What should your internet presence look like in 2021?

As the world adapts to new ways of working, this is what your business should be doing online

Companies are settling into a new normal, and it’s clear that the role of the internet has shifted. Of course, it was already woven into most business models, but now we’re facing another evolutionary step – one in which the internet develops from one leg of the stool, as it were, into a core capability, arguably even a life or death determinant for businesses as well as people.

That may sound like an exaggeration, but as individuals we’re more dependent than ever before on businesses serving us online. For businesses, it’s never been more important to reach customers online.

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Speaking from a business strategy perspective, this is a good thing. Normally, when we come to address big questions of what your company ought to be doing, the answer involves a large element of “it depends”. But when it comes to online presence at a time when everybody is spending more time at home, there’s no “it depends”. The message is clear: every business needs to be visible. 

Of course, “visible” is a loose term. But even if you’re just posting a photo on Instagram, that’s an improvement on being invisible. This doesn’t mean that you have to share a close-up of every Fair Isle knit you finish, but it’s important to remember that the keyword of the coronavirus crisis has been “isolation”. The internet and social media are people’s windows on the world – and if you’re not there, you’re nowhere. Your first job, therefore, is to use those avenues to demonstrate that you’re active, to reassure clients and customers that you’re open for business and to show them what you have to offer.

Ideally, you would do a lot more than just upload the odd image. If possible, you want to be on all the major social platforms because they all have different constituencies and demographics. That includes the good-old corporate website. Rather than ditching the traditional site, you can make it a straightforward, search engine-friendly springboard to all your various accounts and identities. Even the simplest website can benefit from a “Got a question? Join us on Facebook” link. This would be a no-brainer if you were building a site from scratch today, but if you have been around a while it’s a good bet that your website is founded on “old normal” assumptions. It’s time to re-evaluate the function of your online home, and to think about how it fits into a pandemic (and post-pandemic) world

Winners and losers 

No one would argue that the current crisis has been a good thing, but it’s given certain technologies and services a huge boost – the obvious one being Zoom, a previously little-known video-calling platform that somehow caught the wave at just the right time. Its success has come at the expense of Skype, which ought to have been in the perfect position to dominate the sector, but it failed to rise to the occasion. Even so, Skype’s traffic has also gone up by 70% during lockdown.

Such tools might not be the first ones you think of when you consider “online presence”, and it’s true that new business or customer relations rarely start with a video conferencing connection. Apart from anything else, video calls are awkward. The very technology that ought to allow people to overcome formalities and get down to business turns out to be limited by performance anxiety, the psychological demands of this novel form of communication – and no-haircut lockdown blues.

Indeed, if there’s been a shift in online presence and presentation, it’s been away from interaction, at least in the sense of human-to-human contact. As customer approaches become increasingly virtual, firms have found it makes sense to put as much information online as possible, cutting back on voice-oriented call centres in favour of instantly findable and searchable pages and resources. For any questions that remain, bots can increasingly handle the initial contact, and direct enquiries appropriately.

At the same time, video conferencing remains vitally important – for internal use. Overwhelmingly, the most fundamental shifts in tech trends during lockdown have been inward-facing; the more we move out of the office, the greater the need grows for an effective way of talking to remote colleagues and existing contacts

Who are you?

With different communication avenues at hand, and different people to talk to in different ways, the next question that arises concerns your online “personality”. To be informal or distant? Intimate or detached? To be fair, the conundrum of what face you present to the public is older than computing itself, so the decision is only as easy or as difficult as it always was. If you’re open about the daily life or medium-term decisions that define your business, it could be an invitation to competitors – but, on the other hand, it’s likely to inspire trust among customers, especially in a climate of uncertainty. The ideal balance might be to share hacks that don’t spill any closely guarded secrets, but which maintain contacts that might otherwise wither away from lack of activity.

There’s also no need to dive fully into the fast-moving, attention-seeking, tweet-every-cuppa mindset. Mixing together a couple of business updates alongside your favourite YouTube videos is a reasonable level of activity, but don’t clog up people’s timelines. The luxury of lockdown is that you have time to weigh up what you share. The maxim that “calmer voices deliver longer-lasting messages” doesn’t always hold on social media, but 2020 has seen a marked change in reading habits and the overall psychology of your readers.

There’s one other good reason not to be too hotheaded on social media, and it’s to do with resilience. If your Twitter account is blocked or shut down for some inadvertent infraction, it’s unlikely you’re going to get it back overnight. This is another good reason to inhabit a broad spread of presences, rather than entrusting all your eggs to the basket of one particular distant and indifferent publisher.

At this point, you might be wondering how many platforms you ought to be on. Sadly, resilience is one of those “pot of gold” things: you can’t ever get there, you can only ever approach it. You can’t even stand still, as the parameters shift around as platforms and products go in and out of fashion.

This applies internally as well: COVID-19 has accelerated the uptake of certain modes of communication, but it certainly hasn’t driven everyone onto a single platform. You’re not working in a 2021 team unless you have a Microsoft account for Teams, a Google ID for Hangouts and an Amazon login for WorkMail. Certain workers maintain free accounts for barebones access, while others pay for better performance, higher storage limits and fewer adverts; either way, having fingers in all of these pies is a big tick on the resilience checklist.

Clouded out

One final aspect of your online presence that deserves a serious look in 2021 is your engagement with cloud services. Total cloud immersion may have been cool back in about 2017, but these days the idea of “storage of last resort” has come back inside the premises, and that fuddy-duddy boss who wouldn’t let the last internal file server go is starting to look quite shrewd. 

This isn’t solely a pandemic thing. Cloud repatriation was a live issue even before lockdown started, driven at least partly by price hikes. A big part of the allure of cloud-hosted infrastructure was its regular costs, but the catch soon became apparent – those costs can change in ways that are out of your control, ending up with your hosting, upkeep and access being held effectively to ransom.

That doesn’t mean the alternative is cheap and easy. Keeping an internal IT function working is a big ask at any time, and it’s become more complex as working from home has become not only popular but sometimes mandatory. This isn’t a plea for more money for harassed IT workers, but a recognition that resources are finite, and that even miracle-workers need a bit of notice, some budget and some help to pull off the impossible. 

Not for the first time, therefore, the solutions loop back to a rational mix of corporate, relatively static assets (websites, email addresses), and a resilient fleet of online identities in other minor and major service platforms. This means, for instance, that your local delivery driver can talk direct to customers on their delivery route, even while your head office is upgrading its VPN endpoint server. No matter what you do, your human assets will make connections, swap phone numbers, turn up in WhatsApp directories and so on. Embrace this and it can be a vital part of building up the resilience that you might have to rely on when six whole months of the unexpected starts impeding your ability to make money.

In the end, for many of us, 2020 was a merciless proof of the old business aphorism that only six people in an enterprise business really know how everything works. And it’s thrown us into a situation where those six people can’t just sit down together in a meeting room; they need to be connected, to colleagues and each other, by a mix of public and private assets. That’s the non-negotiable truth about keeping your business alive in 2021. In that context, are you going to complain about unclear security options in Zoom or a lengthy account sign-up process in PayPal? Well, maybe: but the most important thing is to keep the business going.

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