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September 19, 2013

If Websites Could Talk

Poor little websites. They’re just mindless robots, programmed to regurgitate exactly what they’ve been told to say, regardless of the audience. But hey, in this age where we often avoid actual human interaction (I’m looking at you, social media), isn’t that how we want things?

Not if you’re a human in need of a product or service.

A Ludicrous Conversation

Imagine for one second that your website is a living breathing person, but one that diligently follows a script. A typical interaction would be as follows:

User (with a specific need and checkbook in hand): “Hey there! I just heard about you from a trusted source. I think you might have what I need, and I stopped by to find out. Do you sell widgets?”

Website (with a vacant stare): “WELCOME! Our Mission Statement: TO PRODUCE THE BEST POSSIBLE PRODUCTS AND SERVICE, PROVIDE THE HIGHEST QUALITY CUSTOMER SERVICE, AND TO HELP OUR COMMUNITY.”

User (confused): “Well, that’s great. I like all of those things. Um, do you sell widgets?”

Website (holding up a poster of a peaceful meadow): We’re a Class-Leading Firm, Providing Solutions Since 1972.”

User (more confused): “That’s pretty inter…”

Website (now holding up a poster of two impossibly pretty businesspeople, smiling and shaking hands): “Product applications for commercial, residential and barnyard needs.”

User (confusion reigns): “But…”

Website (now holding up a poster of a mountaintop, with a performance fleece-clad climber standing victoriously at the top): “No Time for Downtime – Purchase From the Industry Leader!”

User (irked): “Yeah. I don’t think you…”

Website: “Sign up for our newsletter. We’ll be at the Gadget Supplier Convention in Des Moines on Jan. 21. See us in booth 37! We’re a member of the TLA Association.”

User: “Look, I trust the source that sent me here, so I’m going to look around a bit more. I can’t tell what this door leads to, but I’m going to give it a try. Um…thanks?”

Website (in a whisper, fading to nothingness as the user walks away): “we sell widgets for every application…”

Our determined user (who is, incidentally, in a statistically tiny category to have moved on at this point) then decides to move on to another department. He goes to the first department he sees.

Website (new guy, but looks suspiciously like the other guy): “ABOUT US! In business since 1972, we’ve been providing class-leading solutions for use in the commercial, residential and barnyard…”

User (more frustrated than confused at this point): “I’ve heard this speech before. I just want to know if you sell widgets.”

Website: “Mission Statement, this way.”

User: “Seen it.”

Website: “Management Profiles, over here.”

User: “Widgets.”

Website: “Testimonials, here.”

User: “Widgets!”

Website: “Sign Up For Our Newsletter!”

User: “I’m outta here.”

A Painful Reality

As ridiculous as that conversation may sound, it’s a reality for the vast majority of websites out in the wild. Why it happens is very simple, and can be summed in two points:

  • Most website owners don’t look at things through their customer’s eyes;
  • Most website owners don’t have any idea of what they want their website to do.

Not all site owners fall prey to this — take a look at most major eCommerce sites and you’ll see folks that know what they’re doing.  Clear navigation, a focus on the products and obvious “calls to action.”  Things get muddier for B2B sites, and the solution takes a fundamental shift in philosophy.

Give ‘Em What They Came For

The typical Web development project goes something like this:

  • Designer looks at the current company site;
  • Designer looks at a handful of competitor sites;
  • Designer looks at several “current trend” websites for inspiration;
  • Designer creates a comp that looks familiar enough to the current site for comfort, but different enough that the client applauds the “radical change;”
  • Programmers program another typical website, yawn;
  • All the old content from the old site is placed back into new old pages;
  • The site enjoys a one week surge in visitors as clients, friends and neighbors are alerted to check out the all new old site.

It’s a travesty. With the statistics and technology at our fingertips, we can do better. We can find out high performing pages, underperforming sections, do A/B testing, create engaging copy, create intuitive click paths, challenge clients to decide on success/fail metrics, and much more.

We can make the website design support the intentions and goals of the business, not the other way around. We can use social media to support said goals. We can use related technology (email newsletters, mobile apps) to acquire larger audiences and get more attention. We can do more than simply regurgitate.

Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear what you think…


Scott Kasun is one of the geeks at ForeFront Web, a Web design and SEO firm based in Dublin, Ohio. Follow him on Google+.

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