Any Road Will Do... 

When you don't know where you are going. The other day we were asked to provide ROI commentary for a Web site that wanted to increase sales.  I’m pointedly not going to name the site – I’ll call it Web Site Nebula - but I will tell you that what this business was selling was not your ordinary sort of service.  Most folks would find it on the loopy side (although it actually appealed to my universopolitan side).

Suffice it to say, if the premise of your business potentially could be considered flaky, you’ve really got to work hard on image and credibility.   I thought we were going to be dealing mostly with that sort of stuff here.  And I didn’t think there’d be much by way of general insight to come out of the experience.

Come to find out, when we landed on Web Site Nebula, the image problem was a far lower priority battle for this site.  There wasn’t a single shred of evidence that anybody considered the importance of process.  Not even one call to action … anywhere!  I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do, or what they might even want me to do.  If this site wants to persuade sales, it will have to go back to Square One.

The cool thing is that Square One is the same for all of us!

Most of you dear readers have been with me long enough to realize there are literally thousands of factors that can affect your conversion rate – lots of things little and big that, when tweaked, give your conversion rate a much healthier glow.  We call these little and big things ‘tactics.’

But there’s a bigger picture out there.  You can’t start with a bunch of tactics, even if they are proven ones, and hope you are going to be successful.  At the tactic level of management, you are in a position of seeing all the trees but missing the forest.  You can’t even start with strategies.  You gotta start with objectives.

I know this is going to sound positively pedestrian, but the very first question you’ve got to answer about your Web site is this:  What is the overall goal of your site – what is the ultimate action you want to motivate?  Don’t give me a complicated answer, ‘cause it isn’t a complicated question.  And if you don’t have an answer that’s obvious to your visitors, then it’s time to decide on one.  Tell me you want folks to buy some product, book their flight, ask you for a brochure, schedule an introductory meeting.

You’ve probably got some subsidiary objectives for your site as well.  So tell me you want folks to subscribe to your newsletter so you can keep letting them know you are the choice in your field, tell me you want them to request promotional emailings or enter a contest.  All of these objectives are going to feed into your primary objective.

Only when you understand WHAT your site is supposed to be doing will you ever be able to create an effective persuasive architecture that motivates your visitors to take action.  Only when you know the WHAT can you make heads and tails of the HOW, which leads you to defining your strategies and selecting your tactics.  And only when you know the WHAT about your site will you ever be able to measure your web trends in a way that allows you to manage meaningfully.

Because you cannot manage what you cannot measure.  And you can’t determine what to measure if you do not have objectives.  Tweaking tactics has value only if you are measuring objectives.

Whether you are building from scratch or refurbishing, now’s the time to clarify your concrete, measurable objectives, from which all else flows.  With these in hand, you can then turn to the questions that will help you create the optimal system of conversion.

At the site level, you must always ask:

On top of these, at the level of every single one of your pages, as well as your site overall, you must always ask:

Objectives are absolutely essential.  Don’t hit the road without them!


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MAP Your Path to Success     

Here at Future Now, we're in a pretty synthetic frame of mind.  No, I don't mean polyesters, I mean synthesis … bringing together ideas from lots of different sources that help reveal a different, coherent way of looking at things – something that is more than the sum of its parts.  A gestalt.

You've probably noticed that I've casually been tossing around two particular words lately.  They aren't words you've really run across before (unless you've been reading my stuff or my buddy Bryan's ROI articles for ClickZ).  But they are words we believe will change the way folks approach the design, development, implementation and optimization of Web sites.

The two words?  Persuasive Architecture.  It's the framework for synthesizing all the things you and I have been discussing over the years.  And associated with this framework is our process for persuasive design:  the Minerva Architectural Process.

Or MAP for short.

You guys know online success isn't about sitting there twiddling your thumbs hoping the traffic that makes it to your site takes action.  You have to be an active agent in the exchange – you have to persuade your visitors by interweaving the selling process with the buying process, consistently applying AIDAS as you answer the WIIFM question, all the while incorporating tenets of usability and information architecture.  These are the critical elements behind any form of sales or conversion.

 MAP is the process of making sure the design of your Web site has a solid foundation, so it persuades and converts your visitors more effectively.

 The Phases of MAP

 Uncovery.  Skillful uncovery is the first necessary step toward designing and developing effective persuasive architecture. Neglecting this phase would be the architectural equivalent of constructing a building but omitting the footers!  Uncovery is responsible for mapping objectives, developing strategy, understanding the customer's buying process, understanding and refining the sales process, researching keywords and key phrases and defining the key business metrics you will use.  If you don't get the uncovery part right, you won't be able to define or measure success. 

Wireframing.  Wireframing defines the WHAT of the creative process.  It's a structural representation of every click through possibility and path your visitors might take.  No pictures, no graphic design, just bare bones text and hyperlinks.  You can click the links and see where you go; you can get a feel for the process of the site and help generate useful feedback at a time when changes and multiple iterations are a snap.  When you wireframe, you evaluate the entire Web site and all its interactions before you enter the more costly phase of programming.  Saves you time, saves you money!

Wireframed Web pages ideally contain the answers to the three questions essential to the persuasive process:

Look familiar?

Storyboarding.  Storyboarding focus on HOW you go about accomplishing the WHAT.  It's the way you begin to flesh out your wireframe.  When you storyboard, you develop the persuasive copy that is going to grab your visitors' attention and motivate them through your site.  You begin to consider the graphic mockup, paying careful attention to scanning and skimming, the eight second Grok Rule, the priority of content and KISS.  Your first storyboards should appear in grayscale, so you can evaluate the composition and process without the emotional influence of color.  You then proceed to a color mockup and finally, an HTML mockup in which you also consider download speeds, browser compatibilities, style sheets and tabular formats that help search engine spiders crawl your site.

Prototyping.  As you iteratively storyboard your way along, you eventually get to the point where you have a finished prototype of your Web site that will be identical to the actual final product.  It will meet the needs of the various personae who visit your site.  It will offer them paths through the various scenarios that reflect their needs in the buying and selling process.  It will communicate relevance at every turn.

When both the client and the developer agree prototyping is complete, you freeze the prototype.  No other changes can be made – at least not in this version.

Development.  Now, and only now, do you begin coding.  Every detail is specified in the prototype.  There's no need for guesswork.  Just keep in mind:  programming costs considerably more than planning – every hour you spend planning saves you roughly three hours in coding.  The developers don't need to make choices for you – ones you'll probably have to fix later on – they simply get to do what they do best:  code.

Optimization.  The site works.  Just as you intended it to.  You unleash it on the cyber-public, and then the fun begins.  If you've followed the process methodically and thoroughly, if you've completed each phase in order without rushing the process or meandering through it, then you have a starting point for testing and measuring that will allow you to adjust your tactics to maximize your effectiveness.  Establish and consistently follow a disciplined strategy for monitoring your Web analytics.  It's really the only way to come full circle in the process, to determine how closely you meet your objectives and how you can improve your results on every page that doesn't meet its responsibility.

And that's MAP in a nutshell.

So, why Minerva?  The Romans called her Minerva; the Greeks called her Athena.  Born from Jupiter's (Zeus's) head and commonly known as the goddess of war, Minerva was also the goddess of arts, industry and handicraft, as well as the deity who presided over wisdom, study and intelligence. In Homer's Odyssey - where she appears as Athena, her Greek name - she disguises herself as a man called Mentor and advises Odysseus' son, Telemachus. Mentor has entered our language as the word for a wise and sympathetic guide. 

An appropriate figurehead, wouldn't you say?  Stick around … it's bound to be one heckuva ride!


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