Take Away / Click Away: Managing Message Retention

[March 25, 2012] 

What do people retain from visiting a Web site?

It sounds like a reasonable question and I don’t doubt there are several schools of thought about the answer. It’s also a question more often addressed with swaggering, numbers-don’t-lie certainty than with the humility it deserves. For any answer that’s too definitive is tantamount to saying “I can read my customer’s mind.”

I hate to say it, but that’s one hallmark of delusional thinking. Yet during any tour of duty at an established ad agency, certainty about human behavior, culture or mental capacity is expressed by players big and small. And that’s not surprising, considering certainty’s comforting glow. Trouble is, as you discover daily at your favorite news hub, there’s very little certainty about anything human.

And memory is no exception.

Complicating matters is the difficulty of defining what we mean by “retain.” Are we talking about retention of a branded theme, a set of benefit bullets—or a “limited time offer?”

Most likely, the type of memory required is neurologically and culturally different in each case. And that makes retainability kind of tough to measure. So perhaps the truest measure of what people retain from your digital content is the action or inaction it motivates.

And that’s just a bit ironic. These days, we’re told that bounce rates for the average Web page are depressingly high; odds are your visitors don’t stay long enough to hear about the desired action, much less take it. Ownable Value Proposition? Dismissed. Reason to Believe? Skipped. Strong Call to Action? Ignored.

“How is that possible?” wonders a typical, by-the-book marketing manager. “We tested this stuff in focus group.”

Leaving aside that people in focus groups get paid to listen to your message, never forget that digital space is a medium designed for user control. So even your most razzling dazzle can be answered with *CLICK* —a response for which no objection handler can be found.

The limits of limitation.
In a previous post, I talked about limiting site content to only the most targeted possible material, the content that actually adds value. But “debouncification” can’t be achieved with content cuts alone. Targeted content still needs to roll out in a way that builds interest—it has to have a pulse, a personality and a capacity to surprise.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting your content should be cheeky, sassy or shocking. But it must be interesting to your audience, something you can accomplish whether you’re dispensing fashion tips or tackling a deeply serious social issue. The trick is to pick a path through your material that:

• incites interest with an intriguing premise
• rewards interest with fresh insight
• ladders up to a big picture overview
• stages that overview so it’s easy to see and retain

So, even as you reduce content density, you still have to discover what retainable content looks like for your target. Trouble is, “target” implies a discrete subset of the population—and most marketers can’t suppress the urge to sell to everyone. Like it or not, however, content that appeals to everyone is the least retainable. Necessarily bland, non-specific and devoid of personality, “content for all” has a powerful mandate to be inoffensive. Yet, as your bounce rates attest, content for all is content for no one.

Coals to Newcastle / Data to digital natives.
Besides, isn’t it time you walked away from the 1990’s mindset—the belief that people can’t find relevant information on their own? Between Google, Wikipedia and the thousands of general-purpose sites on every topic from heart valves (Web MD) to fuel injectors (Cars.com), there’s no need for every Web site to clone or curate what users can find for themselves.

Today, if talk is cheap, information is cheaper and, anyway, there’s much more to communication than information dumping. Remember, by dialing you up, users have selected your site to access expertise they can’t find on their own. Give people nothing but “Blah, blah, blah” and you might as well replace your site with a redirect link to their own Facebook pages—because that’s where they’ll be in a matter of seconds.

Have trouble developing unique, expertise-driven content? Far better for your reputation to pull down your site and relaunch after some soul searching. Your consultants won’t like it, and neither will the rest of the box-checkers in your organization. But after a few months of reinvesting your Web marketing budget into creating a meaningful value stream for your audience, you’ll finally have a shot at giving your customers a reason to listen and the motivation to act.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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