It’s difficult to remember now, but there was a time when companies looked at the internet and made a ponderous decision about whether or not they wanted to participate. I remember having a serious debate with a museum in Santa Cruz in 1995 about why they should have a website. They ultimately decided to go online, but not put up any photographs of the art (ostensibly out of fear nerds printing them out on their printers and skipping the museum). Really.
Those were the bad old days. No one needs convincing that they need a web presence anymore. And everyone’s pretty much accepted that a search engine is going to index their stuff. But what many companies don’t realize is that their brands are online and out of their control already. Three new sites are dragging companies (and people) into an online conversation whether they like it or not.
[Full disclosure: I have friends at all of the sites I'm about to mention, and I am an advisor to Gleamd. The world is small like that.]
Should Do This is a fun site brought to you by the Robot Coop, the people behind 43 Things, 43 People, and All Consuming. The idea is simple: Give everyone a place to tell companies what they think they should be doing.
For example, I think that Apple should sell its iApps through the iTunes store. I think that Dick Cheney should not shoot anyone else in the face. And I think that everyone should stop laughing at my Chihuahuas. (Apparently I’m the only one who thinks so, though.)
The site encourages discussion of these suggestions, voting on favorites, and even predictions on when the suggestions will happen. This allows the site to aggregate the most popular suggestions for each recipient (at a smart URL, too). As of this writing, the number one suggestion for Apple is to make a subnotebook, with a 66% likelihood, and a guess of May 2008. It will be fun to see how these suggestions pan out over time.
The important thing here is that none of these companies asked for the advice. It’s just there – organized and sorted by the community, available to them for free, out of their control. It’s like a focus group that doesn’t cost any money, but won’t leave when the coffee runs out.
If Should Do This feels like flip-flops, Satisfaction is the white-collared shirt version. Satisfaction was started for one simple reason: Company support systems suck. No matter the product or service, the company’s website is sure to let you down. You’re much better off doing a general web search and find help that way.
Satisfaction makes that process much more, well, satisfying. Unlike Should Do This, you can’t add any company (Satisfaction is seeding companies slowly), but once the company is there, the tools are robust. [UPDATE: You can add companies, but not immediately - they go through a review process.]
Anyone can start conversations about any aspect of the company, and people can help each other figure stuff out. But the best part is when representatives from the company actually sign up and weigh in. Satisfaction is specially designed for this.
For a great example, check out the Satisfaction site for hipster messenger bag maker Timbuk2. There’s everything from classic support (“my clip broke!”) to customer requests (“make a petite bag for the ladies”) to invitations from the company itself (“help us design a travel bag”).
In a year, I predict that a Satisfaction account will be a standard part of every startup’s toolkit. It’s an elegant solution to a real problem, for companies and consumers alike.
The interesting part is that these sites will spring up with or without the company’s evolvement. If the company steps up to participate, that’s great, but if not, the people will help themselves.
Gleamd does for people what the previous examples do for companies. Any member can “shine a little light on someone” by posting a bio for them. Then, other members can vote for that person. The result is an ever-changing ranking of interesting people.
The Gleamd people like to say this is “Digg for people” but I think its more like Wikipedia for biographies. The same way Wikipedia entries that get a lot of views tend to get better over time because of the many people editing and adding information, Gleamd could be come the ultimate biographer’s resource.
And just as Satisfaction allows companies to claim their discussions, Gleamd allows members to claim to be one of the biographies. There’s no way to prove who is who, but you can only claim to be one person on the site, so choose wisely.
These three sites are just the most recent examples of a trend that’s been going on for a long time. People have been posting product suggestions, customer support, and personal biographies to the net since its invention. But for a long time the net has been considered this “other place,” disconnected from the real world. These sites show what an outdated notion that is. The web is no more a separate virtual world than the phone network is.
I think sites like these also signal a shift in the balance of power. Companies (and even people) no longer have a choice about their participation on the web. We are having the conversation now, whether you like it or not.
The only choice you have left is how to reply.