When the Internet didn’t go away after the dot-com bubble burst, about a decade ago, that was a sign that the Web was more than a fad.

Since then, the Web has continued to become a greater piece of the communication and research fabric of people who think about things before they buy.

Businesses have taken a variety of approaches in how they’ve dealt with the Web in relation to how they do business. Some business models weren’t even possible before the Web.

Some were greatly improved due to decreased operating costs. Some are in the process of being gutted as a result of the Web.

For businesses like real estate that existed before the Web came into existence, the responses to the Web can be placed on a continuum.

On one end of the continuum are those businesses that have bolted on some sort of Web operation to the existing business. On the other end are businesses that have fully integrated the Web into the business itself.

Now that it’s been about 10 years since notice was served that the Web wasn’t just some passing fad, it might be worth figuring out where your organization is on the "Web native" vs. "bolt-on" continuum. And it’s worth thinking about whether your current position is a good one.

The bolt-on Web

In the early days of the Web, when the skills required to even understand — let alone make anything — for the Web were rare, the most common way to get an "online presence" was to hire out some other agency or freelancer or cousin to make a "Web page."

Since the Web had to do with computers, the information technology department was often the big stakeholder within the client organization.

This might seem a little silly today: putting control of your most prominent bit of marketing material in the hands of the people who make sure your e-mail and printers are functioning correctly.

But back then it made some sense. The technology was new and IT understood technology.

And to be fair, agencies were often doing the same thing. I remember doing some fire truck-driving for a well-known design firm in the early part of this decade that had put its television team in charge of all Web projects with the thinking that the Web involved screens so the TV team was the right fit.

Anyone want to guess how many Flash intros and animated whizbangs had to be put into this project? The "skip intro" page was so long and graphics-intensive we needed another "skip intro" to have time to load the original "skip intro."

Everyone (especially the client) loved this.

The point is, the Web was new and no one knew what to do with it. Thinking about how this stuff would work wasn’t as important as that big champagne launch party (and this was true for as many clients as it was for agencies).

A project would be conceived of, lots of hours were spent on it, then it was launched, and then it was forgotten for several years. Given the price of making a website back in the day, it’s understandable why clients would want to put off making new sites frequently.

This launch-and-forget, put-the-IT-department-in-charge-of-the-Web mindset continues to this day in some organizations.

They have a normal business operation and somewhere, in a corner of their business model, is the website. The website operations at some companies may not have many direct connections to any other part of their business — certainly not connections which are held accountable to anyone.

Here are some traits of bolt-on organizations:

  • Marketing defers to IT in Web decisions.
  • The marketing department has little comprehension of technology issues related to marketing.
  • The IT department has little comprehension of marketing requirements for technology.
  • Costs for Web projects involve the phrase ROI (return on investment) more often than costs for traditional media advertising.
  • Understanding of basic HTML (how to make a link or a headline, for example) is concentrated in junior IT staff.
  • Social media expertise is present in younger staff and dispersed throughout the organization, though no one in the organization knows this.
  • The company website is locked into a proprietary system that can only be maintained by experts (who are often not employees of the company), and no one is able to convincingly articulate the business case for why the system needs to be proprietary.
  • Making adjustments to the website in response to customer needs doesn’t happen or is avoided as long as possible.

While my bias against bolt-on organizations is probably pretty clear, I should note that it’s not completely bad for everyone. If you can’t hire the right talent or if the operations of your business don’t benefit from the customer-related insights you can gain from the Web, then bolt-on might still be the right fit. There is only so much time and so many resources available at a given company.

Web native

On the other end of the continuum is the Web native-organization. As some organizations experienced the bumpy ride through the Internet in the past 10 years, they actively picked up information, knowledge and experience.

They learned to wring value out of their "Web presence" in a variety of ways and found it valuable to continue down this path.

Oddly, some of these organizations got here by having less money to spend on bolt-on solutions: they learned to be self-sufficient in their Web usage because they couldn’t afford the financial resources to hire it out to an agency.

Others became more self-sufficient in their online endeavors because they discovered the value of the data they could gather and use throughout the organization.

In terms of organization culture, it’s likely that the companies who became Web native were more collaborative.

Marketing learned enough about technology to help the IT dept understand the needs of marketing initiatives. IT understood enough about marketing to help the marketing dept discover useful technologies.

Less thinking about fiefdoms and more thinking about the end goal can lead to increased revenue, or profit, or both.

Some traits of Web-native organizations:

  • Marketing and IT work together closely and productively (when nixing an idea, they suggest an alternative that might accomplish the same goal).
  • Marketing department takes responsibility for knowing the technology that is relevant to its objectives.
  • IT department takes responsibility for understanding marketing department objectives and finding appropriate solutions.
  • ROI for Web projects are calculated as frequently as ROI for traditional media projects.
  • Understanding of basic HTML is well-distributed across all departments that have dealings with people from outside the organization.
  • Social media expertise is emerging across all departments that have dealings with people from outside the organization.
  • The company is able to make changes to its Web presence without calling someone who does not work for the company.
  • Web analytics are beginning to merge with general business-intelligence functions — spreading to departments beyond marketing such as customer service, product development and sales.

Your organization is probably somewhere in between these two ends of the Web-native continuum. And there’s probably a good reason for why the organization is where it is today. That reason likely has a lot to do with the history and staffing decisions of the past 10 years.

As the Web continues to gain traction and splinter off into subcategories like mobile, semi-mobile, social media and app development, now’s a good time to evaluate where you stand.

It’s an even better time to evaluate whether your current position is going to get you to where you want to be in the near future, and whether your current practices are putting you on a trajectory to achieve your goals in the medium- and long-term.

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