Is the Website Dead? That and Other Questions from Internet Week New York

The second annual Internet Week New York was full of panels talking about social media (no surprise it was a hot topic when by the end of the week Twitter was a Time Magazine cover story). While I tweeted about some comments, I thought I’d take time to share some insights and ideas in a bit more than 140 characters.

Are websites going to matter in a couple of years?

Rick Sanchez of CNN threw out this question as he lead “Conversations on the Circle – Social Media: The Impact of Social Media on Culture and the Economy.” The panel featured Chris Cunningham,, CEO of appssavy (a small agency working on social media campaigns); Ziv Navoth, SVP Marketing Partnerships for AOL (managing AOL, ICQ and Bebo); Benjamin Palmer, CEO of the Barbarian Group (75 person design shop with expertise in websites and applications); and Lila King, Sr. Producer at CNN who produces the user-generated iReport site and segments. So what did the panel think of the future of the corporate website as we know it today? Will they still matter two years from now?

  • Cunningham: “No. Maybe if you need to order a part.”
  • Palmer: “The notion of the website as an island is dying,” noting that sites are extending their reach with Facebook Connect, pictures in Flickr and elsewhere.
  • Sanchez: “We don’t call them websites any more, it’s a blog.”
  • Navoth: “They are going to get social.”

How are they going to get social? Steve Rubel, SVP/Director of Insights for Edelman Digital admirably spoke over the loud audience at Mashable’s event to suggest a roadmap, telling brands to create “embassies” in all the social outposts where their customers meet, then directing users to your corporate site as a hub for all these spokes. Not only does it provide a great crowdsourcing ability to shape the product, it allows you to respond quickly when something goes wrong, because you are already established (unlike Domino’s who had to set up accounts to counter the negative video placed on YouTube by a couple disgruntled employees).

The (oft-maligned) Skittles website revamp was also highlighted as a site that shows how to “go social,” because rather than create a whole website, it actually become a little layover on top of other internet properties where Skittles is mentioned (e.g. the Wikipedia page, Twitter search showing all the tweets about Skittles currently going on, You Tube videos). Palmer noted, “It’s a very effective site for the money – probably around $12,000 versus creating [a destination site with] games or expensive videos.”

Which lead to a conversation that some brands really can’t expect users coming to a website: “A show of hands: How many people have gone to a site about milk?” One hand shot up in the room. “Really? So tell us why you went to the milk site?” The startled audience member, “um, actually, I built the site.”

Which lead to the current mantra being repeated: you can’t expect people to come to you, you have to go to them and engage in their conversations. “The last time people had conversation was fifty, sixty years ago, sitting on their front porches. Today you have to move in [to the virtual neighborhood and engage them],” noted Sanchez. Navoth added that joining the conversations “is easier than starting a conversation from scratch.” Again showing how things have changed from the old model of build a website and people/sales will come.

I want to connect, but can’t respond to all of them or do all day

Another interesting point of conversation was dealing with the deluge of input and how to read, manage and filter everything coming in. Sanchez gets tons of twitter input but noted that there were “too many to read” and that he feels “guilty about that.”

Novath noted we’ve reached a tipping point: “We’ve gone from solving a problem of supply [i.e. user input] now to a problem of how to manage.”

King noted that for CNN iReports, they are able to see news reports bubble up automatically through different filters like most views, most comments, keyword clouds and other filters to bring to their attention to stories not currently on their radar. But for individuals representing their brand, how do they manage – does the busy CEO hire someone and how does he trust him?

  • Cunningham: “Don’t hire that guy – find the time to do it, it has to be you.”
  • King: “CNN has 50/60 people representing and an extension of the brand – people are really the brand.”
  • Novath: “We have multiple people having conversations with one rule: Don’t be Stupid.” The key is that “you have to be authentic.”
  • Rubel: “People want to connect with peers, not the CEO. The key is to let people be themselves.”
  • Sanchez: “You have to be able to tell the suits to back off.”
  • Palmer: “We’re helping GE figure out their personality, why doing this in the first place – it becomes a really reflective thing.”

Palmer brings up the most important part, which is before worrying about filtering and managing, you have to determine if you have the right strategy for your brand (e.g. just the CEO, many personalities). But once you’ve sorted that out, there is still a lot of work and tools to be created to really be able to effectively cut through the deluge. Seesmic and Tweetdeck let you filter who you follow, but the need here is to help you slice and dice your Twitter replies + Facebook Fan Page comments + Forum threads. Radian6 is close in being able to show you the different feeds, but you have to manually characterize and tag each individual comment based on a specific trend (e.g. everyone who complains about a specific bug in the feature X). And then nothing really exists to help automate or facilitate a mass response to each of those individuals; it’s incredibly labor intensive.

Rubel takes it from the consumer point of view with examples of email bankruptcy (too many to respond to so not going to – if they really need me they’ll contact me) and selective ignorance. In the end social media allows people to allow their friends be their filters. I know I do that, knowing certain friends of mine always know what’s happening in music or latest food festivals and leveraging their input to make decisions, which is much more powerful than search. I truly believe the same sort of filtering is going to be key for marketers, being able to identify key influencers and community members that can help filter through all the noise and help prioritize which users to respond to until we can more effectively manage the deluge on a personal one-to-one level.

How we measuring this stuff?

You can really tell how social media is emerging by how loose the metrics are to date. Cunningham noted ultimately it’s “Brand Impact” and typically a metric involves the number of “conversations,” but he didn’t mention anything around positive versus negative sentiment around those conversations (I’ve repeatedly noted that understanding sentiment is critical to understanding those conversations). Rubel was pretty honest and straight forward in saying that there really are “no standard” KPIs (and noted the danger as the metrics in social media get really small compared to other media). But typically his clients’ KPIs are around reach, engagement, reputation or trial and companies are setting metrics based on their individual goals.

Other random notes

  • Rubel shared that the average person visits only 111 domains per month and views 2,554 pages
  • At the Mashable event, when the packed room was asked how many moms there were in the room, there were only three
  • Cunningham noted that 95 percent of Facebook Applications fail
  • Palmer noted that the reason Chevy Tahoe’s unfiltered social media campaign failed wasn’t because of social media, but that the product was a bad product with a lot of things that users could be nasty about
  • Cunningham believes “Facebook is the hub of social media” and Twitter is not – the community is just stronger and more useful to the rest of the internet (again the idea of social media + search meaning you use your friends as filters)
  • Palmer believes Oprah changed nature of Twitter from a fan club to a platform and that’s not a bad thing – Palmer noted “a lot of blogs or sites are like night clubs in New York, some break out and some are dead in six months.”
  • I’m still trying to think how we get New Yorkers to use the great new tools that the New York State Senate has deployed to make government more tranparent than ever before.

2 thoughts on “Is the Website Dead? That and Other Questions from Internet Week New York”

  1. It’s hard for me to believe that the future of all corporate/product sites is social media. This makes the huge assumption that:
    1. People who visit yor site WANT a relationship, not just data
    2. People who visit your sit want a long-term relationship, not a transaction.

    Don’t get me wrong, IF you are a fan, and most customers who are fans are hugely valuable, you should be supported by social media options. But, assuming everything will go this way is like the 1998 view that Push and Pointcast were going to take over the entire web. The Use cases just don’t bear this out…

    Just my $.02.


    PS: as full disclosure, my company runs a platform to manage supplies ordering transactions….but I don’t think that is where my opinion comes from.

  2. Totally agree that social media is NOT the end all, be all for corporate websites. There will always be transactional (or as Cunningham notes above, the need “to order a part”), and information gathering is still an important part of most sites (the examples of Skittles and milk producers above point to the issue that there just isn’t much by way of info to share there). To date corporate sites use SEO as a core way of getting to those data gatherers; social media tools just allow marketers to extend SEO to networks of people. Product sites use star ratings and user reviews to help provide a peer base of recommendations to move the sale forward; social media allows a brand to try to provide influential people the tools to make those recommendations OFF your site.

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