Being A Good Web Citizen

I'm just going through the process of putting together our online strategy and it's a bit like carving something out of a big block of wood. It reminds me of Stealing Beauty, where Liv Tyler's character, Lucy, travels to Tuscany to spend a summer with her mother's artist friends. One of them is a sculptor who's going to carve a life-size sculpture of her likeness. It's a smaller storyline that keeps popping up throughout the movie and a beautiful metaphor for a young woman's own identity taking shape. Blah, blah, blah -- I'll save the first-year film analysis for another blog -- it's a great movie and I highly recommend it.

Where this has anything to do with building websites is that this sculptor starts the whole process off with a giant log dragged in from the woods. He stands it on end in his studio and begins by making big, rough cuts with a chainsaw. He gradually works his way down to smaller and smaller tools until he's working on the sculpture's facial features with a little pick. This is what this strategy process kind of feels like.

About three months ago, I was working on several other projects but I knew that eventually I'd have to put this strategy together. So, I started a blank Word document, put a shortcut to it on my desktop, and anytime something remotely related floated through the ol' cortex, I added it as a new bulletpoint in the doc. Then, I went through my notebook of ideas that I've kept through a bunch of years working agency-side (the ones that totally won't work for the client that's briefing you at the moment, but will probably be great for someone eles). And then I capped it off with random quotes I'd taken over the years from books like The Cluetrain Manifesto (oh, Cluetrain ... like McLuhan's "the medium is the message", I still don't completely get you :-)

Nevertheless, by the time I finally looked at this document, it was just over fifteen pages long. The last few weeks, I've felt like that sculptor chipping away at the fifteen-page block of wood. I chainsawed away about five pages of duplicates and things that for one reason or another wouldn't work. And through this process, a handful of key ideas kept bubbling up to the top (am I mixing metaphors yet?). Long story short (if you can't ramble in your own blog, where can you ramble, right?) the one that stuck in my head like a Swedish pop song is "be a good web citizen".

I haven't completely sketched out what that means yet, but I think I have a general feel for it. At the end of the day, we're still a private company and we're not about to completely throw our online doors wide open. On the other hand, we're a brand with a fair amount of name recognition and customer goodwill, which means that conversations about us are popping up on blogs, and Facebook, and Flickr, and a good amount of it is positive, so we probably don't need to be overly shy.

So, here's my initial thinking of how being a good web citizen would apply to our online strategy. From our company's point of view, I'm seeing the web divided into two areas. There are the online properties that we're going to build, manage, and own. We're the hosts of those properties the way we would be hosts if we threw a dinner party. And so, taking that analogy, if we decided that we wanted our dinner guests to take off their shoes at the door, they probably would because they're trying to be good guests. That being said, we're also not about to become tyrants who boss our guests around. As good hosts, our goal is to make our guests as comfortable as possible so that they leave with a positive impression of us and we keep building on a good relationship. We just don't want to end up with a muddy carpet at the end of the evening :-)

I'm hoping that's a reasonable approach. After all, the people at your dinner party are likely to be friends, or at least acquaintances, and will probably be willing to respect your wishes. In the same way, I'm thinking that the majority of visitors to our own online properties will be our True Fans. My guess is that they're about 10% of all our customers and about 90% of online visitors. If that's the case, they're like the close friends at our dinner party, likely willing to respect our whole "thing" about using coasters.

On the other hand, everything else on the web that's beyond our domains is someone else's party and we're just guests. Our goal is to show up, be fun, contribute to the conversation, and not rearrange the furniture. And we won't try to hit every single dinner party in a night, just the places where our friends, and our friends' friends, are hanging out. For example, we've got a small YouTube presence and we'll be doing our best over the next year to put as much video on there as possible. I'd like to do the same with things like Flickr and Twitter and find ways to pull as much of that content as possible into our sites. This way, we're making life easier on our own properties by leveraging proven technologies that someone else is perfecting, and at the same time, we're casting out our net even further to audiences that might not know who we are yet, but like our taste in videos or photography.

Where this good online citizen thing is a bit more of a challenge is a place like Facebook. We have a handful of existing fan groups that we had nothing to do with. They just sprang up and we thank our lucky stars for them. So, what do we do now? My initial thinking is that this is kind of like a little dinner party in our honour, but nevertheless, it's a party at someone else's house and we're still the guests. I definitely wouldn't want us to be the big narc policing these groups, or create fake IDs to "seed" content. That kind of stuff might have worked on faceless message boards; but not on Facebook where, if your profile was created last week, has no picture and has two friends, the red flags start to go up. My initial thinking would be to show up at these parties with the online equivalent of a cake or a nice bottle of wine. I'd love to figure out a great Facebook app that would resonate well with these fan groups, build it on our own dime, and drop it off on their doorstep with a lovely little thank-you note for being nice.

I don't know, what do you think? In the meantime, I'll be working my way down to the little pick.