Does a digital business really need a corporate website?

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Does a digital business need a website? I’ve been pondering this question for several weeks now, immersed as I have been in the blogosphere. 

Inc 500, magazine research by The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Centre for Marketing Research, reported in Robin Good’s blog, bears out just how important this question is. For it shows that social networking is “very important” to just under 50% of the fastest growing 500 companies in the US. That is up from 27% the year before. As blog ReadWriteWeb puts it:

It means that when you tell people you write, read or listen to blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networks and online video – if they give you a funny look, it is now officially them that’s a freak, not you.

What this means is that each company is assessing, or already using, a range of social media – social networking, message boards, blogging, online video, podcasting and wikis – to get over their product to the public. Just to give you a measure of this, it does not take much to find discussions on friendfeed or blogs like Jeremiah Owyang’s as to how companies should use Twitter to market themselves. (LATER: thanks to Jeremiah for tightening up the headline).

The conversation is fascinating but yet another question appears. Does a company insert its own company logo or the actual face of one of its real human employees on the profile? Does it do what Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, does and live his life publicly, releasing apparently private Tweets all day long to thousands of people. Or the ustream.tv model of a logo announcing cool new downloads on its service.

I am not sure any company knows the answer for each one is the master of its own market. But it does present a challenge to the media. If the companies it covers are set to disolve into a series of digital identities, in a very postmodern way, how are they to behave themselves? How are they to network with these diverse identities? Surely only if they go through the same process, presenting themselves as blogs, streaming or feeds. In that case, what role does a website play in that profile?

For the traditional media industry, it certainly provides the best evidence, after revenue, that advertisers, or at least the more dynamic ones, are moving into the digital future as rapidly as the readers.

And, second, another event of importance is the recognition that the ease with which all this can be done has changed the game. I can set this blog up in a few minutes and change the entire template with a click. At the weekend, it took me about an hour to set up a website at the weekend. Oh yes, I know it needs hours of work on it to make it any good. But the point is that the frustrations are well worth the end product – a belief that with a little cut and paste everything is possible, a Twitter feed here, a Flickr feed there.

There seems some angst in the blogosphere about this. A posting by Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of salesforce.com in TechCrunch, suggests that digital companies and programmers

need to grasp the enormity of Web 3.0 and its potential to create change, disruption, and opportunity.

Focusing on those companies who build, such as Google, and the software companies themselves, he continues that every company must now build so that every other company can interact. This is the new digital world where you must be linked in and open to those you once considered competitors.

As for digital and software companies, so the traditional and media companies must be open and linked in to all those who were once relatively unknown, the customers/readers – what Jay Rosen defined as “the People Formerly Known as the Audience” - and the once positively ignored, the competitors . And their tools to achieve it are the web-based products that are easy to download and mix up, the bearers of these new digital editorial identities. The revenue, of course, will follow those identities, drawn as always to those who carry intellectual weight and offer quality content.

So, where does it leave the traditional media (or any company) website? What purpose does it have when much that is good and linked in is collaborating well without it? Is it more than a page on which to sit PayPal? The answer of course lies, as far as I can see, as the core from which all else springs. Just as the editor becomes what Jeff Jarvis called today coaches” to bring out all that is best on the web, so the website will be the training ground on which to practise and the stadium in which to perform.

It’s going to be a struggle.

Want to know what blogs of the future are going to look like, click here.

Also, try an earlier posting on the digital identity of the Editor  3.0, click here.

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