Boring Giants?

Here’s a quick – and hopefully educational and fun – little project for you. I’ve given you the links to 16 top-selling Web sites. Your job is to visit them (just the home pages) and then decide what they all have in common from a general design point of view (well, two present exceptions, but not big ones). Don’t pick over details; go for the Big Picture.

Dell, Ticketmaster, Amazon, Quill, Staples, Sears, QVC, 1-800-Flowers, TigerDirect, Victoria’s Secret, HSN, J C Penney, Lands End, Travelocity, Match (click past the home page on this one), Ebay

Okay, off with you. Just be sure to come back!

Now, if you could give me one word to describe your impression of these sites, what would it be? My word, and I absolutely do not mean this unkindly, would be:

BORING!

We are not talking fancy glitz here. We are not talking elaborate graphical design. Yes, 1-800-Flowers uses a very distinctive color palette, and Match and Victoria’s Secret are more image conscious (but then, they are selling love and seductive glamour). Fundamentally, there is nothing terribly exciting about the design of any of these Web sites.

Tons of research and attention have gone into the process of making sure these sites do the job they are supposed to do. Have you ever visited Amazon and discovered some new little thing that lingered for several weeks and then disappeared? They were consumer testing a tweak in an effort to improve the overall persuasion architecture of their site. Don’t ever think “boring” design is easily achieved!

None of the above sites are perfect, but each tries to address these critical persuasive home page issues through their designs. Here are some of the basics:

  • Professional appearance that takes the best principles for design and adapts them to the online environment
  • Relatively uncluttered, streamlined design
  • They load pretty fast
  • Color blocks rather than patterns
  • Good use of white space
  • More text than graphic images (for the most part)
  • Visual groupings of similar information
  • Scannable and skimmable presentation of information
  • Functions and elements located where visitors generally expect to find them (or made otherwise prominent)
  • Qualification schemes that quickly help the visitor identify what she’s looking for supported with links that take her directly there
  • These sites are conversion-oriented, process-conscious and they don’t try to hide behind very much visual drama. Sure, deeper in the process some have thrown in a glitzy feature (like a rotating view of a product), but you never have to rely on the glitz to reach the goal.

    The Giants seem to have internalized the message that shopping is, first and foremost, about shopping. It’s really not about being entertained. And a design that is subdued and non-intrusive, that supports the business objectives rather than undermines them, is worth its weight in gold.

    Think you can learn something from a Boring Giant?

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    The Facts about FAQS

    We stumble across them right and left: the ubiquitous FAQ, that theoretically handy little document so many Web sites provide to answer all those Frequently Asked Questions.

    Now, I don’t hate FAQs. In fact, I think there are some excellent applications for them, especially newsgroups and listserves that want to outline procedural matters and spell out their philosophies to incipient contributors.

    But every time I come across an ebusiness that offers a FAQ to its visitors – and sooooo many of them do it on the home page – I cringe. It’s not because I mind answers to frequently asked questions. What I mind is that questions presumably important enough to merit the “frequently asked” title are relegated to a page where I have to do all the work.

    If so many visitors have the same questions, why not simply build the answers in an intuitive and obvious way into the site’s persuasive process?

    FAQs may appear to make life easier for managing information on a Web site, but consider their damage potential. To use a FAQ, I have to disengage completely from wherever I am in the sales process and leave the active window to locate an answer to a question that’s on the minds of lots of folks just like me. Maybe the FAQ has the answer, which bodes well for some satisfaction. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe my question is not so frequently asked. So the FAQ leaves me disappointed.

    On top of that potential for dissatisfaction, once I’m on a FAQ page, you have to encourage me back into the process. Very few FAQs do this. Instead, I have to go to my browser buttons to navigate my way back, and you know that spells “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!”

    And You Call This Service?

    Then there’s the subtext. When I see a FAQ, I immediately think, “Right. Here’s a business that gets lots of the same question, is dead tired of having to answer emails or the phone, but can’t be bothered with a more satisfying solution.” So they dump the question with a one-size-fits-all answer into a one-size-fits-all document, and only at the end do they maybe invite you to contact them if the FAQ didn’t help. Do they really think a FAQ is an indication of their sensitivity to customer needs? Why is it that every time I come across an ebusiness FAQ, I feel the arms of that business reaching out to push me away?

    Eat a Diet of Customer Food

    FAQs force your potential customers to dig through a long-winded list of things that you didn’t explain well enough in your persuasive architecture, in the hopes they will find the answer to their needs. If you really want to captivate your customers, you should be listening, not pontificating.

    Sam Decker, of Dell Computers, encourages you to “eat a diet of Customer Food.”

    “When’s the last time you listened to, talked to or directly saw a customer try to do business with your company? When you did, were you enlightened? Did you realize customers have a tougher time doing business with you than you thought? Since that time, how often do you remember that perspective in meetings?

    “Understanding the customer perspective is a painfully intangible but exponentially powerful marketing competence. With customer focus, a great marketer can construct a bridge between the business objective and an island of customer needs and desires.

    “Unfortunately, in the day-to-day hustle, sustaining customer focus is difficult. You spend 8+ hours a day around co-workers who may discuss business issues. Even if you discuss the customer, it’s inside your walls, with associates equally depleted of customer insight. Like a good diet, you have to consciously take steps to feed your conscience and sub-conscious with customer focus food.”

    Sam and I offer these suggestions to help you blow up your FAQ and get this important information to your visitors when and where they really need it.

    Read Your Emails

  • Track your customers’ common questions. Forget the sophisticated email management systems; just copy and paste them into an access database which can easily be automated to scale up.
  • See the same questions over and over and over? Find a way to answer that question up front in your pitch, your content, your product mix, in Point of Action assurances, or whatever seems most appropriate within the context of your Web site.
  • Thinking you are awash in all those emails? Amazingly few people are actually motivated to write. Think of all the fish who didn’t bother to query and simply swam away.
  • Review Search Engine Data

  • Read your referrer logs, especially search engine keywords language. The language your visitor chooses for the search query is an indication of her intent.
  • Read your in-site search engine’s query logs. Turning the most common queries into highly visible content should be an ongoing process.
  • Feed your in-site search engine. Make sure your search engine gives your customers results that are relevant to their needs, as well as takes them to the place you want them to go. Create market segment and product group landing pages and make them the top return results for the keywords you want.
  • Mine Your Existing FAQ

    If you have a FAQ, review it mercilessly. Every one of these questions, presumably, is something your Web site has failed to answer in an intuitive and obvious way. Find a way to incorporate this information into the persuasion architecture of your site.

    One environmentally friendly gardening company I know does an incredible job of helping folks find the lawn mower that will best meet their needs. But these questions appear in the FAQ: How hard is it to push a reel mower? Are there disadvantages to using reel mowers? What’s the difference between Mower A and Mower B?

    The company provides perfectly wonderful answers that would help me make a decision, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why these are buried in a FAQ when they belong front and center in product copy that elaborates on benefits.

    Starting to see what I mean? You’ve got to keep the crucial online imperative always in mind: “Don’t Make Me Think.” So, you got a FAQ on your Web site? Give it the hairy-eyeball treatment. Be suspicious and ruthless when you pull it apart. It’s time you got that content working much more productively for you.

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