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Why Your Site Doesn't Need to be Pretty

Why Your Site Doesn't Need to be Pretty Jamie Roche

This is a real story: A supermodel, who will remain unnamed, works as a spokesmodel for a consumer brand company. The consumer brand creates a website to promote and sell her product using the best practices learned from (literally) years of A/B testing. To put it bluntly, these guys test everything. Following the presentation to the supermodel, she tells the manufacturer that she hates the website that is promoting the product. It isn't pretty, she feels, and it doesn't match her idea of what customers expect from a product associated with her. She has her design person completely rework the site, costing time and money, and she comes up with a more attractive version. The company, which, as I mentioned, then tests just about everything that they do, tests her version of the site versus their original version.

Guess what? The poor supermodel's version gets crushed.

The moral of this story: prettier is not always better -- except, of course, when it is.

I'm not trying to be snide. I'm deadly serious. We have learned, through hundreds of series of testing and optimization, that there is no correlation between how pretty something is and how well it works. In fact, some of your visitors might respond better to pretty while others like you to get them the data as quick as possible.

For example, we recently tested a variety of lovely photographs for the home page of a site that sells bathroom fixtures and accessories. Each big, colorful image was sexier than the last, and we were betting each other on the outcome, backing our favorite photo. The women we polled liked the picture of the model in the tub with bubble bath, candles and a glass of wine. The men liked another one.

It turns out that none of the sexy pictures won.

The most successful home page was the text-heavy, rather bland version. Kind of boring, but man, could it convert. The question is why?

Maybe it's because the shoppers who like this site are plumbers, looking to see if the site has a tub that fits their needs, and they just needed to get in, find the tub, place the order, and go. Maybe for them the image was just a distraction. Maybe the pretty pictures motivated some of their clients, but distracted or put off more of them. It would be interesting to run the test on subsets of the traffic and find out. 

Then, there was PETCO.com. Like most retailers, PETCO assumed that the best way to showcase the products on a category page was to use a shotgun approach: lots of thumbnails on the page to show the breadth of products. Wrong again.

That time, we learned that picking one or two products and showing a larger, more attractive photo converted visitors to buyers at a faster rate than the thumbnails.

Don't be blinded by beauty.

Your site may be as beautiful as Heidi Klum herself, but your conversion rate may still stink. Or, your stunning site has super conversions, and you're chuckling to yourself about how, in your case, pretty does matter. But have you tested your site? Do you know for a fact that the sleek and attractive navigation elements can't be improved?

It all comes back to testing.

Marketing has forever existed in a culture of guesswork based on past experiences. But now that the availability of new technology allows us to double-check our guesses, gut instinct doesn't have to go it alone. Testing and optimization have proven to be valuable assets when executed thoughtfully and thoroughly.

But they can be just as valuable when you don't have the time to give it as much thought. You know what's important to your customers. You know the things that impact their thought process and purchase intent. Even when you don't have time to undertake testing in a big way, test some of those small things.

So don't wait until you finish redesigning your navigation. Don't put it off until next season when you can build a test or two into your timeline. Testing is not a one-time phenomenon. To make it work, to consistently improve the performance of your site, testing needs to be an ongoing process.

Give it a try. You may just find that pretty is better.

Except when it's not.

Jamie Roche is a founder and co-president and CEO of Offermatica. Roche brings to Offermatica the experience of leading a visionary technology company from the dawn of the commercial internet, through the bubble burst and out again. Offermatica, formerly Fort Point Partners, Inc., is an eight-year-old software company that built many of the leading internet commerce websites. With Offermatica, Roche has provided strategic direction to executives from over 50 companies on successful selling through the internet.

Prior to Fort Point Partners, Roche ran Webfactory, a provider of internet products and services to Yahoo!, Netscape and other leading internet companies at their formation. Roche also worked for KPMG Peat Marwick and SiliconGraphics. He is a graduate of Yale University.

Oversharing on social

To say the least, creating deep social connections with consumers isn't easy. As a brand, though your fans and followers have agreed to receive your content, you are still a brand, regardless of the human beings managing your social presence. Consequently, connecting with individuals without driving them away is a major challenge. Brands are under high levels of scrutiny, so it's crucial for companies to circulate more useful, entertaining, or interactive messages than posts created from a sales perspective. Even if you are able to do so, a simple mistake can sabotage your entire efforts. That mistake is oversharing. But how does a brand know if they are oversharing on social?

For the sake of this argument, we'll examine two types of oversharing: excessive posting and lengthy content. First, let's look at content length, specifically on Facebook. According to Jeff Bullas, referencing his study on retail brands, wall posts fewer than 80 characters gained 66 percent higher engagement than lengthier posts. Additionally, posts between one and 40 characters receive 86 percent higher engagement from fans. Clearly, consumers love brevity when it comes to sharing. So, what does it look like when a brand violates this golden rule?

Consider the following posts from Rite Aid, published three days apart on the topic of Valentine's Day. Specifically, examine the engagement seen through "likes," comments, and shares.

The February 14 post is short and sweet, consisting of 54 characters which comprise a simple call to action. In contrast, the February 11 message contains three sentences of 221 characters and a call to action buried deep within the text. Sure, "sharing" is an easier task than uploading a photo, but higher engagement would have likely come from solely posting the concise sentence, "Upload a photo of your kid's homemade valentine here."

On the other hand, posting too often is another way to shoot oneself in the foot. For three months, Socialbakers analyzed the content from Facebook's top brands and concluded that brands should typically post no more than once a day. Furthermore, if brands post fewer than two times a week, they may fail to maintain connections with fans. However, posting more than two times a day leads to engagement loss as well. To understand the significance of keeping one's posts rare, check out the sheer amount of "likes," shares, and comments accumulated on Oreo's Facebook page for content published five days apart.

In addition, Socialbakers studied brand tweets and found that the average engagement rate declined after the third tweet of the day. Consequently, three or fewer tweets create the most engagement for brands; however, brands are still inundating followers with an onslaught of Twitter messages.

All the same, social marketing is extremely complex. It's possible for oversharing brands to establish deep, long-lasting connections with their fans and followers. Obviously, the more a brand posts and tweets, the more chances consumers have to engage, which makes oversharing an easy habit to develop. However, the power of one meaningful social message is diluted when consumers are overwhelmed by a sea of your brand's content. By following simple guidelines regarding frequency and length, brands can maximize the value of each post or tweet and minimize consumer resentment.

Jumping on bandwagons

Casanova once said, "Be the flame, not the moth." Constant innovation in tech has created numerous sources of light -- and even more attracted insects. Ever chasing the buzz, brands want to reach early adopters. Smart brands capable of harnessing new technologies and engaging consumers with timely, relevant, and strategically aligned marketing messages -- in the new communication mediums of consumer choice -- lead the way for others to follow. Certainly, brands can benefit from quickly adopting the latest marketing tactics; however, they must do so with an overall strategic goal in mind or risk resembling a pest loitering around with no apparent purpose. In other words, adopting new marketing tactics solely for the sake of adoption leads to nowhere. Unfortunately, this is a habit that's tough to break.

Although real-time marketing has been around for years, the phrase has exploded within the past year -- and the practice will continue its growth. According to MediaPost, "76 percent of marketers are using real-time marketing, and 88 percent consider it important to their 2014 plans." Consequently, brand marketers are waiting with bated breath for that perfect opportunity to reach audiences with contextually relevant content in the moment. And many brands have seen success -- from Oreo's oft-mentioned "Dunk in the Dark" to NASA's "Gravity" tweet during the Oscars to my personal favorite from Citi Bike and J.Crew. Trying to duplicate these real-time victories, other brands have hopped on board with dissimilar results.

Take, for instance, Dockers' attempt during the 2014 Oscars. We all remember Arby's Twitter conversation with Pharrell Williams during the Grammys, in which the sandwich chain commented on Pharrell's hat for its resemblance to the company's logo. Proceeding the Grammys, Pharrell put his hat up for auction on eBay. Just before the Oscars, Arby's purchased the hat for $44,100, receiving a shout out from Pharrell.

Dockers, who had been encouraging Arby's to purchase the hat prior to the event, chimed in on the conversation.

Although it's hard to fault Dockers' endeavor, the company's tweet pales in comparison with the more substantial, wider-reaching conversation between Pharrell and Arby's, which, needless to say, involved thousands of retweets and dollars. The unfortunate result for Dockers, despite its best intentions, is an appearance of desperation, attempting to ride the coattails of Arby's real-time success. As previously mentioned, quickly adopting something new can prove beneficial. However, if you chose to catch a ride on a bandwagon, be sure to know where it's going.

Relying too much on automation

An invaluable tool, automation is an extremely hot topic. Aptly stated on Econsultancy's blog, automation is "an important tool for bringing order to the warring worlds of marketing and sales by improving lead scoring and nurturing." When correctly applied, it effectively manages the targeting and timing of marketing content in response to consumer behavior. In other words, automation can lead to personalized interactions and increased engagement rates. When used incorrectly, marketing automation undercuts the human-to-human connection ingrained in the most innovative and exciting advertising efforts today.

There are a number of ways to fail with automation. Although it leads to consumer insights in real time, brands may neglect to create new content to match the buyer's entire life cycle, relying on hackneyed messaging from the past. Furthermore, even if new content is created based on holistic knowledge about consumers, it should reach them via the right channels, not exclusively email. In addition, brands that merely talk at consumers with automation tools rather than using the technology to sharpen their listening skills undermine the person-focused approach behind automation. One area in particular where brands seemingly can't help but screw up is social media automation.

We all remember the slogan from the Ronco rotisserie oven infomercials, "Set it and forget it!" Unfortunately, marketers are applying this motto to their social messaging strategy, scheduling updates to increase efficiency but neglecting their accounts entirely. Consequently, brands miss entire conversations with consumers, which is the point of social media marketing -- reciprocal conversation. As a result, many have turned to auto-replies to ensure consumers aren't ignored. This obviously increases response rates, but when the replies are generic, irrelevant, or inappropriate, high response rates mean nothing.

Although Domino's Pizza managed to turn its business around with a complete product makeover and extremely innovative marketing, the company isn't immune to automation fails. As reported by Digiday, when a happy fan posted a compliment on Domino's Facebook page, the company responded with an apology.

Even if this mistake can be accredited to a human, as Domino's suggests, it is likely the result of an individual uploading a predetermined response -- failing to actually listen to the fan -- which is robotic behavior nonetheless.

Furthermore, Twitter is a treasure trove of auto-reply failures. Oreo, a company that typically dominates social media, recently found itself in hot water. The brand replied to a user with a chance to receive a free pack of cookies. Sounds harmless right? Not when the reply is (likely) automated and the user's handle contains extremely offensive and racist words.

Social media automation is only a small piece of the entire automation pie, but mistakes within this segment reach a vast number of people, especially for brands as pervasive as those detailed above. If you're able to create highly personalized relationships with consumers by engaging them with relevant content and monitoring the conversation, automation is the tool for you. On the other hand, if you're lazy with automation and allow it to overpower the human voice and human judgment of your brand, consumers will move on to other, less robotic options.

Creating content for the brand -- not the consumer

As iMedia has noted, content marketing is nothing new. In fact, John Deere began publishing its magazine for farmers, The Furrow, in 1895 (and it's still produced today). However, 2013 was arguably the year of "content marketing," so companies scrambled to produce content internally or outsourced their efforts to those claiming expertise. Although savvy brands established clear marketing goals and understood the fundamental characteristics of successful content, many recklessly circulated haphazard content to the world. Consequently, a glut of shoddy content flooded the internet.

Let's not forget the purpose of content marketing. According to the Content Marketing Institute, its function is to "attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior." If your content isn't relevant and valuable from the consumer's perspective, it's pointless. Consequently, for a brand to truly capitalize on content marketing's potential, it should not approach content creation from a sales perspective but should assess the value of content in relation to practicality and genuine allure. Content marketing should be messaging individuals want to consume, not forced-fed junk food. With this in mind, let's take a look at how an innovative company failed to maintain a consumer-centered approach with their content marketing.

GE's visually appealing Ecomagination site is home to articles, videos, and images focused on green innovation and clean technology. Unfortunately, upon further investigation, the majority of content on the website is self-promotional, focused primarily on highlighting GE's accomplishments rather than painting a comprehensive portrait of the topics covered. Sure, the content is important to GE, but do clients and customers care?

At the same time, GE's online destination Txchnologist certainly upholds its focus on customers, serving as a genuine platform for conversations about science and technology.

Whether you love it or hate it (love the term or hate the term), content marketing is an essential part of many brands marketing mix. For it to be effective, however, brands must continue to create content from the consumer's perspective and always remember to provide value, not volume.

Kyle Montero is contributing editor of iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Concept of stress and frustration" image via Shutterstock.

Jamie Roche is President and Co-Founder of Offermatica – the leading provider of on–demand marketing services, including testing and landing page optimization, that allow marketers to maximize revenue from their online advertising spend.  Also,...

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