We all love the web, don’t we? The fact you’re even reading this blog means that you’re probably quite a seasoned surfer. By and large, we’d all agree that the internet has brought so many fantastic aspects to our daily life. How many people would have thought even five years ago how sites like Google Earth, BBC iPlayer and Wikipedia would seem like such vital day-to-day tools?
Today, we feel cheated if we can only get the grainy level of satellite imagery of our holiday hotel on Google Earth when not that long ago, we had maybe only two pictures from the brochure as our guide. A decade ago, if you forgot to ‘tape’ something on TV, it was just tough luck. Now, the BBC give you seven days to watch most shows on demand. There was a time when only schoolkids and people with perhaps a little too much time on their hands actively read an encyclopaedia. Now, any pub quiz question can probably be answered on a Wiki site. Our expectations about the availability of information have risen enormously and as a result, we’re all much less tolerant of not having access to the information we need right now.
It leads one to wonder what today’s equivalents are. What I wonder is there that we don't really have access to today that in a few years' time, we’ll feel disappointed or even angry if it’s denied to us? While I don’t have the answer to that one, I’m sure that whoever does will be living very comfortably by then. If you can predict the future, you can become very successful as a result.
That’s why we have to keep an eye on developments. The problem we sometimes face is not uncertainty about the future, it’s uncertainty about how to prepare for it. What do I mean by that? Well, let me rewind right back to the dawn of the web as a means for companies to promote themselves, the mid to late 90’s. Back then, you didn’t really need to be a genius to predict that this technological revolution was eventually going to change the face of consumer buying behaviour. Most people knew that. What they didn’t know was how quickly and how far the consumer would want to browse and buy this way. In the dot.com boom and subsequent crash, lots of people lost a lot of money trying to see how the new online world could work for them.
In our own corner of the business world, we faced a slightly different challenge: it was all well and good to see how these new companies like amazon.com and the late boo.com could spend millions in driving the online revolution with a new generation of wired shoppers. Back then, we had survey data telling us that only 30% of customers had a PC at home. We knew we had to watch from the sidelines, try to learn from the expensive mistakes of others and wait until the time was right for us.
The biggest problems were always demographic and practical. Our customer base has always had far more women than men. Back then though, the typical web user was male. Dial-up modems and modest processing speed meant that going online could be a time-consuming business – If you could call it ‘surfing’, it was more like surfing on a mill pond. We all know that spare time is not something that most horse owners have in abundance. There was also a much greater reluctance to trust sites with personal data. The world of online shopping seemed, quite frankly, a world away.
And yet we couldn’t afford not to be online, so we began to play a game that we still play today: keeping one eye on the future and another on the expectations of our customers as they stand today. It means, as it has always meant, that we are likely to disappoint some people for asking them to use a technology that they’re not yet comfortable with while annoying others by appearing to adopt too slowly the technology available. To paraphrase something that Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, it seems we can please some, but not all of the people all of the time.
Here’s the rub: it’s getting harder, not easier. With the advent of Web 2.0, a techie term for the huge amount of new technology coming onto the web, there are more areas in which we have to exercise our judgement of timing. “Is it too soon to have such-and-such on our website?” “Isn’t it about time we updated this-and-that?” So many questions with not so many obvious answers. Some features, like video clips of products were quite easy to support. Others, like the suggestion of a Robinsons forum have created a huge internal debate. At the moment, we're still unsure that we could moderate it effectively, which is why it's not there.
The reason I raise this point is not to attempt to demonstrate that we don’t know what we’re doing – far from it. It’s more to illustrate that while we realise there are many more things we could do with our website, we have to be sensible about adding the right ones in the right order. Believe me, we’ve had loads of ideas (although I'm sure you can appreciate why I'm not going to list them here on a public forum), ranging from the slightly madcap to the potentially revolutionary. As we always say, the day we run out of ideas is the day we should really think about chucking the towel in. Thankfully, that day seems to be quite a long way off!
I’m always amazed at how many readers our blog entries attract, so perhaps I should turn the question to you. If you have any suggestions for the future direction of our website, please let me know by email or by adding a comment. You may just give us the reassurance we're looking for that it is time to unleash the next wave of features that online riders are looking for!