A Flickr or a Flame?

We’re always hunting for examples of brilliant digital communication initiatives: Web sites, campaigns, and the like. Why? As an interactive agency, we work hard to deliver exceptional experiences to online users. It’s not easy to find brilliant online initiatives.

Last week, one of our agency’s most prolific experience critics posted a note about Flickr on our internal discussion channel. Flickr describes itself as “the best way to store, search, sort and share your photos.” He pointed out some excellent features, such as the ability for viewers to post comments by your photos and the ability to distribute your photos via RSS (define) feeds.

Having just returned from vacation and being a prolific amateur photographer, I decided to use Flickr to share my pictures with friends and family. Sign-in was easy, and the rest of the experience looked fairly linear. I liked the community-building aspects of the posting tool. I hoped to get some dialogue going among my friends about the trip, answer their questions, and share the great experience I had.

Once I uploaded the pictures, I struggled with what to do next. I wanted to reorder the photos so I could tell a story about a hike I took. I also wanted to quickly edit them to improve color balance and lighting and crop some images to remove fingers and camera straps that had strayed into the viewfinder. This is where I hit a wall. I couldn’t figure out how to resequence the images. Nor could I find a photo-editing tool on the site to do some simple edits. I spent an hour banging around, then went back to Ofoto, which I’d used in the past. In just a few minutes, I uploaded my pictures, set up a slide show, fixed the problem pictures, and shared them with friends. Easy. Fast. Rewarding.

My faith in the Internet was renewed.

The difference between the sites is simple: One is a set of cool features a user must configure into an experience. The other is a simple but effective experience. I believe the experience wins every time, because that’s how users approach the Internet. I want to buy an airline ticket, figure out what I’m going to do Saturday night, or pay my bills online. Some form of experience tailoring on the user’s part is fine, but only to a limited degree. When I see an endless array of options, it’s clear the marketer hasn’t defined a target customer and taken a point of view about her needs.

When a company thinks about how to present its brand online (whatever interactive medium it chooses), it must start with a clear understanding of the problem it’s solving. Then it needs to dig into its target user’s needs, wants, desires, and behaviors. They’ll move beyond understanding the customer to having empathy for her.

Dictionary.com defines empathy as the “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” Understanding is a rational activity; empathy is an emotional one. It’s not just about listening or seeing, it’s about touching, feeling, and experiencing. With empathy, an experience designer can create something truly exceptional. True empathy is what separates ordinary experiences from exceptional ones.

The $17 billion spent globally on getting smart about customers doesn’t buy empathy. Sure, it provides critical facts, figures, and insights about the target. It’s a very necessary starting point. But true empathy is earned. How can you build empathy for your target?

  • Live their lives. Visit their homes, read their magazines, eat their food, and drive their cars.

  • Feel their feelings. Imagine their challenges in life; figure out what gives them joy.
  • Find their motives. Understand their online behaviors and actions: What motivates them? What are they looking for in the experience?

In an earlier column, I wrote about building personas that reflect your target customers. Empathy is what allows you to create rich, multidimensional personas that are real and tangible. Understanding and empathy must inform a truly useful persona. If you combine the knowledge derived from traditional customer research (understanding) with emotional windows into a customer’s world, the persona takes on dimensionality, an authenticity.

Your target customer, “Jill,” is much more than a 33-year-old, single professional living in an urban setting. Her pet peeve when shopping is when uninvited salespeople approach her in the store. She’s exhilarated when she gets a great deal and never buys clothing at full price. Know this, and all of a sudden Jill feels like a real person, someone we know personally, a friend. We’re seeing the customer through their own eyes.

If you’re working on a team, this discovery exercise, when undertaken together, can spark great ideas. It’s actually faster because you have fewer false starts.

It’s difficult for Internet marketers to create an empathetic relationship with a customer because we’re all sitting in front of computer screens. We’re removed from faces and voices that convey emotion. Due to the nature of the medium, we focus primarily on behavior: clicks.

Get out there and live their lives.

My agency is obsessed with customer empathy because we believe it’s the foundation of every effective marketing decision. These insights support the creation of digital communication strategies that are transformative.

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