Remember when the Web was new and every brand had to have a 'home page'?
Back then - in the 90s - the term was used inter-changeably with 'website'. No-one knew what they were actually for, but everyone had to have one. Every brand, even breakfast cereals, shoe polish, toothpaste and cat food, had to have one. Even the most boring brands had to have them. They eventually became known as microsites. No-one knew why they existed or what they did, but everyone assumed that it was massively important to have one and if you didn't you'd be missing out on a potential global audience of billions.
So, everyone got one. But soon, it was no longer good enough to have a page with a logo and photo on it. Some people started going about saying 'content is king' and soon the people who make websites started making content to "make their microsites more engaging, better experiences". Often, the thought-process went like this, "What can we get hold of to fill these pages up?", "What can re-use?" and "What will cost us hardly anything to make?".
The answer was more stretched, fuzzy images of the product (re-used publicity shots), or possibly a recipes page (even for toothpaste and cat food), perhaps some jokes or 'Did you know' type facts, and if you were really advanced a re-purposed Flash game like 'Cat-food invaders' or something. Very occasionally, there might be a 'History of our brand' page. My favourite was the whole page displaying the ingredients of the product. That was U-S-E-F-U-L, not.
These websites were visited by no-one.
Over time, most of them started displaying the TV ads for whatever brand or product they were promoting, so that people could catch up on the TV ad if they hadn't been watching TV... or something. But still no-one came. Except maybe to win a car or something. No-one visited them twice anyway.
No-one cared. Well, no-one cared enough even to visit the billions of websites that most brands felt they had to have. They had to have them because everyone had one, and because this was the future. There was, typically, little thought about 'why' or what value they created.
Then along came the Flash microsite: a whole microsite built out of Flash. At least this made the dull content look superficially more interesting. Well, it moved and stuff and you could put sound into the page. And if you were a breakfast cereal and your breakfast cereal opponent had a Flash microsite, well you needed one too and so a new arms race started. Soon nearly everyone had a completely useless Flash microsite. Who cares if it takes 2 minutes to load and makes you invisible to search engines?
Now, flash forward to 2011.
Suddenly digital is *everything* and everyone believes that social media has the power to turn boring crap into gold. Every product and every single brand wants to 'engage' users in a massive participatory experience. Even Especially if they're utterly dull. Obviously, you've got a Facebook page by now so you can 'be part of the conversation', but by now you've discovered there's very little to say if you're a brand people don't care much about or a product you put on food to make it taste better, or something clean your home with, or scoop up poop. Never mind all that, there must be a way to engage with, by now, billions of web users who love engaging and participating, this is what they've been waiting for, and if you make the experience engaging enough they'll forget you're boring and love you and go out and buy your product instead of your slightly less participatory competition. And there are so many ways to engage - perhaps by being a game, or becoming a character bit part in a crazy brand story. So now there are billions of boring brands and products that want us to spend time in a transmedia storytelling world, or collect points/badges/special currency, or follow a live stream of updates from them, or make art out of cat litter and share it on Flickr.
But we haven't got the time to 'join in' and 'co-create' with every bit-part, low-rent, low-excitement, incidental brand in the world (let alone our larders and cleaning cupboards). We don't want to do that any more than we want to spend time being friends with them or chatting about them, or visiting their crappy little Flash microsites or homepages.
Life's different if you're a big ticket deal like a Burberry Trenchcoat or a Porsche, but if you're a bar of soap or a packet of sugar - or even a 'nice drink' - unfortunately no-one cares enough to waste their lives pretending they think you're as important as you think you are.
The latest version of the homepage and the product microsite is the pointless participatory experience. Why does anyone think it will work this time around just because real people can join in?
Here's one of my favourites: Kingsmill Confessions. The idea is that this bread is sooooo tasty (this is like standard, non-artisanal cheap white toast bread by the way) that people will act immorally to get their hands on some. Yes, I know. But at least you can participate. The site invites you to submit your own 'confession'. Dan's (below) is particularly worthless and I - for one - think he made it up.
Yeah, I know there are exceptions. I enjoyed Old Spice too, and I love the Lurpak butter stuff we have in the UK, but I don't have enough time to get involved with every brand like that. Or hardly any of them in fact. And even when I do it won't last.
That is all.