This may sound a little funny coming from a guy who works at an agency that makes such beautiful websites. But it is true. And once you’ve read this article, I think that you’ll understand why making great websites is not about design, but about understanding your customer, the digital ecosystem that they live in.
As a caveat, this article applies mostly to tangible product brands – products that you can touch and hold. Software/experience types of brands, like Salesforce.com or Symantec, or service brands, like McKinsey & Co. or FedEx, have a different mix of capabilities that they need on and off website…and of course, they may have different customers than I describe here, too.
One of our teams came up with this headline (“A website is the LAST thing that they need!”) during some recent beverage work – they wanted a website for their rapidly growing brand, and to serve as a driver to trial for their core segment ages 21 to 34. They knew that they needed social and mobile, yes, but they really, really wanted to make sure that the website was a “home” for the brand and its customer.
A home? Brands often expect a lot out of a website – that it should handle virtually every aspect of the customer lifecycle including:
- raise awareness
- provide information
- convert those likely to purchase into those who do purchase
- conduct the purchase transaction
- support the transaction and the buyer’s use of the product
- provide a platform for advocacy.
And wow, that’s a lot of work for a website! And this is only a partial list. So here is the punch line: in many cases, great websites actually do a lot less than this…and by doing so, they are more successful, easier to maintain, and cost less.
Websites still do matter. But, increasingly, most other things matter more. Especially the one thing that matters the most.
Fish Where the Fish Are. We’re Talking About the Customer.
In traditional advertising we don’t erect billboards in the middle of a forest where nobody can see them…unless we’re going after the hiking segment. Likewise, the idea that your brand is being served by making a huge investment in your website, when many of your target customers do not visit…or will not visit, is just as crazy.
And that’s a key point: very few people on the internet visit your site. The traffic that you do get, you get at great expense, whether through money paid out for SEO/SEM, promotions, your staff time, IT resources, agencies, etc. Most of the traffic regarding your brand goes to other sites, all of them a gazillion times more trafficked than yours. These websites almost completely fulfill the functions that we listed above for millions of products and brands…and yours, if you so choose.. And when people want to know about your product, they trust sites other than yours, more than yours, for much of that information, especially when it is opinions and reviews.
All those people who spend time on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even (still) Myspace? They’re not going to go to your site to find out about other people who like your product,…or to form some new community. Many have tried, Field of Dreams style, to make that happen. And they rarely succeed, and even then, only briefly.
Since people look for information about your product more often elsewhere, you may want to be there too. And those elsewheres may matter more than your website. Let’s put our billboards up on freeways, or in coffee shops, or in neighborhoods, and not in forests.
Likewise, if you want customers to be able to find other people who use or like your product, then be where they are…where the fish are.
A Million Facebook Fans Can’t Be Wrong
When we built the Guitar Hero 5 site, we used Facebook Connect to help join the GH5 community to the site and each user’s data. This was a huge shift in the videogame business – not collecting email addresses and, instead, connecting the game to the community. And we didn’t stop with that…we actually removed some traditional website information functions by “outsourcing” them to the rest of the web. As a result, GH5 was the first console title ever to reach one million Facebook Fans.
The GH5 franchise had tons of video to show off and a lot of news buzz. The old school approach would have been to host it all on the site. The new school says put it on YouTube. Several things happen when you do this: Your videos are connected to other people’s videos, your videos are findable, and you just saved a lot of cost and hassle that comes along with hosting your own videos. Oh, and Google pays for the bandwidth. Nice. And the search rankings on your videos and your (rapidly shrinking) website go up as a result.
Video was just one example. You can link to your content on Digg…and then replace the content summary feed with a feed from Digg that you curate. All of your articles show up, of course, but you can publish other content for free. Articles that your users might have otherwise missed…and they also, again, improved their search rankings.
But does this make for a “home?” When customers read any of the articles, or watch any of the videos, that the content is not really on the site would tend to drive the customer away from the site. Back to where the other fish are.
If you’ve been around the web and internet for a while, think back and take in what a change this is from the flag-planting “What is your website strategy?” world of the prior 15 years. In this very important way, we’re seeing the business of interactive/digital marketing coming of age.
You want your brand in front of the customer, you want to be in the news, have your content read, and have your customers form a community? Then drive them to where the fish are.
Swim With the Fish. Your Website is Part of The Conversation.
The best part of hanging around with the fish is that they’re better than ever at telling each other all about your brand and products. Assuming that you’re doing the products right, and have a decent brand, just showing up will go a long way.
Back to the beverage brand that we were working with. Their goal is to drive trial of their beverage – getting people to just grab a glass full and give it a taste. They have great conversion numbers within their core segment if people just try it. They’re doing all of the usual things to show up in retail and on-premise, and they wanted their digital presence to help serve that goal as well.
So we stopped to ask, “When was the last time anyone went to a brand’s website to read about the beverage (or even what others had said on that website’s “community” pages) and then…got into their car, drove to the store and bought one?” We laughed. Okay, maybe one person did it.
And when you look into the real process that these consumers use to make decisions, then a website starts to seem a lot less useful.
It turns out that these consumers tend to try things that their friends have tried – more so than any other segment. They also are more likely to try it if they know it can be found where they are. So if you want to drive trial, then you need to be part of the conversation…no, not the conversation between the brand website and the consumer, but the conversation between the consumers. Go hang out with the fish.
Of the tools that are strongest in supporting the business goal, trial, the website is the least influential of them all. If you stop and think about what that means, then you get the point. Your website should be driving people everywhere else but to your website. Drive the customer into the store that sells your product, drive your customer to the restaurant that is serving it, connect your customer to the people that they know who have tried it, written about it, and love it. Drive the fish back into the big pond.
And once you start doing this, all of your objectives change. A website goal that you might want to consider is not “time on site” – you actually don’t want them on your site – but your site’s ability to drive them into the relevant conversations and information everywhere else on the internet and in the real world. Your website should complement the greater fish-pond ecosystem.
But What About My “Brand Experience”?
Whatever you do on the web, it should reflect your brand and the brand experience. Your website is no exception. But the idea that you need your website to be an “immersive brand experience” that is “sticky” and “conveys the brand essence in every interaction” (You may have seen these before – I took these phrases from old proposals), and all that this implies in terms of features, interactions, and content, is no longer the optimal strategy.
What you need is for your customer to experience your brand as part of their life, their friends’ lives, the communities that they know, places they go, and things that they love. That’s not easy to do, but if you’re a brand marketing professional, it is your raison d’etre to solve this problem. And the website will not get you there.
What, no Websites?
No, of course not. You still need a website. But let’s define a new primary role for the website. The website is the place where you can have a private and direct conversation with your customer…but only when needed. There are lots of examples of this: definitive product information, customer support, legal issues, contact points, etc.
And when it is not a one-on-one conversation, then you need to drive them back to the other fish, point the way and help them add to the conversation. Check out www.airbornehealth.com for an example of “website light”. They don’t do much there – they don’t need to. All of the conversation is elsewhere. Take a peek at the conversation that is happening on their Facebook page.
So why might a website be the last thing that you need? Before you build a new website, you need to build strategy around what your customer really needs, and where else they’ll be hanging out. You know…with all of their fish-friends.
BLITZ is an Integrated Digital Agency in Santa Monica, California, serving clients in a wide range of industries including consumer products, technology, videogaming, entertainment and hospitality. Jack Skeels leads BLITZ’s business and client development activities, and prior to BLITZ led Sapient’s Los Angeles office and served as Senior Internet Analyst with RAND.