An Open Letter To ClickZ

The following is an open letter to Ann Handley, the editor in chief of the ClickZ Network. ClickZ recently published a column by Cliff Allen on the use of pictures in web sites, a topic near and dear to our hearts. His column made certain assertions that we felt couldn’t go unchallenged.

Dear Ann,

In Cliff Allen’s recent column, Pics Mix, he asserts that seeing photographs of happy people enjoying your products on your web site will convince customers that purchasing your products will make them happy, too. He goes on to say that web marketers should create an emotional bond with the customers, by putting these happy, smiling people on their web sites.

I was fascinated by the premise that happy pictures make happy customers, so I did a little research project.

I went to the home pages of the top 25 e-commerce companies (based on Business 2.0 magazine’s wonderful Top 100 list) and looked to see how many had tried to create an emotional bond with customers by using pictures of people using their products.

The result: Zero. None. Zip.

Not a single web site in the Top 25 (which represented more than $33 billion in web-based revenue in 1998) had a picture of a person using one of their products. Not one.

Why is this? Are they missing a huge opportunity to bond here?

I don’t think so.

It is interesting to note that 32 percent of these sites did have pictures of people, but none of them were using the product.

And 72 percent did have pictures of some sort, mostly of products. (UPS has drawings of the two Giant Pandas they recently shipped from China to the US. I have to wonder how many UPS customers are going to ship 400 pound mammals this year?)

So, how could huge companies, like Cisco, Dell, Amazon, Fedex, UPS, and Schwab, miss the boat so completely?

It’s because they are not trying to patronize their sites’ visitors. Instead, they are focusing on things that are important to their visitors — getting them the information they came to find.

Mr. Allen makes some interesting points. He says, “We see people in photographs doing the things we would like to do, so we project ourselves into that situation.”

He then uses the example of, a site that he says is dedicated to helping marketers understand how and when to use personalization to create customer relationships. He says this site uses photographs of people to help drive home the focus of the site.

But a quick look at the images on the site shows people just standing there, staring into space. Is that the type of situational projection he means? Are marketers really looking for customers who stare… blankly?

The reason I’m bringing all this up is that this is a very dangerous direction for marketers to pursue. At User Interface Engineering we’ve found that most marketers have limited time, money, and resources to make their sites excellent. And we think that their resources would be better spent putting quality content on the site.

For example, Mr. Allen cites as a site that makes good use of photographs of people. Here’s an experiment you can try to see if he’s right (this is a real scenario for a real user in some recent testing we did):

Go to with the intent of finding a new dishwasher. You’d like to replace the dishwasher you currently have (which came with the house) because it is no longer cleaning the dishes — you have to wash them all thoroughly before putting them in the dishwasher.

So, you want a dishwasher, not too expensive, that’s going to do a thorough washing job. Oh, and by the way, your father always bought Maytag and thinks it’s a mistake to buy anything else. So you better have a good reason to buy a GE, because you hate it when he says “I told you so.”

Now, as you’re performing this task, notice how much (or how little) you rely on the pictures. In particular, notice whether you feel any better about buying a GE dishwasher because of the people in the pictures.

And if you happen to get frustrated by the site’s organization or missing details in the product descriptions, how much more relaxed do the happy, smiling people make you feel?

In a recent test of, users told us they really wanted to see pictures of people holding the cellular phones, because they couldn’t tell how small the phones were.

We found this fascinating, because the site has a huge picture of the supermodel Niki Taylor holding a Nokia phone. But all the users scrolled past it, apparently not projecting themselves into the role of a supermodel.

Is Amazon really going to sell more books with lots of pictures of people reading books on the site? Or is its current strategy — filling the pages with lots of descriptive information about books — a better idea?

Images take up valuable space. They take time to download. Users don’t like having to scroll past them to get to their content.

Web marketers are much better served by understanding why users are coming to the site and creating a strong emotional bond by providing excellent, detailed content.

Yours sincerely,


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