Marketing for Godot

[August 13, 2010]

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital financial advertising in the US.]

Imagine the following conversation:

“Hello, I want to tell you something important.”
“OK, what?”
“It is something that will meet your conversational needs.”
“That’s cool…I guess.”
“I promise it will be something you value, appreciate and may find entertaining.”
“Can you get to the point?”
“Click here for more information.”

While it might read like a free translation of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or a deleted scene from Becket’s Waiting for Godot, this latter-day reenactment of théâtre de l’absurde is a perfect likeness of what takes place on countless Web sites across digital space, especially in the B2B realm.

Case in point, schwab.com. It practices a kind of communication we might gently refer to as “ritualized.” True to its origins in classic absurdist drama, everyday phrases are strung together in ways that evoke sense without actually making any.

Take for example, the subheads lying under the headline “How to choose an investment firm:”

Get the information you need to evaluate investment firms
Find the right investment firm for you

But wait, your entry into the Palace of Redundancy isn’t complete. At the bottom of the page you’ll find:

To get started, visit Steps to Consider, learn the
Facts and Figures for comparing firms, or read about
finding The Right Fit for you.

Are we there yet? Apparently not:

• The first link takes us to: “Take the right steps as you choose a firm.” 
• The second link: “Identify the facts you need to compare firms”
• And the third: “Choose the firm that feels right for you”

So, from “How to choose an investment firm” to “Choose the firm that feels right for you” we’ve traveled six clicks. Throughout the site, this wind-up-to-the-wind-up-to-the-wind-up continues unabated.

The next nav-tab, “Why Schwab” continues along the same absurdist lines:

The personal relationship you want
The fact-based guidance you need
The value you look for

For my money, these subheads deliver nothing except a textbook example of parallel verbal structure: “The blank you want. The blank you need. The blank you blank.” At least if the writing committee had filled in the blanks with the words “roast beef” they might have caught my attention. That’s something I value.

Nor does the body copy deliver even a hint of substance as, here again, each subsection leads me to another branch of this creaky, informationless architecture. Only two tabs into this site and this constant cross-reference to another section is starting to remind me of an old fashioned shell game, where my attention is always distracted from the truth.

Instead of delivering value upfront, schwab.com gives me hollow reassurances. I’m not convinced because:

• Quality time with an over-cologned investment broker doesn’t sound like a plus
• Advice based on facts is the minimum I expect from a professional consultant

• Excuse me, you don’t know what I value

And no matter how deep I dig into this dreary site, it never gets to the meat of the matter. Keep in mind that underlying this initial one-two punch is a deep message running something like this:

“To choose the right investment firm, get the facts. And when you get the facts,
  you’ll realize: The only choice is Schwab.”

That message, however, is drowned out by the hollow ring of platitudinous nonsense. As a final example, I offer the following subheads, found under “Banking & Lending:” 

Great rates and personalized service
for all your banking and investing needs.
Put the power of Schwab behind your trades. 

It’s another instance of B2B marketing’s favorite hall of mirrors: “We have the services you need to meet your needs and the needs of those who need to see your needs met.”

Now, in the same example there’s the intriguing phrase: “The power of Schwab.” More intriguing is the question it begs. If we’re to believe that “the power of Schwab” is the key differentiator for this brand, why is the one link to Charles Schwab himself relegated to a tiny thumbnail on a few feature navigation panels? His “advice to investors,” you’d think, would sing out on the home page.

Oh, but there’s not enough room. All the space is taken up with critical praise from Kiplinger’s and JD Power and Associates. Hmm. I kind of thought Charles Schwab was the expert here. If he needs validation from Kiplinger’s and JD Power, maybe I should be going to them for financial advice.

Or am I just being absurd?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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