production when products were few, product cycles
were long, and all the requisite know-how could still be presumed
to reside at the top of the management food chain. Getting
products out was simply a matter of telling people precisely what
This is no longer true. Today's products and services depend
on the coordination of enormous and widely distributed knowledge.
The problem is really power. The guys at the top may be dumb as a
brick, but they'll be damned if anyone "under them" is gonna tell
them what to do!
The typical bureaucracy is not unlike a Communist collective;
no one really owns anything. Some faceless functionary way up the
chain of command is ultimately responsible for the final product
or service, so why bother trying to do the best job? It'll only
be revised by some VP six layers removed. In contrast to Total
Quality, this institutionally reinforced mindset underpins the
"Yeah, Well, Whatever" school of web design.
Thus, while many organizations do have the expertise they need
to create great web sites, its application is often blocked by
senior management. This is of course the responsibility of the
Department of Business Prevention. And don't kid yourself, every
company has one. Much of the talent locked up in this process is
technical, but not all of it. There are also those people who
create what this industry delights in calling "content" -- as if
it were something you got from a can and poured into a pie shell.
If bureaucracies have no soul to speak of, neither do they have a
genuine voice. If web content often reads as if it were written
by committee, that's because it probably was. The customary
result is bombast: humorless hype, hysterical specsmanship and
boring valued-subtracted anti-information. If visitors to such a
site already know they want something specific, they'll simply
ignore this blather and hunt around for what they came looking
for. If, on the other hand, they came to investigate whether they
might be interested, they'll probably go away with the
notion that everyone in the company is forced to wear a clown
In an article I wrote for The Industry Standard called
Fear and Loathing on the Web, David Weinberger says: "The
dogs have it right. Customers want to take a good long whiff. But
companies so lobotomized that they can't speak in a recognizably
human voice build sites that smell like death."
Human beings simply don't talk to each other the way most
marketeers still try to talk to human beings. Given the enormous
flows of person-to-person information exchange now taking place
via email, newsgroups, web conferencing systems and chat rooms,
everyone seems to understand this except the big corporations
building bloated high-dollar web sites. In fact, falling down
laughing at the comical results of these egregious failures to
communicate has become a highly popular Internet pastime.
Here we don't mean the senility that sometimes comes with
advanced years, with its attendant loss of memory, inflexible
attitudes and general pissed-off grumpiness. However, the effects
are the same. Thus, it is perfectly possible to have a senile
manager in his or her 20s (research has shown that MBA programs
are often the proximate cause).
A prime example of corporate senility is the continued
collective wish for the web to be transformed -- perhaps by the
Tooth Fairy -- into television. "If only it were like TV!"
bemoans the Chairman to his Loyal Troops. "Goldurn it! This
dubya-dubya-dubya thing is just another advertising medium is all
it is! Why, in my day, we woulda licked this whippersnapper into
shape in nothin flat! Hell, we woulda just bought the
Yeah, well, why don't you just go and have a nice nap, Pops...
I'm not suggesting that change is always (or maybe ever) a
good thing in itself. However, an inability to accept the fact
that something critical is no longer as it once was is the very
definition of dysfunctionality. The web is not TV. A mouse is not
a channel changer. And no amount of song-and-dance to the
contrary means a damn thing. Companies that are strategically
dependent on this delusion are sleeping late and in for an
extremely rude awakening.
After the first six Deadly Sins in this lineup, inattention may
not seem like such a big deal. It starts with little things. The
graphic isn't loading on your homepage, the form is broken, the
page has 404'd, the CGI script has gone South, the ColdFusion
tags are messed up, the phone number is wrong, client names are
misspelled, the mailto button doesn't mail to anyone, and the
mega-herzified super-extra-configurated Lotus Notes server took a
powder for reasons unknown -- which are nevertheless being
reported to ten million users in gloriously arcane detail.
Trust me, it's a big deal. If God is in the details, as the
saying goes, then sites like this have the Devil to pay. But
metaphysics aside, the real problem is not all the pesky little
screwups this causes, but the inattention itself. It's a symptom
of something deeper and far more dangerous: that no one really
owns the operation, no one really cares. Some companies seem to
believe their markets aren't paying attention either. But they're
wrong. Every typo, every 404, every sloppily formatted piece of
email is another nail in the corporate coffin.
Because if they don't care, why the hell should we?
While laughing at organizational lamers is amusing for a while,
let's face it, there are a lot better ways to have fun online.
In the face of global competition, industrial corporations had
to radically revise their business practices and traditional
notions about uncoordinated stove-piped departments and divisions
-- had to painfully revise long-held notions of
command-and-control management. This was in the early '70s in
non-sexy low-tech atomic-not-digital industries like
manufacturing. Thanks to advances in computing and the Internet,
the speed and dynamism of change have since accelerated by orders
of magnitude. Why is it, then, that computing and Internet
companies feel they are exempt from the same sort of painful soul
searching and organizational redesign?
As the blurb for this talk suggested, such a reassessment
needn't entail lengthy and expensive rocket science or the
high-powered hucksterism typically associated with "business
process reengineering." It's a lot simpler than all that.
Chances are good that the market for your product or service
is not primarily constituted of bigwig industry executives who
spend half their time preening at conferences, patting each
other on the back for their "insight" and "vision," and the other
half bossing people around.
No, the market looks a lot more like people who get
bossed around -- by dimwit Dilbertesque executives with
hyperinflated egos and way too few clues.
Hey now, Mr. Web-Centric Business Guy, this is curious, is it
not? The market looks a lot like your own workforce! Which you
boss around constantly, ignoring how they run for the barf bags
whenever you trot out your latest board-approved site demo.
Here's an idea. Listen to the people who work for you. Often
as not, they are your target demographic. Stop telling
them what to do. Instead, begin to ask: How would you do
this? What would you put here? How would you phrase that? Get out
of their way. Run interference for them through your labyrinthine
organizational steeplechase. Help, assist, promote, be useful.
Take an interest, be curious, pay attention. Maybe even learn
You might just be amazed at the the results.
Meanwhile, lookout for me. I've got your number. I'm one of
those Internet Weirdos who make up your hoped-for market. And
I Know What You Did Last Summer!
Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Noise - All the Time
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Entropy Gradient Reversals
CopyLeft Christopher Locke
"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..."
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