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Usability Studies 101: What Comes Next?

Usability Studies 101: What Comes Next? Joseph Carrabis

A few columns back we talked about placing landmarks on webpages to help visitors recognize where they are on the site and how they got there. We're going to devote this column and the next few to ways of improving visitor experience via navigational aides. The concept we're going to be working with is…

Visitor Designed Navigation

People who've attended my seminars know about Visitor Defined Navigation. It makes use of website logs to determine the most interesting pages to visitors over time and makes those pages readily available. To date, clients using this technique have found it a valuable tool in keeping visitors on their sites longer and establishing a communication channel that would be denied to them otherwise.

Like so much we've covered recently, Visitor Designed Navigation goes into the concept of Tourists and Locals, and that websites don't make their money from tourists. Some money, yes, but not "rent" money. What you want are the locals, the people who come back time and again. These are the people who know your website better than you do. They don't need your help or suggestions navigating it; you need theirs. In terms of Tourists and Locals, you don't ask somebody studying a tourguide book where the best restaurants are and how to get there; you ask someone who lives in the town.

All too often, websites are designed by people too familiar with the product or service or company to be used by people with no familiarity with the company and some to no familiarity with the product or service. There is an inherent flaw in this. In the real (as opposed to "virtual") world, the best maps are made by tourists, not locals. Likewise, the best mapmakers are those in the process of discovering and learning their way around a country. These are the folks who are anxious to share their discoveries, their learnings, their pitfalls, their joys and sorrows with you.

Discovering the map

As mentioned above, the map is already created for you and can be found by investigating your server logs. What you're looking for are

  • The most often requested pages...

  • In the order of average time on page

Most web analytics packages provide the sorts of reports required.

Let's use a simple example; a website consisting of a homepage, A, 5 main pages -- B, C, D, E and F - with each page B through F having three sub pages, 1, 2 and 3. Taxonomically your site looks like this:

Let's say you discover via your logs that the most popular pages on your site as a function of time on page and requests are, first to last, A, D1, E2, B2, F3, and C.

The information on those pages and in the order they're given is what's most important on your site as determined by your visitors -- by the tourists who are in the process of becoming locals -- so let them design your site's navigation for you. These are the most interesting pages to visitors on your site.

Regardless of the order in which pages are actually called up, these are the pages which are the most interesting to people coming to your site to learn about you.

The navigation will not be obvious to you, and it definitely will be obvious to people wanting to learn about your company, products or services. You have discovered the preferred map being used by people putting in the time to become knowledgeable about you. Don't put what you think is important up first, put what they think is important up first.

Now that you know what's important to people learning about your services or products, all you have to do is make it easy for others not willing to put in the time to find the time. The method described here works best for Tourist-friendly sites. In future columns, I'll cover some techniques which work for Tourist, Tourist and Local, and Local-friendly sites.

Fair warning: what comes next requires a bit of development time and is especially beneficial for larger sites.

Making the map work

You've discovered the map in your log files. Next, and as much in keeping with your website's aesthetic as is agreeable to you, create something that clearly indicates that there is something that comes "Next."

I often suggest a menu item labeled "Next."

You'll need to determine whether this suggestion will work as a menu item, a link item, a mouseover graphic, whatever, on your site. In the case of a menu, the "Next" menu item should be either first on a vertical menu or left most on a horizontal menu.

Assign a variable array or list to this "Next" item. This variable list is populated with the page names that came out of your web log investigations, and in the order described in the exercise above. This variable list offers as a menu option or clickable item the next most popular page based on the visitor's currently browsed page. Each of the most popular pages is removed from the list as visitors navigate them until the list is depleted. The last offering is a "call to action" page.

What comes next?

Let's consider this: tourists come to your site and don't know where to go. What they do see is a menu item or graphic entitled "Next." Imagine yourself on a site with which you're unfamiliar, on which you are investigating the company itself or their products or services. You see something entitled "Next."

What would you do?

In many cases, visitors dancing on the edge of interest or browsing elsewhere will go with "Next," which means they've stayed on your site one more page before going elsewhere. And on that page they again see "Next." If this page pleased them the last time, then they'll click on "Next" again. With each click on "Next" they've stayed on your site that much longer, and that's the name of the game.

Now the rub can be that the way people are navigating your site isn't the way you intended or want them to navigate it, and sometimes the continuity between these pages is lacking.

This isn't a problem when you remember that people are easier to steer when they're already moving than when they're standing still. Once you know where people are going, you can put your message in front of them and steer them to where you want them to be. But until you're willing to let them go where they want you'll never be able to steer them at all.

And that's much of what Visitor Designed Navigation is all about -- learning from your visitors what's important and giving it to them. Answer their questions (via navigational aides) and they're more likely to answer yours when it comes time to ask them (a "call to action" page).

The next three columns will explore other ways to use Visitor Designed Navigation to increase website acceptance and activity.

Joseph Carrabis has been everything from butcher to truck driver to Senior Knowledge Architect to Chief Research Scientist. His 22 books and 225 articles have ranged among cultural anthropology, mathematics, information mechanics, language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psychodynamics and psychosocial modeling - and other eclectic topics. His knowledge and data designs have been used by Caltech, Citibank, DOD, IBM, NASA, Owens-Corning and Smith-Barney among others. Carrabis is CRO and Founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global, and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He is also the inventor and developer of Evolution Technology. You can download sections of Carrabis' next book, "Reading Virtual Minds," at www.hungrypeasant.com.

5. If you don't use ad networks, why not?

Dave Chase, CMO for AltusAlliance:
Our use has been limited as we are interested in creating brand associations with our ads rather than just buying ads by the ton.

6. What would ad networks have to change about the way they work in order to attract a client like you?

Keith Pieper, director of performance media at Universal McCann, on online campaigns for client Microsoft:
Price and scale are the primary factors for including ad networks on media buys. However, it would be nice to see additional differentiation in product offerings. For instance, we have yet to see a major B2B ad network out there. Or how about a custom ad network for each advertiser based on a vertical niche?

Valerie Constable, director of media at Kaiser Permanente:
Because we're a regional player, we geo-target, so ad networks have to have geo-targeting and site selection. Being able to have more to say on where we are placed on sites would add value. Oh, and of course customer service is very important. We love when reps educate us about their new opportunities so we can take advantage of them and be included.

Katelyn Himes, manager of online marketing for La Quinta Inns & Suites:
As a brand, I speak to about one new ad network per day, and with so many choices out there, it can get very overwhelming. Ad networks need to find a niche. All ad networks claim to have the same value proposition: "Quality traffic, enhanced targeting, account management teams, best inventory, etc." The truth is that the overlap across most major networks is between 60-80 percent or more. With that in mind, ad networks need to take the time to stop the battle and demystify the landscape. What are the true differences outside of what everyone else is saying? In speaking for all other brands out there, if we had a list of all ad networks in one place with the true unique core competencies of each one, it would really help brands holistically understand the uniqueness and pros and cons of each network. I encourage the networks out there to take up this challenge.

Kyle Sherwin, media director at Sony BMG:
We can't know with full confidence that we're getting equal distribution on all the sites within a network, so we need better auditing on a property-by-property basis. But it's a trade-off because we're working with remnant inventory that has its financial advantages. Beyond that, I think networks will have to start organizing segments of unique real estate outside of traditional media placements or offer custom programs that will give us the creative or specialized presence we're looking for.

Correy Honza, director of internet marketing for Quiznos:
It's hard to muddle through all the different ad networks because it seems like there's a new one created everyday. They need to promise a certain number of impressions.

Dave Chase, CMO for AltusAlliance:
By providing the best of both worlds: reasonable ad prices and reach with quality sites.

Katie McCormick, web manager at Revlon:
The problem is there are so many ad networks that it's hard to differentiate between them.

4. What is your biggest fear about relying on ad networks for the placement of your ads? How have you tackled this?

Keith Pieper, director of performance media at Universal McCann, on online campaigns for client Microsoft:
One of our primary concerns is consistency in performance. Like any good performance-based buy, we'll buy a little from every network to spread our risk then reallocate funds to the ones that perform best.

Valerie Constable, director of media at Kaiser Permanente:
Inappropriate content. We site-select and we have guidelines we provide, but the reality is with the way networks are set-up, we don't have as much control as we'd like.

Katelyn Himes, manager of online marketing for La Quinta Inns & Suites:
Our biggest fear is conversion duplication across networks. If you are using multiple networks, you need to make sure you have a mechanism for de-duping conversions whether it is through an ad server or another method. Also, creative wear-out. With so many impressions served, you have to be careful not to become the advertiser that is considered annoying. Carefully plan your creative variations and frequency caps.

Sean X Cummings, director of marketing for Ask.com:
As with UGC, there is a much higher degree of uncertainty of the content you will be placed next to. Ignore it. Many clients do knee-jerk reactions to a single ad placement; they fear some overly conservative person will get offended by the content it is next to. You are not endorsing that content, and it will always be in the vast minority of placements. Online is not offline where there is an implied endorsement because it is almost always a branded property. When only one in 10,000 people clicks on an ad, and only a moderately better proportion see it and come to your site, it is too transient to get worked up about. If you do, you'll spend your entire time justifying the people barking at the moon and not doing your real job. If you are too fearful then just stay in your little bubble on branded sites, and watch me outperform you.

Kyle Sherwin, media director at Sony BMG:
Invisible networks may be a suitable fit for credit card companies that want to attract huge audiences. We are a micro marketer and need to know where every penny goes. So we're looking at networks with specified points of interest for us.

Correy Honza, director of internet marketing for Quiznos:
Are they able to deliver the impressions they promise? For us, it's about dollars and cents and reach.

Dave Chase, CMO for AltusAlliance:
We only work with transparent ad networks and ones that refuse to use pop-up ads.

Katie McCormick, web manager at Revlon:
Our biggest issue is the use of celebrity sites because we don't want our celebrity models (for example, Halle Berry) to appear next to a competitor's talent in an editorial mention and confuse consumers.

Bill Daley, senior manager, interactive marketing for Universal Orlando Resort:
Our biggest fear would be complaints by consumers if they saw one of our ads on a site that is controversial or inappropriate. Over the years I can only remember this happening once.

3. If you're comfortable disclosing this information, which network do you use? Why did you choose it?

Sean X Cummings, director of marketing for Ask.com:
We've used every major network and constantly test new networks every quarter for performance. Not all ad networks are equal, and not all are equal for each business. A network that performs great for one client may tank for another; that is what surprises most brands. They hear a brand espousing the virtues of a certain network, try it out and their program tanks… and then think either they are doing something wrong, or the other brand does not know what they're doing. There is the illusion that because many networks can provide mass reach, that it means mass consumer. The type of ad placements within a group of sites will be quite diverse. Sure, you may be buying skyscrapers and leaderboards, but where they are on the page has as much influence as what site it is on. Those various combinations of the assemblage of sites within an ad network create a psychographic persona of sorts for that network. It is not about demographics, but psychographics, and the mindset of those consumers when they are on those grouped sites.

Bill Daley, senior manager, interactive marketing for Universal Orlando Resort:
The ones we use the most are Undertone, Specific Media, Advertising.com and Vendare. We also use the MSN Direct, which is like a network buy within the MSN sites. They work the best for us in regards to site conversions, and duplication of websites within these networks is minimal.

Valerie Constable, director of media at Kaiser Permanente:
We've used many including Tribal Fusion, Specific Media and Advertising.com. We apply some internal controls and calculate marketing costs per (potential) member. We've used more general networks, rather than health-oriented ones. Sometimes health content is applicable if we agree with it. We do contextually target, for example, expectant mothers, but we're just as likely to behaviorally target. We re-target too. We have a re-contact strategy that we've only been using for a few months, but we've already seen a significant lift.

Keith Pieper, director of performance media at Universal McCann, on online campaigns for client Microsoft:
Aside from niche networks and nuance features, ad networks in general offer a commodity product -- i.e. massive reach at a relatively low cost -- and they can scale fast. Aside from price, what really makes one network different from another is an understanding of our needs and business, which comes down to service. In our experience, service is a differentiator between ad networks.

Kyle Sherwin, media director at Sony BMG:
We've used Specific Media, Collective Media, Undertone Networks and ValueClick. Other companies like Gorilla Nation that are not technically networks also serve similar functions for us. We have used Advertising.com but since they're not transparent, we've shied away more recently. For a more broad-based artist, we'll use networks with the most popular sites (i.e., Comscore 100 or 200). Sometimes we'll work with networks with thousands of sites because they have properties that attract the right influencers and specialized music genres.

Katelyn Himes, manager of online marketing for La Quinta Inns & Suites:
Without giving away too many secrets, we work with some of the top networks out there and continuously test new opportunities.

Katie McCormick, web manager at Revlon:
We use ValueClick and Advertising.com because they are the best known and came to us with the best proposals.

2. If you, either through an internal department or an agency, work with ad networks, are you happy with the placements your ads get through ad networks? Why or why not?

Keith Pieper, director of performance media at Universal McCann, on online campaigns for client Microsoft:
We are generally happy with ad networks. We have used almost every major network in the U.S., including Advertising.com, ValueClick, Tribal Fusion, Specific Media, 24/7 Media and Collective Media. Ad networks provide reach and are effective for retargeting, but we have found that consistency of service and cost effectiveness varies greatly between networks.

Katelyn Himes, manager of online marketing for La Quinta Inns & Suites:
Most of the networks we are working with are blind, so we do not have a strong understanding of where our ads are placed. We try to focus more on the targeting aspects rather than the sites. We generally ask for a sample site list, which usually lists the top tier sites within a given network. We do happen to see a lot of our ads throughout the web due to retargeting, and the placements typically seem to be desirable. We also monitor incoming traffic to our site, and it leads us to believe we are getting some good traction on several sites that we deem to be network traffic. We do plan on testing more open networks in the future so we can pick and choose the sites we are on. In terms of actual ad sizes available, there typically seems to be a wide variety.

Sean X Cummings, director of marketing for Ask.com:
This is a red herring question. We have a unique relationship in that we know many of the sites that our networks use. However, most networks protect their site lists from the advertiser. The important issue is to look at the performance of your various creative sizes. It's about the "mass" placements, not individuals as with a branded site. Don't pay attention if you run into a site that has a poor placement; the data of the "mass" will tell the full story. It really all depends on what type of business you are and what your goals are. Are you an acquisition-and-then-prevent-attrition model? Well, then, the conversion funnel is the most important for you. Getting users in that funnel, retargeting, converting and then loan-to-valuing on the back end. Are you instead a top-of-mind awareness model? Your measurement goals must be very different. You have to change the consumer mindset away from the ad. That is much more difficult and requires different measures. Basically the burden is on the client to develop the strategic measure that drives their business. If you deliver that strategic measure to your agency, they will find a way to get the ad networks that can optimize on it.

Valerie Constable, director of media at Kaiser Permanente:
We only use ad networks where we can use site selection because there are certain sites that would be inappropriate for health care. We're happy with the reach, which can be pretty extensive. And it's a way to get on some of the smaller sites that would be editorially appropriate but wouldn't make it on our radar.

Kyle Sherwin, media director at Sony BMG:
We are generally happy because we work with open, visible, transparent networks. We will suppress any sites or categories that we don't want to be involved with.

Correy Honza, director of internet marketing for Quiznos:
It's an intelligent and economical way of reaching consumers, and we don't have to know about each site and its traffic.

Katie McCormick, web manager at Revlon:
We're happy with the placement for Mitchum Man.

Bill Daley, senior manager, interactive marketing for Universal Orlando Resort:
We work with an agency and we are very happy with the placements. They know where we want to be and where we don't.

What it is and how it works

Though it might seem like an impossible statement to own, Reddit's tagline of "The front page of the internet" is probably the best way to describe it. For millions, Reddit is the go-to source for everything interesting happening on the internet right now.

Though I can't stress enough that the best way to truly understand Reddit is by signing up and using the site, here's a broad-strokes overview of how it works, broken down into a few categories, for ease of understanding.

Reddit is a site where anonymous users submit links -- articles, videos, GIFs, tweets, anything that's linkable -- and then other users vote on those links with an "upvote" or "downvote." Each link gets a score that is calculated through its votes; every link starts at one and can go up or down based on voting. This unique method of sorting is how the site determines what content is interesting or worthwhile -- the most up-voted by the community -- and what isn't.

The aforementioned sorting process takes place across the site's many topic-specific pages, officially known as "subreddits," thus providing the best stuff online in any interest-space a user may have. There are literally thousands of active subreddits out there for virtually any interest. On the off chance there isn't a subreddit for your interest, with one click you can create a new sub that caters to that interest. Users customize their Reddit experience by subscribing and unsubscribing from various subreddits, thereby making the site's experience entirely unique for each user. If you're interested in seeing some of the most popular subreddits, check out this list and read the "sidebar" on the right hand side of the subreddit to see what it's all about.

Since Reddit doesn't have editors, you'll never know exactly what you're going to come across, but you can be sure it'll be something worth checking out because hundreds or thousands of other Redditors have already voted that it's something to see. I love the analogy that my favorite YouTuber, CGP Grey, uses to describe this unique facet of the site: "Think of it this way: If Google is where people go to search for things, then Reddit is where you go to see the things that people have found."

With this fact in mind, it's not hard to see that there may sometimes be questionable content that floats around the more obscure corners and subreddits on the site, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While Reddit can be weird, it's not because Reddit is inherently weird, but because people are weird.

The true heart of Reddit lies in discussions section related to each link shared on the site. Since most Redditors choose to remain anonymous (though not all do) the discussions around those links usually contain way more interesting and honest dialogue than on any other social network.

Using a similar method of ranking to the one that determines what content is interesting, and what isn't, comments themselves are also vote-able, too. Thus, the most interesting comments in a discussion float to the top. Finally, the structure of commenting on Reddit encourages discourse, as replying to any comment is possible. This sorting and threading of discussions leads to conversations that are usually just as or even more interesting than the link being discussed.

There are entire subreddits that leverage this great discussion format, most notably the "AMA" subreddit, which stands for "ask me anything." People from all walks of life have performed an AMA on Reddit -- from the seemingly mundane ("I am a Vacuum Repair Technician, AMA") to the prestigious ("I am Barak Obama, President of the United States -- AMA"). This particular subreddit has gotten so popular that earlier this month, Reddit released its first owned-app: Ask Me Anything (iOS, Android).

Brand best practices

A few months ago, I wrote a much shorter piece titled "5 Things Brands Should Know about Advertising on Reddit" after working with some amazing folks at Reddit. While those haven't changed drastically, I'd like to expound on the four most important:

Be transparent and honest
Whether it's increasing engagement, generating traffic, or boosting brand awareness, marketers by nature have an agenda. That isn't intrinsically at odds with the Reddit community. What is, though, is when a brand is disingenuous and not transparent with the community about their intentions. Recognize the community aspect; while Reddit ads are a great place for self-promotion that can help achieve all of the aforementioned goals, no one on Reddit wants to feel deceived. Show the community what value you can offer and help guide them in what you'd like them to do with that information.     

Know your audience
Remember those subreddits we discussed earlier? Those sub-communities that appeal to a unique interest? Well, right this second, there are more than 8,000 active ones, subs where someone has posted in the past 24 hours. Every single one of these subreddits has its own culture, and if you plan to speak to them with any marketing communications, you need to understand that sub's unique identity and culture. Good ads recognize the makeup, content, and camaraderie of users both on Reddit at large and within specific communities.    

Be human
By and large, Reddit is a pretty considerate community -- one that is generally willing to give people and brands alike opportunities. But much like the real world, not everyone is going to agree with you (especially if you make a bad impression). Disagreement is OK, though! Going along with the fundamental value of Reddit and its discussions, disagreements usually lead to a healthy debate. Sales won't slump because someone disagrees; it's not a lost customer. More times than not, these people would say the same thing in the real world. But like all social media, digital has given them a chance to amplify their voice. Companies need to humanize their voice on Reddit, speak to the community like people, not "targets," and expect to see both positive and, likely, some negative responses -- just like in real life.    

Have a conversation
By allowing customers to speak directly to brands, you'll see that there is an expectation on the site for dialogue, much in the same way people converse with brands on other social networks. Maintain an ownable, authentic brand voice, point of view, and tone. Being direct is best. If you'd like to discuss something specific, just ask!

Brand wins and fails

Win: Marriott -- #GetTeleported
Marriott's recent initiative on Reddit was built around its "Travel Brilliantly" campaign, a piece of which has been using the futuristic Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset. Its goals seem to be clear: to generate conversation and engagement around the program and, thus far, it looks to be very successful. The brand ran ads on Reddit, complete with banner creative that spoke to the Reddit community (see: cute cats), asking the community "Want to Get Teleported? Tell us why you should be one of the first to experience virtual travel." If you ask Redditors to do something with substance, politely and with a purpose, they are usually willing to do so.

Win: GameStop
Although GameStop's recent campaign isn't nearly as creative as Marriott's, it comes with the caveat that it likely had much different goals. While Marriott's was clearly about engagement, GameStop's goals seem to be more about awareness and CTRs. The videogame retailer ran homepage and subreddit specific ads advertising its relatively unknown cash-for-devices program.

Win: Transamerica
Although a financial services and insurance company seems like an unlikely brand to fit into Reddit, Transamerica understood and spoke to the community, offering some great advice along the way. The brand wrote, "We have some Redditors here at Transamerica and we'd like to help out. What are some things about money or finance you wish they had done a better job of teaching you in school?...nothing is off limits!" The subsequent conversation that unfolded ranged from mutual funds to 401k; in the following weeks, Transamerica posted expert answers to the best questions on its blog.

Fail: Woody Harrelson
The True Detective star deserves honorable mention for one of the most epic fails in the history of Reddit for either brands or personal brands. In an effort to promote his new movie "RAMPART," Mr. Harrelson hosted an AMA that violated nearly every rule in the AMA rulebook. He refused to answer questions unrelated to the movie, gave miserable answers when he did, and experienced the displeasure of a frustrated and deceived audience -- something, I should note, that happens so rarely that I was only able to find two examples of brand fails. As Reddit user sleepybandit put it, "This whole AMA is a good example of how not to use the internet for marketing. It seems clear that the whole post was an attempt to market a movie that no one knew about or was excited to begin with. Hopefully someone in PR or marketing learned today that you can't simply bend the desires or interests of the internet"

Fail: Taco Bell
In a rare misstep by the fast food giant, Taco Bell's CEO hosted a painfully forced AMA from its President, Brian Niccol. The whole AMA was an overt and downright shameless promotion for the brand's new breakfast launch that could have been so much more than it was. Unfortunately, Niccol and surely his team of PR millennial minds did their best to romance the Reddit audience while hawking Taco Bell at every opportunity. Taco Bell had part of the formula right, but it severely missed the mark in the transparency department. While its team may chalk it up as a win, the idea could have been executed so much better.

Parting words

We've covered a lot of info in this article, but I hope you were able to keep up. Reddit's vast and sometimes foreign world is one that every internet user should experience and one that every marketer should be considering. I encourage you to go sign up, explore the site, and experience the community. If you feel that you'd like to make the jump into advertising on Reddit, check out its advertising page and reach out to its amazing team. It's a rock-star group who will work with you to help achieve your brand's goals in the best way possible.

Big shout out and thanks to Mike Cole, of Reddit's sales director, brand strategy, for his assistance and time.

Fitz Maro is partner, co-founder at Founding Flyers; university guest lecturer; digital brand strategist at 360i.

On Twitter? Follow Maro at @FitzMaro. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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