Archive for the 'Web Design' Category

01
Apr
15

The Marquee of Indecision

As petty nobility goes, the Marquee of Indecision is about as petty as it gets. Here’s a routine Web site feature that’s now at least 12 years old—and it still insists on claiming pride of place on sites from Juneau to Honolulu.

What, you might ask, is the source of this arrogance? It’s the slavish devotion of the Marquee’s subjects, a realm of lazy marketers who’d rather endure His Lordship’s insufferable posturing, than decide on a unified, branded focal point for their Web presence.

The Marquee to the rescue. Why slug it out around a conference table when a revolving slide show can, apparently, offer something for everyone?

It’s so easy! None of that headache-inducing thought. OK, check that, you do have to pick the slides. Fortunately, it’s more often a matter of pick-up from existing materials, which the Marquee of Indecision is happy to re-skin for you out of aristocratic largesse. He’ll even let you select a devilishly poppy headline for each slide from his personal poppy fields.

No wonder everyone looks the other way when the Marquee fails to win more than a smattering of new business for your brand every quarter. The “Learn More” buttons he provides are simply to die for.

Of course, there’s always that dissenting rabble. Not everyone is happy with the current regime.

Clueless about messaging.
Aside from the clunky incompetence of most marquee design—which typically gives no thought to how or whether the slides interrelate—my concern is with the absence of focus. What, for example, is the unifying message behind the goings on at Dairy Queen.com?

The premise, I assume, is that the tiny tagline jammed under the logo is enough to unify this wasteland of disconnected thoughts. “Fan Food, Not Fast Food” reads the tag. But in what way does the marquee reinforce that message, let alone define it? Does the brand mean to say that junk food’s not junky if enough people like it?

Meanwhile, the product shots tell us what most Americans already know: Dairy Queen sells soft ice cream and related products. Unless you’re under the age of 12 and have never had dessert, these slow moving slides deliver absolutely no value.

In fact, there’s nothing here to tell me how “DQ” is any different from Carvel, except perhaps that the latter site has slightly better photography and features “Fudgie,” an androgynous transition object who may or may not be a whale.

The issue is whether something as prominent as a 840 x 1500 pixel marquee should be used solely to push product-level promotions. Seriously, this is the best way I know to squander the resources of digital space available to promote, clarify and evolve your brand message.

In this case, the extent to which the unexamined use of a home page marquee makes Dairy Queen and Carvel indistinguishable is a simple example of how harmful this ubiquitous device can be.

What should be elementary to “Watson.”
And yet, even for companies savvy enough to know better, the Marquee of Indecision’s scintillating banter continues to prove irresistible. At IBM.com, a company that would like to be known for its path- breaking innovation in, among other things, digital know-how, we’re treated to a slightly more upscale slide-show that is, nonetheless, just as empty of a unifying theme. In its place are three rather watery attempts to frame the company as a thought-leader, which rise no higher than the level of a community bulletin board.

Don’t get me wrong: Community bulletin boards serve a useful purpose. But the average organization behind one isn’t trying to be seen as a globe-spanning “solution provider” for business and industry.

Surprisingly, even a company as brand-conscious as Apple serves up the same kind of comfort-food casserole, showing an even more disparate range of images than Dairy Queen. Self-referential, with no outreach to consumers, this marquee contributes to a home page completely dependent on the company’s promotions in other media.

What I object to in all of these cases is the treatment of digital space as if it were simply an electronic convenience. You know, a print ad without the printing costs, nudge, nudge. Or a TV spot without the fuss—especially if it’s a recycled TV spot you can load into a content management system, press PUBLISH and then treat yourself to a nice lunch.

As a closing thought, have a look at Hertz.com and ask yourself, “Who the…rental car…is Hertz?” I mean, aren’t they the ones who try harder—or is that the other guy?

15
Dec
14

Effective Web Design: Sliding Into the Psyche

In the last few decades, the design aspect of consumer electronics has taken on more and more importance. Today, people buy their technogear as much for its look as any real understanding of what’s going on inside. That’s not surprising really, considering that’s how most people get into relationships and have for countless centuries—all those volumes of chicklit to the contrary.

So in a world more dominated by looks than ever before, it’s hard to understand the discrepancy that occurs so often, between the design of a product and the design of the Web site built to sell it.

“Submitted for your approval,” as the man used to say, are two contrasting sites: BeatsByDre.com and Bose.com. The site developed for Beats is well synchronized with the style of the products themselves, whose clean lines derive from geometric shapes, softened with a biomorphic aesthetic appeal. The flat digital design complements product design nearly perfectly and leaves plenty of light and air for copy to work its motivating magic. That image and text both have room to breathe on what is, essentially, an e-tail site, is an understated triumph I can only wish would be more broadly imitated across the Web.

That this wish of mine is likely to remain in the provenance of magic lamps and the genies who inhabit them is borne out by the site developed for Bose speakers. Ironically, here is a product many people would agree achieves a high watermark in design and technological efficacy. And yet its Web site design harkens back to the deep dark ages of supermarket circulars.

Grabby hands.
Splattered with price bursts, slathered with iridescent colors and embedded in one of the cheesiest background images I’ve seen in a decade, you’d think Bose products were, in fact, the cheap knock-off version of some other brand. In a prime example of the devastation wrought by Marketing Anxiety, the image on the left depicts the arm and hand of a sedate listener, enjoying a game of scrabble over a glass of wine—while the image on the right depicts a cartoony “bopper,” looking for all the world as if she just stepped off the set of the ’60s TV show The Mod Squad.

Thank you, Bose, for reminding us that the world is diverse, i.e., full of sedate white people and people of color who love to rock out, even at the risk of traumatic neck compression.

The only thing missing here is the “Why Pay More” sticker or “The Perfect Gift for the Holidays,” although the latter is fairly well covered by the unsubtle subliminal snowflake bursts. Red snowflakes, at that.

Now, even if you were to conclude that this is a matter of taste, you’d have to concede that the Bose site suffers from metastasising visual clutter. It’s the classic example of a site that makes users say “Better come back later when I have more time.” And it’s easy to see why. A user’s eyes are drawn nowhere, precisely because they’re drawn everywhere.

Pushy talk.
To look at the Bose site is to instantly lose a bit of faith in the quality of the product. This is irrational but true—even for someone like me who actually owns and likes a pair of Bose speakers. A site so heavily layered in cheese makes me wonder if I’ve made the right choice.

Why? Because advertising design of any kind, but especially the digital variety, that’s so jam-packed with marketing messages, is inherently manipulative. The site says “Hey, why don’t YOU buy a product, ANY product from us RIGHT NOW?

Instead of giving me a reason to fall in love with the brand, the brand is reaching for my wallet on the first date. Even in today’s “benefit” oriented dating culture, this is not anybody’s idea of a smooth come on.
And that’s the gross error Bose’s marketers have made.

Know that if you shove me against a wall and say, “You want a speaker. Come on, you know you want it,” you’re not getting the sale, even if your product’s all sparkly and shiny.

But if you create an environment where I feel safe discussing my speaker needs openly and without shame, I just might grow to think you’re the best speaker company in the world. I might even come over and help you rework your Web site.

That’s because—hello, pleased to meet you—I’m a person, not a consumer. And until brands get this into their heads, we’ll see more of this garish, loud and demeaning approach, as we slide into the next half-decade of “the millennium.”

25
Aug
14

Market Research: Railroading Their Train of Thought

Consider the following imaginary train of thought from an fictionalized character in an, as yet, unpublished novel about the advertising industry. The scene is a candle-lit table at a middle-brow bar in a major city:

The standard line about the value of market research? It’s been repeated so many times that…what’s that saying? Oh yeah, “it attains the status of truth.” And let me tell you, that’s in spite  of the fuzzy logic and waffley “results.” You ask me, any market research finding that can be found to be true can be teased out by common sense without spending thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, any finding that’s later proven wrong? Those guys will blame anything except their own so-called methodology. Trust me, they’ll blame the moderator, the media, the weather or, more often than not the “obvious” flaws in the creative. And this from a bunch of nerds who can’t write a headline to save their lives!

Now, surely, the previous two paragraphs sum up an outrageously distorted POV about the profession of market research, as dished out by a curmudgeonly personality who perhaps exhibits the classic symptoms of Oppositional Defianct Disorder. I’m told the character comes to a bad end in Chapter 27.

And yet, as I listen to the literal way market research data are often interpreted, I can’t help wondering if that same urge to generalize at all costs—just for the sake of achieving a tidy assessment—is the sole provenance of cranky nut cases with an axe to grind about scientific marketing methods. Hang out in the more data-driven agencies and you’ll hear some variation of the follow phrase at least once a week:

“This [headline, message, photo, illustration style] tested very well in research.”

…dripping with the unstated assumption that, of course, the element in question should appear word-for-word or pixel-for-pixel in each and every audience outreach from here on out. That is, of course, until the next round of market research yields a different response.

Definitions gone wild.
The problem with such a literal approach to interpreting market research data? Let’s start with the unexamined premise that information collected in a focus group meets the definition of “data” used by, say chemists, astrophysicists or even the current generation of science-savvy chefs. The data of hard science is numerical, measurable, repeatable.

By contrast, the survey responses and focus group voting we’re pleased to call data in market research is subjective—not only at a fundamental level, but also because we have no basis for knowing whether respondents are sharing their true feelings, or merely spitting out an answer that supports a cherished self-image. Market research methodology, we’re told, works around this issue by asking the same question from different angles and then checking for discrepancies.

Trouble is, people just aren’t so stupid that they can’t see this coming. Nor can we be scientifically certain that a question asked in a different way isn’t, essentially a different question, the answer to which has no relation to any quantifiable norm.

Truth, like fire. Heartwarming, handle with care.
No matter how you slice it, market research data is therefore interpreted for you, before you receive it—once by the participants and once by the researchers.

All the more reason not to treat it literally, but to continue the process of interpretation within the scope of your own discipline. Much as I value learning that consumers value products and services that give them a balance of freedom and control, I would never recommend a headline dominated by the words “Freedom” and “Control”—as I was required to produce early in my career— for two reasons.

First, the words themselves are generic, capable of almost universal application and, as such, brand neutral. Second, doing so ignores an important aspect about human nature: the need to save face. There are, in fact, many things about ourselves we know to be true, many of them are not things we’re ready to acknowledge out in the open. Instead, we need a buffer zone which, in the case of advertising, or PR or, dare I say, guerrilla marketing, means an approach that evokes our self-knowledge rather than slaps us in the face with it.

Contrary to the cowboy marketer’s mandate to put “the point” on stilts and showcase it in the most lurid colors available, my own unscientific research tells me thousands of people are turned off by unrelenting sales pressure. All the more so by unrelenting sales pressure that so obviously seeks to manipulate them by dragging their innermost thoughts into the spotlight.

Rather like the phrase “you know you want to” in a very different context, this kind of literal use of even the most spot-on observational analysis is doomed to failure.




Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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