The end of online business – sort of…

Written on 09 March, 2010 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories E-commerceTags online business

Yesterday, I found myself debating the name for an upcoming newsletter campaign. As names were thrown around, the comment was made that it should contain some allusion to 'online or 'internet'. This got me thinking. Is the distinction between Business and Online Business really valid anymore? Why should we continue to compartmentalise the web as a separate activity from every other aspect of business, as if it has completely different rules?

The more I write about the spread of business through the internet and the various trends, strategies, technologies and concepts involved, the more I realise that it's about time we stopped talking about 'online business' as if everything were completely new and not to be confused with the way businesses have successfully run for centuries. Far too often, the advice given is merely reiterating business truths that were around long before the internet came along:

  • ensure you track the results of any campaign
  • monitor the return on investment of every activity
  • be nice to your customers and listen to what they have to say
  • behave like a human being
  • make it easy for customers to buy without placing obstacles in the way

Yeah, I know - painfully obvious - yet so many articles about online marketing, ecommerce, etc, feel the need to make these points again and again as if they were somehow revelations with the arrival of the internet. Do we really think that, fifty years ago, the local bookshop didn't understand the principles of balancing the costs of advertising against the resultant sales? Are we really saying that before the web came along to enlighten everyone, shop assistants ignored the questions or complaints of customers? These issues are not exclusive to the online space, so why do we keep talking about them as if they are?

Still, the continuing trend to keep digital marketing as somehow separate from 'traditional' business thinking has encouraged many business owners to perceive online differently. This is partly the faulty of how the web was sold to businesses in the first place - the automated systems pumping out template style emails, the tendency to view customers as clicks instead of as people without all that messy interaction, the overindulgence in design and tricks instead of simple and honest communication. The internet was sold to businesses as a series of magic buttons - add this widget and increase sales, program that auto-responder and go on holiday, open a Twitter account and somehow go 'viral' - to the extent that the 'why' behind each of these elements became lost behind the promise of higher sales for less effort. We fell in love with the machine and forgot the process.

The widget on a website is absolutely no different to a display in a shop - people will only respond to it if it meets their needs or interests them. Absolutely nothing new in that, despite all the technical jargon that gets spouted. The truth is that every online development is merely an enhancement or more efficient method for a business practice that has been around for decades. Really.

What is SEO if not merely jostling for best position on the online high street? Why is social media marketing any different from the local butcher having a conversation with the customers that come through each day? Doesn't your website mavigation bar do exactly the same job as the aisle markings in a supermarket or large store?

If you understand business, you understand online business. Honest. You may need technical help to build that shopping cart or design that email campaign, but that's no different to hiring experienced shop fitters to erect your shelves and build your counter.

So, fifteen years after it all got started, I think it's time we accepted that online business is just business. Sure, zeroes and ones may have replaced the walls of a shop and the reporting may now be more accurate than ever before, but there is absolutely no need to check your brain in at the door just because we're talking about the web and not the high street.

It is time to stop referring to online as merely an adjunct to traditional commerce. The web is now interwoven at every level of modern business. Whether you have a website or not, businesses rely on email, on mobile technology, on the Yellow Pages website, on Google for research. Virtually no business can avoid including the web in some way - for most as a central plank to the business model. If we accept that the web is now a prerequisite for a successful 21st Century business, it becomes unnecessary to make the distinction of online versus offline any more. It would be like making a distinction between those businesses with telephones and those without, rather than simply stating that a telephone was pretty essential whichever way you looked at it.

And that would be just silly...