There are two radically different perspectives on what a website is. I only realised this a few weeks ago, and it suddenly made clear a number of confusing and frustrating conversations I’ve had over the years.
The first perspective sees a website as a brochure for the “real” thing. It is something that you read (that choice of word is very careful) before engaging with the “real” physical organisation. The second perspective sees the website as part of the reality of the thing. By interacting with the site (the choice of word is again very careful), you are interacting with the organisation, not engaging with some pre-real experience.
I noticed this when I was talking to a university marketing person a couple of weeks ago. What bemused me was that the marketing person kept asking “what is the message of this part of the website”? Of course, I understand the concept of a marketing message and why they are important—but, what I didn’t grok for a while was what that was the relevant question. This part of the website was the website “for” a new teaching facility and its activities (not a website “about” it). As such, it was going to contain a mixture of descriptions of the facility, signups for sessions, archival video material of activities, profiles of people involved, conversations about the activities, etc. My view was that the site was going to be a continuous part of the facility, such as much as the physical space and what happens in that space are, not just a one-shot “message”.
It is interesting to take a look at the history of the web with regard to this. Many early websites were seen as publications of their organisations, rather than being the online component of those organisations. This is obvious from their design; take, for example, this snapshot of the American Mathematical Society website from 1997 (thanks to the wonderful Wayback Machine for this):
the website isn’t “the online part of” the society; it is “e-math”; a website produced by the society. A snapshot from 2000 emphasises this even more:
By 2001 the “e-math” branding has gone, replaced with just the organisation name; just like a modern web site would do:
It is my impression that an increasing number of people see websites this second way, as a part of the reality of the organisation. To a digital native population in particular, the idea that the online experience is less “experiential” than the physical experience is otiose. Certainly, when I see a website for an organisation that is little more than a pamphlet, then I don’t think “oh goody, they have thought carefully about what they want to convey to me and distilled it down”; I think “this organisation isn’t anything more than a pamphlet”, or perhaps, to borrow an old slogan, “where’s the beef?”. (A related, but different, point is made by a well-known XKCD strip).
So, websites for rich, complex organisations need to contain their fair share of that richness (not “reflect” or “represent”; to have). In particular, for university websites, we really need to start undoing the tendency to move “real” content so that it can only be viewed by a restricted audience such as current students. That’s not to say that we can’t have marketing materials on the web, and indeed to give them prominence (much as we have marketing materials in meatspace). But, to say that just because websites play a marketing role, they should be handed over to solely marketing purposes is to sorely misunderstand how a large number of people engage with the web experience.