Your Real Problems

January 23, 2014

(note from the future : this is from back when I was freelancing)

“It hurts when I do this.” Well, don’t do that.

When I started to put this site together, it forced me to look back on the different people and organizations I’ve tried to help out over the last few years — places I’ve worked, friends with businesses, freelance clients, and companies we’ve partnered with. A lot of times, the cry for help is the same.

“Our website sucks. Help.”

While some people are just completely hopeless and tone-deaf about this kind of thing, most people know a bad website when they see it, even if they don’t know how to fix it. It just feels “off”, in a discomforting way. Sometimes, companies trying to deal with this unsettling feeling hire a web design firm, blow everything up, and unveil a new site. Many times, it has the same problems as the old one, which usually become apparent in a few weeks, once the novelty has worn off.

MG Siegler recently wrote about the lack of radical change to television over the last few years, and made this argument:

“The reason why none of these things end up working out is simply because they don’t play ball with either Big Cable or the content producers — or, ideally, both. They keep trying to solve a technology problem that anyone could solve. The issue is with getting the right content.”

In his case, he was suggesting that all the radical UI improvements from set top boxes (Apple TVs, Rokus, Tivos, etc.), which are great in some ways, still aren’t relevant to the real problem, which is that large, entrenched companies control television content, and improving the TV watching experience isn’t currently in the financial interest of those companies. So every time a company comes out with a “better way to watch TV”, they’re unable to REALLY change the way we watch, and nothing truly changes at all.

At the risk of spewing inanities (hey, it’s my blog), watching TV sucks because watching TV sucks. You can add as many intermediaries to the equation as you want, but no matter how interested they are in making TV not suck, it’s not going to change the underlying problem, which has nothing to do with them. Garbage in, garbage out, no matter how nice the bluetooth-enabled garbage can is.

This is the number one problem with bad company websites. Your website is lame because the way you think about — and often operate — your business is lame. The best thing someone like me can possibly do to help your organization is think about your business in a better, more honest way. Once you do that, you’ll immediately start seeing what’s REALLY wrong with your site (among other things), and even better, you’ll probably realize how to fix it.

So instead of telling you what’s technically or structurally wrong with your website (which is a useful, although completely separate discussion), I’m going to tell you what’s probably wrong with your business that is adversely affecting your website. Remember, this isn’t just what’s wrong with your “brand”, or your boilerplate — this stuff is in your head, affecting how you operate each day. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

1. You are scared.

It’s really hard to make a simple, clear argument when you’re hedging your bets. You can’t say “our product is better”, or “the way our company works is better for you”, while simultaneously insulating yourself from the possibility that some people might not agree with that, or worse, may be actively offended by the very notion of it.

One way I’ve seen this impact websites is through what I think of as “checkbox” or “defensive” marketing — the idea that the failure to include certain “key” things leads to a loss of potential business from customers who don’t see their pet topic covered/acknowledged by your site. So you end up with a room full of management people saying things like “we have to make sure we talk about {thing X}”, because that’s something that makes, or could make, the company money. This is exactly how you end up with entire pages basically about nothing (“WE ARE COMPATIBLE WITH SUPER DATABASE PLUS 2009!!!”), and huge site navigation systems that highlight groups of subgroups of these pointless pages that take focus away from what the average customer may actually care about.

By definition, having a business means implying — and arguing — that certain people should come to you instead of NOT going to you, or going to someone else. There’s no way around it; accept that this is the case, own it, and stop assuming that people are going to randomly do business with you just because you happen to exist and don’t step on anyone’s toes.

2. You don’t believe in your product/service.

Maybe you really do believe in the purpose of your business — but you may not believe in your ability to execute it, due to a substandard product or service. The ugly truth is that there are a lot of businesses trying to make the best of a bad situation. Maybe the product is new, and simply isn’t as good as the competition. Maybe you need to get a few customers before you can invest enough money in your service to make it what it needs to be. Maybe you don’t even know why your product is inferior — like your website, it just is.

There is usually SOMETHING better about your product or service; you should probably focus on that (this is where I usually come in). But in many cases, that differentiation either doesn’t matter enough (“it has a real keyboard!”), or sometimes doesn’t even exist at all. I know for a fact that I’ve sat there, banging my head against my desk, trying to come up with a compelling reason for someone — anyone — to buy a certain product or service that simply isn’t worth it. Far too many people think just being in a space entitles them to a small chunk of the market, but the world simply doesn’t work that way, and that’s not a messaging problem. Go ahead, ask Blackberry, or HP. Somebody like me may be able to help you survive your problem, but it’s only triage at that point — you need to get locked in to why your core value proposition is so weak, and fix it.

3. You are lazy.

Defining a strong identity for your organization involves difficult decisions, and saying “no” to a lot of things. It often involves resolving disagreements with people internally, shutting down pet projects and concepts, and identifying mistakes that have been made in the past. Feelings get hurt. Important people who drive really nice cars may end up being wrong, and they might look stupid. Relationships you can normally take for granted will probably have to be managed and repaired.

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Well, that’s life. If you don’t feel like working, your website is the least of your problems.

4. You don’t like your customers.

There really are two kinds of businesses. The first is the kind where you find the solution to a problem, and realize that certain people will happily pay you money to solve it effectively. In this case, you spend most of your time (a) getting better at solving it, (b) finding people who need it solved, and (c) helping those people understand the truth, which is that the problem exists, that you can solve it, and that it makes sense for them to pay you to do it.

The OTHER kind of business is where you find a group of people who are spending a lot of money on something, and try to figure out how to get them to give that money to you. I always refer to this as a “value extraction” business, because in this case, solving a problem isn’t the primary reason you exist. The money is. In fact, there may be no problem at all, just money to be extracted. In these kinds of businesses, the effectiveness of a product or solution is irrelevant, compared to the ability to sell it. Maybe you sell it by becoming friends with people who can cause it to be purchased (“Another 9 holes? SOUNDS GOOD, BRO.”) Maybe you sell it by getting it associated with something else that people actually have a reason to buy (make checks payable to “Gartner, Inc”). Maybe you sell it by convincing people it’s something that it’s not.

Either way, that kind of business often has a very hard time expressing a strong, clear argument for their business, because there isn’t one. And once again, that is a much bigger problem than anything on your website.

Cheer up!

This sounds like a really negative list, and I’ll admit, these problems do exist for a lot of businesses, and there’s a ton of resistance to addressing them. But in a lot of cases, there’s an equally large opportunity buried in there. It could be that you’re scared, but really shouldn’t be. Or perhaps you don’t like your customers because you’ve been looking for the wrong kind. If you are open and honest with yourself, and ready to do what it takes to fix it, these problems are extremely solvable. And I should know, because that’s what I do!