Too many companies follow fashion without asking why. Time for that to stop, says David Bowen
At the beginning of December a piece appeared on the New York Times blog. It was by Nick Kristof, who said he had been the first blogger on the paper and that this would be his last post: 'We've decided that the world has moved on from blogs,' he wrote (the link to the post is no longer available).
I wonder if 'we' included Mr Kristof. I suspect not; it certainly does not include us. We think blogs have a special and clearly defined place in the online world: they can be detailed, like a website but unlike other social channels, but they also allow organizations to use a tone of voice that just would not work on a website. The most poignant example I came across was a post several years ago on the British Embassy in Harare's blog: it talked of ZANU-PF's 'torture and murder'. Not something you could possibly see on an official government website; yet here it was.
Nearer the heart of corporate comms, we regularly come across blogs that are hard to imagine working in other formats. Shell's climate change adviser David Hone has his own expert but personal blog. First person pieces in Daimler's blog are engaging. And pushing the technology all the way to video, GSK's vlogs feature employees on secondment with charities, reporting their experiences. These last could I suppose be on Facebook, but blogs are much more controllable – link to them, and they are there when you want them. Finally, the more Twitter and Facebook grow, the easier it is to direct people to blogs. All round, they are good. The New York Times may have moved on from blogs. The world has not.
The problem is that expressions like 'the world has moved on' are so often excuses for lazy thinking: we are not going to think what is really best, we are just going to do whatever other people are doing – especially if it saves us money. Many years ago an editor on the newspaper I worked on said that a particular cartoon strip was 'past its sell by date'. It migrated to another paper, where it is still flourishing. 'Past its sell by date' ... What does that mean?
There are other victims of fashion-thinking. The most obvious is our old bugbear, decent visible navigation. I think (hope) we may have reached 'peak nonsense' on this, and we'll soon see sites launched with navigation that works (at which point, with luck, they will become the fashion).
Then there is the obsession with cutting the size of sites. There can be good reasons for doing this – providing the discipline of a limited page publication is the best one. But too often there is either a vague idea that smaller is better, or the realization that the useless navigation cannot cope with so many pages. Usefully deep archives are cut back; areas that thrive on the web - such as history – are shoved onto inert PDFs; 'about' sections that should burst with rich material become thin and desiccated. One of the huge strengths of the web is that it is brilliant at handling complexity; use it, don't sideline it.
Of course there is a place for fashion. My carefully waxed moustache is as fashionable as the next man's. But the trick, surely, is to know when it is sensible to follow fashion – and when it is just silly.