The Value Reflected in a Tall Glass of Water

[May 11, 2010]

Regardless of your business goals or brand promise, whatever you display in digital space has to have its own intrinsic value. People might love your product, but if you don’t offer them something they care about and can use online, they’ll be gone by the count of ten.

What do people value? That’s always been hard to pin down, not least because it tends to shift, wiggle, waffle and shear every few hours. In a situation where enormous sums of money have to be gambled on the quantitative analysis of demand—people have an annoying habit of changing their minds. Still, the whole premise of starting a business rests on the idea that a core of observable common life themes gives us some basis for “marketing smart.” The problem is, where do you find them?

While the number crunchers at Alexa, Quantcast and Hitwise use different methods and serve different gods, looking over their shoulders can be enlightening for anyone building a digital content strategy. Even without a perspective-refining visit to PopUrls or Digg (or the entire ecosphere of available analytics), clues to those common life themes already emerge from the data.

What’s on their menu?
Now, I don’t expect my squint-and-generalize methodology to yield definitive answers but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I see. In the U.S., the “top sites” break down into broad categories. Leaving aside Search, a means to an end, the largest of these categories appear to be:

• Community
• Entertainment

• News (including Sports)

• Reference

• Shopping

• Technology

…in addition to a category that deserves no further mention.

Crude as this approach is, what it tells me is that people go online in a very purposeful way that qualifies the assumptions encoded in the phrase “surf the web.”

What emerges is a snapshot of the collective unconscious. People crave community, for example. Proclaiming “I’ve got something to share that makes me valuable” is an irresistible human urge. So adding sharing functions to your Web presence might seem an obvious way to motivate repeat visits.

How do you serve it?
Looking more closely, I think there’s a fad/fashion angle to Facebook that can’t be captured with the addition of “Share Your Story” to your site map. Despite your best efforts, what you create will lack something crucial to the experience. You’d do better to create a branded Facebook group and capture the magic at the source.

Whatever tack you take, to feed people’s hunger for community, you must build the sharing impetus into the DNA of your message. Talking to visitors in a personal, fresh and improvisatory voice captures the ambiance of community more effectively than transplanting social media features to your home page in a literal way.

By the same token, your attempt to add an entertaining video is unlikely to capture the glamour of Hollywood—especially if you’re in the business of hawking baked beans. Even so, you can become more sensitive to the entertainment value of your content. Keep in mind, that “entertainment value” means more than exploding delivery vans or explosive love scenes.

What’s really at issue is your ability to weave a compelling story line about your product, service or cause. Where Hollywood excels is in driving a point home in a step-by-step progression toward an inevitable conclusion. The Hurt Locker doesn’t pause every five minutes to say, “Click here for more information.”

In that sense, your interpretation of current Web trends has to go beyond the numbers. Don’t strive for a one-to-one correspondence between the data points and your content matrix. Instead, model your content on the emotional topography that emerges from that data: the driving human need to know, to wonder, to be awed, to acquire—and feel ourselves reflected in the faces of others. The data says people constantly seek emotional satisfaction in a desert of emotional frustration. Will your site be the tall glass of water your audience craves?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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