The web-why-bother factor

Old-fashioned media such as newspapers are reporting widely that South African companies are embracing the web. I would suggest that some of these companies should hold back on that embrace until they have thought about why they are climbing on the bandwagon.

If you spend some time browsing South African corporate web sites – and I’m talking about large companies with big names and brands – then you will see a remarkable phenomenon. Companies with huge advertising and PR budgets have sites that look like they were built by the CEO’s pimply teenager.

To set the scene and with apologies to Yahoo, I would like to introduce my very simple system for categorising web sites in South Africa. There are only 4 categories:

  • There – great content, looks great
  • Getting there – great content, looks lousy
  • Somewhere – no content and looks great
  • Nowhere – no content and looks lousy

Unfortunately a lot of very prominent companies have sites that drop them into the “Somewhere / Nowhere” class. I think that because the web is not seen every day by the decision-makers it is not taken seriously.

Can you imagine a major travel group publishing a paper brochure that has an inaccurate reproduction of their logo, offers poor, ineffectual information and doesn’t match the corporate identity. In cyberspace it is happening all the time.

The web has achieved popularity because the barriers to entry are very low. Most service providers throw in a few megabytes of hard disk space for web publishing when you sign up for a dial-in account. Just like the pc and laser printer enabled the desk top publishing industry in the eighties to take off, so the web publishing industry has been spawned by inexpensive access to the internet in the late nineties.

The trouble is that like poker, authoring of web documents is really easy, but it can take a lifetime to do it properly. Many companies pop up a web site which has the same information as contained in their paper brochures. In fact in some cases the information isn’t even accurate and is quickly out of date. What a waste of a fantastic medium.

You may be thinking that money is the differentiating factor. I would disagree. Many companies, such as SAA, who have spent serious amounts of money (rumoured in excess of
R500 000) end up with a web site that is good-looking, fun and has loads of graphics, but let’s face it, it’s pretty slow and once you’ve seen it you don’t really need to go back.

If I had to design the ideal web site for SAA it would contain a home page that has their logo and an updated screen showing departure times (including delays) at all the airports around the country.

Maybe I’m unusual but somehow a real time flight schedule ranks above adventure games on an airlines web site. At this stage I would place the SAA site in my “Somewhere” class and they can feel free to use my advice when looking for new functionality for the SAA Virtual Traveller site.

So what type of sites are going to be successful? The people who are going to win in this internet race are those who understand the concept of communities. We can take a lesson from companies that are successful in the real world.

These companies build up loyal supporters (read community), and evangelise about their products. Some of the most successful companies in the world spend little on advertising but spend a lot on customers.

The internet gives an opportunity to be in touch with your customer like never before. CDNow, an internet success story, prides is able to implement suggestions coming from its users (again read community) within days and sometimes hours of receiving them.

This is another reason why small companies can compete well with large companies on the internet. The South African corporations who pop up a few pages from their marketing department without allowing interaction from their community stand to lose ground as more people look to the web for up-to-date information.

The web site consultants who make their money talking about the internet will put the problem down to the wrong people creating the web site. “Don’t let the IS department do it,” is the rhetoric heard. I would say the problem goes deeper than that.

I think the IS department might be well qualified to do it, if only management had a strategy for the web site. Even the big spenders don’t always have a strategy and the web site becomes a showpiece rather than an opportunity to interact.

All is not lost, however, and some good examples of innovation are starting to creep out of the woodwork. Take a look at ABSA or Sanlam who are both on the right track by extending their real world services to the net. They might not be perfect yet but improvements are incremental.

Perhaps the SA web is immature and once some more water has washed under the bridge corporations will realise the potential, like some of our international counterparts have. If you’re developing a site or wondering what you’re going to do with your current site then aim for the “There” class. If it’s not worth doing properly, then why bother?

Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.