To Learn and To Get Things Done

I can’t tell you how much I cringe when someone’s opening line in a web briefing session goes something like: “I want a web page”. Groan. Really? “Who’s the audience?” The reply lists all known audiences. “What do you want them to do?” And all too often the response is: “I want them to come back. Again and again.” Really…? Well you can guess right? If this were a game of chess I’m playing a novice and I’m going for 5 move checkmate. Not to be devastatingly cruel but to conclude the so-far-pointless conversation in the hope that we’ll move on to something a little more ambitious or at least vaguely useful.

Ever since the mid 90’s it’s been my view that a web presence should seek to deliver two things for it’s intended audiences: a story that changes and convinces minds and a way of interacting as a consequence of that changed mind. The interaction could range from “here’s my email address” to “I want to create an account” or even “I want to buy now”. And while I have no argument with the “Content is King” approach, it’s too easy to focus on Content to the exclusion of enabling the users’ desire to “get things done”. It’s always been this way because while creating good content takes considerable effort, it’s nothing like as complicated as creating useful applications. In one of Seth Godin’s recent blog posts he invited you and I to consider the question from our respective web visitors: “Why am I here?" I’d like to expand the importance of this question a little further.

A scenario might help. Your website contains the most comprehensive and up-to-date information offered by your organisation. You still print a catalogue too, at great expense. On the catalogue you carefully position your web address. Your organisation is still print centric and you can tell by observing current practices. For example: telesales take customer details and arrange to post a catalogue rather than directing the caller to your website. Worse still, those details are discarded once the postage label is printed. The resulting user journey is one of frustration. Your would-be customer could have had access to comprehensive information in an instant, instead he waits a week for a physical catalogue to arrive. On arrival he notes the web address. He visits the site. Great information! But the only transaction on offer is…you guessed it…order a copy of our catalogue. The information is captured to enable label printing but is then promptly forgotten. No CRM, no nurturing, no communications plan, no ongoing engagement.

I can assure you this really happens. Why? Because the “getting things done” element involves answering the users’ question “why am I here” and that means a whole world of hurt: research, process redesign and application development with all its attendant complexities and costs. Marketers can deliver great content. But delivering on the “getting things done” bit will take your organisation into grubby territory; marketers have to work with huffy geeky types that talk a different language and seem to get easily upset every time the word change is used.

To learn and get things done could be described as a simple equation. Think of Learning and Doing as equal arguments: X = Y, where X is learning and Y is completing a useful task. In this case X is delivered by Content. What delivers Y? If Y is all about completing useful tasks — doing the stuff you want to do — then Y is the transaction that enables you to get stuff done.

Content tells a great story, creates a desire, changes minds, describes a promise. “Learning” delivers that changed and made-up mind; the emotional switch from passive-observer to active-fan. But active fandom is an ephemeral state. If X cannot be followed by Y at a pace or level of convenience expected by your user he will judge your website to have failed and will very deliberately and quickly move on.

If Content is King then perhaps the ability to transact is Queen? A perfect marriage that successful web businesses have understood for years but more traditional organisations continue to shy away from. For most X ≠ Y, if that’s true of your organisation you may have some catching-up to do or it may already be too late.