Relevance Rules

I got everybody here one of those desk plaques extolling the critical value of communicating benefits rather than features. Now I’m planning one that goes something like this: Relevance Rules!

If you can’t deliver relevance to your visitors at every turn, how do you expect them to stay engaged with you? Irrelevance persuades no one.

And yet, irrelevance abounds in cyberspace. It’s one of the top reasons behind stunningly crummy conversion rates. Let me show you what I mean.

Let’s get a handle on this relevance thing by looking at the absurd end of the continuum. Imagine a live chat session between me and a customer service representative:

Me: I had a question about the finishes on your Serenity water fountain.

CSR: The sky is blue.

Me: Well, blue was one of the finish colors, but actually I was wondering if the finishes would hold up to weather. Can I put the fountain outside?

CSR: The great outdoors is a glorious playground.

This is the epitome of irrelevance. Put yourself in the equation: if you ask serious questions but never get a relevant reply, do you really want to do business with this company?

Total relevance would look like this:

Me: I had a question about the finishes on your Serenity water fountain.

CSR: I’d be happy to answer your question about the finishes on our Serenity water fountain. What would you like to know?

Me: I was wondering if the finishes would hold up to weather. Can I put the fountain outside?

CSR: With the exception of the blue finish, all our finishes will hold up very well in outdoor conditions.

Yo dog! This kind of relevance would have me feeling much more confident about buying one of those fountains.

Reality Strikes

You think I’m being silly, right? Well, try these real-world examples on for size:

Irrelevance Experience #1. I’m trying to resolve a mobile telephone issue. After dialing the customer service number and listening to the message about how I can handle all my concerns through the Web site, I toddle off to the www arm of the operation. Naturally, I fail miserably, so I call customer service back again. At automated prompting, I do the enter-your-10-digit-number-beginning-with-area-code bit. Then I do the enter-your-zip-code bit. Eventually I get a real person. What’s the first thing that person asks me? It isn’t “How can I help you today?”

CSR: May I have your 10-digit number beginning with the area code?

Me: I already entered that.

CSR: Please give it to me again. (I sigh and intone the 10 digits.) Now could I please have your zip code.

Me: I already entered that, too. Followed by the pound key.

CSR: (clearly humor-challenged) The five digit code will do.

Relevant? Nope. Not even quasi-helpful. In fact, one of my eyeball stalks has gone into spasms. They need to work on integrating their act (and doing something about their Web site navigation until which time they shouldn’t be making irrelevant suggestions I solve my problems online!). Maybe I should try out that other mobile phone service.

Irrelevance Experience #2. My friend wants an Acme lighted makeup mirror for her birthday, so I toddle off to Google, where I find what looks to be the perfect pay-per-click ad. Even has “Acme lighted makeup mirror” in bold letters. Enthusiasm runs high as I click. I arrive on the company’s home page with nary a picture of any lighted makeup mirror. Has my need for relevance been satisfied? Nope. At the very least, I should have landed on a category page for “makeup mirrors.”

Irrelevance Experience #3. I’m back on Google investigating the source of my co-worker’s dog’s unfortunate bout with diarrhea. I submit the query “dog diarrhea” and get over 2400 results, along with some pay-per-click ads. One catches my eye and has me thinking I’ve hit pay dirt, until I actually read it:

Dog Diarrhea   Huge selection of Dog diarrhea.  Low prices, cheap shipping, secure.

What has MonsterMarketPlace done? They’ve merged my query with their generic copy. It’s a form letter pay-per-click. There’s no way this is relevant, and no way MonsterMarketPlace can deliver on the literal promise. And who’d want them to?!

Am I impressed? Well, aside from the fact this gave me the best belly laugh I’ve had in ages, I am not impressed. Am I likely to find MonsterMarketPlace a credible resource and click through on one of their pay-per-clicks in the future? Unlikely. Pity, because if you dredge up the courage to follow the link, you do get some reasonably relevant options.

Irrelevance Experience #4. Okay, I admit it. It's not easy being the only Martian in town - I get lonely. So I signed up for an online service, and I specified a geographic preference that was admittedly a bit of a long shot. I knew I’d have to be real patient to get a match. I was right. But I hung in there, because the site had me believing they were really working hard for me and the wait would be worth it. Except they started putting my account on hold due to inactivity. I reactivated the account and emailed them. They said they understood my situation, then put my account on hold again. Again, I reactivated and emailed, explaining everything very eloquently and passionately (“Honestly, the inactivity on this account is not down to me. Send me a match and watch how active I can get!”). I got this reply: “We understand your situation. I have checked your account and do see that it is active and available for matching. It has been a pleasure assisting you.” Hello? Guess who recently closed an online match-making account!

Your Summer Assignment

Relevance is not optional. Your visitors demand it. You must provide it. With every word in your copy. With every hyperlink that has anything to do with your business. In every conversation, live or otherwise. In every email, including automatically generated responses. With every single click, your visitor is asking you a question. Are you delivering a relevant answer each and every time? Folks really have little tolerance for irrelevance, and they typically avoid giving you many opportunities to disappoint them.

So here’s your assignment for the summer. Sit at your computer. Then start clicking on your hyperlinks, fill in your own forms, process an order (include something that’s not in stock), chat with live assistance, phone your prominently displayed customer service number, sign up for your newsletter. Write a letter of complaint to your “contact us” address. Perform some in-site searches (deliberately spell something wrong and search for something you know you haven’t got). Go to a search engine and submit some queries. Go to your banner ads and pay-per-clicks to find out if they make sense and where they take you. Run your spiffy flash demo to see if it makes sense in context and is really the best way to communicate your message (‘cause if it doesn’t and isn’t, you’re better off without it). Read the emails you generated to yourself by subscribing to your newsletter, placing an order and submitting your forms. Click on the links in your emails. Try to experience everything your visitors experience as they interact with you. And if you find relevance lacking, fix it!

Dog days it may be, but the last thing you want to do is serve up a huge selection of dog diarrhea at low prices with cheap shipping, right? So take this Relevance Reconnaissance Mission seriously. Know for a fact that you’re delivering relevance – blissful, utterly reassuring, confidence-building, persuasive relevance – at every step in all of your online activities!

P.S.  Um, about that 4th experience ... I'm still available!

Volume 113: 6/15/05

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