I can’t say definitively what Web 2.0 is, in fact, experts often disagree about the precise meaning of this ubiquitous term, including Tim O’Reilly, the man who coined it in 2004. O’Reilly’s latest definition of the term seems to be this: Web 2.0 is a transformative force that’s propelling companies across all industries towards a new way of doing business characterized by harnessing collective intelligence, openness, and network effects.
Fine. We can work with that, because the purpose of this discussion is primarily about design and branding. What I DO know, and in this area thankfully, I have some expertise, is what Web 2.0 is NOT. And Web 2.0 is not a brand.
These fun, cool graphics do not provide a substitute for the necessity of a brand, they cannot distinguish you from competitors (anymore) and they do not, in and of themselves, provide the critical distinction that a great brand experience offers, that moves a company leagues beyond the pack.
I read an artist’s definition of Web 2.0, and she described it this way: “Designs that conform to strict generic conventions, leaving little space for originality.” Harsh, but fair. The de facto standard these days, to “prove” you are indeed Web 2.0, seems to be the use of glossy, shiny bits of icons, buttons and other artwork. I have clients that say, “Make me look Web 2.0, please!” but they don’t fully understand the point of this phrase, and their confusion is partly caused by the prevalence of look-a-like sites. To be Web 2.0 requires more than a glossy, shiny, look, and in fact, those elements are NOT the best illustrations for any and every company and organization. It’s so easy to get behind these days, with all the millions of social media sites and mashups and opportunities to connect, but at its heart, a Web 2.0 site or application should remain more about connecting to others, collaborating and sharing resources, and ultimately ensuring the natural flow of information that the internet itself allows.
There is something that needs to wrap around all the user-defined, personalized, socially-connected text, audio and video, sort of like the universe envelopes the globe. That something is your BRAND. Your organization’s brand needs to be a unique entity, very much like you are as a person, with inherent traits, ways of being and interacting with others, and a sparkling, distinct personality. For some brands, “sparkling” can be captured visually in shiny, glossy buttons and bits of graphic fluff, and the content, tone, products, services and people behind the company, organization, or individual will match the graphic image. Others require a different approach, and it is for this reason I became disturbed when I noticed that Quicken has altered their site to look and feel “Web 2.0 compliant”, possibly with unintentional results. (Enlarge the image to see my pithy design comments.)
I mean no ill will toward the designers of this site – I don’t know anything about the decisions behind this design update, such as marketing pressure or personal preferences. What comes to mind when I see it, is that I don’t feel this is a sustainable brand, and therein lies my problem with it. If we change our branding every time a trend is hot, guess what happens over time? We lose all brand identity, all the brand equity (or we never build any) and our old brand assets will now become brand liabilities, as we scramble to redo everything.
The folks at cpseo.com define Web 2.0 as a trend in web design and development – a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services (such as social-networking sites, wikis and blogs) which aim to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing between users.
The word perceived is very important, and accurate, for the real world of web development. Designing your site to look like a blog, or finding some cute n’ shiny buttons to use, or even developing the most perfect site code using tableless xhtml and css, does not create loyal customers or have define the brand experience. You should take advantage of new technology and use the best visual imagery you can afford, but the real crux of offering a more advanced web site or application, at the end of the day, lies in good old-fashioned brand definition and user experience planning, by people who care about users, customers and site visitors.
A man named Markus Angermeier designed a great visual mindmap image intended as a definition and tool for understanding Web 2.0.
If you look closely, you’ll see the word “brand” does not appear anywhere on this map. It can’t… the brand is the container, for all of these wonderful (and wacky) things. Without the container, there is chaos. Let your brand serve as the funnel through which all of your design, development, and social media experiments trickle, so that you can build a brand that will last a lifetime… unlike some of the trends and fads we embrace, then discard. Your brand states who you are in the world. Are you just like everyone else? I don’t think so. Show us who you are, and don’t worry so much about looking Web 2.0, is my unsolicited advise. 🙂