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Web-Communication - Getting Heard by Jerry Bader

"No matter how elegantly a dog barks, he can never tell you his father was poor but honest." - Bertrand Russell

The Vervet monkeys of East Africa have 3 distinct vocal alarms to warn of leopards, eagles, and snakes. The warning for leopards causes the monkeys to run for the trees; the warning for eagles tells them to search the sky and look for shelter; while the snake warning causes the group to standup on two legs and scrutinize the grass for predators.

But as sophisticated a verbal warning system as this may appear to be, these creatures do not have the capability to communicate complex information like, 'checkout the bush at two o'clock, there's two leopards hiding in wait.'

The Evolution of Web-Man

They say the thing that separates man from other animals is our ability to speak - that, and our posable thumbs. So the first thing we learn to do is stick our thumbs in our mouths, crippling our ability to speak intelligibly, not to mention creating huge orthodontist's bills. We have this incredible ability to take a good thing and screw it up. Take the Web for example.

As marketing professionals we have this astonishing ability to communicate with infinite variation, nuance and meaning using the multimedia Web-environment; a communication platform that is begging to be exploited to its maximum potential.

Our thinking of what constitutes a website has been corrupted by a cadre of unimaginative 'techno-geeks' and trendy design-gurus who may know graphic design, database development, and even every Internet Explorer bug-fix and work-around, but what they don't know is how to deliver a marketing message on a website.

What these new-age 'techno-nistas' don't get is that our job as marketers is to communicate. Sophisticated communication is a uniquely human activity requiring some understanding of how an audience perceives, comprehends and retains information.

"If sound is the delicate touch of a practiced lover, then sight is the desperate groping of an inexperienced adolescent in the backseat of his father's Chevy."

These twenty-six words convey a wealth of experience and a flood of understanding. They paint a picture in seconds that would take a gifted artist considerable time, talent, and style to recreate visually.

But despite the published research on how we learn, how we comprehend, and how we remember, all of which points to the power and influence of verbal communication, we still rely for the most part on visual methods to deliver our messages.

"A picture is worth a thousand words." - Fred Barnard, Tram Advertising Salesman, 1920

We have all been told from early on that 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' How many times have you quoted this famous saying? According to Jack Trout, in his book 'The New Positioning,' what Confucius actually said was, "a picture is worth a thousand pieces of gold." Not the same thing at all is it? There is actually no evidence that Confucius made either remark.

The documented origin of the famous expression has been traced back to a guy named Fred Barnard who sold tram advertising in the 1920s. Originally he claimed it was an old Japanese proverb, but later changed his story and issued Chinese lettering with a translation in his ads. Who knows what the truth is, maybe old Fred invented the expression himself, but most people still believe it.

As marketers we have come under the spell of a dominant visual hegemony that ignores our natural oral learning process, causing us to create websites that fail to deliver meaningful, memorable, marketing messages.

The Suya of the Brazilian Matto Grosso believe the act of hearing is the sign of a 'fully socialized individual.' For the Suya the term 'to hear' also means 'to understand.' The expression 'it is in my ear' means that something has been learned, even something visual like a weaving pattern. To the Suya, the visual is an anti-social sense cultivated by witches.

- Classen, C., 1993, 'Worlds of Sense: exploring the senses in history and across cultures', London: Routledge

The Five Elements of Effective Communication

To understand how to effectively deliver our marketing messages over the Web we first must understand the five basic elements of communication:

1. The Environment

2. The Audience

3. The Message

4. The Messenger, and

5. The Process.

The Web Environment

In the early days of the Web, marketers were frustrated because many didn't get the fundamental difference between traditional print media and the new digital webmedia. Those that did 'get it' were even more frustrated because the environment wasn't advanced enough to enable practical use of growing multimedia techniques. Today the Web has advanced to the point were full-function multimedia can be presented and enjoyed by the vast majority of Web users.

But even with these advancements the Web creates some unique obstacles to effective communication:

- The Web is a sterile barren environment devoid of human connection,

- Computer monitors are hard on the eyes,

- Limited screen real estate puts a premium on abbreviated information, and

- Technological incompatibilities and differences between browsers and computer platforms vary the user experience among audiences.

In addition to these inherent environmental challenges, the world of search engine optimization has created a whole new Web-orthodoxy of 'does-and-don'ts' designed to attract search engine indexing, hopefully leading to greater site traffic, but at the same time, diluting the marketing message and disrupting critical communication. All of which, creates audience frustration, curtailing the time spent on website visits due to a failure to deliver the promised recognizable content.

The very hyperlinked nature of the Web and the oft-touted promotion of linking to anything and everything remotely relevant flies in the face of human nature, that craves an organized linear narrative presentation of content that maximizes comprehension and retention.

The Web Environment Summary

- The Web environment has advanced to the point where multimedia can be delivered and enjoyed by the vast majority of Web users.

- The Web is a sterile, barren environment creating a communication gap that must be bridged by human contact in the form of oral communication.

- Computer screens, the interface between you and your audience, make reading difficult and their limited screen sizes exacerbate the difficulty.

- As marketers we have come under the spell of a dominant visual hegemony that ignores our natural oral learning process, causing us to create websites that fail to deliver meaningful, memorable, marketing messages.

- Over 70% of website visitors skip, scan, and skim text looking for headlines, subheads, captions, and bulleted points diluting sophisticated concepts and complex ideas, leading to misunderstandings, confusion and customer dissatisfaction.

- Cross-browser differences and technological incompatibilities create un-uniform presentations and frustrating user experiences.

- The very hyperlinked nature of the Web with all its advantages actually disrupts comprehension and retention by distracting the audience from what they crave, an organized linear narrative.

The Web Audience

We live in a fast paced world where everyone is busy multitasking their way through their workday: talking on cell phones, writing email proposals, text messaging colleagues, and searching the Web for vital business intelligence.

It is not surprising that distracted Web-visitors are easily drawn away from sites that do not immediately deliver the information they are looking for. And it is no surprise that people are frustrated by having to sift their way through a maze of search engine friendly hyperlinks and incomprehensible advertising copy. If you're lucky, this approach may lead to some additional search engine traffic, but burying your critical content in a mountain of keywords, jargon, and specifications does nothing to engage, enlighten and evangelize your audience.

Website visitors may, or may not be clients or even prospects, but what they are, are an audience, an audience searching for information. If they can't find that information, if they don't understand that information, and if they can't retain that information; your website, and by extension your company, is useless to them. By recasting Web-visitors as an audience you can organize and present material in ways that are useful, understandable, and memorable.

The principles and practices required to create a compelling presentation may very well conflict with some search engine optimization maxims and even current Web design trends, but you have to ask yourself, "what is my prime directive?" Do you want tons of traffic that opts out of your site as quickly as possible, instantly forgetting who you are and what you do; or do you want visitors who will stay on your site, learn about you and your products, and ultimately convince themselves that your company is the one with the right solution that fulfills their needs.

Websites are by their very nature compromises of content, presentation, and technology. By treating your visitors as an audience that needs to be informed, enlightened, and entertained, you will be able to make the most effective decisions, and you will ultimately end-up with more leads, sales, and customers.

It is important to remember that Web-visitors are human beings who learn and relate through the primary sense of hearing.

The Web Audience Summary

- We live in a fast paced world where everyone is busy multitasking their way through their workday.

- Perpetually distracted Web-visitors are easily drawn away from sites that do not immediately deliver the information they are looking for.

- If Web-visitors can't find the information they need, if they don't understand that information, and if they can't retain that information, your website, and by extension your company, is useless to them.

- By recasting Web-visitors as an audience you can organize and present material in ways that are useful, understandable, and memorable.

- The principles and practices required to create a compelling presentation may very well conflict with some search engine optimization maxims and even current Web design trends.

- Websites are compromises of content, presentation, and technology. By treating your visitors as an audience that needs to be informed, enlightened, and entertained, you will be able to make the most effective decisions, and you will ultimately end-up with more leads, sales, and customers.

The Web Message

We have all heard the expression 'content is king', but as marketers we must turn that old saying around slightly to read, 'message is king.'

Any one who has ever run a sales organization knows how frustrating it can be to keep sales people on-message without turning them into automatons. Even if you can get them to lug all their samples into each and every customer's office, and even if they actually present all the samples, customers have this nasty habit of asking questions, disrupting the flow of well-planned flip chart and Power Point presentations.

Having sales people on the road is an expensive method of delivering a sale's or marketing message, without any guarantee that, that message is being delivered properly or with any consistency throughout the organization. And if you're relying on independent sales reps, while let's not even go there.

The answer of course in this new-age Web-business environment is the Internet and your website. It allows you to deliver a consistent, error-free message without omissions or deletions.

And if you do it in an oral presentation using a professional, signature voice, that message informs and enlightens, entertains and persuades, brands and penetrates, and most importantly compels action.

"Sound is the foundation of experience ... capable of infinite variation in contrast to sight" - Hearing is Believing, Richard Thorn, Fauculty of Art, Media & Design, UWE, Bristol

We live in a highly complicated world where knowledge and expertise are demanded of almost every routine task we perform. Simply operating a cell phone can be rocket science to some; or dealing with the indecipherable instructions for the universal remote that controls everything from your TIVO to your coffeemaker is a guaranteed cause of high blood pressure.

Life is complex, and how things work is increasing difficult to digest and comprehend. Who has time to read all the manuals, all the specifications, and all the things you need to know just to function in a high-tech world.

If you had trouble with the instructions for putting together Junior's bike on Christmas morning, how then are you expected to deal with life's more byzantine demands? Audio on the Web clarifies abstract ideas, complicated explanations, and compound procedures.

No more will Web audiences tolerate the 'Blather Syndrome' were meaningless strings of keywords, advertising hype, and pointless specifications are strung together to form what passes for content.

The solution to the inarticulate drone of content-overload and the banality 'brochure-speak' is focus. Focus your message on a single relevant idea or concept. Don't try to cram everything thing you can do into a single presentation. Narrow the focus and concentrate the message.

And if you are speaking to multiple audiences, remember, one-size-fits-all doesn't work for websites any better than it works for hats. URLs are cheap. Create different websites for different audiences and different messages.

Like most website design firms we have a portfolio site (www.mrpwebmedia.com), but when we wanted to tell people about the power of web-audio and its ability to deliver a powerful, memorable message, we created a separate website (www.136words.com).

136words.com is dedicated to one simple idea: you can effectively deliver your marketing message on a website or an email landing page with only 136 words: 136 finely crafted words, presented by a professional signature voice that establishes your corporate identity, presents your information, and penetrates the consciousness of your audience.

The Web Message Summary

- We have all heard the expression 'content is king', but as marketers we must turn that old saying around slightly to read, 'message is king.'

- Audio allows you to deliver a consistent, error-free message without omissions or deletions

- A professional, signature voice can deliver a finely crafted, focused message that informs and enlightens, entertains and persuades, brands and penetrates, and most importantly compels action

- We live in a highly complicated world where knowledge and expertise are demanded of almost every routine task we perform.

- Audio on the Web clarifies abstract ideas, complicated explanations, and compound procedures

- The solution to the inarticulate drone of content overload and the banality 'brochure-speak' is focus. Focus your message on a single relevant idea or concept.

- Create different websites for different audiences and different messages.

- 136 finely crafted words, presented by a professional signature voice in sixty seconds of audio establishes your corporate identity, presents your information, and penetrates the consciousness of your audience.

The Messenger

We should rethink Marshall McLuhan's adage, 'the medium is the message', and restate it as the 'messenger is the message.' Can you think about CNN's signature bumper, 'This is CNN' without the sound of James Earl Jones's voice ringing in our ears? You probably never heard of John Facenda, but before the days of instant sports replays, his highly recognizable voice combined with dazzling film clips and over-the-top ballet-like descriptions of NFL game highlights was arguably one of the critical ingredients in making football the television phenomenon it is today.

If people are what they eat, then marketers and advertisers are how they sound. Would Ford truck commercials deliver the same image of power and performance without the distinctive gravitas of Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer persona? The audience knows the voice, character and image, and they are all projected onto Ford's products without ever identifying the actor or his popular character.

People relate to people not to abstract concepts or product specifications. It's all about storytelling, it's how we learn, how we comprehend, and how we remember what's important. And you can't have a memorable story without a compelling storyteller.

An expert storyteller creates an emotional connection with his or her audience by tapping into commonly shared experiences creating a bond of trust. The hugely popular comedian and 'Tonight Show' host, Jay Leno, describes how he constructs a joke, a method that illustrates how to tap into an audience's shared experience: "You start with something people believe. You tell them it's not true. And then you reinforce what they always believed." Making the connection with a good story works for the comedian and for the sophisticated marketer.

Rod Serling is another example of a great storyteller who combined great stories with a distinctive style and delivery. Long after his death, his style, delivery, and voice are still being copied. If you want to connect with your audience, you best do it through the sound of a signature voice.

The Messenger Summary

- We should rethink Marshall McLuhan's adage, 'the medium is the message', and restate it as the 'messenger is the message.'

- If people are what they eat, then marketers and advertisers are how they sound.

- People relate to people not to abstract concepts or product specifications.

- You can't have a memorable story without a compelling storyteller.

- An expert storyteller creates an emotional connection with his or her audience by tapping into common shared experiences creating a bond of trust.

- If you want to connect with your audience, you best do it through the sound of a signature voice.

The Process

Honestly and Correctly Test

The process of creating a signature voice for your webmedia presentations and campaigns starts with an honest look in the corporate mirror. You need to be able to honestly and correctly define who you are, what you do, and why you do it better than the competition before you can consider who should speak for you or how they should sound.

You must find out how you are viewed by your audience, and if your desired identity is compatible with their perception of who you are and what you do. If you don't like how you are perceived, you can change it, but only if you start off with a true assessment of where you currently exist in your audience's mind.

The tough part of this exercise is the 'honestly and correctly' part. There are many reasons why companies fail to see themselves how others see them. These reasons can range from arrogance to ignorance to bureaucratic myopia. Take Wal-Mart for example: Wal-Mart tried to attract hip teenagers by creating a youth-oriented site on the 'hot-site-du-jour', MySpace. Wal-Mart, may be a lot of things but hip and trendy, just 'ain't' one of them. An honest look at who they are, and what they do, and of course, how they are perceived, would have told them that this approach would fail.

Most company mission statements fail the 'honestly and correctly' test miserably; these corporate self-indulgences tend to be pathetic recitations of everything the company thinks it does, expressed in disingenuous, over-hyped, condescending language, that nobody in the organization or the marketplace believes.

Once you know how you are perceived, you can go about reinforcing that image, or changing it, by implementing a long-term campaign using all the marketing tools at your disposal. And webmedia, audio and video on websites and landing pages, is by far one of the most cost effective tools you have available.

Developing Your Signature Voice

1. List all the qualities that represent the image you are trying to project.

2. Determine the style of language, phrasing and cadence of the delivery.

3. No matter what kind of presentation you want to deliver, your script must be well written, focused on a single idea, and written for audio not print.

This article was published on Friday 10 November, 2006.
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