The #1 Purpose of a Website

Posted: June 15, 2010 in Opinion
Tags: , ,

Dear Robyn,

I read an interesting statement the other day by a guy called Tom Poland that got me thinking about what is really important on the internet. His statement was this:

The #1 purpose of a website is to gather email addresses.”

I’m keen to challenge that statement because I don’t believe it is entirely true (and anyone is welcome to disagree with me and tell me why in the comments).

Ever since I started web developing I’ve followed lots of blogs like his from various “experts” putting forward their take on what the #1 purpose of a website is or what the most important thing to do on the internet is to be successful. Generally these all go along the lines of “the most important thing is”:

  • gathering email addresses
  • getting ranked #1 on search engines
  • building 50’000 satellite sites
  • getting large numbers of visitors past the site
  • setting links up correctly
  • having big red flashy buttons and shiny whirly things
  • having the perfect combination of Social Media tools set up
  • magic formulas for converting people to buyers
  • buying this or that super duper SEO tool that morphs your keywords and urls effortlessly with the flick of a switch with Einstein’s e=mc2 equation so you can maximise your ability to know what domain names you should give your satellite sites and what colour your whirly flashy things should be so you can get ranked #1 in search engines to get email addresses to convert people…

Often they are valid and useful points but there is one essential ingredient missing (to me at least) from all of those statements that NO ONE ever seems to talk about and it’s something I learned about when I was much younger from a couple of people – one of them being our senior engineer at the recording studio I used to work at and the other, strangely, being C S Lewis.

When I first got interested in sound engineering I used to worry incessantly about whether or not I was doing exactly the perfect technical thing and whether I was up with the play with all the big super duper experienced engineers out there or if I was just a junior twit with no clue and bad ears. So I used to obsess 24/7 about stuff like:

“If I push that red button and route the signal to channel 23 on post-FX via this flange effect with the compressor set to x threshold and y release and the EQ set to z frequency – will I have the perfect setting?…. Make a god awful mess?… Get laughed at….. Blow up the mixing desk?….. Blow up the universe?….. Cause the drummer to spontaneously combust like they do in Spinal Tap? …”

I used to spend many hours chewing off my fingernails and wondering whether I should do A or B or C or A+B-C and what other engineers thought was the right thing to make the perfect recording people would rush out and buy. I figured more experienced engineers knew there was a correct “formula” for achieving this. Then one afternoon the dilemma of how to know when you’ve got the magic formula got solved for me when an almighty argument erupted in Studio A between two of our younger engineers over which exact mathematical formula should be used to calculate the amount of reverb to be added into the mix of some song. After half an hour of yelling complicated mathematical equations at each other and threatening murder, our senior engineer got fed up, marched into the studio, smacked their heads together and killed their argument with this:

“When this song gets released not a single person is going to care one iota how many milliseconds of this that or the other thing you’ve used in there. The only thing they will ever care about is:

“Does this make me feel good?”

As soon as he said that I realised that I (and they) had been focussing on completely the wrong thing – formulas, technology, other people’s expert opinions, advice in Engineering publications, what other engineers thought, maths, graphs, where to hide the bodies of all the drummers who combusted… But the only thing we really should have been worrying about was:

“What’s the listener going to experience when they hear this?”

That is the only thing that really matters. His comment has proven to be the most important thing I ever learned about how to make sound engineering decisions – or anything else for that matter (and that drummers are always expendible!) Ever since then, if I record something and get stuck for what the most important thing to do is I just ask myself that question and the answer becomes much easier to figure out.

Another thing I think about often comes weirdly from The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. When I was at primary school one of our teachers read us that story and I loved the magical part where Lucy ventures into the wardrobe for the first time, finds frozen trees between the coats and Narnia out the other side. But of course, when she runs back excited to try to convince her other siblings, not only to visit this amazing place with her, but to help save Narnia, they don’t believe it really exists at first since all they see when they go into the wardrobe themselves is a bunch of musty coats, some stinky moth balls and the solid wooden back of the wardrobe. (Sometimes I think life is like this – there is the mundane side and the side that promises something better if you go looking for it and believe it’s possible).

About the same time I heard that story the ballet school I went to put on an end of year production in a larger venue than we ever had before. I had never gone out on stage in front of a proper ‘big’ audience before so I was nervous and not very impressed with the idea. I spied on the evil horde from the wings and decided anyone would have to have a death wish to go out there and get roasted with their laser sharp glares and be judged for every technical mishap. I was sure they even had clip boards and pens provided to them at the door so they could keep score of every bungle and botch up and that they would get a $5 refund every time I forgot to point my toes. But I went out there anyway. And when I did I discovered something truely remarkable that has made me love going on stage ever since.

First off the evil, glaring audience vanished behind the gigantic wall of black created by the lighting and when I turned around I saw something I wasn’t expecting to be there – a magical, awe-inspiring world just like Narnia (we had been practising without costumes up until that point). Then it occurred to me that going out on stage is exactly like things are in the book. The stage is Narnia, the wall of “black light” is the back of the wardrobe, on the other side of the wall the audience is Lucy’s siblings and you are Lucy. The whole point of going out there isn’t to execute some technically perfect performance you learned off some expert (in this case my ballet teacher). It’s to be Lucy, to truely believe the Narnia you are creating on the stage is real and to draw everyone in the audience into your world by showing them that there really is a magical world beyond the “back of the wardrobe”. Since then I’ve never been nervous because I know being on stage isn’t about people watching you – it’s about inviting them onto the stage with you to share your experience because you want them to feel what you are. (I believe that ultimately this is why music, art and films are so popular. People are happy to escape the mundane moth balls and oppressive fur coats of life from time to time and see that there is something more inspiring and meaningful out there.)

So why does that have anything to do with websites? Well if you look at that list at the beginning of my post again you’ll notice it is completely devoid of any reference whatsoever to the effect you have on your visitors. There is no human factor there at all. It’s as if websites are made for unfeeling robots. But I believe what the visitors experience is the most important consideration. So I would say:

The #1 purpose of a website is to inspire your audience and create something they truely believe in and want to be involved with.”

Everything else is of secondary importance – even if it’s that stuff all those experts are saying should be tops. My main point here is not that any of those things listed are unimportant, but that, in my mind, there is little point in attracting people to a site in the first place, or gathering their details if you don’t draw them into your world when they get there. If you don’t show them that there is something magical worth believing in behind the back of the wardrobe what’s the point? If websites are primarily about nuts and bolts and formulas or executing some parasitic marketing advice of experts that misses the most exciting reason to be there in the first place – the audience and their experience. The most powerful thing to put into a website has nothing to do with formulas, tools or SEO advice. The most powerful thing is the ability to inspire other people and share something with them that is bigger than “mothballs”. And that bigger than mothballs thing comes from truly believing in what you do and caring about what difference it makes to other people (but that’s a whole other topic). I think this is one way to set yourself apart from all other competitors out there. After all, your competitors can all make use of those same tools too but how many of them set their main priority as creating of the kind of “Narnia” people want to believe in and visit more than anywhere else?

Think about this for a second. When you visit some site that impresses the hell out of you do you go away excited because;

  • You got to leave your email address behind? or
  • The key words were really effective in getting you to the site? or
  • The links were set up to maximize Google rankings? or
  • The developer wrote really clever code?

No of course not. Hopefully you go away excited because you made a real connection with the people who created the site and their message and you want to be involved with them in future – because you saw their version of “Narnia” and believed in it too.

I guess as a practical example of this a couple of Decembers ago I randomly came across Time is Running Out by Muse online. (And I apologize for using a music example but songwriting would have to be my biggest passion in life and I can’t resist a great song). I didn’t know who they were when I started playing the song but half way through the second verse I became a Muse fan – and before the end of the song I logged in to became a Muser (that’s a completely crazy Muse fan who lives on their website). I had a strong conviction about them as a band from the first finger click in that song. They also have a fantastic website (and I think a very talented group of people who run it) but lets be realistic – if I hadn’t have been inspired by the band it would have been a complete waste of time collecting my email address. What inspired me?

In the words of Matt Bellamy:

To feel liberated is something that I feel when I am playing music and I think if you can help other people feel liberated in that way, psychologically and spiritually liberated, then that is the best thing that music can do”.

This is the main reason to me why songwriting is important and has always been. So we share that vision of “Narnia” and that is what inspired me. Their music represents something a bit bigger than just chords, staves and mothballs and that is what really matters. And this is reflected in their website also which makes all the difference (I am sure their 77,000+  members on the website agree).

So when people visit a site should the #1 purpose be;

…to gather email addresses.”


…to inspire your audience and create something they truely believe in and want to be involved with.”

People can go leave Tom Poland their email address in droves if they want to but I know which purpose I would pick first.

Leaving your email address is something you can do AFTER you visit Narnia….

Morgan 🙂

  1. […] The #1 Purpose of a Website […]

  2. Hey Morgan

    Great looking site.

    Websites are a marketing tool, and in some circumstances are a selling tool. So what the site needs to do comes down to you definition of ‘marketing’ and ‘selling’.

    How about these: Marketing should generate quality leads coming into the business on a regular, predictable basis. Selling is the process for converting the leads into clients.

    Because Tom Poland seems to mostly work with professonal service firms of one sort or another, then let’s say that the purpose of a website is to generate quality leads – perhaps because the target audience is inspired.

    To get a lead you need to know who the person is. Simple stuff like their name, address, email and telephone will suffice. That’s the deisired outcome – you can measure that and you can now work to converting that lead into a client.

    While inspiration is good, as is creating something people truly believe in, I’m not sure that they are necessary to make a sale. I’m not sure that manufacturers of toilet tissue or socks, or providers of legal services or petrol ever truly inspired anyone but they seem to make a reasonable living. It seems better to actually fulfill/address a need your target audience actually has.

    So working backwards, I’d say that the commerical purpose of a business is to make a profit. To do so you need to sell stuff with either a high volume/low margin or a low volume/high margin or somewhere in between. In order to sell stuff to people you need people to identify themselves to you as having a need that your product/service can fulfill. The only way they can do that from a website is to send you their contact details, or call you directly.

    So the purpose of a website is to attract and speak to your target audience about their specific needs so convincingly that they proactively provide you with their contact details so you can keep marketing to them or drop them into the sales process.

    Sound awfully like the #1 purpose of website is to capture the contact details of people in your target audience who have a specific need that you can fulfill.

    My contribution for what it is worth… Blair

  3. Lia says:

    Hi Morgan,

    The purpose of a website is to deliver on a marketing perspective, and gather customer information, for the purposes of making money and closing sales. In order to do this, however, it must appeal to people’s emotions, wants, needs, and desires to break trhough the clutter of other advertising, (in this case websites), to capture and keep the interest of the customer by entertaining them in some way, in order for them to be drawn to supply their contact details and other personal information to the business.

    We have all heard the saying “you don’t get something for nothing” and in advertising and marketing it definitely rings true. If a business doesn’t entertain, inform, or advise the customer in some way, they are not likely to respond to the businesses request for information.

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