Sunday, November 21, 2010

Web Photos with Emotional Content


Most websites use stock photos—visually appealing but emotionally flat. They lack any real warmth. These photos are pervasive but how effective are they? Every piece of content should earn its way onto your site. Most stock photos make it appear as if they’re serving a function but I doubt their real value.

Kocina Branding and Marketing’s “Developing your Brand Playbook” workshop says we have to do more than sell our features and benefits. We must sell our product on desire. Part of that desire is the visual imagery associated with the brand. We appeal to our web users more effectively by delivering images that let us feel something.

The website of People Incorporated is a fine example. Its images convey emotional energy, communicating warmth for the brand itself. They convey emotional content. People have authentic smiles, and sparkles in their eyes that are real.

Cost and legal considerations can come into play. If you can’t hire a photographer, buy a digital camera for a few hundred bucks and get permission from subjects. Well lit, focused photos without distracting backgrounds work well. I converted all the web stock photos to authentic photos at my last job using this method. It improved the organization’s appeal because the photos were now friendly. Emotionally rich photos also last longer because we don’t tire of them so easily.

Stock photos are everywhere on the web, but they convey no emotional message. Why not make your photos stand out with sensory images that invite us to feel something?

Upcoming post: Content strategists - in the business of empathy

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Art of Doing Less on Websites


In her essay, The Art of Doing Less, communications consultant Lynn Fraser uses a great term to describe our information overload: data smog. She also distinguishes information from communication.

The best websites I’ve seen have less content on their sites, not more. They are so sure of their brand, so confident of what to communicate, that they do so without apology.

Google is a good example. It begins with a sparse home page. There’s hardly anything there and there doesn’t need to be. People just need to search. When I click further in, say, to Google's Advertising Programs, or their “about” section, it’s still fairly minimal. Just enough structure and content to quickly get you what you want.

It can be tricky, this “less is more” mentality. Organizations demand, and web professionals provide, hyper-dense website content. But do our analytics support all this volume? Do our users really expect it? Or are we just afraid to reduce all the noise for fear of not being heard at all? One utility’s site displays 19 (yes, 19) separate clickable sections on its home page alone.

I suspect organizations struggle with excess volume for the same reason they do everything else. They have too much to do and not enough time to do it. So instead of really planning for how to optimize a smaller volume of content, we throw it all on the site and hope it works. I’ve done it myself and understand the temptation.

It takes courage to say “no” to more content. I’m currently encouraging a website client to live within some volume boundaries, both for brand promotion and better site governance. But to achieve sustainable content limits, we must have a content strategy. That way, we can more easily run proposed content through an already-determined filter before posting it. The filter will require the content to jump through some hoops before it’s posted. Does it support our goals? Does it communicate real value to the user?

Most organizations only do one thing. Law schools educate lawyers. Freight companies move goods. Bowling alleys provide recreation. All their organizational tactics (sales promotions, recruiting techniques, publicity, etc.) simply support the one essential purpose. Perhaps organizations that believe they do many things instead of just one are more likely to overload their website.

What is the one thing your organization does? Once you answer that, you can make all your website content serve that one purpose and more easily drop the excess weight. In so doing, you’ll be more likely to achieve the art of doing less.

Upcoming Post: Let’s switch from stock to emotionally rich photos

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Converting the "old digital generation"


I had a surprising conversation with a communications director the other day. She told me that she knows of a very large company, with something like 60,000 employees, whose executive adamantly opposes social media. The company has its website and that’s it.

It was startling news. If you’re awake and living in this country, let alone running a big business, how can you not know about the growth, effectiveness, and excitement of social media? But there it is, the reluctance of the “older digital generation” to adopt what they might perceive as unnecessary and wasteful gimmicks.

The web is a baby in the span of human history, but it has grown at such speed that we now have two digital generations. The older digital generation uses websites, cell phones, and maybe laptops. The younger digital generation lives on texting, Twitter, and Foursquare. The digital generations are often divided by age but not always. The true dividing line is the willingness to adopt emerging tools. I know some people who are middle age but who use Facebook and Twitter like their lives depend on it, and who wouldn’t be caught dead without their Blackberry or iPhone.

I’m making the transition from the older digital generation to the new one. I love quality content and I place it above “tools.” But I realized that if I were going to be professionally relevant in the digital age, I better start becoming fluent in the digital economy.

I came from “legacy media,” having spent a good part of my career as a journalist when all media was one-way communication—outward. The most social you ever got was a phone call from a radio station listener or a letter to the editor. But as the executive director of a Twin Cities professional advancement group said just last year during a networking meeting, “If you’re not reinventing yourself, you’re not paying attention.”

What convinced me to start entering the new digital generation were a few simple things.

First, you don’t have to dive in head first. Think strategically about what your business needs are, where your audiences are, and how best to reach them. Think about which type of social media will do the best job for your organization. You don’t have to bite off everything at once (in fact it’s unsustainable to do so).

Second, rely on people who are totally into this stuff to explain it to you. In some recent networking meetings, people who are in the “new digital generation” told me some really useful information about TweetDeck and Tumblr. I can learn new tricks and so can you.

Third, iron-fisted reluctance is not a strategy. Standing back and refusing to open up your digital media to two-way conversations simply to avoid an uncomfortable change is no way to run an organization. No one says you have to adopt the latest and most popular tool as a replacement for good planning. But as a marketing and communications manager told me just this morning during a networking coffee, “As the medium changes, the strategy has to change.”

We still get to create good content but now we must now push it out through a variety of new channels because those channels have the capacity to reach the people we want to reach and communicate with them in a way that sticks.

A little discomfort goes with the territory. I never died setting up and using LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or this blog, and neither will you. Yes, you’ll learn that there is, in fact, a lot of social media junk out there, forgettable within seconds of reading it. But there’s some really good stuff, too, and when you apply good strategy to social media tools, you get to contribute quality content to the web.

A lot of people in the older digital generation will find themselves, as I did, at a crossroads. Either start learning the new digital world or risk eroding your base of customers, supporters, and stakeholders. It really is that simple.

Which digital generation are you in? Need to start making the transition? Consider hiring a web consultant to help you with the task.

Upcoming post: The art of doing less on your website

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Home Page Animation – Just Say No


An emerging, but disturbing, trend
More and more, organizations are using animation on their home page. Often it’s a series of rotating photographs supported by other design elements. The animation is beautiful, creative and technically outstanding. But animation wastes premium screen space. On a page that should trumpet the brand promise and deliver users real content in return for their attention, animation fails.

Check out Weber Shandwick’s home page. The quality of this animation is so good, it startled me when I first saw it. High resolution, clean definition between graphic elements, sophisticated depth of field. But what does the animation actually promote? What does it communicate? What does it sell? To me, it says the company can accomplish a fancy gimmick on its site, but says nothing about what the firm is in business for.

The eye immediately goes to the moving images—but so what? Drawing this kind of attention is an empty exercise and unfortunately has become increasingly common on home pages. And most rotating images that also have text switch so quickly you can't finish reading before a new photo appears.

Triangle Park Creative, a Twin Cities web and print development firm, has created a Web Quality Checklist, a useful rundown of important qualities all websites should have.

One of the checklist questions is:

“Does the design have a good balance between harmony and contrast (space vs. active elements; large vs. small; bold vs. subtle)? For example, does the visitor’s eye know where to look first? Second?” (emphasis mine)

Here’s another example of animation. What is the return on our “attention investment?” People visit websites for mere minutes, sometimes just seconds. Can we afford to draw their eye away from the most essential information about our organization? And even if users do get some marginal entertainment value out of it, does their experience translate into an actual response?

Blocking good SEO
Dave Currence of the search engine optimization consulting firm
Catwired, said this in his SEO course for professionals: “Your home page gets the highest priority in search engine rankings so make sure your key search phrases are on your home page.” (emphasis mine).

Animation displaces text, leaving fewer options for SEO-optimizing the page. And since Flash (a common software for producing videos and animation) is difficult for search engines to read, not only are we distracting our users with animation, we’re making it harder for them to find our sites in the first place.

The home page must display the most SEO-friendly content of the entire site, since search engines prioritize those pages. Why would we put non-SEO friendly content on our home page when we could replace it with a juicy well-written HTML Heading 1 (a draw for search engines) that trumpets the organization's value by incorporating the key search terms people will use to find us?

Not all trends are created equal

In The Six Steps to Building a Digital Brand, we’re cautioned against equating a trend to good business. The article states, “Some agencies believe they can develop a forward-thinking digital reputation by telling clients about the latest trend rather than what makes sense for a particular brand…. too often…strategy gets lost in the pursuit of the trend of the day.” (emphasis mine)

Animation is improving in visual quality and technical sophistication. It’s emerging as the norm on home pages. But popularity does not equal substance (think Twinkies and Die Hard movies. But I digress).

The fact that something is a trend is an inadequate reason to use it. It has to make sense from a business perspective.

Good home pages without animation
Brain Traffic simply states what it does, boldly and clearly on the home page. It claims the home page for its central brand promise and even leaves plenty of white space around it. Refreshing.

Minnesota Charities Review Council quickly tells us what the organization does and how to learn more or donate. It has a pleasing design and uses just enough words to describe itself without overdoing it. It’s almost soothing.

Clockwork Active Media Systems has a funky, understated look and feel. It’s inviting. I don’t have to work hard to find out who they are and what they do. Nothing to distract me.

I had to really hunt to find these examples, because I was looking for home pages that didn't use animation but were also good in other respects. All three home pages have modern designs, including fonts, colors, and navigation. They achieve their goal nicely without putting moving pictures in my way.

Well designed home pages that clearly drive home a brand promise should be the goal. Animation with no good business objective or return to the user (see Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web) is a waste.

There are good uses of animation. A short video of a compelling interview with a relevant newsmaker and instructional tutorials are two good examples. But these tools, by and large, belong somewhere other than the home page.

Do you have animation on your home page? If so, you might want to consider whether it's paying the rent for such valuable screen real estate.

Upcoming post: Persuading the older "I don't want any dynamic content" generation to re-think its position

Monday, November 1, 2010

Three qualities of good web content


What makes divine website content? A few well-chosen qualities.

Good website content must:

1) Have adequate substance

2) Be free of excess volume

3) Please the website user

Let's start with substance. In her book, Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson says all content must either support a key business objective or support a user/customer in completing a task. No one piece of content has the right to be published. Content must earn its way onto the site.

Carmichael Lynch Spong, a major PR firm, has a nice section on client success stories. The overall site needs some branding and design refinements, but the success story content is effective. It communicates Carmichael Lynch Spong's role in advancing its clients' objectives. Anyone seeking a large PR agency could read this section and learn more about the agency's key competencies.

Keep it lean. On websites, substance often means less volume, not more. Target Commercial Interiors does a beautiful job on its home page. A clear tag line surrounded by just six words and descriptive photos communicate the product in just seconds. We are directed to look just where we need to and are rewarded with relevant, compelling information.

Many websites are dense with content that distracts and confuses. We seem to equate volume with quality. Our real aim should be relevance and substance. When run through these filters, only the leanest content will make it onto the site.

Please the user. A client of mine drafted some web copy that would have required users to do more work than necessary. Her external links brought users to a site that required them to guess where to look next. They had to search and do more clicks to get to the ultimate page. I found the exact page URL's needed and then replaced the original links with those. Now, when users click on the links, they travel to precisely where the link tells them they'll go. We are supposed to get our users to their destination within 3 clicks. If we can pare that back to 1 or 2, all the better.

Give your users what they’re looking for. Value their time and their need for hassle-free web experiences. They'll reward you by returning and responding to your site.

All of this requires content disciplinarians. These three qualities are easy to understand but harder to accomplish. They require content professionals who carefully think, plan, and execute. They require conversations with clients and employers about the need for strategy (and not just tactics). Check out this great article by Meghan Casey on how content strategy prevents all sorts of problems.

This disciplined investment will produce websites that are:

  • More effective in selling the product
  • Faster to read
  • Easier to use

Substantive, lean, and easy. A win-win-win website.

Does your organization have a content specialist or strategist? If you're ready to move from tactics into strategy, consider hiring one.

Upcoming post: Animation on the Home Page - Just Say No