If you’ve ever wondered why 97 per cent of people are crazy you need look no further than evolution. As a fairly primitive species we spent much of human history pondering fairly simple (but critical) questions such as “can i kill that buffalo with my bare hands” and “will this cave keep me dry from the rain”. Yet the society we’ve built for ourselves bombards us with thousands of messages, questions and dilemmas every day which simply fill us with anxiety. We’re like a domestic cat with an endless supply of cat nip. So in a world that provides more bounty and wealth than at any other point in history, we’re riddled with anxiety, insecurity and stress. And with that stress comes an inability to focus on one thing and a tendency to blindly chase the next **big** thing. And in digital, that sentiment is amplified ten-fold.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve read numerous articles that predict HTML5 is going to save the world. In fact as I’m typing this post, Adobe has just announced it’s launching a new tool called Adobe Edge to allow developers to create HTML5-driven interactive Web content.
This announcement follows hot-on-the-heels of other industry developments including:
1. Gamification is going to save the world
2. Mobile Apps will save the world
3. Tablets will save the world
4. It’s the end of the world for Web browsers
And the list goes on
Now one of the attractions about working in the digital space is that things morph and change incredibly quickly. In the real world this would be described as being “recklessly fickle”. In the digital world it’s called “disruption”.
But constant, rapid, break-neck change is not always such a great thing. In fact it can be downright paralyzing. Attempting to navigate a climate where platforms, standards, trends, products and devices are turning over constantly makes it incredibly difficult to build a strong, stable and **long-term** business. In fact one might think that creating such an environment would simply encourage fly-by-night, opportunistic chancers who want to exploit short-term buzz and good fortune to get rich quick and to hell with the consequences. But that would never happen in Silicon Valley? Right?
One of the things that has always puzzled me is how chaotic the digital businesses are of the vast majority of companies I encounter. From the largest brands to the smallest, talking to friends who work in the industry it’s clear that many organizations are still trying to figure this thing out. And many are not only struggling but downright failing. So why?
I attribute this to what I call the Diner Menu problem. When I first arrived in the US I was completely fascinated by American diners. The ambience, the service, the food were all great – but mostly it was the menu that really amazed me. These things were like a Tolstoy novel. Page after page after page after page. I defy any average person with an average attention span to look at a diner menu and not feel – well – just a little overwhelmed.
While choice is the basis of free market capitalism, too much choice is paralyzing. Humans don’t do well with it. The Diner Menu embodies this principle perfectly.
Now let’s think of digital in the same way. Many brands are constantly pressured into following the latest trend which just replaced the previous to latest trend the week before. There’s so much choice it becomes overwhelming. Grow the web site. Launch some apps. Build a newsletter business. Get on the iPad. What about games? Sweepstakes? Daily deals. We need some deals. Maybe a re-design in HTML5. What about video content?
In the digital space it always feels as if we’re just passing through. Everything is a transitional phase that simply serves to clear the path for a future new development. Last year it was all about apps. They were going to completely re-invent publishing and allow content companies to transform their business. But less than a year later we’re now being told to shift our gaze to HTML5 which is going to **disrupt** the world of apps (and its whopping 18 month history) and allow content companies to REALLY disrupt things.
Many brands like to chase the next big thing because they haven’t yet found a single big thing that actually works for them. During the app gold rush many publishers were boldly announcing that apps would replace the regular, browser-based Web and transform the industry. The irony here is that none of the people saying this had actually figured out how to make money from the regular, browser-based Web and were simply clutching at straws hoping apps would give them a way to.
Now that content companies haven’t monetized apps as they’d have hoped to, HTML5 is touted as the new savior. But this trend chasing approach simply masks the obvious – it doesn’t matter what the technology is, if people don’t like your product you’re toast.
One of the quotes that I used to hear a lot in a previous job was “We want to let our customers consume our products wherever, whenever and however they choose”. This sounds great, but the sad reality was that customers didn’t want to consume any product on any existing or yet-to-be conceived platform because the nucleus of the product was flawed. This company could have kept waiting around until HTML19 is released, but without an overhaul of the product DNA they’d have simply been chasing rainbows.
Chasing the next big thing gives companies an excuse to dodge the difficult questions. It’s much easier to wait for a new “world changing” platform to launch than it is to admit that your core business sucks. And that’s why for many brands – when HTML5 really starts to gather momentum – it will be somewhat of a letdown, just as the world of apps has been. Because ultimately a brand could find a way to beam a video series directly onto my retina via the power of ESP, but if the core product isn’t up to scratch I simply wouldn’t care.