Corporate websites are all but dead. Big, bloated, bloviating and boring, the vast majority of sites are already extinct. Most corporate sites today feature reams of outdated copy, meaningless stock images and cluttered content that either repels visitors or endangers their trust. These sites look fussy and frilly with their overly complicated navigation, their illegible text, and their ambiguous copy.
Meanwhile, the web is growing astronomically. Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook alone store more than 1.2 million terabytes of information—information that can be found on the third or thirtieth page of a typical search. And consumers are showing their loyalty to companies that produce the most timely and salacious stories online, making our corporate sites look dull and lifeless.
No one spends four hours on a corporate website. We clap out loud when we see a visitor in an unknown city visit our website for a full 40 seconds. We applaud that visitor’s tenacity and their spirit of adventure. We see that singular visit as a sign of our success, a measure of our communications acumen, a gold ring which demonstrates that the hard work of constructing our corporate web presence has finally paid off.
Considering the wealth of information and entertainment at our fingertips, the lowly website, the progenitor of all things digital and the beacon of all corporate communications, is being brushed toward the dustbin of history. The corporate (or commercial) website as a collection of moderately organized pages of mostly relevant information strung together on sheets of code will soon be no longer.
We can see the writing on the wall.
Corporate Websites and the Moment of Finite Resources
Is there any relief?
Armies of people are writing copy, creating visuals, shooting video, and constructing new pages to build this empire of digital dust. In the face of its coming demise, they defiantly contribute more “content” to feed the beast that is, in turn, consuming itself. Aspirations for corporate site success are spurred on by managers and their managers and their executives, who collectively breathe a sigh of relief when a weekend at the beach affords them the opportunity to hide their devices.
Meanwhile, data centers are expanding exponentially. We need more and more room to house all of that online data, to serve it up to millions of people, 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. Companies locate their growing server farms near massive power plants to power that data and to cool their physical infrastructure. And those power plants are burning fossil fuels—coal, gas, and oil—to keep those data centers running and humming smoothly through the night. Taken together, the internet’s electricity usage would make it the sixth largest country in the world.
Today, there are over 1 billion websites in the world, fed by fear of falling behind, overrun with half-hearted content, fueled by dirty energy, and served to people who may or may not care about what is on offer. The web as we know it is not humanly, economically, or ecologically sustainable.
As communications officers, brand strategists, marketing executives, and agency owners, should we lose hope? If the corporate website goes away, what will replace it? And how do we operate in a fully sustainable way that supports our customers, advances our mission, and values our precious time and resources.
A Holistic Theory and Practice of Web Production
There is a better way. As the purveyors and makers of the web, we will not despair. We will not give in to the tyranny of runaway content, the building of unmanaged managerial visions, and the massive use of fossil fuels to power our digital dreams. We will not give in to the digital clutter which assaults our senses each time we open a browser. We will not dehumanize our online materials with copy that reflects back at us the digital hydra of distraction, disengagement, and disgorgement. And we will not build websites that will grow unwieldy and untended.
Instead, we, the makers of the web, will need to advance a set of principles that adheres to professional practices of sustainability. The new web will be efficient, effective, and emergent. The web of the future will be a more humanely cultivated one, a product of refinement and intellectual honesty, and one that asks for continual improvement. The corporate web will be one of considered growth, courageous voice and consistent purposefulness. We will listen to our customers and to ourselves.
And we will breathe.
We will build an unhurried and conscious web. We will create a web that is built with open source technologies and that is accessible to everyone, including those with visual and other disabilities. We will create content that is to the point while also being generous in spirit. We will host our web on servers that are powered by clean, renewable energy. We will deploy technical features, functions, and formats with great care, enhancing the experience of our visitors and their comrades. And we will create a web that is made to grow with us, that takes time and resources to expand—and even contract.
We will be assured by our measured approach to the web. And we will not allow that approach to shock us.
A Bonsai Web Model: Managed and Conscious Long-Term Growth
The current corporate web presence is created like this: A tree, grown from a precious seedling, is planted in fertile ground. We force it to grow through intense irrigation and nutrition—and the resulting tree springs gorgeous leaves with new stems and strong branches of various sizes and forms. Over the course of two, three years, the tree’s branches spread outwardly to other trees and we gaze with awe. Our tree is strong. Other trees are nearby. Then, unceremoniously, we chop the thing down at its base and move to another parcel of land. And we start again.
Why do we do this? Why is our tree—and our web presence—built for single use and then quietly disposed of? Why do we hatch gardens one year and hatchet them the next?
Because we have become accustomed to the exigencies of disposable products, even when those products are some of our most important means of communications. We know that our plant has value but the next tree, grown on new soil, will be grown more quickly and take on even larger resources. Until it, too is firewood.
There is a very different and better paradigm. We can build a corporate web presence that lasts and that requires us to struggle less and plan more. We can create a website that is sustainable, that will live on carefully tended ground and that, best of all, represents our vision for years upon years. We can demonstrate our commitment to growth with long-term planning and, in return, reap the ongoing rewards of our efforts.
The future of the corporate web presence will be thus: A tree, grown from a single branch, is nurtured and planted on a plot of fertile land. The stems and branches and leaves develop and they are pruned, one by one, with attention and care and consideration of the whole. The caretakers care. The tree develops under a watchful eye and a strong, steady hand so that the totality of the organism is always considered. Over days and months and years, the tree is maintained, though its original shape may change. Our tree is a beacon of managed, aligned, and sustainable growth that reflects the future of the corporate organism itself.
This tree is vital and the recipients of its fruits are nourished. Its visitors are uplifted. Its owners are rewarded. And the planet is greened.
This is the bonsai web, a way of planning, tending and developing our organizational communications with a fully conscious set of sustainability practices in mind.
For websites and online applications, the bonsai web means that our presence will grow and will do so using patient capital and long-term discipline. It is an investment in the long-term.
Why a Sustainable Web? And Why Now?
We can hear some of you. You are calling bullshit on the bonsai web. Sites should be built in hours—not years. No one at the head office has time to tend a long-term project. Maybe the guys in IT? They seem to have more time for this kind of thing.
And why now, anyway? Our time is ever more precious, constrained by the many demands of business, family, and economic relations. Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel and put something up, create some half-decent content, and call it a day?
And is a sustainable web even possible? Who has time for this?
How We Must Communicate
We are living on a planet with limited resources yet unlimited human potential. We need to think long-term for our mental health, for our social benefit, and for our planet’s perpetuity.
Climate change and social adaptation are the biggest challenges we have encountered in human history. Policy analysts, urban planners, and architects are embracing the urgent need to build sustainable practices into every aspect of their work—from mitigation to supply chains to labour and infrastructure. Addressing the twin anxieties of our time, climate change and civil society, requires unprecedented cooperation and new thinking—even and especially for those who plan, build, and maintain our vital web infrastructure and platforms.
There are six reasons why a sustainable web is inevitable—and why every organization will soon recognize this path. A sustainable web means:
- Sustainable strategy. A site that is built upon sound research, strategy, and planning will allow a company to leverage its short-term goals and long-term growth. A sustainable operational framework means that a web platform matches the business goals and expectations with its offline and online commitments and communications. Further, sustainability means that human resources, both internal and external, for website strategy, production and upkeep are managed and maintained. For example, a substantial and realistic content strategy will be delivered in partnership and cooperation with teams and audiences over the course of months and years.
- Sustainable design. The interface, visitor experience, and information architecture of a given presence must be crafted to grow with the organization and its online human visitors. All content, features and functions must be added with careful consideration—and always with the benefit of the visitor or user in mind. Any new additions to the site—whether copy, modules, or imagery—will be carefully implemented. Design and experience decisions will be made with a view toward a site’s long-term upkeep.
- Sustainable content. Readily available, honest, ongoing and relevant content will be produced that meets visitor needs. The creation of willy nilly content to meet the demands of search engines, corporate managers, and extraneous consultants will be refused. Content will be generated in partnership with an agency or thoughtfully produced by a client over a regular and humane schedule. Content will be measured and shifts in tactics will be accommodated. A site will not break because of new content; instead, it will become ever stronger.
- Sustainable benefits. No longer can we say, “Build it and they will come.” The new web is built on data and the study of behaviors, objectives, and trends. A sustainable web platform means a substantial investment and a substantial return on investment. A site that is built consciously, designed for long-term content, and measured for engagement will reap financial and social returns. By honouring profitability and shared success, we know what is working, how we are connecting, and what is driving performance and producing gains.
- Sustainable technology. The website must be scalable, manageable, and accessible to all individuals, regardless of ability or disability. Any technology deployed for the website must be both humane (e.g. useful and understood) and open (e.g. crowds contribute to its growth). A sustainable set of technologies allows the client to reinvest its resources in long-term growth, including accruing content and features.
- Sustainable code. With the average page on the web about 2.4 MB in page size and increasing each year, our experience of the web is slower and more sclerotic. Most of the code on pages on these pages are unnecessary and only serve to use up precious resources—time, energy, and attention. We will code our platforms so that they are built to perform and will load quickly for all visitors on all devices.
- Sustainable data. Last but not least, our sites and applications will be powered by clean, renewable energy or the closest we can come to serving green data. For all of our online solutions, we will pursue data providers that power their servers with green energy, reduce their resource usage, and offset their carbon emissions.
In Sustainable Growth We Trust
We will build a sustainable web that leverages a multi-tiered approach. It will be purposeful, meaningful, and beneficial. It will consist of planning for the long-term yet building for the short-term. It will deliver measurable results and assured benefits. Above all, it will be human, humane and helpful. It will take into consideration the complex set of relationships among the organization, its internal stakeholders, its key audiences and the natural environment upon which we stand.
By no means will the sustainable web be perfect. We will struggle with meaning and create impracticable and unwieldy features. We will be pressured to bulk up, build out, and bloat our sites and platforms. But the best organizations will thrive, leading us toward a sustainable future that embraces and rewards all stakeholders—and allows us to communicate with conscience.
Note: Pictured above is the Japanese White Pine bonsai. This tree has been kept alive for nearly 400 years and survived the Hiroshima blast on August 6, 1945 (via Wikimedia under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0).