Biz

barking up the wrong hierachy


What makes the Web a revolutionary business tool? The fact that it provides inexpensive, interactive, digital access to 30m+ consumers?

No. That's the Net: not the Web. The Web's a break with the past because it's hypermedia.

Make no mistake, hypermedia has been around for a while. But for the most part, it languished, unused. Then, it was joined to another crippled technology, the global computer network. There is no technological synergy more powerful than that between hypermedia and computer internetworks.

What does this mean for business? Among other things, hypermedia is the first business communications tool at our ready disposal that mimics the structure of human thought. What's more, a hypermedia space can incorporate print, video, interaction, time. A space such as this very web site. Such as your web site. A new paradigm. A new reality. Indeed, if you thought print was big, if you thought television was big, think again. And the Web's just the first networked iteration. The tip of the iceberg.

What you think of now as television will become hypermedia. What you get through what your TV will become won't be 500 channels. It'll be access to one big electronic space. Made up of millions of smaller spaces. One of which will be your company.

For complicated reasons, hypermedia's difficult to make sense of. But if you want to do business on the Net or whatever the Net becomes, you will need to master hypermedia. Because on a network, that's all your company is. A space.

Let's assume for a second, you've got a web site. You're happy. You're hip. You're leading edge. And your next concern is: Traffic. How to find it. How to buy it.

Try widening the focus. "Traffic" as it's currently understood, is a limiting concept. What counts is not where people go, it's getting people to do what you want them to do digitally. One customer enthusiastically subscribed to your listserver, who doesn't have web access, is more valuable to you than thousands of web site visitors you fail to engage in a conversation. Your space is more than your "site."

And what of your site? As things currently stand, chances are, when a prospect hits your site for the first time, he has no idea what he's found. No clear idea what's in your architecture. How big it is. What you're trying to do. Once inside your space, he has no idea where he is, where he's going, what he's going to find, what he hasn't seen, how he might find it. More than likely, he won't know where he's going until he's got there.

Designing a space so that it's navigable is very, very difficult. First, there's a profoundly complex relationship between content and structure. Architects, semioticians, linguists, artists, interface designers, information theorists, computer scientists, shrinks...they've all got opinions on what it is. Second, navigation's just one of many stumbling blocks. Any idea what's required to build a convivial marketing relationship with a prospect in cyberspace? Any idea how to "control" a space do that? Hypermedia opposes standardization. Opposes unification. Opposes hierachy.

Meanwhile, you've got no control over where your prospect goes. Where and when he arrives or leaves. What he sees and doesn't see. What he does and doesn't do. Up, Down, Sideways, Outside, Inside, Hello, Goodbye. He decides. No user will see you or interact with you the same way. Put simply, the prospect, not you, crafts the marketing impression.

Say farewell to marketing as you know it. There will be no great campaign everybody sees. Only some spaces more or less people see more or less of. Hypermedia will change the definition of what good marketing is. There will be a new balance between marketer, prospect and marketing methodology.

And it gets stranger yet. With the arrival of networked hypermedia, familiar indicators of quality no longer apply. Offnet, too. It doesn't seem like it now, but access to text is relatively rare. Which is why a 2,000 item catalog, distributed to thousands of prospects, means something. Catalog content has a marketing impact above and beyond the information it contains. The value of text, as we know it, brings value to your print-based marketing. Universal use of networked hypermedia cheapens the relative value of print. It will increasingly cheapen print-based marketing.

Sound complicated? It is. Where do you start? Get your space in order. It and your company and the digitally-mediated relationship between you and your prospects and customers are one and the same. Think initially of your space as a marketing function, but enlarge it as you can, to encompass all aspects of your business. Think of your space AS your company. Others will. And get used to the fact that the boundaries between your company and the world "outside" will fuse. Very soon, where your company begins and ends will become unclear.

And try stepping back a second. Take a breath. Thereís really no such thing as a "site" on a network. Nothing with a "center". When you talk about your site what you really mean is "limited connectivity." Itís a lack of connections that makes your site appear centered or localized - that gives it a character. Content can be anywhere because content is dead. In other words, content isnít where itís at: connections, and non-connections are.

A quick prediction: the most accomplished and profitable businesses of the next millenia will be the ones who know what and how to connect and, more importantly, what and how not to connect. And they will use hypermedia to do it. The next millenia is five years away.


Nick Routledge

May, 1995