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If you build it, they probably won’t come… (Unless you tell them about it…)

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An interesting client meeting of a few weeks back got me thinking about the differences between web site design services, interactive strategy and the confusion both clients and firms have about where one stops and one begins.

This particular client is a web-based business start up. Their business model involves gathering timely information from around the world about issues relating to consumer products. This information is then distributed in articles and RSS feeds and is accompanied by a significant amount of original editorial content. The web site has a serious, but conversational “magazine” style format.

Several months into their venture, the client is faced with readership levels which were not as high as originally hoped for. As a result, they’re having difficulty attracting paid sponsors and advertisers. We sat down with the client to review the site and we both agreed that a few content and functionality tweaks should be made to the site. However, both parties also agreed that the site did have valuable content and its overall functionality made sense. In other words, the web site “works.”

Why, then, was the site not attracting more visitors?

These days, the interactive marketing world is abuzz with “Web 2.0” tools. The idea behind Web 2.0 is that, if you build interactive features such as blogs or social networking components into your web site, the web site is more likely to grow organically. Blog entries will spawn page references on search engines. Word of mouth marketing will result from the social networking components. Your web site will be a fabulous success, without having to spend a dime on traditional advertising.

There are, however, factors at work here which don’t ensure the instant success. There are also fundamental shortcomings to this approach which can only be overcome by using some very un-Web 2.0 strategies.

Some of the shortcomings relate directly to content. Businesses these days are being talked into blogs by every marketing consultant on the block. However, Blogs take work. They really only succeed when the content is fresh and updated continually. It’s one thing to advise your clients to start a blog. But the rubber hits the road when that same client must muster the resources to maintain the dialogue which blogs necessarily begin.

The larger issues at work relate back to the design vs. strategy discussion I mentioned in the beginning of the post.

It used to be that, when a product was introduced to the consumer public, a raft of activities accompanied the roll out. PR consultants were retained to get press placement and generate press releases. Ad agencies were hired to create campaigns designed to introduce the product and its brand. In short, there was a coordinated effort intended to generate awareness of the new product and get people to buy.

The rise of the internet also gave rise to the myth that traditional strategies have no place in this web-driven world. Somehow or another, we’ve been duped into believing that a well-designed web site will draw its own audience. The world has changed. Build a good web site and the customers will come.

But, really, the internet hasn’t changed the fundamentals of advertising and PR much at all. Effective advertising and PR had always been about getting your message out to as many folks as possible and trying to get them to listen to it. When the web site (in our client’s case) is the product, that product still needs a launch. Old School methods like strategic PR, ad campaigns and direct (electronic, maybe) mail, still give a new product the necessary boosts it needs to generate an initial critical mass of users. Once this critical mass is reached, then all the other bells and whistles you’ve built into the web site – the blogs, the RSS feeds, the editorial content, etc – can help sustain the site and make it vibrant.

Sure, the methods we advertisers have to get the word out about our clients’ products do change. But the idea that anything about the internet has changed the essential need to publicize a new product or to do many of the same tasks advertisers and PR firms have been doing for decades is, well, silly…

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