Communicating Perceptual Reality

A few weeks ago, I was training the Web division of a click-and-mortar company. I wrote these words on the whiteboard: “real-world feel,” “ease of use,” “expertise,” “trustworthiness,” “perceived customization,” “salesiness,” and “amateurism.” I asked if anyone could tell me if any tangible variables contribute to a Web site’s credibility (knowing there are none).

Every variable that goes into making a Web site feel credible is intangible — yet very real. Perception and reality are rarely the same, nor do they have equal value. When it comes to increasing conversion rates, perception is a far more critical piece of the picture than reality. Which do you think is more important to your visitors: the 128-bit encryption you use or the feeling of security you create on your site? Obviously, it’s the feeling. Most visitors couldn’t explain why 128-bit encryption is safer. The technology is fundamentally opaque to them. They just care their transactions are safe. “Safe” is a perception, not a reality.

Reality is always binary. It’s right or wrong, white or black, true or false. Understanding reality is based on following rules.

Perception permits a spectrum of meaning and interpretation. It thrives in the realm of ambiguity. Understanding perception is based on understanding principles.

“Real as a mother’s love,” I said and watched eyes start to roll. A typical reaction whenever I speak to a room full of marketers and programmers. I’d be surprised if both groups found the information interesting. It’s like watching football fans cheer for their favorite teams.

I use terms such as “branding,” “big picture,” and “sales momentum,” and the right-brained side of the room (marketers for the most part) gets excited. Then, I say “process,” “details,” and “table structure,” and the left-brained side (programmers and techies) perks up. The problem is creative and analytical types view the world from different perspectives. Ones that often seem mutually exclusive.

How is it a room full of professional, intelligent people can listen to the same information and some will vigorously take notes and nod their heads while others will find it irrelevant? It’s frustrating. Both marketers and programmers need all this information to make their Web initiatives pay off. The same human dynamic that causes miscommunication between people impedes their ability to construct effective Web sites.

People are only interested in what they find relevant. Intellectually, we understand everyone finds different things interesting, is attracted to and repelled by different people, and behaves differently. The average programmer has an emotional block about attributing behavioral preferences to anything as nebulous as a psychological profile. On the other hand, marketers seem to have an intellectual barrier to explaining the cognitive processes of marketing and sales in an orderly, systematic manner to more analytical colleagues. Emotional blocks and intellectual barriers are huge obstacles when a site is undergoing development, design, or optimization.

I’ve written about optimizing development processes. These processes work brilliantly but require business and tech people cooperate. Communication always breaks down when there is a fundamental disrespect for how the other party communicates. It’s true business people think of technology folks as geeks with substandard grooming habits. Tech types typically consider business colleagues uneducated, sloppy-thinking, ill-prepared poseurs. There’s an element of truth in both stereotypes — research personality types.

My goal is to get marketers thinking critically about what they do and how they go about doing it. To find a common ground allowing them to contribute productively to Web initiatives. I have met thousands of “marketers” at conferences, training sessions, and engagements. It’s startling how little someone needs to know to call herself a marketer. I’m often embarrassed for myself as a marketer, for marketers in general, and especially for “marketers” who are so pathetically ignorant. I’m not aware of any other profession where practitioners can get away with so little knowledge.

This is not snobbery. This is not about credentials. Marketing is a profession drawing on many disciplines, especially soft sciences. To excel, a marketer must study all of them. Can you imagine a programmer who can’t explain how a program works? We all know marketers who can’t explain work done by Pavlov, Skinner, or Myers-Briggs.

I have a tough job. I get marketers and programmers to work together in a medium where attention to perceptual reality defines success. I can explain to programmers that sales and marketing processes are chaotic but not random. I can show programmers hard evidence and documentation of how branding works, how people read on the Web, and even how colors affect mood.

At the end of the day, I leave training with everybody feeling wonderful. But as the goodwill wears off, will both sides be able to do more than pay lip service to the need for mutual respect?

The onus is on the marketers. Will they spend time identifying elements that are most relevant to the visitor at each step and in each phase of the buying process; evaluate how perceptual realities translate into a Web site’s information architecture; and create, with benefit of clear, ordered analytic thought, the frameworks that best support these perceptions? Or will they continue to guess?

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