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Remember AOL! The Four Rules of Web Success

Posted by Brant Emery on January 2nd, 2013 at 11:03 am

Things go in cycles. We all know that – from the dredging up of retro fashions, the inheritance of music, to the rapid cyclical nature of business; in particular online business. Everything seems to follow the same path.

As all tech believers know, when man invented the web: Saviour of the Geeks, Creator of Unnecessary Job Titles and Deliverer of LOLCats, like the Garden of Eden, at first things went jolly well – we all lived in peace, harmony and believed in universal access, freedom of information, net neutrality, and that when given the choice of publicising the bare truth on Wikipedia, we (from celebrities and companies to politicians and lobbying groups) of course would not seek to alter that... oh yes. Of course, our lovely new Netopia began to change to reflect the true realities of our world – i.e. capitalism.

Yet, even so – the level of change from open platforms, open source, open access mentality of the early days to the competitive, closed, fixed business model trend we now see, surprises me. When AOL (or America Online as it was then) first presented the world with the idea of a digital gated community – it was a unique step. Never intended for the net hackers, geeks or tech pro’s it provided a haven of order in the chaos of the foundling web. Yet as web standards proliferated, design improved and usability made the web a much more friendly place, AOL lost their uniqueness. Who wants to live in a gated community in the middle of paradise?

Now, it’s funny to see the cycle turning complete. With the giants of the web slogging it out to attract users, traffic and revenues we’re seeing a return to the old principles. Yet, in the online world, competition has come to mean repetition. The strategy is back to Walled Gardens (to name it innocuously) or Inescapable Prisons to give it, unfortunately, a more accurate moniker. Take Facebook – with their enclosed proprietary content, web structure, email messaging, and community -  or Google, Microsoft, and Apple to name the incumbents, and the many rising stars who seek to copy their approach (blindly, I may add...). The successful ones have a supporting strategy of building brand loyalty through meaningful content, strong user benefits and technologically superior devices (iPod, iPhone), whereas the bad ones just seek to lock-in people with artificial barriers.

What is this leading to? Well, interaction on Facebook is down. Google+ is not the thriving hub they’d have you believe. Only ten people use Bing. No one understands the sharing options on iTunes. People are getting annoyed that Twitter no longer integrates with... well, anything.

I do believe it could’ve all been done a bit better. But of course, hindsight is 20/20. However, it’s not too late to learn from this. We can pre-empt the closure of this cycle and for digital brands here are some key strategic pointers for 2013 and beyond:

  • Some things are immutable

Example: Facebook declaring their messaging service would replace email. As  a corporate strategy I wonder how much wasted resources  could’ve been better used. That’s a digital comparison of saying electric cars will be the end of buses.

  • Stick to your core: Have a clear brand purpose and don’t be swayed by competitors

I take Google+ as an example here – it’s modestly successful, but the spinoff of Google Hangouts is a much more interesting approach and in my view should be a leading element... Just because a competitor has something, doesn’t mean you need to replicate it. Product diversification (through features or new product extensions) is the easiest way to grow market share. Yet the new product failure rate has remained consistent for the last 20 years. That says something.

  • Consumers are not zombies

So many offline and online brands reach a point where they start behaving as if their consumers are zombies. Unwavering, unemotional, unthinking, uncritical behaviour is not what humans do. Begin to treat your users and consumers like zombies and they will soon leave you for the brands that treat them like people.

  • Would YOU do it?

I often ask myself if the creators of a feature or platform have ever actually used it in the true context of a user. This was one legacy of Steve Jobs that should be followed religiously. If he didn’t like it, it didn’t go out. Do your users really want to grant a company permission to ‘post on their behalf’? Why should I upload all of my contacts at entry stage registration?

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