Purpose and wonder: Business lessons on how the internet changed the individual


It’s thirty years since CERN hosted the world’s very first website on Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer. In 1989, the worldwide web’s purpose was to help scientists around the world share information.

It wasn’t until 1993 that the software was released under open license in the public domain. The fuse was lit for an explosion of change and disruption that would soon reach into every nook and cranny of our lives.

Back then, exploring the world wide web had a sense of the intrepid to it. You’d sit down at your computer, plug in – listening to the ping-pa-dingping noises coming from your modem as it connected – and never quite know where you’d end up.

Boundaries disappear as possibility becomes limitless

At first the world seemed to both expand and shrink at the same time. Anyone could have a website if they were willing to wrestle with a bit of html.

Suddenly we were talking about global villages, constructing online identities and communities – even online shops. Great networks of users were built. We enjoyed digital art, websites created as mini-installations.

You could learn…anything.

Speak to anyone.

Debate any subject.

Fall in love.

Read any book.

Change the world.

All you needed was an internet connection.

Infrastructure scrambled to keep up with demand. Modems rose to dizzying speeds (remember how fast ISDN seemed?). Just a decade after CERN’s scientists started using the web, in 1999 there were 248 million users worldwide. By 2009 this was 1.8 billion.

In 2018, 4.3 billion – 55% of the world’s population uses the internet. And after three decades of stellar growth, today it’s virtually impossible to imagine a world – even a business or a high school essay – that’s not dependent on the technology, insights, and understanding the web has wrought.

When the mask becomes the person: How the internet changed the individual

At its heart of the web, though, is the individual. As the distance between the ‘real’ you and your online personality shrank thanks to the plethora of social media platforms, the word ‘share’ was taking on whole new levels of nuance and meaning.

With everything we’ve ever said suddenly being searchable, the people with loudest voices, the most followers – or indeed just the greatest scrutiny – now needed to own not just what they said, but how they said it. This wasn’t a brave new world anymore. The rules were unwritten, but firmly established.

The art of personification: Brands become beings

What took many businesses by surprise was the fact that the internet had an anthropomorphising effect. Whether they wanted it or not, their brand personality had developed more solidity than ever. The voice of the company was real, and would be amplified whether shareholders liked it or not.

With channels such as Twitter and Facebook, brands could at last reach out to customers and actually have a human interaction. They could share videos, compliment followers, even poke fun at their competitors. The global audience, meanwhile, could get cute with brands that showed feelings and emotion, that actually walked and talked (online) like real people – albeit ones with carefully curated personalities. With digital natives at the helm of most social media teams, they could talk the same language – and in the same channels – as the customer.

All of which brings us up to speed with the present. But this new expression of brand personality has complications.

The simple fact is that to be authentic, to be real and trusted, you need to have a strength of character, and for that you need to show true purpose – and match that with consistency.

Without true purpose your business is shallow. You don’t have to be all things to all people, or chase the latest issue with knee-jerk prognostication. You do have to stand for something and take it into the real world.

Your purpose might center around caring for and loving nature (Patagonia), striving for excellence (Adidas), or helping the world run better (SAP). So long as it is simple and strong, and you truly believe it, it doesn’t even need to be unique. Best of all, it gives you an excuse to take part.

Consistency is critical, because with customers in the driving seat, their experience is everything. The personality – the spirit of participation, openness, and engagement – you exhibit to tip people into the purchase funnel should be present in every single customer touchpoint. That should at least be the aim. If not, then you risk appearing shallow. So check in on people, ask them what they think, actively listen to them, and act on what they say.

The last 30 years of online development have brought change, opportunity, and access. But to leave engaging to your marketing team alone is facile.

Regardless of whether it’s the very start of awareness and discovery, negotiating the best package at point of sale, or simply the smoothness and efficiency of a regular service visit, every single business unit has a clear and critical effect on the customer experience.

The intelligent enterprise is one that has the vision to focus on and reach for a truly cohesive experience.

Learn more about the modern customer experience at the CX event of 2019. Sign up today

Jack Dyson
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Jack Dyson

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