One of my favorite recent quotes is from Google’s Avinash Kaushik, “Every time you use Flash on a website a puppy dies.” Man! The luxury industry must be responsible for an awful lot of dead puppies!
A visit to many a high end website will immediately confront you with that slow loading Flash-Splash page. If you stick around long enough, it eventually explodes into a display of glittering, shimmering, branded wonderfulness. Very pretty but not always practical from an SEO, usability, and navigation point of view.
With the Four Seasons Hotel Group spending a staggering US$18 million on their new website earlier this year, it had me wondering whether these luxury brands really have got it right when it comes to digital customer engagement.
Function and Forms
Websites and other aspects of digital marketing have long been something of a tug-of-war between function and form. Function focuses on usability, efficiency, and the closing of a specific objective, such as a sale. Form is all about the projection of the brand identity, visualization, and aesthetics. A happy co-existence is definitely possible – Apple has built an entire business based on never compromising on either – but for many other business this seems to be a great source of internal politics and angst.
I have shared many a glass of wine listening to tales of woe from my CRM and e-commerce friends from luxury brands, who for years have wrestled with their colleagues from brand marketing over their websites. A battle that often the brand people have won, hence many websites that end up looking like TV commercials and that rate fairly poorly on issues like user experience.
Back to that Four Seasons website. Hotels are in perhaps a unique position in that they need to sell the dream; breezy sea views and lobbies encrusted with marble and crystal. But they also need to sell rooms, quickly, efficiently, sometimes promotionally without losing customers along the way. This can be a challenge.
The Four Seasons website certainly looks great, with big, stunning photography and some neat ideas. But usability reports suggest that it falls down on user experience and is perhaps not the easiest site to use. Common mistakes include big visuals pushing navigation below the fold and a perhaps less user-centric design that makes navigation beyond the home page harder. A quick scan of other top hotel groups reveals a similar story.
The in-hotel equivalent is trying to turn off all that mood lighting in your room when you want to go to sleep; something that often requires about five different light switches, all at different points ’round the room.
Everyone acknowledges that China is one of the huge future consumer markets for all manner of luxury products and services. But we also need to acknowledge that consumption of digital is somewhat different. A visit to Taobao, one of China’s most popular, and quite apparel-focused websites gives you a feel for Chinese browsing habits. A bit chaotic perhaps, but brutally functional with access to almost the whole world off the home page.
China is essentially a mobile story now. Around 66 percent of Internet access is now via mobile and will grow by around 18 percent this year. Not only is mobile Internet a different space, where things like Flash just do not work, loading times and data costs are issues. Mobile Internet is much more about functionality and ease of use than that breezy dream.
Finding the Balance
There has to be a balance. Beauty and being true to your brand values is always going to be important; as is building a more emotional dimension to your customer relationship. But websites are not billboards. They are interactive, they need to be navigated, browsers need plug-ins, and customers need to remain in control. Beyond the basics, users want customization. They want brands to respond to them more individually. This might be as simple as tracking and responding to previously noted interests, but ultimately it is about customers identifying themselves so we can serve up that truly custom experience.
The good news is that things are changing. The brands are realizing that they have to embrace e-commerce. This forces something of a more functional balance. Third-party platforms such as Facebook and Twitter help brands to conform to other more universal standards for usability, which slowly helps to change the culture. The proliferation of mobile formats requires a move to responsive design, while at the same time perhaps banishing Flash in favor of things like HTML5.
With that in mind, some thoughts on how we could be doing this better:
- Watch the loading time: Those big visuals are wonderful, and worse than Flash files but can take an eternity to load.
- Cut to the chase: Allow users and customers to navigate quickly and with the minimum of clicks to their desired destination.
- User experience: Invest in user-centric design and always do usability testing.
- Do proper SEO: Maybe when you are famous everyone just types your URL directly, but if you are like me, everything, repeat everything, is accessed via search.
- Be responsive: Understand, get ready for, and adopt Responsive Web Design. The access devices are proliferating, and getting it wrong makes you look really ugly.
- Try other tools: Use third-party tools like Facebook to test different approaches and demonstrate that they work for your brand.
- ABC: Always Be Selling; make it easy and seamless for people to buy what they are seeing.
- Track users: Use tracking to drive customized content, and demonstrate that you understand people.
- Engage: Give people the chance to identify themselves and from there we can truly customize the whole experience based on clearly understood preferences.
- Save those puppies: Dump the Flash.