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Steve Whiting,website builder Harpenden,litho minder Luton,White Crescent Press,Heidelberg GTO46NP

A Website Builder's Vocabulary

This week a builder in Harpenden told me they'd found it difficult opening a credit account with a new building materials supplier simply because they didn't have a website. It now occurs to me that now having one website may not now be enough.

First impressions count

I started my working life as an apprentice litho minder, in other words, I ran a printing press. Yes, that's me you see above in the grey t-shirt and with the '80s wedge haircut. Back in the '80s print was still the most economically way viable way for a business to market itself. Today the print factory where I served my apprenticeship has been flattened and the web is the darling of business marketing. The web, however, it's still a relatively young marketing and communications medium. Print spent 400 years building a diverse range of products but website builders have only been at it for 15 years or so.

Years ago son...

The printing company I served my apprenticeship with was called White Crescent Press, the company was a general commercial printers and the biggest in town, printing and binding everything a business could possibly need from stationery to manuals, price lists to brochures, and duplicate sets to raffle tickets. The company was not the cheapest but had enough press firepower to be the most capable and flexible local supplier to business. There were, naturally, other smaller printers in town but their output and flexibility was always limited to the number and size of presses operated. White Crescent Press was active in an era long before email, an era when sending or receiving a fax was a big thing and when business communicated using letters and memos.

Years ago, when starting up in business a company wasn't taken seriously until it had its own business stationery; credit accounts couldn't be opened-up until an account application was accompanied by a company letterhead. As an executive, being issued with a set of business cards was an indication that you'd arrived and the pinnacle of prestige in business was to be able to write on personalised notepaper. At White Crescent Press we saw companies grow and develop - customers started out having us print letterheads and business cards and, as they built their businesses, their print requirements evolved into leaflets, folders, brochures, direct mail and posters.

What kind of print do you want?

A general commercial printer could print near-enough anything a business required and it could do this because of a significant investment in a wide range of plant and people. On the whole, customers knew what they wanted: a book; a notepad; a business card; a brochure etc. and printed products were ordered by type and used for a specific purpose. By the time I entered the printing industry, print had been around for over 400 years and the type of products that could be printed were far from being 'new technology' but were simply accepted tools of business.

So how does printing compare to the design and building of websites?

As a website builder in Harpenden who started-out as a printer in Luton, I find that being able to compare the web's rate of progress with the evolution of print is incredibly useful. Using print as a tool for comparison we can remind ourselves just how infantile the web still is as a marketing and communications technique. Sure, the rate of adoption is probably many times faster but the web is yet to evolve a range of commonly accepted products comparable to the business card or the brochure.

Let me illustrate my point: asking us to build a website is comparable to asking a printer for some print. Here at Sub@omic we design and build websites just as a printer designs and prints yet the vocabulary of the printer's customer is wider because print took 400 years after the production of the Gutenburg Bible to develop all manner of printed products such as books, cartons, labels, brochures, scratch'n'sniff direct mailers and business cards. Using this point of comparison it's easy to see just how far the web sector hasn't come; when we ask people 'what kind of website' they want us to build there's neither the vocabulary nor the experience to express what they're after so they just say 'website'.

A website is proof of existence

The vast majority of websites out there are merely the online equivalents of a set of company stationery, a presence that allows a company to demonstrate that they're a contactable and bona fide legal entity. Our example of the builder in harpenden who wasn't able to open a credit account because his business didn't have a website now validates this point.

The challenge for the website builders, such as ourselves, is to educate business about what kinds of website there are out there. A website can replace a printed book; an HTML email template can replace a letterhead; a website can replace a company brochure, newsletter, annual report, product data sheet - but the web community has yet to develop the vocabulary for these kinds of digital products so it it any wonder our customers can only ask for one kind of product: "website"?

Is our vocabulary wider than we think?

It's unlikely that anyone in business will not have heard about social media, the term social media is embedded into our vocabulary; yet, at the end of the day, all social media is basically a different kind of website. What our customers currently seem to be lacking is the wider appreciation of how to use this new kind of website. As a web design community we've not been very good at helping our customers understand what social media is all about (partly because we're still trying to get our own heads round it) so let's make a start by going back to our past and finding the printed product that is the equivalent of social media - for my money, social media is best explained to customers as being no different to the high street billboard.

Think of social media as being like a billboard

If we can find and use print similes to help explain the different kinds of website to our customers then not only will we find it easier to sell websites but we'll help our customers develop a range of digital marketing products more quickly and thankfully move customers away from the present pervading notion that their one website needs to do everything. After all, you wouldn't expect your business card to be the only piece of print your business ever needs now, would you?

I wrote a few months ago that a website is proof of existence and it now seems that a website is now also a substitute for a business plan.

We're currently working on a website for a local high street fashion retailer who was, it's fair to say, a bit laid-back and not really bothered about the website being commissioned - the shop owner just felt like he needed something. Today I took a call from the shop owner who was in a complete panic because he has now decided that the website is the most important and urgent thing because the day after tomorrow he's going to see the bank and must have the website to show them.

Clearly, having an online something-or-other is now highly-prized, a demigod-like asset, worshipped by people in business as magical leverage, something that'll bowl bank managers over and make them part with cash. Oh dear.
Steve Whiting, Sub@omic Ltd avatarSteve Whiting, Sub@omic Ltd30th November 1999Author of 'The Art of Search' - the SEO strategy book 2,500 years in the making.
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Sub@omic is an independent web consultancy developing cognitive designer websites, based in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, UK