Yesterday, I commented on an article about the interests of marketers, and how they differ from the interests of average consumers. I said relevance and value for consumers should be the driving factors for a brand engaging in the digital space. AmEx just announced the release of a new “My Offers” feature in its iPhone app that does just that, and will be tested in New York and LA. The new feature takes advantage of the current deals craze spawned by the likes of Groupon, but does so using real consumer purchase history to target offers that are relevant to the cardholder. This is a perfect example of a company using not only digital technologies, but also “big data” to serve its customers. In addition to the obvious consumer appeal, the service will provide analytics to merchants that provide offers, which will allow them to understand the effectiveness of their campaigns and optimize them over time. The AmEx solution addresses the entire ecosystem, and as such it is easy to see the company becoming the leader in the offers space.
Christine Champagne, a contributor to Fast Company, shares the results of a study about the interests of those that work in marketing, as compared to the interests of those that don’t – let’s call them the ‘real people’ of the world. That’s not to say that marketers are not real people – just that for the sake of this discussion, the job of marketers is to create marketing that gets non-marketers into stores, buying products, recognizing brands, and “liking” brands, both in the Facebook way and the literal way. It’s the ‘real people’ marketers need to reach.
The gist of the article is that advertising and marketing professionals are way more into social media, way more aware of specific marketing campaigns, and way more likely to act inappropriately at work-related parties.
You wonder, are civilians as active on social media and as inclined to pay attention to what brands are doing on Twitter, and is the rest of the world as preoccupied with that award-winning ad campaign that industry types can’t stop talking about?
The unsurprising answer is no . . .
While I agree with her that the answer is unsurprising, I seriously wonder why this disparity isn’t taken more seriously. Companies pay big money to agencies to create award-winning marketing campaigns, and I think the results of this study show that the digital media shove that agencies are giving brands may not be based on the real desires of consumers. I do believe that the digital world is a highly important one for brands, but if I were a brand looking for marketing advice, I’d insist on real relevance. It’s not enough to jump on the Facebook or Twitter bandwagon just to say you’ve done it. You have to have something real to offer the ‘real people,’ or they aren’t going to pay attention.
Big Data is one of the hottest topics in marketing, customer relationship and interaction discussions these days, and this must-read article by Sean Madden of Ziba on the subject is the best I’ve read to date. Because I have a technical background, I’ve probably given more thought to data than the average person does, but for years it’s driven me crazy that companies don’t use the data they have about their customers more intelligently. Sean Madden captures my sentiments exactly with this thought:
When a customer calls the support number, sends an email, or talks to a store employee, he is initiating a conversation. You have his undivided attention, even if he’s annoyed, and that makes it a crucial brand-defining moment. He’s hoping for a conversation, but bracing for an ordeal. He knows you’ve collected information on him for your own purposes and wondering why you don’t do something useful with it. Not useful to you–useful to him.
As Madden points out, there are a few companies that have done a great job using data – Amazon tops the list, in my mind, and has long been a strong industry example of how to mine purchasing data to suggest products a consumer may be interested in. They’ve also done a good job with simple, but powerful, features that make purchasing incredibly easy. Having the ability to store multiple shipping addresses and credit cards removes the most unwieldy and frustrating part of the purchasing process, and for me, keeps me going to Amazon first to purchase practically anything. I don’t always find the product I want, but I almost always search there first, and it’s not because of the product selection, though that helps – it’s because they make it so easy for me to order, and they do a good job of recommending products I’m interested in. More companies need to learn from these kinds of examples.
Madden believes that in the future, consumers will come to expect their interactions with brands to be more intelligent, and while I agree with him, there are many of us that have expected this for some time and been disappointed at its late arrival. The flip side of that is the companies that have gotten it right have gained at least some edge as a first mover over their competition. Still, I look forward to the day when the vast majority of companies that have data about me use it smartly, and as a matter of course.
Great creative design people are worth their weight in gold, and I’ve been lucky to work with a couple over the years. Unfortunately, sometimes when you’re involved with a web project, you don’t have access to great designers. Lots of companies are tasked with building websites without the benefit of a creative director, a role typically found in a good agency, but not necessarily available to companies that need to do their own work and can’t or don’t want to spend the money on agency design. I don’t have a graphics design background myself, but have scoured the web for resources to help inspire me when I need to roll up my sleeves and give creative direction.
When you find yourself in this position, it’s important to remember not to reinvent the wheel. There are thousands of great design examples on the web already, and some basic design principles that will help get you to an effective, functional design that’s also easy on the eyes. For over a decade, I’ve periodically perused designs showcased at coolhomepages, a site that exists for just the inspirational purpose I’ve described. Another site that ranks high in Google search results for ‘cool website designs’ is The Best Designs. Check out these resources when you need a little inspiration.
Next, here are just a few basic design principles to help guide you…
1 – Spend time thinking about the purpose of the site you’re designing for.
The primary primary purpose will often help you choose a few potential screen layouts that will work well. For instance, a content-heavy site that will have extremely high levels of traffic may be best designed with little in the way of bells and whistles, and a lot in the way of basic black text on a white background. Think Huffington Post. On the other hand, a company that sells products for the home needs a design that is more image-heavy, but still doesn’t take away from the products themselves. See Design Within Reach – a basic white background, well-organized links in grey text, and images only of the products they sell. An independent artist, however, is going to want to create a site that showcases her work, but conveys some more emotion in presentation and color scheme. I personally like the simplicity of Maya Kabat’s website, a Bay Area artist whose choice of background color, font style, size, placement, and color evoke a feeling of depth and warmth, while still offering decent contrast with or complement to her paintings and drawings. Simple controls to navigate without effort help keep the user’s focus on experiencing the art itself, as opposed to thinking much about how to interact with the website.
2 – Figure out what kind of personality your site should have.
Is your product or service technical, whimsical, informational, playful, fun, serious, or some combination of these things? Of course, there are many other adjectives you can consider in your list, but settling on a few that are core to your service or message may help point you towards color schemes and fonts. TiVo is a brand with a lot of personality, and they created TiVo, the character, who helps convey fun and playfulness. TiVo appears on every screen on the company’s site, and would help convey their personality regardless of the design direction they took on the site in general. An additional element that plays a supporting role, though, can be found in the cartoon bubbles used to represent feedback from users of the service. You can also buy a stuffed TiVo doll, and even slippers, an antenna ball, and other TiVo branded products. For a contrasting example, look at kohls.com. Kohl’s is a retail brand that is very well known for sales and discounts. Load their homepage, and you’ll see that they feature discounts like crazy on the home page. This communicates their personality and priorities the second you see the site. Look past that, though, and you’ll also see soft colors and a focus on women’s products, because they know their primary demographic is women, and they want to reflect a feminine personality.
3 – Do as much as you can on behalf of the user.
No matter how advanced technology gets, or how comfortable with it the general public is, nobody wants to spend time digging a zillion levels deep into a website to find what they’re looking for, or to be presented with completely unnecessary error messages when they submit a form. One of the biggest offenders I still see all over the web is the phone number field. I get supremely irritated when I enter my phone number with dashes only to be told I needed to enter it without any punctuation. It is so easy for the programmer to strip out certain characters before the form is submitted to the server, it just screams laziness and lack of consideration for the user. If you have access to information about the user that is browsing your site, use it. Pre-fill fields on forms and make it easy for people to navigate the boring parts of your site. Amazon does this well. They offer an address book so you can save any address you ship to and just select it from a list next time you order. Their quick checkout allows you to use default payment and shipping information so you can skip all those painful steps of filling that information out when you check out.
It’s clear I like WordPress better than its major competitor, blogger.com, because I chose it to host this blog. There are pros and cons to any service, and you can read a great review on Computerworld of both WordPress and blogger here, but there are a number of reasons I love WordPress, and some of them go a bit beyond the features themselves.
At the top of my list is the fact that the free package is really solid. WordPress uses a freemium business model, which I personally believe in, having co-launched a web hosting company based on a similar business model. What I learned through that experience, though, is that the free service has to have real value, or it doesn’t really work to draw in the kinds of customers you might not otherwise get, and that is one of the reasons a business chooses to offer a service for free. The hope is that the customer will love the free service, then want some of the premium, fee-based options, as well. What some companies don’t get right, though, is that if the free service offered is so stripped down as to be almost worthless, you lose an opportunity to create brand loyalty.
If the free portion of the service is lacking, that doesn’t mean you won’t land customers. Especially if the premium services are comparable in quality and price to those offered by competitors, you’ll still draw people, as we did with my web hosting company – you just won’t land a lot of those entry-level customers that have the potential to grow into larger paying customers, or to be amazing word-of-mouth advocates of your service. I believe that it’s not easy to find value anywhere for free today, so when I do, I tend to genuinely like that company. When it comes time to step things up notch, which in the case of blogging might be as simple as adding a domain name or purchasing a premium theme, it’s not so painful to part with that cash, because you already like who you are giving it to. When a company can create a connection with consumers like that, they’ve won.
Even when you do create that winning connection, though, you still have to maintain it, and this is another area where a company can really get it wrong.
Again, I’ll speak to my experience. When we launched our web hosting company, it was vitally important to us that we not grow beyond our means and that meant making our service as scalable as possible so our overhead didn’t grow leaps and bounds as our customer base grew leaps and bounds. We were successful at this, but not nearly as successful as WordPress has been. Granted, I’m talking about different services – there are many more people in the world that want to have a blog than there are developers that use the niche web hosting technologies that we supported – but it is still remarkable how few people WordPress has to employ to serve such a huge audience. As of today, WordPress.com employs 108 people, but touches over half a billion each month. I can’t think of any other company that can approach those figures. It’s impressive, to say the least.
There are important things that WordPress has done right in order to achieve the volume they have, not the least of which has to do with their user interface. UX (user experience) design has risen dramatically as a focus area for applications across all industry verticals as companies try harder and harder to create services that work for non-technical customers. For a self-service model to work, it has to be easy to use and essentially error-free, or the service provider will be buried by technical support. I learned this first-hand with my web hosting company, too. We tended to do well with automation and created a wide variety of features that we knew our client base wanted. We jumped from 10s of customers to 1000s of customers without having to hire any additional employees. Where we occasionally erred, was in creating services that weren’t as easy to use as they could have been, or by releasing new features too soon when they still had bugs in them.
There’s nothing worse as a customer than seeing a new feature you know you’re going to love, but then not being able to figure out how to use it, or having it break the first time you try. As a company, make these mistakes too often, and you’ll watch your customers bail more quickly than you can pick up new ones. No company can create error-free code, though, and sometimes it takes a few tries to sort out the best user experience. After you have customers, your only line of defense becomes your customer support. You’d think most companies would figure out just how important support is, but surprisingly few do well in this area, and those that do support incredibly well are even more rare.
I’ve only interacted with support at WordPress once, so I’m no expert on their track record, but my one experience was a good one, and resulted in my purchasing a premium upgrade to achieve what I was after. I think it’s telling that every new hire at WordPress must spend their first three weeks working in customer support. I’m a strong advocate of cross-learning in any organization, but it is particularly important when you work for a company that does largely “virtual” business with its clients. If you aren’t in a role that deals directly with customers, it is all too easy to forget their perspective, and without it, you run the risk of making painful mistakes.
These aren’t the only reasons I love WordPress, but they are big reasons, and you can expect I’ll share a few more in a follow-up post in the future.
While surfing the latest articles at FastCompany’s Co.DESIGN site, I recently read about this fascinating study that tracks the eye movements of recruiters as they review resumes. The study was performed by The Ladders, a job listing service that has historically targeted the $100k+ job, but has recently opened its doors to a wider variety of listings, beginning at $40k.
While you can get the full results by clicking the link, one of the conclusions they came to was that recruiters make a decision about whether a person is a good candidate for a job or not within 6 seconds. That’s right – six seconds of scanning, and then the resume gets the nod or goes into that mysterious big black hole that job seekers dread. This is just one study by one firm, but common sense tells me the results are probably pretty realistic. Recruiters have to read (or, I guess I should say, scan) endless numbers of resumes, and I’m sure each one gets it down to a science, looks for particular things in particular places, and doesn’t even bother with a resume that asks them to work hard to find relevant information. Think of it like any other kind of marketing – if you don’t capture the attention of your audience quickly, you’re probably not going to capture it at all.
As a hiring manager, I’ve certainly skimmed resumes in six seconds or less to make that initial determination of whether I’m interested in having a conversation with a candidate or not. When I’m particularly busy, I don’t read the whole resume until right before an interview, and unfortunately, there have been some times where I haven’t had time to fully read a resume before a conversation at all. The realities of how difficult it can be to make an impression and get an interview can be disheartening if you let them. On the other hand, results of studies like these can give you just the kick in the pants you need to view your resume differently and see if it’s not something completely fixable, like formatting, that might be ruining your first impression chances. Whether you’re looking for a job right now or not, take a look at your latest resume. Does it communicate the right stuff in six seconds?
I bought a TiVo within months of its initial release, way back in 1999, at a time when few people understood the technology and couldn’t imagine how it was really any different than a VCR. I was instantly hooked, and became a TiVo evangelist because the system and software were truly amazing. Who wouldn’t want to fast-forward through commercials? Who wouldn’t be charmed by the arcade game style sound effects that instantly confirmed you were fast-forwarding at speed level 1, then 2, then 3? Who wouldn’t want to record an entire series with a couple clicks of a button, and to be able to record more than one show at the same time? Most of us take these things entirely for granted now, but back in the day, TiVo was the company that brought us this magic. They were a first-mover and had a golden opportunity to create a powerhouse of a company.
I could imagine a bright future for On Demand TV, and couldn’t wait for the day when digital video would revolutionize the way we consumed video. I dreamed of a library of content that would just be waiting for me when I wanted it – shows I skipped, then later wished I’d seen, movies without the hassle of renting and returning. I bought each of my parents their first TiVo unit, knowing they wouldn’t “get it” until they experienced it, and convinced countless friends TiVo was the future of TV-watching. I was the perfect TiVo customer.
When I first used the service, I had a cable TV connection, and used a standalone unit. Life was wonderful. Eventually, though, I forked up the cash for an HD TV, and signed up for HD service from DirecTV. TiVo didn’t make an HD unit so I was forced to switch to a DirecTV HD DVR if I wanted to record anything in HD. It was a painful moment for me. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that it’s been a painful number of years for me. DirecTV and TiVo tragically broke up in 2005, and though rumors of their making up have been in the press since 2008, it took them until the end of last year to make their reunion happen. Some industry watchers believe it will be too little, too late, for TiVo.
Why? When the original DirecTV and TiVo partnership was at its peak, 80% of TiVo’s subscribers came through that partnership. When DirecTV dropped them, they started losing subscribers hand over fist, from a peak of 4.4 million, to just under 2 million today. It seems TiVo just hasn’t been able to arrive at the right business model, and that is unfortunate for consumers, because what they always did get right was the software. TiVo’s user interface was adored by its users, and it’s what created devoted customers like me. The software was easy to use, nice to look at (and listen to), and it was highly responsive. Despite the evolution of DVR software, I still feel like my DirecTV HD DVR is slow – slow to recognize my clicks, slow to load the program guide, slow to load the menu, slow to return search results. Even for someone that is knowledgeable about the amount of processing that is going on behind the scenes, I still expect performance to be much better than it is, and my problems with the software aren’t simply performance related.
My DirecTV box was recently updated with a new version of the DVR software it runs. It’s a bit flashier, redesigned to feature more images in the presentation, but there are basic things DirecTV just plain gets wrong. For instance, when I launch the menu, I have to drop down two items in the menu list, then click over once to get to my playlist. Anyone that uses a DVR knows that 95% of the time, the playlist is what you want to get to – immediately. The fact that DirecTV forces me to navigate other menu items every single time, perhaps on the off chance that I’ll choose some fee-based On Demand movie because the film art catches my eye, is just plain annoying.
I hope that TiVo’s renewed partnership with DirecTV will save them, but I do think they need to continue to look for a better business model. If they could just get their software in the hands of more consumers, they’d build a fanatical following again, but that won’t happen if they don’t find a way to distribute their software regardless of the TV service a consumer uses. Unfortunately, as average consumers, our hands are tied to the degree that we can only use hardware and software that is sanctioned and supported by our service provider, and we are generally going to choose one service over another based on something other than the software installed on the DVR boxes we use.
That said, as an also loyal DirecTV customer, at least I am now in the position to consider TiVo again, albeit at a higher price point than my current setup, and with fewer features than the latest top-of-the-line DirecTV branded DVR that’s now available. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to go with the new TiVo or the new DirecTV Home Media Center, but if I do bite on the new TiVo, you’ll be sure to hear more from me on the subject.
Resources consulted in the writing of this article: