Wrapped Up Tightly in a Box

Wrapped Up Tightly in a BoxDuring the Fall-Winter, holiday time of year we all get invited to way too many office parties. These parties tend to bring out the best and worst in people, and the one consistent phenomenon is that marketing and business people stay clear of the development teams. This antagonism seems permanent and is probably rooted in the way we think about websites.

Would everybody just get along if they thought outside their discipline’s conventional box? That’s stretching a bit, and I’m not inclined to be so utopistic. Nevertheless, most of the tension could be eliminated if everybody had the same goals for the company’s commercial Web site, and everyone stopped thinking of its creation as an application software development exercise.

Writing and marketing guru Roy Williams explains the power of metaphors best:

There’s really no such thing as “thinking outside the box.” But we can select a different box to think in. Your box is your business model, your worldview, your paradigm. It is the framework of the metaphor that you use to make sense of the world around you.

A situation is uncertain when you cannot identify an appropriate paradigm or metaphor to associate with it. To make a decision is to resolve uncertainty by finding an appropriate “‘box” from which to view the problem. The box you choose will determine how you see yourself in relationship to others and will dramatically influence the decisions that you make.

The problem with commercial Web sites is so many people think of them as just another form of software. According to “The American Heritage Dictionary,” software is defined as “the programs, routines, and symbolic languages that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.”

Software is a tool that makes hardware useful. Is that what we’re really looking for?

Tools are things that are supposed to make our tasks easier. In the history of software development, most software has been written for businesses to streamline processes and improve worker productivity. Nobody ever asked the workers if they loved it. Instead, because the workers had incentives such as keeping their jobs, they learned how to use the tool and became more productive. That’s still largely true for the back end and other technical applications of the Web, but not for commercial Web sites.

On a commercial Web site, the purpose is to attract, engage with, and retain prospects, leads, and customers. None of those site visitors are required to be there. Unlike in the worker model, the only incentive they have is the hope of finding something relevant to what they are seeking. The Web site can’t merely be a tool. It needs to consciously be part of a persuasive dialogue the visitor has with the business behind the Web site.

The state of the art in commercial Web development today is still tool-oriented. Even the most human-centered professionals in the software world (usability and information architects) are mostly focused on building a better tool. That’s why Web marketing professionals are continuously surprised by their research. Their findings make sense but seem so hard to apply. I’ve written about this  and hve asked why everyone was so surprised by the results of usability tests. It’s because they’re stuck in the wrong metaphor.

Building a great software tool might be acceptable if you’re trying to sell products to people who know exactly what they want and your products have unique identifiers. If you’re lucky enough to be in that kind of business and have the stomach for the inevitable price competition, you should focus more effort on improving the tool.

However, that goal-directed individual is just one of four types of people you can potentially find on the Web. Certainly, the Web attracts more of this traffic type than any other medium, but it still represents the smallest part of any potential prospect base.

The opposite of goal-directed traffic is the wrong kind of traffic. That’s the traffic that comes to your Web site by mistake. You sell chemistry sets, and these visitors are looking for red sweaters. You’re happy to see them go.

The two other types of traffic are generated by the people commercial Web sites should be chasing, but these are the most neglected prospects. The third type of person knows approximately what he is looking for, and the fourth type of person knows she has an interest but may not be actively in buying mode. If you think these two don’t count, try taking your significant other on a stroll through the mall, with the goal of simply window shopping.

In the context of business-to-business (B2B), think about all the prospects that may not be actively looking for you but might buy from you if you could just meet them. The reason these critical types of traffic are underserved is the software tool metaphor we’ve been applying to commercial Web sites. Tools are harder to apply to fuzzy objectives such as persuasion.

If you are responsible for the results of a commercial Web site, your goal is to persuade your site visitors to take some action. If the purpose of your Web site is to persuade, wouldn’t it make sense to plan a persuasive architecture rather than to develop a software tool? Reflect on that, my gift to you—–a brand-new, shiny box full of promise.

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