New Medium, New Rules
Copyright 2004 Dave Collins
Life is thought to have begun on Earth somewhere around three billion years ago, and of all the species, only an estimated one in a thousand is still alive today. Academics continue to debate over whether this is a natural part of the evolution process, or a direct result of the changing environment. Whichever opinion is right, one thing's for sure - it's bad news for the victims. If they'd have adapted to their changing environment early on, they could very well still be around today.
One of the big mistakes made in understanding what works on the web is to simply assume that it's a new form of an old medium. From parchment to paper to the web. The fact is that the web is much more than an updated version of paper, and applying the same set of rules to both is a recipe for extinction.
Your Monitor is Not a Newspaper.
Let's start with the absolute basics. The common newspaper has to be one of the most popular formats for gathering information in the modern world. Do you read yours at arms length, hold it at eye level, or hold it above your head? Of course not - almost everybody holds or places the newspaper lower than eye level, usually around 30 to 40 cm away from their eyes. When is the last time you read data from your monitor like that?
Reading from a screen means staring straight ahead, focusing a little further away than usual, usually accompanied by very little blinking and consequently quite dry and often uncomfortable eyes.
One Click and the Visitor is Away.
So this is your starting point for your site visitor when they read your site. Aside from the fact that it is relatively uncomfortable, and near impossible to curl up on the couch or read over lunch, there's the added threat of the dreaded mouse click. One click, taking around a third of a second, will take your visitor away - out of site and out of mind. It's a whole lot easier and quicker than turning over a page.
So you have a very short amount of time to convey your message - don't wait for them to scroll down the page, and certainly don't assume they'll have the patience to read through a long text.
Use bullets, tables and lots of space - these three methods will aid the fight against the click. Once you've got their interest, then they may well want to read more, but those first two seconds are critical. Grab them.
Once they're in, you need them to read your information, then decide whether they'll take it further. The words you choose and how you write them will be the single biggest factor in their making the decision. Make them short, snappy, and easy to read.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind.
Let's assume that their quick scan of your front page has whetted their appetite. Now what? Go back to the basics. ORDER NOW should be very visible, or at least GET MORE INFO, BUY etc. The big thing is to force them to act right now, this very second. A magazine can be left on the coffee table for the next week or two, but your page will be off their browser and forgotten faster than you can say "missed customer"!
If you're going to wait for them to make the leap from passing interest into action, chances are that you've already lost them. Grab them, show them your message and help them go for it now. Your call for action should be strong, clear and decisive. "Please click here to order" is bland. BUY is better, and I WANT THIS NOW is best of all.
At this stage, there could be any number of worries holding them back from placing their order - they may want to know about your refunds policy, they may be worried about ordering online. Help them - and make it clear where they can find this information. "We use secure server" won't be noticed as clearly as a bright "Worried about Security?" button.
Give Them What They Want.
You have to look through the eyes of the consumer - imagine that they're interested in the product but... but what? They may worry about the safety of using a credit card, ordering online, privacy, system compatibility, getting unwanted junk mail and so on. A significant advantage of being online is that unlike the newspaper ad, you have the ability to place all the information they need right in front of them. All they have to do is click on it.
And make sure you put your message across with the right tone. Business users have very different needs and ways of expressing themselves from the average home user. Make sure you don't throw street-slang at the IT guy, or CPU usage patterns at the young game player.
Another universal technique that works is the use of testimonials. If I'm visiting a website looking at a product that appeals to me, the testimonials can swing it. But make sure they look genuine, or you're wasting your time. "Cool - Dave in Finland" doesn't inspire nearly as much confidence as a three sentence praise of features, attributed to a person's full name and company. Keep them short, to the point, and lots of them!
Once you have the sale, you're in there. But even then you could be letting further opportunity pass you by. I recently purchased Macromedia's DreamWeaver online. I wanted the downloadable version, but when it came to the order form, I was offered other additional options such as having the manual mailed, a copy on CD, courses in using the software, additional licences and so on. Once someone has decided they're going to part with their cash, you already have a significant psychological advantage, and they may well be receptive to getting one or two additional items as well. Make sure the opportunity is there for them.
Once the sale is in the bag, the offer of a reduced price on further purchases of your other software can't do any harm, and who knows, you just may end up getting some more sales. It's no coincidence that supermarkets have all those impulse items by the checkout. It works.
The use of your website as an online version of a printed ad or press release is worse than a wasted opportunity - it's inappropriate, and it really won't work very well. The web isn't a digital newspaper or magazine, it's a whole new medium with new opportunities, but it requires some new techniques. Don't let your products or company join the dodo - be seen, be sold.