The Future of Websites

by Andrew Hanelly |

When you’re talking about the future it’s hard not to get carried away. The future of almost everything seems exciting. Futuristic cars, houses, and of course, websites, will seemingly be able to perform almost any function, thanks to creativity and advances in technology. So our imagination runs wild. And we sound like Dave Gelernter sounded in a 1997 BusinessWeek article, when he discussed the radical notion of ”lifestreams” — a flood of data from an individual person that shared every detail of their life.

At the time the idea didn’t feel right. The technology was getting there or was already there but that didn’t mean everyone was adopting it right away. Fast forward to 2011, and most people will find out about this blog post through someone’s lifestream on Twitter. Our imagination tends to outpace our ability to invent. And something can be invented long before it’s a conventional part of people’s lives.

So we must separate the bells and whistles from the nuts and bolts.

Creating a strategy focused on measurable business goals will help you develop a filter that helps decipher flash-in-the-pan technologies from the sea changes. (How to develop this type of strategy is an entirely different post topic).

But instead of focusing on the technology side of the future, focus on the human side. Human behavior is a more consistent bet than technology. If we prepare our website for the future with human nature in mind, we will put our organization in a good position regardless of how the flood of technology leaves things.

5 Future-proof ideas for websites

If we bet on technology, we can either be really right, or really wrong. But if we bet on human nature, we can count on consistency and know that our website is going to be well-positioned for the future. Besides, there’s no prize for beating your audience to the future (unless you’re the inventor).

The website of the future must be:

  1. Simple
  2. Portable
  3. Fast
  4. Human
  5. Useful and/or interesting

1. Make it simple

easy button
Image by civilian scrabble

People value simplicity

Every day, more than 100 million pieces of content are shared on Facebook. More than 90 million Tweets are Tweeted. About 50,000 new blogs are created to get stacked on top of the 150 million+ that are already out there. As you read this, some of the 294 billion emails that are sent each day are being written.

We’re in an era of information overload. Our audience members are busy people who are overcommitted *outside* of their Internet lives. It’s a small miracle each time they make it to our sites so we shouldn’t overwhelm them once they get there.

The first step in preparing your website for the future happens offline. Websites are often a reflection of the organization that created them. If our organization is disorganized, silo-ed, and poor at communicating, our website will be, too. Design by committee often results in a battlefield of compromise where your visitor is the casualty. As an organization, we must go through the difficult task of truly answering some basic but powerful questions:

  1. What kind of person is my audience member?
  2. What’s the one thing they actually want from me?
  3. What one action do I want them to take?

There are no Swiss army-knife sites (except for maybe Google). We need to simplify, specialize and stick to our core mission or risk becoming irrelevant.

If the future of the web is simplicity, here’s how you can prepare:

  • Boil down your organization’s core offering
  • Conduct a 5-second usability test (fivesecondtest.com)
  • Conduct a website audit: check for competing initiatives on your own site
  • Check your analytics to see where you are losing visitors

2. Make it portable

People value convenience

The world is going mobile in a hurry. You’ve heard the stats. By 2015, 48% of U.S. citizens will browse the mobile web. Nearly 150 million people will own smartphones and mobile traffic will increase 26-fold.

Mobile isn’t a trend. Mobile is the trend.

But the web isn’t just going to mobile devices, it’s going to any screen that can present the internet. Think kiosks, augmented-reality digital signage, screens we haven’t thought of yet. The web is going to be portable: found wherever a digital screen exists.

When you’re creating a mobile version of your website (which should be your priority over running out to create a mobile app just to create one), the simplicity you gained in step 1 (“Make it simple) will help pave the way for you to create a simpler menu that satisfies your audience members desires on your site.

To prepare your site for mobile:

  • Start thinking now about how you’d simplify your navigation menu and site content
  • Discontinue developing Flash elements into your website, focus on HTML or JavaScript
  • Focus on mobile-friendly first, and then app (if it makes sense)

3. Make it fast

People hate waiting

Nobody likes to stand in line. Waiting is tough for people. That’s why 40% of web users have abandoned a page after 3 seconds of loading.

Taking the steps to making sure our sites load quickly will have benefits to user experience and SEO. People are more likely to click through more on quickly-loading sites. And Google has mentioned that they take load speed into consideration in their algorithm.

Remember, simple sites load faster. And this is even more true (and more important) in mobile.

To get your site sped up for the future:

4. Make it human

People crave human interaction

birds on a wire
Image by touterse

We’ve heard the statistics on social media. And to be fair, a lot of organizations are at least trying social media. But the humanization of your website shouldn’t be limited to your social media pre-approved channels.

Social media – or the human element – should be a layer across your digital presence, not a channel-based silo. Humanity evokes emotion from people. Showing the human side of your organization can have many benefits.

For instance, during the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund donation drive, an A/B split test was conducted to see which donation form was more effective and generating donations. One form had a photo from Haiti, the other did not. The one with the photo – the human – element – converted 10% better and resulted in $1 million more in donations.

The social side of your organization can come out anywhere you have content. Your email subscription thank you, your administrative copy, your error messages can all incorporate the human element.

For instance, this error message was written in a more human-friendly way and decreased the bounce rate by 66%

hemaware
HemAware.org human-sounding 404 error page: decreased bounce rate by 66%

If the future of the web is social, here’s how to prepare:

  • Take inventory of your social media outposts: are you acting like a logo or a person?
  • Investigate where your audience socializes online (Try CubeSocial.com)
  • Start monitoring social media to keep tabs on influencers and your audience

5. Be useful or interesting

People love a good story

An article this long has to include the cliché “content is king” at least once so here it is: content is king. In a recent survey, 73% of people said they preferred to learn about organizations through articles as opposed to ads. Content is 61% more likely to drive someone to make a purchase than ads, and content can live forever on your website.

The power of a good story is strong.

And content can pay dividends down the road for your site. A Tweet or Facebook post usually only lasts for hours. A blog post can last for years.

The future of the web is storytelling, so start generating content that captivates your audience because it’s useful or interesting (or both!)

If you want to prepare for the future of the web, focus on human nature. Make it simple, portable, fast, social, useful and interesting you’ll be ahead of the race.

This post was the blog version of “The Future of Websites,” a presentation given by Andrew on September 15th for the Association Media & Publishing “Lunch and Learn” series.

The original presentation:

The Future of Websites

View more presentations from TMG Custom Media

(Special thanks to Jackie Roy for patient help on this presentation.)


About the Author

Andrew Hanelly

Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.