Free Markets, Free People

The Internet: Still Not Getting It

It’s been an interesting week for me, because I’ve run into three situations that illustrate to me that, even though the Internet has been around since 1995, and has been hugely important to business–and politics, of course–since 2000, it’s clear that many people are still unclear about it.  Ive been a web developer since ’96, and have been the Managing Principal of WebmasterDeveloper.Com since 2003.  There was a time when I just assumed that no one knew anything about the Internet, and that sort of attitude among customers was defensible. In 2010, however, those days should be long gone.

But that attitude is still out there, and I’ve been hit over the head with it repeatedly this week.

Client 1:

This client created an affiliate marketing web site, aimed at a group of customers to which they have direct access through their other lines of business.  They spent months crafting the web site to provide the best affiliate programs they can think of.  After going live with their web site a few weeks ago, they’ve had 1 sale, and about 40 affiliate click-throughs.  They were shocked that their direct marketing of the site to existing customers has had such a dismal response.  In the course of conversation with the client, I asked, “Did you ever do any surveys of your customers to see what kind of offers would have value to them?  The answer:  No.  We didn’t want to spend a bunch of startup capital doing that.

They’ve spent thousands of dollars building a web site without any knowledge about what their customers want.  They’ve never talked to their customers; never gotten any idea of what their customers need, and how to fulfill that need.  They’ve spent every penny on building a web site to fulfill a need they haven’t even defined with their customers.  And now, since the customers aren’t responding, they’re concerned that there may be some sort of technical problem.

Client 2:

“I haven’t been getting any orders from my web site.  Apparently, the web host shut my site down for non-payment, but I don’t remember getting any notifications that there was a problem with my credit card. Anyway, can you see what I owe, so I can pay them, and you guys can download my site and transfer it to another web host?”  As it happens, the web host not only sent out email notifications, but made phone calls to try and collect payment, with no response.  In May of 2009.  Of course, their web site files are loooong gone.

So, the client clearly hasn’t even looked at his own web site for at least 10 months.

Client 3:

This client is completely changing their web site to become the single point of contact with their customer base.  Their customers will have to pay an annual fee just to see the products they sell, then use the web site to submit initial bids for salvage auctions.  I informed the client via email that we needed content from them.  I received an angry phone call from the client, who screamed at me, “I just want to concentrate on my business, which is [widget salvage]!  I don’t want to spend all my time doing web design!  That’s what I pay you for!”

In other words, the client wants to make the web site his sole source of initial interaction with his customers, but he is uninterested in writing any content for it.  His web site will be the primary public access that customers have to his company, but working on the web site is a distraction from his real business.

And the real kicker is, on the day we finished the initial programming, he drops the bombshell that the site’s design–which he approved on January 27–is completely unacceptable, and he wants to completely redesign the site.  This is akin to approving the blueprints for a home construction project, then kiting in on the day the contractor finishes laying the last bits of carpet and exclaiming, “I wanted four bedrooms, not three!”

All of these clients, despite their differing details, have one glaring thing in common:  It’s the assumption that once something goes out onto the Internet, it works because pixies sprinkle magical fairy dust on it.  Tinkerbell waves her wand, sparkly bits fly through the air, and money just comes rolling in to your bank account.

In the real world, the Internet operates on the same principles any brick and mortar business does.  You still have to perform due diligence.  You still need to market to your customers.  You still need to go into the office–even if it’s a virtual one.

Nothing magical happens simply because people can access your business online, rather than jumping in the car and driving to it.

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22 Responses to The Internet: Still Not Getting It

  • Reminds me of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.  He repeatedly talks about how everyone thinks “technology” will simply make a business become good.  Wrong. Technology is just a tool you use to make good things better, and bad things worse.  Anyhow interesting to hear more confirming evidence of what is just some good common sense.

  • Aren’t these examples more about general human / business flakery than web-specific ignorance?

    No. 1 could just as easily be a restaurant, or any thing else, for that matter. No 2  is simply not paying the rent and then complaining when the landlord changes the locks and throws your stuff out, and 3. is, as you say, adaptable to construction or any other design project.

    The web/tech aspects here are just a symptom in common.

    • Excellent observation.

      When some managers have trouble, they seem certain that there’s some magic bullet solution (website, new technology, etc.) or magician (consultant, new hire, etc.) who can fix their problem.  It never occurs to them that the person who needs to solve the problem is sitting in their chair and wearing their clothes.  Hence, they don’t ask the basic questions or do the basic investigation to decide what their problem is in the first place.

  • Nothing magical happens, but a lot of random shit sure does.

  • I transferred from DB development to Project Management in 1988.  This is nothing new.
    There was a cartoon YEARS ago, of a manager walking out of a bay of cubicles and saying over his shoulder, “I’ll go upstairs and see what they want and the rest of you start coding”.
    Even more laughable is how so many other companies have their web site as their primary contact point, and if you can call for a human, after a half hour or more wait on hold, you speak to someone in India or the Philippines.
    It’s always been that employees were expendable, and more recently customers were. Unfortunately, notice how many websites are geared towards potential investors (and managements/executives biographies).  Then, our recent history shows even investors/shareholders are lightly thought of. The business media is only slowly starting to become aware that many businesses are run for the sake of the management and no one else.

    • “The business media is only slowly starting to become aware that many businesses are run for the sake of the management and no one else”

      Very, very slowly. James Burnham, among others, wrote about it ias early as 1940 in  “The Managerial Revolution” and the idea was taught in business courses at least twenty years ago.

      • But then why should business journalists be any more knowledgeable or competent than any other type of jounalist?

  • any comments on the net neutrality issue? with out regulations its  seems like the possibility for service providers to reduce competition and create a cartel is very real.

  • I am sure Dale is a very professional and creative designer, but as a business owner who has had to deal with web designer who are not, here is my horror story:
    1) Web designer had a cookie cutter design for product websites that was pretty horrible and boring. To deviate from this took much hair pulling.
    2) Web designer did know what a PDF file was. We wanted customers to be able to download our product testing certificates in a PDF format they could print up as our customer always ask for these before placing any orders, and need to show them to their customers as well. It took about a week for them to figure out what a PDF file was.
    3) The free email they set up crashes so much we ended up cancelling it. So instead of it matching our URL, we use an older email instead.
    4) No assistance in how to get the website more traffic etc.
    5) The designer wasn’t much of a designer. We ended up telling him our creative content of how we wanted everything to look, etc., plus came up with the structure and commissioned artwork to replace boring clip art files. Now, this might actually be our job – which is okay, but I do like the designer to offer up some design tips or creative ideas. I also have this problem with product designers, too. I note the worst designers invariably end up moving on to a Masters or Phd degree and a teaching position. That might explain a lot.

    • Well, I gotta say, as soon as he revealed he didn’t know what a PDF file was, you should have fired him immediately.  If the designer can’t even identify a common internet file type, then you shouldn’t be doing business with him.

      • I’m with you Dale.  (and sorry for your bad experience Harun!)
        I’m in gov’t consulting (yes, I’m part of the problem, sorry guys), and often what we see is the client is furious after they’ve hired the cheapest person out there who then proceeds to (predictably) do a bad job.  And, the client ignores the fact that they never had the money to do the job properly – yet somehow, in your analogy, it’s the architect who’s the bad one for designing a 3 bedroom house the client could afford when they really wanted an 8 bedroom McMansion but only requested “build house”.

        • I distinctly remember back in the late 90’s, some small businesses were getting on the web with websites designed and built by high school students.
          Back when so many kids wanted to be a “‘Puter programmer” it was common, but as I mentioned, the prosperity for management to low ball, and then micromanage the project, it’s not surprising.
          Fortune 200 company CapitalOne doesn’t know what a Security Certificate is, and all their “techies” don’t speak enough “Eng’rish” to address the question. 🙁

    • Harun, how did you come by this guy? Did you do a RFP, request references and examples of his work?

  • The choice of design company was made by my business partner, so I was a little limited in hiring/firing.  The company we hired was market price, not super cheap, and did a lot of similar business websites (thus the cookie cutter plan.) Its not a vital part of our sales or marketing, so it was okay. We paid extra for some flash programming and its looks pretty good. Note also this was in Taiwan. I would guess the US has better web designers.

  • Dale, all you have to remember is that Dilbert is the operations manual for 99% of business (and everything else). Things are completely understandable once this basic truth has been internalized…..