I was casually chatting with a super-savvy Web 2.0 friend – we’ll call him Mac – about a website I work closely with. We’d spent the last year overhauling the strategy and the design of the site, though there are still several features waiting to be built, and the content growth is just at the beginning stages. Unsolicited, Mac blurted out, “You know, what you really need is a completely new design!” Ouch. Because design was one of the strongest (and most expensive) features of the site in comparison with the previous version, this felt like a knife in the spleen!
Users want “fresh baked today”
Mac narrowed down his critique: “I’m very experienced in counseling companies in these matters, and I’m telling you this site needs a pulse. I look at it and wonder frankly if you’re still in business.”
My jaw dropped a bit further. After all, there was photographic evidence of people’s good and bad experiences with vendors, highlighted on the home page. Further down the page we had a great, freshly updated “Recent Reviews Near You.” Good. Just not yet good enough.
We hashed it out. The verdict, ultimately, was not so much that we had poor design, but that we lacked a feeling of freshness. The “recent reviews near you” were OK, but not visible enough. Our press mentions and user testimonials were buried when they could have showed up in a couple of fun dialog boxes on the home page. We could have taken a cue from TripAdvisor – they plaster the freshness cue right across the top of the home page: Get Advice from Real Travelers — 19,091,422 Travelers from 190 Countries Planned Trips Here This Week! I like the “this week” part. OK, so we don’t have 19 million users yet, but the principle is worth noting.
Weighing clean design against the pulse factor
In the end, what started out as hurt feelings revealed a deeper consideration: there is still a huge amount of subjectivity in what people think of as a friendly-looking website, but in terms of the “pulse factor,” the bar has been raised because most people’s favorite sites ooze freshness. The old simplified stereotypes of “make a clean page” and “declutter” need to be replaced by weighing the benefits of that vs. what do you put on the page to draw users or customers into your world.
Even though fresh content was built into the whole business model, we weren’t doing enough to leverage that fact. I resolved to build the freshness and “pulse factor” reminder into future design and user interface planning sessions.
Although the pulse factor is vitally important in the Web 2.0 world of content and user-driven interactions, that higher bar is affecting the landscape for those selling all services and products. If you’re not alive, exciting, and present, you seem, well, dead, boring, and absent. In our own industry, look no further than SEOmoz. They’ve created a community and an interactive setting around which they sell services and content.
The beating heart of community
Mac, my Web 2.0 counselor friend, should know all about that. He sells cutting-edge business software, but 50% of his company seems to be about fostering community and providing resources to help out his small business clientele. It creates a large pool of loyalty and a sense of vibrancy on the website. When you have a “free” user base in the hundreds of thousands, it’s a game-changer. Maybe I should start thinking of Mac’s company as AccountingMoz.
Looking at some of my past and present ecommerce clients, I can see some community-building and “pulse-building” superstars who bear out this line of thinking. Doesn’t matter whether they sell nuts (Jeff Braverman at NutsOnline.com), seeds (Ray Allen at AmericanMeadows.com), or Amana stove parts (Roman Kagan at Appliance Parts Pros) – in other words, products that don’t naturally lend themselves to community or public notice – these entrepreneurs have figured out a way to create forms of interactive excitement about their niches with linkbaiting and PR ideas, online forums, blogs, YouTube accounts of their exploits, and so on. Sure, that’s hard work! Harder than their competitors are willing to put in. But the long-term rewards tend to come to those who stay top of mind.
It’s a coincidence that Mac was telling me about the pulse thing (me of all people!), because my colleagues and I had also been involved in a recent site overhaul for an ecommerce retailer who didn’t get the message about pulse. When we arrived on the scene, we provided a whole host of recommendations for how to get the site out of its low-converting hole of “cookie cutter, nobody’s home” functionality, and a paucity of content.
To his credit, the young entrepreneur involved set about making a number of the needed changes. But our initial conversation was telling. When we asked for more differentiating sales copy, he admitted that there “really wasn’t that much you can say that differentiates us.” He figured that his business model – approved by an investor who had seeded him with low six figures – was going to carry him through. That model was: source products from a reliable source, install a decent quality ecommerce engine, and use SEO techniques to ensure that marketing costs were near zero.
It turned out this attitude was fatal. This might have worked in 2001, but today, your competitors set the bar higher. Some of them are present, alive, and exciting. Before all of our recommendations were implemented, the poor progress of this ecommerce site apparently gave the investor second thoughts. They pulled the plug and shut down the company. It wasn’t to be. I think that was a good move, because it was going to be another year before the pulse was strong enough to move the business to the next level. The recognition of the need for user and customer engagement in a commodity type business came too late to save this one. If there’s no “there” there, you often have one of two choices: create it, or shut down.
FourOxen Corp: Rediscovering their pied piper roots
Even the savviest businesses have to constantly redouble their efforts in this regard. Another client of mine, FourOxen (not their real name), a publicly-traded high-tech shop that does things like employ community evangelists and a sort of mascot uber-developer who fosters camaraderie amongst current developers and potential future hires, recently launched a new business line and tried an AdWords campaign to promote it.
At this point, with keywords, ads, bids, and other parameters all set up, there’s only one thing missing. You guessed it: a pulse. For a technology company, their search app is underwhelming at this juncture. It isn’t fun to use. There isn’t much, if any, benefits copy. No clever user interaction or virtual marketplace features. No editorial direction that points to our “favorite” good buys. You know… a pulse!
Until we build all of those things, it’s an abstract business model that should work in theory, but doesn’t yet. Among other things, the account currently suffers from low quality scores in AdWords. Part of the problem must be site-related. There’s not enough “there” there.
E-commerce just got harder. You can blame the Macs, Rand Fishkins, and Jeff Bravermans of the world. Markets really are conversations. Locke, Searls, and Weinberger called this thing a long time ago.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.