In the quiet days before Christmas, revered marketing guru Seth Godin excreted this pile of words, in which he purported to offer marketers tactical advice on how to make a website.
Needless to say, among the web professionals I know, the article caused a bit of a stir. Godin introduces the piece as a guide to “how marketers can work with their teams, their bosses and their developers to get the site they want built with less time and less hassle.” This, in theory, would be great. Increasingly, we are finding that we need to look at the web holistically in order to build successful user experiences that drive business objectives. That includes developers, designers, content professionals, clients, stakeholders and, sure, marketers.
But he proceeds to offer no such guide. Instead, Godin gives the marketer a guide to how to go in a cave, surf the internet, and vomit the things one finds and likes into a developer’s lap before scurrying away.
The tips Godin recommends — browsing websites to find site features you like, mocking up site concepts using a medium with which you are familiar, refraining from diving into code — are not terrible as parts of a process, or as complements to or inspirations for parts of a process. But as a process in and of themselves? Absolutely terrible advice.
In creating this stellar guide, Godin neglects a couple of important things:
1) GOALS. This omission is kinda funny, given that he is supposedly writing this for the “goal-oriented non-professional.” See, a website is not an artistic exercise. It is not purely a visual creation. It is a means to an end. It is a strategic business asset. With that in mind, why do you need a website? What are you hoping to achieve for your business or organization? With whom do you wish to communicate? What actions do you wish for these people to take? These are the questions that the “goal-oriented non-professional” should be answering, not “which shopping cart module do I like the most?”
2) CONTENT. Content is the vessel in which we encapsulate our best answers to the above-listed questions. You can’t find the best content for your website by browsing other websites. And the developer to whom you hand off your Keynote arts-and-crafts project is not going to have it, either.
Just a couple of minor things, you know?
The Elders of the Internet Would Never Stand For It
Breaking news: making internet is hard.
Related news: I am fairly confident that Seth Godin has never actually been within a hundred yards of a modern website development process.
The day after Godin published his screed, Robin Sloan wrote about his realization that writers like himself cannot be tasked with making websites that will succeed in today’s mobile, multi-screen web world.
Today I don’t think the amateur’s best effort is good enough. We as internet users have less patience and less charity for janky, half-broken experiences. (Which is quite an evolution, because the whole internet used to be a janky, half-broken experience.) That’s unfortunate for me, and other amateurs of my approximate skill level, because that’s really the only kind we can muster.
But you know who can totally craft an experience that works flawlessly on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and a rice cooker? The team that made Medium. Other teams like it. In a word: professionals.
Sloan is right on. In crafting a successful web experience, everyone holds a piece of the puzzle. The answer does not solely live in one person’s brain, be it the marketer or the designer or the developer. Now more than ever, the web is the result of a partnership of skills. That partnership thrives on collaboration, mutual respect, and ongoing learning.
A week and a half before Godin’s post, digital marketing luminary Mitch Joel blogged about the importance of minimalism in an online marketing experience.
As complex as marketing has become, it is the simplicity of the brand message and product that wins. … The brands that are triumphant in the online world, are scaling back and making the experience as minimalistic as possible.
Thus, the marketer shouldn’t be clicking around websites, browsing functionality options. The marketer should be identifying (and ruthlessly refining) the core messages and the top goals, then working with the web professionals to create a website supporting them.
“Marketers are going to have to adjust their attitudes and perceptions as to what marketing can be in this world of the new digital minimalism,” says Joel. “Think minimalism. Think bare. Think simple. We often toss these words out into the marketing zeitgeist without really appreciating the amazing opportunity that we have – as a marketing industry – to truly add value to the consumer’s life.”
Now, that’s twice I’ve mentioned a “partnership of skills” or “working with the web professionals.” But what shape does that collaboration take? I recently published an article for HighEdWeb LINK about responsive web design (RWD), and one of the themes that came up with each person I interviewed was the fact that the traditional waterfall approach (design, development, content) was quickly falling by the wayside.
RWD – which is arguably becoming the standard for developing a modern web experience – changes how developers, designers, content professionals, and even clients work together. The process is much more collaborative and concurrent, and the heart of it lies with the content. What are we trying to say? What are we trying to get people to do?
These are questions essential to the development of a modern website that someone like, say, our infamous marketer is well equipped to help answer. No coding required (though sometimes it’s fun and even useful to learn), but they will have to sit down with the designer and developer and, together, figure out how to make the website reflect those messages and goals.
In her response to Godin’s post, Amanda Costello phrased it well:
Building sites is usually a team project, and making an effort to understand what your teammates do and what they know will make the project go a lot smoother. You’ll build respect for each other’s specialties and knowledge. Respect doesn’t prevent conflict, or remove all misunderstandings, problems, and barriers. But it makes working with them, and building awesome websites, a whole lot better.
Working with developers and the like is apparently a scary prospect for Seth Godin. But I promise, Seth, it’s not that bad. It’s actually kind of awesome.
And Another Thing…
It wasn’t enough for Godin to share these blessed insights. Despite the lack of comments on his blog or a meaningful Twitter presence, word of the criticism must have reached his ears, because the next day he filed a retort entitled “True professionals don’t fear amateurs.”
“The best professionals love it when a passionate amateur shows up. The clarity and intelligence of a smart customer pushes both client and craftsman to do better work,” says Godin. “If you’re upset that the hoi polloi are busy doing what you used to do, get better instead of getting angry.”
(Also, says Godin, “Talented web designers don’t fear cloud services.” It’s true. I don’t know a single front-end web developer who lives in fear of Netflix’s shift to on-demand streaming movies. Related: what?)
So, what Godin says is very true, but I would be careful in how we characterize “passionate.” If you mean someone who has thought through their goals and knows what they want their website to achieve; is curious about how things work, willing to learn, and asks smart questions; is committed to measuring the effectiveness of those solutions; is willing to work with and learn from fellow professionals in the digital space; and who knows what they don’t know, then yes, bring on the passionate amateur.
But if you mean someone who thinks they know all the answers better than anyone else because they filled up their browser cache with click-around “research,” then I think you’re working with the wrong definition of “passionate.”
You know what else true professionals don’t fear, Mr. Godin? The things they don’t know. The things they don’t understand. True professionals never stop learning and are never afraid to admit when there’s something new to learn. In fact, it energizes them. True professionals are both eternal students and eternal teachers.
To this end, Mr. Godin, you would be best served asking a few questions about how exactly websites get built nowadays. I am sure that this knowledge would serve your business well. But until you start asking those questions, I kindly ask that you step away from the internet. I’m sure there’s a keynote to give or a book to write somewhere in the meantime.