Don't treat your website like a commodity | February 15, 2009

The traditional approach to product development involves coming up with new idea and then driving as many people towards that product as possible, in the hope that some of them will want it. As such we adopt the language of marketing, and talk about marketing funnels and conversion rates. If our marketing department has done a good job they will have created a campaign that not only generates traffic, but creates a previously unrecognised need. Tired? Need a break? Why not have a KitKat?

This approach treats every product like a commodity to be bought and sold. However the problem with commodity marketing is the fact that there is very little difference between products. There is so little difference between a Snickers and a Mars bar you can’t really compete on features. And because commodities are generally cheap you can’t really complete on price or quality either. So instead you create brands, build tribes and keep pumping money into your marketing campaign to ensure that when you’re standing at the chocolate counter with your 50p, for some reason your brain says “how about Twix” instead of a hundred other confectionaries. It’s not very subtle and is a bit of an arms race, but in the word of commodity marketing it’s really all the ammunition you’ve got.

Sadly most website owners treat their online products in a very similar way. Rather than creating something that users actually want, they’ll simply extend another product or service. So just in the same way that Mr Snickers may have looked at Mr Mars and said, let’s make something similar, but with nuts, your average web entrepreneur will take an existing product, service or idea and extend it slightly. Even it it’s a genuine innovation it’s usually the idea that comes first, rather than the need.

Because there is little difference between the majority of online products, product managers resort to old school commodity marketing and focus their attention of driving traffic to their site in the hope that a few people will stick. This is why most big online products seem to focus more of their attention on SEO and marketing than they do on the product itself. After all, in their eyes the site is just another product to be bought and sold. It doesn’t really matter if it’s actually any good.

To get around this problem, people need to put a lot more thought into projects at their inception. It’s easy to fixate on a good idea, but our first ideas aren’t always then best. There’s nothing to say that there aren’t even better ideas out there waiting to be discovered. So rather than jumping in there with the first idea that makes the grade, try to analyse the problem from the users perspective. Does what you’re building solve a real or simply an imagined need. Are there more important, yet to be discovered needs that your product or service could solve instead?

Go out there and do some research. Watch people use existing products or services, both online and off. Ask people what they like about the services and what they dislike. Try to find out what frustrates them about the current status quo and use this to look for unmet needs. Rather than creating just another “me too” product, see how your site fits into the bigger ecology. Rather than compete with the market leader, try to compliment their services and fill a gap they’re not able to meet. Create prototypes and test them on real users. However don’t just do this to see if the site is usable, do it to see if the site meets users needs and be willing to ditch the prototype or even the project if it fails to test well.

I think one of the reasons most online products fail is through a lack of research, planning and customer empathy. We put all our eggs in one basket, without knowing if it’s the right basket or not. We end up committing to one course of action far too early in the process, so by the time the signals start coming in it’s too late to alter course. We have this fear that the time we spend on planning is wasted as it could be spent on production instead. However research and planning can not only help you avoid costly mistakes later on in the process, it can ultimately help you build better, more fulfilling products. Products that solve real world problems and make you more money in the process.

Posted at February 15, 2009 1:34 PM


Alex Kearns said on February 15, 2009 7:33 PM

I liked your example of Mars and Snickers, because I have for a long time bemoaned the lack of innovation in the confectionary sector. I remember reading a book as a child in which there was a confectioners that sold the most amazing, magical sweets. I hoped that one day sweet technology would advance to stage where some of these sugary fantasies might become a reality. No such luck. If the confectonary industry is notable for one thing, it is its utter lack of innovation. The market is dominated by products - Mars, Snickers, Twix, Kit-Kats - that were around when I was a kid (20-30 years ago), and most new products are barely concealed rip-offs of these. Imagine if Apple or Ford were still creating the same items as 30 years ago. They would be laughing stocks. Where are the confectionary equivalents of Twitter, the iPhone, Facebook? The problem with the confectionary sector - and indeed many industries - is that it is often easier to spend money on marketing rather and research and development which requires engineers, equipment and time. Imagine if the makers of mars or snickers had invested their huge marketing budgets in research and development instead, how many amazing new sweets we would have.

Joshua Porter said on February 15, 2009 11:19 PM

A friend of mine believes that only a very small % of people are actually product people, caring about the actual experience of the people they build products for. They’re not just empathic, they care about doing good work for the sake of it and other far-fetched ideals that rarely enter the workplace.

Instead, most people focus on themselves, and more personal concerns like if they’re making money. That’s how they get into the commodity game…by comparing what they’re making with what they think they should be making.

Product people are more dangerous, they take an indirect approach to making money, focusing first on the product and hoping that revenues follow. It’s a gutsier move…and one that most people can’t do.

BTW: Mars bars have nuts (almonds)

Andy Budd said on February 16, 2009 8:18 AM

Hmm, I don’t think Mars Bars have almonds in the UK, do they?

Clerkendweller said on February 16, 2009 4:21 PM

True. It’s too easy to try to emulate what others are doing or undertake market research that confirms your own opinions. It leads to general mediocrity, and at some time the megalith companies, like dinosaurs, fall to something new.

PS “Marathon” please, not “Snickers”.

Brian Artka said on February 16, 2009 7:01 PM

Great article Andy. Sounds just like what Seth Godin preaches; make a remarkable product, start from the beginning; dont involve marketing after its done.

Oh, and I have not seen a Mars bar around the stated for awhile now… I think they were replaced by Snickers w/ almonds.

Andy said on February 18, 2009 7:43 PM

Excellent, Andy. You have continued an insightful thoughtstream started by Kevin Kelly’s network economy “New Rules:”

We don’t need any more solutions, bring on the tools!

Netronage said on February 20, 2009 7:50 AM

Nice post Andy.You are absolutely right we need to go to the clients and understand what they actually needs.

Netronage said on February 20, 2009 7:52 AM

Nice post Andy.You are absolutely right we need to go to the clients and understand what they actually needs.

Prosopo said on February 20, 2009 7:58 AM

Hi Andy its really nice post.You did a great job.Thanks for sharing.

Jenny Pilley said on March 2, 2009 10:02 AM

Of course, people forget to communicate with their customers and find what they want, rather than using their own ideas and sometimes becoming carried away with their own idea.
Producing ideas that are based on other products is an easy way of creating a ‘new’ product. However it is important to devise fresh products, and the only way to do this is to ignore what is already out their and talk with the people who know what they want…your customers!