An Open Letter To Web Designers

I originally began this week’s missive as a response to B.L. Ochman’s latest article “When Design is Not Design.” But I never quite managed to stretch my fingers towards the keyboard to bang out my kudos.

Later that day, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of marketing execs in Washington, D.C. After my talk, I hung out with a few of them, picking their brains for the most elusive of quarry. I was looking for information on how they, as marketing people, have been pitched on web sites.

See, as the “pitcher” in an interactive firm, I almost never get a chance to discover what the pitchee thinks. Sure, when we land the job, we get a debriefing. But the information gathered during that process is hardly statistically significant.

I wanted to know what people I didn’t know, thought of the other web designers they’d encountered. And boy I got an earful.

I heard complaints about pricing, about jargon, and about confusing proposals. But what really stuck with me was the universal feeling that so-called web “designers” and “marketers” didn’t know diddly (and didn’t even care to know diddly) about the business they were pitching. My interrogations errr subtle questioning led me to the fact that many web designers are more interested in building their online portfolios with “cool” stuff rather than furthering the marketing aims of the companies they’re working for. And then Ochman’s piece popped back into my head.

As she says, in many online circles, “‘designer’ [has come to mean] a person who can program web sites so that they are fully functional” — not the traditional meaning of one who communicates visually.

Now, I do believe that some of this comes from the fact that the web has made it tough to separate the technical and artistic. But I also believe that many web shops are guilty of confusing a programmer who knows PhotoShop with someone who knows the difference between “kerning” and “leading.”

So what?

Here’s what — the result is that many web sites stray far beyond the identities and brands that they try to portray. It seems funny to me that many companies who somehow manage to keep a consistent brand identity across many other mediums — TV, print, even radio — somehow become freshman marketing majors when they get on the web.

Cool becomes the imperative, not brand. Big mistake.

Online, your site is the product. So many companies have spent countless dollars developing messaging strategies and brand identities, only to have them morphed, stretched, beveled, and 3D’d into oblivion by so-called “web designers.” While you may think that what you sell is your product, if you’re running a web-based business, the experience of your site is what you’re really selling. And if that experience doesn’t match your company messaging strategies and identity, you’re in trouble.

What can we all do to avoid this? First, here’s a message to all you hot-shot web designers out there: That middle aged marketing exec you make fun of after meetings is probably in that position for a reason.

Sure, he or she may not know everything there is to know about technology (okay, okay so half of ’em can’t turn on their computers). But if they’ve marketed successfully for years, they’ve probably learned a lot of stuff that you can use when designing their site. Remember — they were probably developing brands while you were still trying to figure out how to use that big porcelain bowl-shaped thing in the bathroom. Listen!

On the other hand, if you’re that said middle-aged marketing exec embarking on a course of moving your company onto the web, take the time to bone up a little on technology. Read a few books (Don Tapscott’s The Digital Economy is a good place to start) and hang out on the web.

See what your competitors are doing. Pay attention to the concepts. Don’t get intimidated by the tech — you probably don’t know how to operate a BetaCam, but you know what makes a good commercial. The web’s not that much different.

And, finally, don’t get intimidated or defensive when confronted with something new. Ask questions. Poke at assumptions. Find out why. Speak up.

Finally, all of us need to remember that marketing on the web is a team effort. There’s new ground to be covered and a heck of a lot of new things to be learned. But we’re not starting off from square one. Humans are still humans (except for maybe Marilyn Manson and most of The Spice Girls) and still respond to many of the same stimuli we’ve used successfully for years. Let’s put experience to work.

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