Everyone Has An Agenda
When we watch our favorite television programs like 'CSI' or 'House', we knowingly and even gladly allow ourselves to be manipulated. When we watch the evening news we are also being manipulated, knowingly or not, by the selection and presentation of stories that have been filtered through a series of network agendas ranging from the benign time constraints of a thirty-minute broadcast to the more suspicious dictates of network and sponsor interests.
Websites are vehicles for communicating content to an audience as well, and like your favorite television show, or evening news, that communication is not neutral; it comes with an agenda and that agenda should be yours.
If your website designer is not developing your site within a framework created to communicate your marketing information, then you are not getting the website you need. If your website designer is merely a technical programmer and not a communicator then you have picked the wrong supplier.
Whether you are selling an idea, a product, or a service doesn't matter; what matters is you are trying to convince your audience that what you have to offer will benefit them in some way. You are manipulating your presentation to your advantage. That does not mean that you should be dishonest or deceitful, but rather just skilled in getting your message across.
To manipulate, as defined, in part by wordreference.com, means to 'control or influence skillfully, usually to one's advantage'. Like it or not that's the job of a professional website designer: to skillfully influence an audience to the website owner's advantage.
Bad Websites Use Technical Solutions to Solve Communication Problems
Website designers constantly hear complaints from business owners and marketing executives that their websites are underperforming and their ROI is anemic. This is not surprising when so many websites are developed based on attracting traffic rather than skillfully influencing audience opinion. You can attract all the traffic your server can handle but if your message is lost in a labyrinth of search engine-friendly requirements it will not influence, persuade, or convince anybody of anything.
It used to be that technical agendas formulated by IT departments where a significant cause of website communication deficit, but today that torch has been passed on to the SEO guru promising to deliver the multitudes but more likely creating a severe case of information and performance anxiety. Technology is not an end; it is merely the means to an end, and when it comes to websites that end is communication.
The technical aspects of website design are fairly easy to learn for anyone who is willing to take the time to learn them - let's face it, it's not rocket science. As a consequence there are lots of technical website programmers creating ineffective communication solutions. Professional website designers must be expert communicators practiced in the art of skillful message manipulation and communication delivery.
Defining An Appropriate Website Agenda
In order for your website to be an affective marketing communication vehicle it should be build around an agenda that accomplishes the following tasks:
1. Attract interest
2. Focus attention
3. Convey attitude
4. Enhance understanding
5. Generate confidence
6. Stimulate desire
7. Motivate action
If you check your website logs and find that people are leaving your site as fast as they are arriving, then you have an problem. All that time and effort you spent on optimizing your site for the search engines to attract visitors is wasted if those visitors don't stay long enough to get your marketing message. Visitors will leave your site within seconds if your splash page is confusing or irrelevant to their needs. Your initial contact with your audience must capture their attention by quickly establishing that you are the source of the information, products, or services they are looking for.
Once you've established that your site has the information your audience wants, you must make it easy for people to find it. Information, products, and services must be organized for quick access and easy navigation between options and alternatives.
Visitors are focused on finding what they came for; once they have found it, they will be more receptive to paying attention to the items that you want to direct them to; this is what Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering calls the 'seducible moment', the moment when visitors are ready to focus on your pitch.
Rather than designing the presentation of your information for search engine robots, design it for human understanding. People absorb more information; have better comprehension; and retain more of what you want them to when information is presented by a real person.
If you want to see the future of the Web visit Wyeth's menopause related website at http://www.knowmenopause.com. This site provides visitors with the option of going to a text-based version that is index-able by search engines and where visitors can print-out the material; and a multimedia version that features video presentations by doctors discussing the medical issues, and interviews with ordinary women discussing their personal experiences.
Since the Web is a remote environment, it is important to create confidence in your company and the products and services you provide. The easiest thing you can do to create this confidence is to provide visitors with not just email addresses but phone numbers, physical locations, and contact names. It never fails to amaze me how many websites fail to provide this kind of information. If you don't provide proper contact information, it looks like you have something to hide.
As mentioned in 'enhancing understanding', relating to people with people is critical in building confidence. The Wyeth knowmenopause.com site does a brilliant job of providing expert video advice from qualified professionals as well as video commentary from average people relating their personal experience with the subject matter. And you don't have to be a multinational pharmaceutical company to do this. Every business has access to expertise and knowledge. If you stop pitching and start informing, you may find you're further ahead.
Every business has a personality that is conveyed to clients through their experiences with that company. If you are relying on your website as your main point of customer and prospect interaction, then your website has to present an attitude that is appropriate for your audience. This attitude can be conveyed through the graphics, copy, and multimedia presentation of the information, products and services you provide. When it comes to 'attitude' the medium is very much the message and since the Web is such a impersonal environment, it is important to design your presentation so that it delivers the attitude and personality that your audience will relate to.
The desire to buy a particular product or service is based on more than functional utility; after all, nobody really needs a Rolex or a Lexus. People buy much of what they buy based on emotional and psychological desire rather than functional need. Functionality often comes into play merely as a justification for the purchase. Part of your website's job is to create the emotional and psychological desire for the product in question.
Your website should also be designed to motivate people to action but don't construct your site to limit that action to a sale or nothing. Too many sites are obviously designed to get you to buy something with little or no attention to enhancing understanding or generating confidence. This 'all or nothing' approach is severely anti-productive and conveys an impression that you can't be trusted. Customers need to have confidence in you and your offering and sometimes they need some reassurance that you are legitimate.
What you want to do is get website visitors to do something, anything that demonstrates some interest. That demonstration of interest could be a phone call to ask a question, signing up for an e-newsletter, requesting a catalog, responding to a survey, poll, or promotion - anything that displays they have some interest in what you are offering. If you can motivate your audience to action, even if that action is not directly sales related, you are on your way to building a relationship with that prospect.
Communication: Turning Content Into a Memorable Experience
In order to achieve your marketing goals you need to know how to manipulate, or if you prefer, 'seduce' your audience to your advantage using the seven tools of website persuasion.
Web-pages are usually made-up of similar types of information. Standard page elements include:
i. Header information - such as logo, company name, address, and basic contact information;
ii. Navigation elements - so visitors can find what they need;
iii. Content - such as text, graphics, audio, and video;
iv. Sidebar information - that might include additional information or links that relate to the content or advertisements, and;
v. Footer information - that might contain further contact or copyright information.
The positioning of these elements is critical to the comprehension and retention of your information and marketing message. Various usability studies carried out in the USA and Great Britain have tracked the eye movement of website visitors. These studies help the designer place the various page layout elements on the screen to produce the maximum effect.
Most studies are fairly consistent with their eye movement tracking results:
i. Middle-Center: Visitors first focus on the center of the page searching for content that is anticipated;
ii. Top-Left: Eyes then move to the top left corner where a logo or company name is expected;
iii. Down Left-hand side: Eyes then move down the left-hand side of the screen where navigation is commonly placed;
iv. Top-Middle to Right: Eyes then move back to the top of the screen and move from the center to the right scanning for further navigation elements or additional company identification information;
v. Middle-Center: Eyes then move back to the middle of the screen scanning for relevant content;
vi. Right-hand side: Eyes then move to the right side of the screen looking for additional information or sidebars;
vii. Middle-Center to bottom: Finally eyes go back to the center and down the page towards the footer scanning for additional content.
It should be noted that these studies also suggest that website visitors will quickly determine where any advertisements are located and then proceed to ignore or avoid them when moving on to other pages of that website.
The size of the various elements will obviously draw attention to, or away from particular information. Logos, graphics, headers, and body-text should all be balanced and proportionate, and the use and amount of white space is as important to readability and comprehension as any of the other elements.
The use of color is another obvious feature that draws attention to particular information; color also conveys personality, mood, and image. Blue, silver, and green are calming colors that convey a cool if somewhat remote image. Reds tend to convey a sense of excitement and boldness, while yellows are bright and friendly. Browns and beiges are earthy, warm and rich, while black, white and gray convey a sense of sophistication.
Of course these are all generalizations and colors can be mixed and matched to provide a variety of moods and personalities. What's important is that a color palette is chosen with care, not only to convey personality but also to direct and focus attention on particular key elements.
The shape of elements is another way to draw attention to particular information or content. Traditional computer monitors with their 4:3 ratio and the new more extreme 16:9 ratio monitors create particular challenges when trying to present substantial information above the virtual fold, by that we mean the visible area that does not require scrolling. Sometimes vertical scrolling can't be avoided, but if you have a lot to say, think about adding an audio or video option that only requires the click of a button to present your information with no scrolling required.
Web-audio is the most cost-effective multimedia-format for delivering large amounts of complex information or instructions to website visitors. Web-audio not only delivers the information in a meaningful, compelling, entertaining, and memorable way, but it also helps establish a corporate personality and image.
Movement will also help attract and direct attention to certain aspects of your website. By far the best way to incorporate some action on your site is with Web-video that uses a Web-host to present information or direct visitors to where they want to go.
The visual style of your site not only directs attention and focus but it also helps establish your personality and how it relates to your target audience. Styles range from conservative to funky to downright bizarre but what really matters is the style you choose tells visitors who you are and what you're all about. Your website style will help create the attitude aspect of your website presentation.
Designing a website is more than programming and search engine optimization; it is how you communicate to your future customers - a job that is too important to leave to someone who doesn't understand how to use the Web and it's full arsenal of presentation elements to communicate your marketing message.